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June 2018

by request: hell is for heroes (don siegel, 1962)

Don Siegel is a solid director who knows what to do with certain projects. He made Riot in Cell Block 11 for $300,000. My favorite of his films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, went for a bit over $400k. Sam Peckinpah was involved in those films and others, and he considered Siegel a mentor. Siegel directed a movie starring Fabian. He directed one of Elvis' more highly-regarded films, the western Flaming Star (that came just before Hell Is for Heroes). He directed five movies with Clint Eastwood, who is the clearest example of a Siegel-influenced director.

He wasn't the kind of director who knew what to do with every project, though. His last movie, Jinxed!, is known for the rancor on set between Siegel, Bette Midler, and Ken Wahl. Siegel had a heart attack and never directed again. (And really, there isn't anything you can do with a Fabian movie.)

Hell If for Heroes is one of his better films. Star Steve McQueen was, well, Star Steve McQueen, but the movie got done without anyone killing each other, although McQueen and Siegel might have been tempted. (Add Bobby Darin to the list of pop stars Siegel directed, and also actors who quarreled with McQueen. Overhearing someone saying that McQueen was his own worst enemy, Darin famously replied, "Not while I'm still alive".) Once again, Siegel was working with an insufficient budget ... the ambiguous ending came mostly because they ran out of money.

The war action is intense, and Siegel doesn't make the common mistake of presenting his actors in such a way that their heroism overcomes any anti-war sentiments in the film. McQueen is a bit nuts, there's no real outcome to the soldiers' mission, some people die, war goes on. It mostly works ... Hell Is for Heroes is Don Siegel at near his best.

There is one particularly odd big of casting. Bob Newhart had become all the rage for his comedy albums, and the studio wanted him in this movie, which would be his first. His presence is rather like Ricky Nelson's in Rio Bravo ... give the kid a couple of songs and keep him out of the way otherwise. Newhart's character quickly ends up with a phone, and he spends much of his screen time concocting fake telephone conversations to fool the Nazis. Since his comedy act was almost entirely Newhart pretending to talk on a phone, these scenes turn out to be hilarious for the wrong reasons ... you can't help but laugh at the idea of Bob Newhart in a war film, talking on a fake phone.

Hell Is for Heroes isn't great, but it's a cut above other similar films, which is about the best you get from Don Siegel: a cut above.




music friday: 1994

Oasis, "Live Forever". If this was 1995, I'd include "Don't Look Back in Anger" for the English soccer team.

The Cranberries, "Zombie". The video at the link has been viewed more than 739 million times. As I type this, that is.

The Notorious B.I.G., "Juicy". The first single from Biggie's debut.

Hole, "Violet". I can never remember which Hole song is which. "Violet", "Doll Parts", "Miss World", they're all on Live Through This, right? To me, this song is called "GO ON TAKE EVERYTHING!"

Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?". Between Biggie and Kurt, there's a lot of wasted talent on this list.

TLC, "Waterfalls". I didn't do this on purpose, but death is just overwhelming here. Add Left Eye to the list with Biggie and Kurt, and Dolores while you're at it.

Green Day, "Basket Case". Dookie was a massive hit, with Green Day an East Bay version of the Ramones circa 1975, if that band had signed with a major label. The Mr. T Experience was just as deserving of this massive popularity, but that isn't to say that Dookie is a bad album. It's terrific. Recorded half-a-mile from my house at Fantasy Records, aka The House That Creedence Built. But if you had told me in 1994 that one day Green Day would record a punk rock opera that sold 16 million copies worldwide and was made into a musical that played on Broadway and they would end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... well, I wouldn't have believed you.

Goldie, "Inner City Life". This is drum 'n' bass.

Elastica, "Connection". They only made two albums, five years apart. I'm not sure the second one was released in the States ... at least, I can't find any chart information on it. Remembered as the song where part of it was "borrowed" from a Wire song (they apparently took care of it in court). Me, when I play this song, I hear Corin Tucker in "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun".

Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah". The problem is, we've all heard this song too many times, usually stuck atop some scene in a movie or TV show. It's hard to remove ourselves from the song's ubiquity. Buckley's version is one of the best, and fairly straightforward. The familiarity of the song means nowadays you need something that can take us out of the realm of the familiar. One of those times came on Saturday Night Live, when, in a week where Leonard Cohen died and Donald Trump became president, Kate McKinnon, in her Hillary Clinton outfit, sat at a piano and sang "Hallelujah" to open the episode.

And damn, Jeff Buckley died young, too. Dolores O'Riordan, 46. Biggie Smalls, 24. Kurt Cobain, 27. Lisa Lopes, 30. Jeff Buckley, 30. That's half the list. 


sorry to bother you (boots riley, 2018)

Sorry to Bother You has so many things going on that it's tempting to blurt out all of the oddities, the ones that work and the ones that don't. But this is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better.

It's easy to give a basic description, something like "young black man gets a desperately-needed job as a telemarketer, finds he has a talent for the job, and climbs the corporate ladder, causing him to worry about selling out". If you've seen the movie, though, you know how pathetically insufficient such a description is. I could go with a more detailed approach, but then I'd bump up against the desire to avoid spoilers.

Suffice to say that first-time writer/director Boots Riley (of the political hip-hop group The Coup) is unafraid to try anything to get his points across. One reason Sorry to Bother You fascinates is that Riley's willingness to break filmmaking rules, which gives the film a chaotic feel, combines with his clarity about certain points: that capitalism is bad, that racism is alive and well, that Oakland is a great place. The oddest things happen in Sorry to Bother You, so many that it's hard to get comfortable while watching (which is one of the reasons for the movie in the first place). But while it seems like Riley will try anything, he always ties his inventiveness to his themes. He is set on demonstrating the evils of capitalism, and he'll use any device to get that point across, even if it means entering into fantasy.

This is cumulative ... you see something and think you've never seen a presentation like this one, only to have that topped ten minutes later by something even more surprising. Riley gives himself over to fantasy, but it is a rooted fantasy. It isn't clear, for instance, exactly when the film takes place ... today? A few years from now? Gradually, you realize this is a vision of Oakland that is skewed towards fantasy, but only to claim a more solid realism about Oakland today. (And Riley manages to make it feel like Oakland without playing the Spot the Local Hotspot game.

By the time we get to the most outrageous fantasies, entering into the realm of science-fiction, we are still surprised, but especially in retrospect, everything we see grows out of a commitment to rationality. You may wonder where the hell Riley thought up some of this stuff, but he convinces us that what is fantasy in the movie is metaphorically real to our lives today.

Sorry to Bother You benefits from some fine acting. The leads, Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, are the kinds of actors who grab the screen without seeming to try. Riley also managed to get all sorts of "name" actors for his film: Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Lily James, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, W. Kamau Bell. You get the feeling that all of the people who worked on this film wanted to do so ... no one is in this for a big paycheck.

I want to give a more concrete sense of what Riley is up to, while still maintaining the surprise potential. How about this: a popular TV game show in the movie is called "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me", where contestants volunteer to, yes, get the shit kicked out of them for ... well, who knows, for a cash prize, for 15 minutes of fame? It's an example of how Riley uses fantasy that is just a step removed from reality ... in real life, there might not be a show called "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me", but the expectation of contestant humiliation is fairly common. And, as I say, the show is popular ... even characters that we come to like enjoy the show, because after all, who doesn't find people getting the shit kicked out of them to be funny?

I know I've skipped around the concrete, here. But if you see Sorry to Bother You, and you should, you'll thank me for keeping you spoiler-free. Oh, and it's a comedy.

 


tv catch up: vida, westworld

Vida. A new series on Starz that was one of the most welcome debuts in a while. Vida doesn't just pay lip-service to diversity. It's about two Mexican-American sisters in East LA. It's about class and about gentrification. It's about gender, it's about grief ... it is all of these things and more, but they are all in service to the story, rather than the other way around. One impressive aspect of Vida that points to its newness is that most of the people responsible for the show are new to me. Series creator Tanya Saracho is a Mexican-born playwright who has done some writing for television. One of the leads, Melissa Barrera, has starred in some telenovelas. Michel Prada, who plays her sister, was in a web-series spinoff of Fear the Walking Dead. She doesn't even have a Wikipedia page (based on her work in Vida, that won't last long). Ser Anzoategui is an actor, writer, and activist who had a regular role in East Los High. She's another without a Wikipedia page. There are many other actors with significant parts who deliver fine performances ... Chelsea Rendon, Maria-Elena Laas, and more. Vida hits its dramatic arcs with power, and is one of the half-hour dramas that are popping up now. (Most half-hour shows were and are comedies, or, to use that dreadful word, dramedies. Vida is a drama.) There are only six episodes in Season One, which means you can binge the whole things in three hours. And a second season is set.

Westworld. Only here because I quit watching, and felt I should acknowledge that fact. It has that in common with Legion, another show I gave up on, and for a similar reason: who knows what the fuck is going on? Westworld is apparently a puzzle of sorts, and I know some people like trying to figure these kinds of shows out. I'm tired of them.


the circle (james ponsoldt, 2017)

I saw this a few days ago, and found it so inconsequential that I knew I wouldn't have much to say about it. So I saved it, figuring I'd put in a "what i watched" post with a couple of other movies. But since then, I saw two movies that go together (last 2/3 of a trilogy), and one By Request. So I'll write this now, if for no other reason than to remind myself I actually saw it.

I am far from the only person to compare The Circle to Black Mirror. It plays very much like a mediocre episode of that TV series, only it's twice as long so it seems more boring. A bunch of my favorite actors are here ... Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton (his last movie), Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt. Emma Watson is the lead, and I don't have an opinion on her, so she's not one of my favorites at this point, but she's OK in this. But the truth is, I'm not sure why I watched it in the first place. Seriously, if you get the urge to watch this, go watch Black Mirror instead.


music friday: 1993

Beck, "Loser".

PJ Harvey, "Rid of Me". I've been known to spend half an hour or more just watching various clips of PJ singing this song live on YouTube.

Wu-Tang Clan, "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)".

Smashing Pumpkins, "Today".

Björk, "Human Behaviour".

Snoop Dogg, "(Who Am I? (What's My Name?)". When this song came out, it seemed like they played it on the radio every ten minutes. Which was fine with me ... I'd just crank it up and listen to the (sampled) bass line.

James, "Laid". I love watching videos of big festivals, especially from Europe, because a old band can sing their old hit(s), and the fans love it, young and old.

Sheryl Crow, "All I Wanna Do". She was 31 when her debut album was released.

Cypress Hill, "Insane in the Brain". The source for the sample at the very end is surprising. At least they gave the guy a co-songwriting credit. "All Over the World"

Sarah McLachlan, "Possession". Compare to Sheryl Crow ... this song comes from her third album, released when she was 25.

Hey, I'm controlling myself, I'm only posting two. Here is PJ Harvey on the Jay Leno show in 1993:


tv catch up: killing eve, legion, the looming tower

Killing Eve. In a post about TV actors, I wrote, "[Jodie] Comer has made Villanelle into the most fascinating character on TV. (Meanwhile, Sandra Oh is killing it as Eve.)" I stand by both parts of that comment. But I may have been a bit too much taken with Comer's work in the flashier of the two roles. Matt Zoller Seitz thinks so: "The Best Actress on TV Is Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh".

Oh’s entire career has been leading to this. The role of Eve asks her to blend the star charisma she exhibited on Grey’s Anatomy and the daffy sex appeal that she brought to a supporting role in Sideways (stealing scenes from Thomas Haden Church, which is about as easy as stealing gold from Fort Knox). Oh is not just up to the challenge, she piles on details until they become emblematic of the series as well as the character. This is the performance of the year so far, in any medium. For all the reasons mentioned in this piece, and for many more reasons we won’t even discover until we watch the whole thing a few more times, this is quietly revolutionary acting on a quietly revolutionary series. There’s before Killing Eve, and there’s after. Phoebe Waller-Bridge made that happen, and Sandra Oh made it real.

The mention of Phoebe Waller-Bridge is important ... she developed the series and wrote four of the eight episodes. Fleabag wasn't a fluke ... and Waller-Bridge clearly handles more than one genre.

Legion. I only mention this program because I quit watching it. The Purposely Obscure Genre is not my favorite. Legion is so stylish, so unique, that I gave it a chance. Heck, I gave Season One an A-. But I only watched a couple of Season Two episodes before I realized I didn't enjoy it, didn't understand it, and was angered by that purposeful obscurity. So I quit. Your mileage may vary.

The Looming Tower. This miniseries from Hulu told the fact-based story of the buildup to 9/11, emphasizing the feud between the FBI and CIA and how that feud affected America's ability (or inability) to see what was right before various eyes. It stuck close enough to the facts to feel real, it was fairly clear in presenting the byzantine plot, and it mostly avoided kissing the ass of the FBI or CIA. It's the kind of show my wife likes, but one that I enjoyed as well, if not as much as she did. There was some interesting casting ... Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as a Muslim FBI agent, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire's Arnold Rothstein) as Richard Clarke, Alec Baldwin as CIA Director George Tenet, and others. Jeff Daniels played John O'Neill, the FBI head of counterterrorism, and he was good, although for some reason he often bugged the shit out of me. (Whether than was Daniel or O'Neill, I don't know.) If it sounds good to you, you'll probably like it ... it delivers. I wouldn't say it was great, though.

 


film fatales #41: morvern callar (lynne ramsay, 2002)

Another intriguing movie from Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin). A common feature of every Ramsay movie I've seen is that I have to turn on the subtitles ... Scottish isn't my best language. I avoided this film for a long time, for the silliest of reasons: the title threw me off. I had no idea what it referred to ... a place, an alien being, what? Imagine my embarrassment when I found within minutes that Morvern Callar was the name of the main character.

She is played by Samantha Morton (Jesus' Son, Minority Report, Mister Lonely), who for the most part gives great performances in movies I don't much like (Minority Report is an exception ... I like that one quite a bit). Unsurprisingly, Morton is excellent in Morvern Callar, and she is the perfect actress for Ramsay, who relies a lot on closeups and a lot less on dialogue. This demands a great deal from her actors ... in this case, Morton has to carry a film that doesn't seem to care much about narrative, and she has to do this without being able to explain everything with dialogue. As noted in the wonderful video Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos did for the late, great Every Frame a Painting, these are characteristic of Ramsay's work in general. (I link to that video every time I write about Ramsay ... it's that good.) This means Ramsay's movies, at least the ones I've seen, are very specific to her ... she seems to get what she wants on the screen, and leaves it to the audience to get it or not. Often, I dislike such directors ... I admire someone like Terrence Malick, but I don't like watching his movies ... as I once said, the only person who knows what his films mean is Malick, and he’s not telling. But for some reason, I'm willing to go along with Ramsay. I have yet to fall in love with any of her movies, but I've always found them intriguing and worth my time. #243 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)