what i watched last week

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). I can’t blame Scorsese, who is in his 70s, for returning to the well that has given him so much artistic nourishment in the past. And he’s still making good movies ... if my favorite Scorseses are from the 1970s, the 2000s have seen such fine efforts as The Aviator, Hugo, Shine a Light, and especially The Departed. So when I say that The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me a lot of past movies by Scorsese, most particularly Goodfellas, that isn’t a complaint. But as memorable as Goodfellas was, it wasn’t as good as Mean Streets (and Casino was far worse than Goodfellas). And The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t as good as Goodfellas, either. There are diminishing returns. The Wolf of Wall Street deserved its Best Picture Oscar nod, but Gravity and the winner, 12 Years a Slave, were better. The movie got five nominations, all in major categories, and all were legitimate. And Leonardo DiCaprio was magnetic in the title role. So no, this isn’t a complaint. But for all the vibrancy on the screen, I never felt I was seeing something that was more than that vibrancy. The film has been compared to The Great Gatsby (both the novel and film versions), and that’s fine, but The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest novels ever written while The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty good movie. Even as I write this, I see what I am doing, comparing the movie to classics and then finding it falls short. It’s not fair of me. But I feel like The Wolf of Wall Street got a lot of praise because “Marty’s still got it!” That’s not fair, to Scorsese or to the movie. #319 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004). One of those movies that are praised in part for what they are not. It’s not a stupid action picture of the Transformers variety. It isn’t ludicrous like many James Bond movies are. In fact, many people think the Bourne films had an influence of Casino Royale, which rebooted Bond in an excellent way. I’ve seen the Bourne movies in the wrong order ... I saw the third one, The Bourne  Ultimatum, in 2008, now I’ve seen the second one ... I guess this means I’ll be seeing the first one in the series sometime in 2022. This movie is mostly chase scenes, and they’re good, especially a colossal car chase scene near the end that answers the question, is there really anything new they can do in a car chase? (Yes.) There is a modicum of actual interesting characterization. It’s a pretty good movie. Having said that, it is also an example of what happens when you expand your Greatest 21st Century films list from 250 to 1000. #963 on the TSPDT 21st century list. 7/10.

music friday: born to read

Last night, we attended a Litquake show, “Born to Read: Celebrating the Lyrics of Springsteen”. Here’s how it was described on the website:

[A] one-of-a-kind celebration, including personal reminiscences and dramatic and musical interpretations. With rock critic and author Ben Fong-Torres, musician Tom Heyman, author/humorist Beth Lisick, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia, poet Daphne Gottlieb, rock critic Joel Selvin, and music biographer and musician Sylvie Simmons.

There were a couple of cute “reminiscences” before the start of the actual show, which was hosted by Fong-Torres. He was one of the best things about the show, and I actually learned something from his performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. Fong-Torres said the song exposes some of Springsteen’s admitted influences, and he proceeded to start singing the song in the voice of Bob Dylan. His Dylan impression could use some work, but it served its purpose, showing how Dylan-esque Bruce’s lyrics remained on his third album.

What followed was a mixed bag. Part of the problem is down to taste preferences, as usual. I don’t much care for treating song lyrics like poetry. Song lyrics don’t stand alone ... remove the music and you change the meaning. The lyrics of “She’s the One” on the page are lacking the central point of the song: the Bo Diddley beat, with the volume cranked up at the start of the second verse. So the songs where the performer did a reading of the lyrics were not my cup of tea. Alejandro Murquia did what he could with “Meeting Across the River”, but any insights came from having the voice of a Latino behind the words. Joel Selvin sped through “Night” in about 45 seconds ... I assume he was trying to convey the rush of the song, but again, absent the music, he just sounded silly. “Backstreets” has great lyrics, sure, but the meaning of the song is told through the piano and the guitar and the way Bruce channels Van Morrison.

Tom Heyman, a working musician, had a tough job. At least he got to sing and play guitar. But the songs he was given, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland”, don’t lend themselves to an acoustic rendering (even Bruce struggled with this when he sang “Born to Run” solo on one tour). Similarly, Sylvie Simmons was never going to be able to turn “She’s the One” into a ukulele classic (see above). It’s not that these musicians were bad, it’s that their reworkings were doomed to failure from the start. Honestly, Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a better handle on “Born to Run” than Heyman.

Out of all this, one performance rose above the rest. Beth Lisick performed “Thunder Road” as a woman listening on headphones. We couldn’t hear the actual track ... we only heard Lisick, singing (too loud, and just a bit off-key, the way we all do when we sing with headphones on). For once, we sensed the joy that Springsteen’s work provides to his audience, as Lisick danced awkwardly, screwing up the occasional lyric, and then, best of all, acting out the instrumental fadeout. You could hear the instruments in your head, even though no sound came from Lisick. And then, in the single most winning moment of the night, she mimed the Professor playing his little piano phrase. It’s the kind of thing only a hardcore Bruce fan would understand, and it was a roomful of hardcore Bruce fans. The communal feel of recognition was sublime.

A friend who lives in the Northwest felt bad for missing the show, but he offered to read the lyrics in his backyard if anyone wanted to do a road trip his way. I wish “Born to Read” had a bit more of that spirit.

(I should add that I wasn’t keeping notes, so I may have mismatched performers to songs. My apologies if this is true.)

throwup thursday

Ten years ago today, my wife and I went to Cafe duNord to see Mary Gauthier in concert. It was just her and a guitar player. The venue is extremely tiny, which turned out to be a good thing, because the electronics on the guitars wasn't working, so Gauthier did the entire show literally unplugged ... she came off the stage to the front of the floor to get closer to us, and sang her songs.


what i watched last week

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). It’s not Heathers, for better and for worse. I realized, as I watched, that my standards for this kind of movie pretty much boiled down to “is it as good as Heathers”, which is odd since, as much as I love that movie, I don’t think it’s great (7/10). Despite the title, Mean Girls is nowhere near as mean as Heathers, primarily because there is no real equivalent in Mean Girls for Christian Slater’s character, J.D., in the earlier movie. J.D. is a psychopath who kills people ... the outsider in Mean Girls who tries to appeal to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady is Lizzy Caplan’s Janis Ian, who is never more than just an outsider. Even as Cady turns into one of the “Plastics”, the level of meanness never rises above making her rival gain weight. Heathers gains added punch because we see why J.D. would appeal to Winona Ryder’s Veronica. This also makes Heathers less real than Mean Girls, which is fairly recognizable as a teenage tale of high school hierarchies. One place where Mean Girls has a clear advantage is in its cast: Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid joke, Rachel McAdams, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lacey Chabert, my beloved Lizzy Caplan, and making her film debut, Amanda Seyfried. OK, I still prefer Heathers, but that’s just taste preferences ... both movies are fun and reasonably insightful. 7/10. #683 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. The obvious double-bill partner would be Heathers.

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). 7/10.

film fatales #4: wendy and lucy (kelly reichardt, 2008)

(Suggested by The Film Fatales)

There were several warning signs ahead of this one. First, it’s not encouraging when a dog’s name is in the title. More importantly, I had only seen one Kelly Reichardt film, Old Joy, which came just before Wendy and Lucy, and I was, to quote from my comments, “bored shitless”. I wrote at the time that nothing happens (I’m erratic about this ... I usually hate it ... on the other hand, I love L’Avventura). What’s funny is that my memory in retrospect (some seven years since I saw it) is that I found the relationship between the two men at the center of the film made me very uncomfortable. The guy who was still a hippie gave me the creeps, and I felt bad for the guy who had “sold out”. Yet all I talked about then was how bored I was.

Wendy and Lucy is not boring, at least not to me. Apparently, I am less bothered by a relationship between a woman and a dog than I am about two men, one of whom seems to make demands on the other. (Wendy doesn’t make demands on Lucy, and of course, Lucy is a dog so she doesn’t make many demands, either.) The style of Wendy and Lucy is similar to the earlier film ... a good feel for nature (and the beautiful cinematography to go with it), a lack of a narrative thrust, the willingness to take the time to let the film develop (if “develop” is the right word). Both films are very short (76 minutes for Old Joy, 80 for Wendy and Lucy), but here the running time seems just right (whereas Old Joy seemed endless, even at 76 minutes).

Michelle Williams has to carry the movie, and she does, which is no surprise, given how often she is excellent. She doesn’t overplay, so she fits right into the film’s tone, and when she finally breaks for a moment, it carries extra weight for being rare. People took note of what Williams did to her looks for the movie ... four of the five trivia items on the IMDB are about her appearance (she went without makeup, didn’t wash her hair, didn’t shave her legs or clean her nails, slept in a car for a few nights, and “was so scruffy during filming that when bystanders came up to chat with the crew they totally ignored her.”). But Williams doesn’t let her makeup (or lack of same) do her work for her. She creates a real character that isn’t purely defined by her looks. (Think of her in My Week with Marilyn.) #148 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

music friday: mean girls

I watched Mean Girls for the first time yesterday, and since I’m in a hurry, I thought I’d milk its soundtrack for a few songs on a Music Friday post. Soundtracks of popular movies often tell us something about the times in which the movie was released, which in this case was 2004.

The Donnas, “Dancing with Myself”. This kicks off the soundtrack album, but in the movie, it plays over the closing credits. The Donnas were everywhere in those days, not just on the music charts but on soundtracks and even video games. Their last album was in 2007.

Pink, “God Is a DJ”. From the follow-up to M!ssundaztood, which guarantees the album would be underrated. Teaming up with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong was an interesting idea.

Kelis, “Milkshake”. An inescapable song of its time.

Boomkat, “Rip Her to Shreds”. Boomkat was/is a sister act, Kellin and Taryn Manning. Taryn is better known now as Pennsatucky on Orange Is the New Black.

Blondie, “One Way or Another”. The “Shreds” originators also turn up on the soundtrack.

The Mathlete Rap”. The story, perhaps apocryphal although it shows up on the IMDB, is that the actor who performs this in the movie, Rajiv Surendra, was “coached ... on how to rap for his on-screen performance” by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

blu-ray series #23: the curious case of benjamin button (david fincher, 2008)

I approached this movie with mixed expectations. I tend to think of Fincher as a director I don’t like, mostly because I hated Seven and didn’t much like his Alien movie. But I have liked a couple of his more recent efforts (Gone Girl and especially The Social Network), so I need to get past my earlier opinion of the man’s films. But then there’s the part where the screenplay was by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay for the execrable Forrest Gump. And like that movie, Benjamin Button tells the story of a man who finds himself connected to world events over a long period of time.

Thankfully, Benjamin Button lacks the reactionary politics of Gump. It starts with an ingenious idea: what if a man was born old and got younger over time? Through a mixture of CGI, good acting and makeup, and effective depictions of various places and times, Fincher avoids the sappiness I feared. The movie is clever, and while its emotional climaxes didn’t work for me, I am aware that many have taken the film to heart.

The thing is, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never makes any connection with me, emotional or otherwise. It is ultimately a shaggy dog story. It reminds us of the structure of a classic like Citizen Kane, but it’s Kane as if Rosebud actually meant something, which is to say, nothing important matters. There isn’t anything here beyond the concept. I might be glad that this time, Roth avoids the tendency to make a political statement, but he doesn’t replace that with anything else. We get events that happen over time, and there are recreations of World Wars and Broadway in the post-War era, but they exist largely to show us that Benjamin is reverse aging while everyone else gets older ... it’s the anti-Gump, nothing is important except the basic story. The framing device takes place as Katrina hits land, and even there, you don’t get any feeling for what Katrina will mean to New Orleans. Fincher gives us accurate representations of places like New Orleans, but never bothers to show us why we should care.

I’d be lying if I said the story didn’t involve me ... even at 166 minutes, my attention rarely flagged. But there remains something rather tiny about this movie that aspires to epic status. #515 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

by request: ant-man (peyton reed, 2015)

Yesterday my wife told me I had to take her to the movies. I looked through the local listings and found little that I wanted to see that I thought she’d want to see. Finally, I tossed out Ant-Man, and it turned out that was one of her two choices. So Ant-Man it was.

At this point, I’m not sure I’m the audience for this. I see maybe one out of three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so I’m never quite caught up. I saw the first Iron Man and the first Avengers, and I watch Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. I’m a big enough fan of Hayley Atwell that I was glad to see her in Ant-Man, but I questioned her old-age makeup ... she looked maybe mid-50s, but shouldn’t she have been 70+ years old by then? (I didn’t see the second Captain America movie, where she was apparently even older.) Basically, what I’m looking for when I see one of the MCU movies is a standalone. I don’t mind that there are connections to other movies, and I can certainly see the appeal, but I don’t want to have to constantly ask questions about who is who.

Ant-Man works well for an audience member like me. There was more MCU-related stuff in the two brief segments during the credits than in the movie itself.

The movie was breezy. It didn’t look down on its audience, but neither did it take itself too seriously. The main actors were fine, and the occasional attempts to offer character background were unforced. A few of the special effects worked especially well ... I liked when Ant-Man was learning to work with ants, and there was real thought behind a couple of riffs (Thomas the Tank Engine, and The Cure, were among my favorites).

It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours at the movies. I didn’t expect any more than that. But I’m more excited about the upcoming season of Agent Carter. 7/10.

what i watched last week

The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). World War I picture, made when that war was still very familiar to audiences, was a huge hit. John Gilbert (“The Great Lover”) effectively played all facets of his characters, first as a rich and careless young man, then as one of the boys in the Army, and finally as one of many confronted with the ugliness of war. French actress Renée Adorée, who had been in films for several years and in show business since she was five years old, won audiences over as the love interest, especially in a famous scene where Gilbert teaches her how to chew gum. (Her movie career blossomed with The Big Parade ... sadly, she died of TB only eight years later.) Much of the film plays almost like a rom-com, and between the drawn-out courtship and the comic relief provided by Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane, my patience was wearing thin. But then the soldiers head for the front, marked by the ominous caption, “IT HAD BEGUN.” The battle scene that follows is intense, and while Vidor doesn’t film it as straightforward realism, the scene draws much of its power from showing the darker side of war. It’s what raises the film above the norm. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Guys and Dolls (Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1955). 5/10.

by request: guys and dolls (joseph l. mankiewicz, 1955)

Today I welcome a new member of the By Request team, Diana, who offered several suggestions, of which this is the first to show up on the blog.

I just wish I could say more nice things about the movie itself. There may be some taste preference problems here ... “It’s just not for me” is a phrase I’m becoming more fond of as time passes. It’s not that I don’t like musicals ... when we did our Fave 50 thing a few years ago, I had four musicals in my Top 50 (five if you count “What’s Opera, Doc?”), while one of the others had no musicals and the third had only two, the highest at #39. It’s not that I don’t like 50s musicals, although we’re getting closer ... Singin’ in the Rain made my list, and Gigi came close. But I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals from the 50s that made it to the big screen (both Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi had non-Broadway source material). My favorite movie that meets the criteria is probably My Fair Lady, to which I only gave 7/10. (I liked Oliver! even more, but it was a 60s musical.)

So ... not for me. It’s also really long (2 1/2 hours ... not for me). All of which means I want to tip my cap to Guys and Dolls, even if it wasn’t for me. (OK, I’ll stop now.)

Except ... and I’m not saying anything new here. The oddball casting of Marlon Brando as the male lead pretty much brings this below the norm. (In fairness, if I remember correctly, Diana’s recommendation came when we were talking about miscast non-singers in movie musicals.) Marlon Brando is my favorite actor of all time, and he is game, here. He can carry a tune, although he can’t project worth a damn. You think he’s good enough, except there’s Jean Simmons, a “non-singer” as well, doing just fine ... she’s a good singer, she’s not just getting by, and she’s a good example of how to cast a non-singer in a singing role (i.e., pick someone with some background in music, and I don’t mean being able to play the conga drums). The worst comes when Brando performs “Luck Be a Lady” (the only song in the score that I recognized, for what it’s worth). The best you can say is that he gets through it, and again, I’d like to say what the heck, good enough, but then you remember that Frank Fucking Sinatra is in this movie. And Marlon Brando is singing the top song.

Especially early in his career, Brando was open to trying many different things. We remember the iconic roles like Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy, but in the 50s alone, he also did Shakespeare (a fine Marc Antony in Julius Caesar), Zapata, Napoleon (not all of these were good movies, of course). I think it’s pretty cool that Brando wanted to be in Guys and Dolls. But he was better as Zapata, where he was at least marginally more believable as a Mexican than Charlton Heston was in Touch of Evil.

Would I like Guys and Dolls if Sinatra had gotten his wish and played Sky Masterson? I would have disliked it less, is more accurate.

I tried, honest. It took me three viewings to actually get through the movie ... the first two times, I fell asleep by the midpoint of the film. But I kept at it, and the third time was a charm. 5/10. If you feel like having a festival, the four musicals that made my Top 50 were A Hard Day’s Night (#42), Singin’ in the Rain (#39), Cabaret (#32), and Top Hat (#12). And I had two Brandos in my Top 10: Streetcar (#9) and Godfather (#1).