oscar nom: star wars: episode vii - the force awakens (j.j. abrams, 2015)

A few years ago, in a post about The Empire Strikes Back, I wrote, “it’s time to admit that I am not the audience for these films. That was clear when the new trilogy came along … only Revenge of the Sith was even tolerable to me. But the fact that I don’t have any real desire to watch Star Wars movies over and over, even as I’m always ready to sit through Attack of the Crab Monsters one more time, says it all.” This holds true for the new Star Wars movie, which I finally saw almost two months after its release.

How does it compare to other Star Wars movies? I’d say it’s a contender with The Empire Strikes Back for the best of the series. But never have personal taste preferences been more illuminating. Watching Episode VII, I got the feeling the true fans of the series probably like this one, which is respectful to traditions (hello, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher) while moving forward in good and entertaining ways (hello, Daisy Ridler and John Boyega). Casting Adam Driver was also perfect ... the first time he takes off his helmet and speaks in his unmistakable accent, we understand the emotional turmoil inside the character. Not everything is good, again if we’re talking about my preferences. I had thought to myself, “at least we don’t have to put up with that damned C-3PO”, and within minutes, the sucker turned up.

The key for fans is to place the film in the context of the series. But that’s useless for someone like me, who doesn’t care about the series. Which is why my saying it’s arguably the best movie in that series is largely irrelevant. Because once I compare Episode VII to other movies I like, Star Wars doesn’t do well. For my tastes, there was a superb action picture in 2015, one that extended a favorite series of mine, one that I greatly anticipated, and one that fulfilled my every hope: Mad Max: Fury Road. But is Fury Road a better movie than Episode VII, or does it just better match my tastes? I prefer stunts done by humans to space ships fighting each other, CGI style. But that’s not fair to Star Wars, which is a space opera ... it’s not like they can put stunt people on space ships. I do think Fury Road has visual creativity that the Star Wars series has rarely approached ... think of the men on the poles, or the flame-throwing guitar.

I enjoyed Daisy Ridler, and was reminded of how revolutionary it seemed in the first film when Leia was part of the action scenes. We’ve moved far beyond that, now. John Boyega presented a different problem ... one more time, from my perspective. He was in Attack the Block, a favorite of mine that cost around $13 million to make. Is Attack the Block a better movie than The Force Awakens? Let’s just say I liked it more.

When a movie gets five Oscar nominations and none of them are “people” categories like picture or director or acting, I am wary. Episode VII is nominated in editing and sound and visual effects and soundtrack. If we compare it to other films that pile up the nominations in these kinds of categories, I think The Force Awakens looks quite good. But I’m guessing I'll watch Attack the Block again a few more times before I ever get around to watching this Star Wars movie a second time. To say nothing of Attack of the Crab Monsters. 7/10.

dan hicks and me

Jesus fucking Christ.

This hurts me the most of all the recent deaths. I've told my Dan Hicks stories a million times ... I'll make it a million and one, and then I'll be done.

The night before our wedding (May 25, 1973), I was nervously watching TV when Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks came on. I had seen them live once, in the summer of 1970. He sang his great song, "I Scare Myself", and I realized he was telling my story. So at the wedding the next day, I read the lyrics to that song as my "statement".

A few years later we went to see Dan at a converted movie theater in Rodeo. I saw him sitting in the seats before the show, and went up to him and told him my story about the wedding, asking if perhaps he might play "I Scare Myself" that night. He was very drunk, and mostly laughed at my story ... not at me, mind you, just the story.

He took the stage ... I can't remember if there was a bass player, but Naomi Ruth Eisenberg was with him. Robin and the friends we were with worked for Naomi Ruth's brother at a fabric store. Dan got through one song, maybe two, broke strings, talked to himself as he restrung his guitar. We walked up to the stage and asked Naomi to autograph a poster from the show. Dan said something like "I'm up here suffering and people are getting Naomi's autograph." He left the stage soon afterwards.

He was a real person.

I scare myself
just thinking about you
I scare myself
when I'm without you
I scare myself
the moments that you're gone
I scare myself
when I let my thoughts run

and when they're runnin'
I keep thinking of you
and when they're runnin'
what can I do?

I scare myself
and I don't mean lightly
I scare myself
it can get frightenin'
I scare myself
to think what I could do
I scare myself
it's some kinda voodoo

and with that voodoo
I keep thinking of you
and with that voodoo
what can I do?

but it's oh so, so, so different
when we're together
and I'm oh so so much calmer, I feel better
for the stars have crossed our paths forever
and the sooner that you realize it, the better

then I'll be with you
and I won't scare myself
and I'll know what to do
and I won't scare myself
and then I'll think of you
and I won't scare myself
and then my thoughts'll run
and I won't scare myself



music friday: liz phair and gina arnold, exile in guyville

I just finished Gina Arnold’s fine book on Exile in Guyville, another entry in the 33 1/3 series. I spent the 90s reading Arnold’s “Fools Rush In” column ... she seemed to inspire a lot of vitriol, not just from people whose missives appeared in Letters to the Editor segments, but from people who wore “KILL GINA ARNOLD” t-shirts. Often, what I loved about Arnold’s columns was the very things that irritated her detractors. She regularly inserted her personal life into her writing. Here she is in a 2001 interview:

I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it.

Katy St. Clair once wrote of Arnold’s decade of writing for the East Bay Express:

A typical week for Gina would involve receiving a gift certificate for the services of Jack Kevorkian from a bunch of slighted Rolling Stones fans (yep, it really happened) or one or two letters making fun of her affinity for you-know-who. Everyone had different reasons for disliking her -- either she didnt get her facts right, or she didnt support the local scene, or she talked about herself too much, or she was too jaded and stuck in 1990.

In the same article, Arnold offers an on-point comment on the criticism she often received:

People would say to me, ... Why do I want to hear about your life every week? And I would say, You think I write about my life? Okay, what do you actually know about my life? And they wouldnt have an answer. I write about music and how it relates to things in my life, but very few people actually know me.

Is it any wonder I loved her? I’ve often argued that rock criticism learned a lot from Pauline Kael’s approach, and you can’t find a better example than this.

Her Exile in Guyville book is unlike her columns, but in a way I think makes sense. There is an academic feel to much of the book, and indeed, since the 90s, Arnold has gotten a Ph.D. from Stanfurd. Her writing now reflects this, and why not? She’s just continuing her personal touch.

She spends a part of the introduction informing us that she wrote much of the book in Seoul. I can already hear those haters from the past ... who cares where she was when she wrote? But one of her primary arguments in the book is that Exile in Guyville is informed by a community, “Guyville”, and what better way to remind us of this than by describing the community where she is writing, and how it helps her both gain the necessary distance from her subject, and also to see similarities between then and now.

The first two sections are the best, as she places Exile within the cultural context of its time. For me, the section where she compares Phair’s songs, one by one, to the corresponding tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., is the book’s least successful. I know that Phair encourages the comparisons, but after such excellent cultural criticism, it’s a bit disappointing to read compare-and-contrast lyric analysis. Arnold does her best with the idea, but I got antsy. She recovers in her brief final section, which brings us full circle to Seoul.

Of course, now I’m going to do precisely what I’m complaining about. Here is Phair’s “Never Said”, chosen as much as anything because there’s an official video:

Arnold writes:

“Never Said” is about keeping secrets, probably the secret of who is sleeping with whom. Liz, alas, was unable to keep whom she was sleeping with secret and suffered the tortures of the dammed when her record came out. People guessed this and that and accused her of “sleeping her way” to the top ... People know who Mick Jagger sleeps with too ... but somehow it never seemed to have the same repercussions as Liz’s peccadilloes.

The very act of making an album that seems to take on the canonical favorite Exile on Main St. is irritating enough to those who make canons that they will find reasons to dismiss Phair from the start.

The Stones’ counterpart, using the track-for-track comparisons, is “Tumbling Dice”, where “The women, alas, are always trying to drag him down, with their bitchin’ and itchin’, but the men – i.e. the proverbial ‘tumblin dice’ of the title – can’t be tied down.... Great riff. Nice metaphor. Internal meaning not so pleasant, but that’s the Stones all over.”

I wonder what Arnold made of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice”:

The obvious question arises: what do I think of Exile in Guyville? I loved it at the time, and I think it holds up well. We saw her on her solo tour in 1995, playing songs from Guyville and Whipsmart, and she was admittedly unassuming, but that didn’t change my feelings towards the album. Here’s a very low-fi song from a different show on that tour:

I often think of Phair and PJ Harvey at the same time. In fact, back in 2010, I had an entire blog post about this:

Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.

I don’t know if I still think PJ is “better”. But I do know that to this day I play Exile on Guyville more than I play any PJ Harvey album. Having said that, I’m always looking for an excuse to post videos of Harvey performing “Rid of Me”, which I love more than any individual song of Phair’s.

oscar nom: amy (asif kapadia, 2015)

Documentary of the late singer’s life relies on archival footage, much of it taken from home movies and the like. The family (read, her father) isn’t happy about the way these films are used, and indeed, her father comes across poorly.

But the use of this footage, along with you-are-there examples of the crush of the paparazzi as experienced from the inside, while illuminating, perhaps unintentionally places Kapadia with those paparazzi. Winehouse is gone now, so I suppose you could say that she can no longer be hurt. But Amy is in many respects a post-mortem extension of the ways Winehouse was used by the media when she was alive. We learn about her life by peeking into her most private moments. It’s a revealing film, but it also left me feeling a bit dirty, not because of Winehouse, but because as I watched the movie I became complicit with things that made her life difficult.

One of the most crucial criticisms of father Mitch Winehouse comes when he turns up when Amy has found a place to escape the daily pressures (she also finds a place to drink constantly). Mitch is filming a television series, and he arrives with cameras, precisely the thing Amy is trying to avoid. There is something opportunistic about Mitch’s intrusions on his daughter ... he barely seems better than the paparazzi. But Kapadia has no qualms about using this footage in his own documentary. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the only reason Kapadia didn’t join the paparazzi was because Winehouse was dead when he made his documentary. Instead, he uses paparazzi footage to support his movie.

Having said that, Amy is an eye-opener. Her vocals are more than jazz-inflected ... oftentimes, they are jazz. Her confessional lyrics, printed on the screen as the songs are presented, match well with the narrative the film offers of Winehouse’s life. That narrative shows that Winehouse had problems before fame magnified everything. She was extremely talented, which is why we know who she is and why she gets an Oscar-nominated documentary about her life. Without that great voice, her story is still tragic, but it’s sadly like too many other stories.

Tony Bennett gets the best line. An artist who had his own personal traumas, some drug-related, Bennett came out on the other side, and still has an audience as he approaches 90. He recognized Winehouse’s excellence, and the scenes of the two recording the Grammy-winning “Body and Soul” are lovely, as he encourages her and brings a fine performance out of her. At the movie’s end, he remarks, “Life teaches you really how to live it, if you could live long enough.”


no title

compuserve contest

This photo popped up on Facebook, where we tagged as many people as we could (our friends the Isaacs family, and another friend, Dale). What interests me at the moment is the stuff in the background.

Most of it is stereo gear, circa 1984-87. There’s a red bottle ... that’s liquid you put on the record cleaner thingie before you cleaned your vinyl. A turntable sits atop a receiver. On the right side of the picture is a dual cassette deck.

I think the books on the other side of the receiver were music-related. It’s hard to make out, but at the top of the photo, near the right, is a postcard of two boxers, one of whom is landing a punch on the other. The postcard was from Greil Marcus, in reply to a fan mail I sent him. Ah, those were the days.

oscar nom: cinderella (kenneth branagh, 2015)

On the one hand, the only Oscar nomination is for Best Costumes, which I know little about, and when that’s the only nomination for a movie, it’s probably lacking in other areas. (Last year’s equivalent was Maleficent, which I actually liked, so maybe even this is better than nothing.)

On the other, good, hand: It’s not a musical, so I didn’t have to sit through a bunch of crappy songs. It has two actors from Game of Thrones, two from Downton Abbey ... heck, there’s even the title actor from I, Claudius. I don’t have an opinion about Kenneth Branagh’s directing ... in fact, this might be the first of his movies I’ve seen. The familiarity of the story served as comfort food. And, most importantly in my book, Hayley Atwell is in the movie.

Well, that didn’t work out. Spoiler alert: Atwell dies about five minutes into the movie. Sigh.

Cinderella is fine, but that’s all it is. My wife said the costumes showed an intelligent design ... at least, I think that’s what she said. I’m sure it deserved its Oscar nomination. (I’ve seen three of the five noms, and I’d go for Mad Max: Fury Road.) I just can’t think of any real reason to see this. Last year, I recommended Maleficent because Angelina Jolie was so good. In Cinderella, it’s Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, and she’s tiresome.

The one thing this entry in the Cinderella sweepstakes does differently, I suppose, is give a little back story to the main characters. But learning about Cinderella’s parents is pretty boring (especially after Hayley Atwell dies), and Blanchett gets just one brief speech designed to make us feel her pain. It’s not enough. 6/10.

music friday: paul kantner, "have you seen the stars tonight"

The Jefferson Airplane were my favorite San Francisco band of the 1960s. Not sure I could rank the members ... not sure I should. Jack Casady was always my favorite, but what about Marty/Grace/Paul? Marty and Grace always had that singing together, maybe we’re in love, maybe we hate each other thing going ... Paul and Grace, not so much, even if they did eventually have a kid together.

We played Surrealistic Pillow over and over in the summer of ‘67. Grace stood out ... she had the hits ... Marty sang most of the other leads, although given the harmonies it wasn’t always clear who, if anyone, was the “lead” singer. Jorma played the guitar solos. Paul Kantner was certainly an important part of the band, but I don’t think I paid him much attention.

He was far more out front with the next album, After Bathing at Baxter’s. He wrote some of my favorite songs from that one ... “Wild Tyme”, “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”. Crown of Creation seemed like more of a group effort, although Marty didn’t seem as involved. The title track was Kantner, and it brought his sci-fi tendencies to the forefront.

Bless Its Pointed Little Head was probably my favorite Airplane album, if I’m being honest. It’s certainly Jack Casady’s finest. The emphasis on the Hot Tuna boys again pushed Kantner to the background, although he was better represented when a reissue added a couple of his songs.

Volunteers was great, and it was also the last time I loved, or even paid attention to, an Airplane album. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” was arguably their best political track.

But then came Blows Against the Empire, attributed to “Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship”. That was the first time the term “Starship” was used, and it was the only time a halfway decent album was attached to the name. In retrospect, the title is a bit of a stretch. And while we played Blows constantly when it came out, I can’t say I bring it out much any longer. But I’ve always loved “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight”, and that was the first song that came to mind when I heard that Kantner had died.

And here’s “We Can Be Together”, with great rhythm guitar from Paul:

oscar nom: sicario (denis villenueve, 2015)

This one picked up three “technical” nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. All three seem reasonable to me, although I’m not the one to pick a winner ... I haven’t seen them all, and would probably just vote for the movie I liked best overall (hello, Fury Road).

I have seen two other movies by Villenueve, Incendies, which I liked a lot, and Prisoners, which I also liked but not as much. Sicario is closer to the latter. It moves along at a nice pace, the cast is interesting, as I was watching it I thought it good enough. But it doesn’t stand up to post-mortem analysis.

Emily Blunt is very good as Kate, an American FBI agent who has blinders pulled from her eyes. Benicio del Toro is also good as someone who had those blinders removed long ago. But the key character is Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin in casual, aw shucks mode. He doesn’t have the personal attachment to the case that del Toro’s Alejandro does, and it’s unclear if he ever had blinders. He accepts the situation as normal ... the world sucks, let's have a beer. He does his job, probably thinks he is a realist, but he accepts Alejandro’s vengeance more than he does Kate’s idealism. Graver was never idealistic in the first place. I think the movie shares his version of The Normal, even as it professes otherwise. Nothing is going to get better, there is no point.

And then there’s what my friend Nathan called the “torture porn”. Torture has been a plot device in all of the Villenueve films I’ve seen ... without it, Prisoners has no reason to exist. When the ramifications pass through generations, as with Incendies, the impact is essential and moving. When torture seems to merely move the plot along, you have something else.

So I’m torn about Sicario, which seemed so much better before I thought about it. 7/10. For a better examination of the border between El Paso and Juárez, see the U.S. TV series The Bridge, which had its own problems but which at least tried to confront those problems.

oscar nom: cartel land (matthew heineman, 2015)

This film about the drug trade on the Mexican/American border is up for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. Heineman’s style as a director is best summed up by Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote, “he has a crucial attribute that’s very helpful for documentary filmmakers – he is apparently out of his freakin’ mind.” Heineman (and co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll ... it’s not clear who does what) appears to be taking enormous risks during the filming of Cartel Land, jumping into cars to avoid gunfire, conducting interviews with people who seem, at best, less than savory. Heineman doesn’t shy away from reminding us of this ... in one interview, he notes, “A lot of the more intense scenes, I was there alone during the shootouts and scenes like that and it was almost like every man for themselves. I was there looking out for my own back and taking care of myself and they were doing the same.” But in fairness, Cartel Land is not a movie about a brave and reckless director.

Heineman uses an interesting structural device, following two vigilante leaders, one on each side of the border. Tim “Nailer” Foley patrols that border, trying to keep the bad guys out of Arizona; José Mireles is a leader of a band of Mexicans trying to fight back against the power of the cartels in their towns. The structure is fine, but this is a movie, and it soon becomes apparent that Mireles has more charisma and screen presence than his American counterpart. This subtly throws off the so-called objective balance ... whenever we watch “Nailer”, we wish we were back in Mexico with Mireles.

The story of Mireles also seems more complicated than that of Foley, with most of the surprises coming when Mireles is the focus. Heineman doesn’t create psuedo-events, but he knows how to take advantage of turns in the narrative that would work equally well in a fictional film.

The immediacy of the filmmaking gives Cartel Land much of its power. But there is precious little context for what we see, which is partly why the reveals of the latter part of the picture work ... they really are surprising. But it feels a bit dishonest.

Heineman has said he was inspired by The Square, another Oscar-nominated documentary. But The Square is a great movie, the kind that inspires other filmmakers. Cartel Land is a good movie that leaves you hungry for more. 7/10.