music friday: 1970

Derek and the Dominos, "Layla". Not the unplugged version, fer chrissake.

James Brown, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine". JB always had a knack for complicated song titles with a parenthetical inclusion, although this one is especially good in that it sticks the parenthesis in the middle.

Freda Payne, "Band of Gold". Supposedly, Payne balked at singing the song, feeling the lyrics were meant to be sung by a young teenager or woman. She was 27 at the time. It became the biggest hit of her career.

Neil Young, "After the Gold Rush". According to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia, the Trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, who were recording the song, asked Young what the lyrics meant. "We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know. I just wrote it.'"

Hugh Masekela, "I Can't Dance". He died on Tuesday.

Joan Baez, "Joe Hill". Recorded at Woodstock in 1969, but the album wasn't released until 1970, so here it is.

Black Sabbath, "Paranoid". Their first charting single.

Curtis Mayfield, "Move on Up". From Mayfield's first solo album.

Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi". My favorite Joni Mitchell song. So shoot me.

John Lennon, "Working Class Hero". From the best-ever album by a solo Beatle.


film fatales #35: first they killed my father (angelina jolie, 2017)

There is a big Hollywood name attached to this movie: director Angelina Jolie. But Jolie manages to helm a film that has little of the feel of Hollywood. It's easy to imagine a more mainstream approach ("mainstream" meaning "easy for U.S. audiences to watch"), but Jolie does nothing to make the movie easy. The cast is all-Cambodian, as is much of the crew, and the film is in Khmer. We can be forgiven for wondering what this rich white woman knows, what she can contribute to a story that seems to demand a Cambodian perspective. But First They Killed My Father never seems like anything but a Cambodian movie. Jolie doesn't disappear ... it's not like there is no director serving as a guiding force for the film. But she gives herself over to the material. Jolie read the original memoir by Loung Ung and reached out to the author, beginning a long friendship that eventually resulted in this film (the two collaborated on the screenplay). And while Jolie works to let the Cambodia story emerge from a Cambodian perspective, she is not just a typical rich white woman. She has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.

The key artistic decision was to tell the story from the point of view of young Loung, who was five to nine years old during the period depicted in the movie. Jolie sticks to this point of view almost without fail, giving a strong, centered feel to the film. There isn't a lot of explanation here ... you learn a lot about Cambodia, but this may not be the best place to start if Cambodian history is your interest, because the insistence of the focus on what Loung experiences effectively narrows what we see. When you are living through troubled times and you are five years old, you might not know why things are happening, but you nonetheless experience them. Ultimately, First They Killed My Father is one of the finest movies about war from a child's perspective.

Special mention must be made of Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress who plays Loung. Like the movie itself, she offers greatness without exactly drawing attention to herself. You can't always see her acting, not because she seems amateurish, but because she seems naturally "real". Without her, the movie would still have good intentions, but with her, the movie approaches greatness. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

atomic blonde (david leitch, 2017)

You've got Charlize Theron as a stylish, ass-kicking spy. You've got some good fight sequences. What more could one ask for?

Well, I could ask for Mad Max: Fury Road, for starters. Atomic Blonde promises a fun time, and for the most part it delivers, but that's it. Without Charlize Theron, you've got nothing. She looks cool, she did most of her own stunts, and she's reasonably believable in the ass-kicking scenes. (Heck, she's taller than her Fury Road co-star, Tom Hardy.)

But, as is usually the case with spy thrillers, the plot lost me ... I'm not sure I even understood the final reveal, which is OK, because I didn't understand most of them. You're left with Theron and those fight scenes, and she's fine, but I just rewatched Fury Road last week, and Atomic Blonde is no Fury Road. And the fight scenes are pretty good, but the standard has been raised in recent years. Anyone who has seen The Raid or The Raid 2 will be unimpressed by Atomic Blonde. Theron is good, but sometimes she seems like Tricia Helfer with an Oscar. (If it's not clear, I mean that as a compliment to both actors.) 6/10.


music friday: 1969

The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter". A perfect record, right down to Charlie's drums and Keith's solo and Merry Clayton's imperfect cracking voice. Not for the only time, I find myself wondering about a Stones' track, "Where did this come from?" It's too good. And it's a perfect picture of 1969, and it still sounds perfect today.

The Jackson 5, "I Want You Back". What was in the water in 1969? This is also a perfect record, and Motown's finest moment. Ironic: the Merry Clayton of this one is the bass player, yet no one knows for sure who it was. I've always assumed it was the great James Jamerson, but most folks now believe it was Wilton Felder.

Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, "Je t'aime moi non plus". As "glivingston73" says on YouTube, "I think for a song like this, a description becomes somewhat meaningless". Vocals by Charlotte Gainsbourg's parents.

The Beatles, "Come Together". I generally prefer the less-perfect early Beatles to the more-perfect later version, but I can't complain about Ringo's drumming on this one.

Dusty Springfield, "Breakfast in Bed". Written by Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts, it makes an interesting pairing with "J'taime moi non plus".

Sly & the Family Stone, "Stand!". Definition of a great three-album run: Stand!, Greatest Hits, and There's a Riot Goin' On.

King Crimson, "21st Century Schizoid Man". It is very hard to find the original studio version of this monster cut, so I'm going with this: "Power".

B.B. King, "The Thrill Is Gone". Muhammad Ali was in the audience for this 1974 concert.

Fairport Convention, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes". The singer is Sandy Denny, who wrote this oft-covered classic.

Tim Buckley, "Gypsy Woman". Because of his experimental approach, you could never assume you'd like one of his albums just because you'd like others. Goodbye and Hello remains my favorite, Happy Sad has some great stuff, and after that, he lost me.

electric dreams, "real life"

Finally got started on Electric Dreams, an anthology series co-developed by Ronald D. Moore and based on stories by Philip K. Dick. Shouldn't have taken me so long, given my love for both RDM and PKD. Wasn't going to write about it, at least not yet, but a couple of people asked what I thought, and by the time I was done responding, I'd written enough for a blog post. So here goes, with the caveat that as I write this, I've only seen the first episode.

Diana Keng made a good comparison of this episode to Total Recall. I have said many times that the scene in that movie where they are trying to convince Arnold that he's really having a dream is, for me, the most Dickian moment in movies until A Scanner Darkly. It's not just that Dick creates worlds where characters question reality ... his particular skill as a writer in sucking the reader into those questions, so, like the characters, we are never quite sure what is real. I often find that when I am reading him and I put down my book, I have to take a moment to adjust to "real life" because I have become a part of the confusion of the book. Ron Moore did good.

Electric Dreams has been compared, perhaps inevitably, to Black Mirror. Virtually every episode of Black Mirror revolves around technology, recognizable today but "advanced" in the future, and how what is becoming ordinary to us will eventually expose a dark side. Based on the "Real Life" episode, Electric Dreams won't necessarily go that way, but it's interesting to compare it to Dick's original story, "Exhibit Piece", where technology isn't really the kicker. A guy in the future has a job creating exhibits of the past, and he's really good at it and his exhibit is quite detailed. He enters the exhibit, and something unexplained puts him into the reality of the exhibit, as if he's living in the mid-1950s. (The story was published in 1954, and Dick had a habit of making the future seem much like the present, even though all sorts of bizarre alien creatures are wandering around.) The question becomes whether the "real" world is 1954, or the world he "came from", which also allows an interpretation where he is from 1954 and time-travels to the future when he is, well, in the future. Anyway, a common thread in his work is that reality is fluid, and his characters often aren't sure which reality is "real". This works in "Real Life", but partly because we're used to Black Mirror now, we gravitate towards the technological vacation creator on the forehead and think it's a show about technology.
This is like a show made for Steven Rubio: based on Philip K. Dick, with Ronald D. Moore one of the creators. Moore is confident enough that he can mess with the story while still getting the essence. He wrote, "Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly, the brains behind the episode originate in this tale". Looking forward to more.

strong island (yance ford, 2017)

Yance Ford presents this documentary as if it were an art film. Of course, all documentaries, indeed all films, are to some extent "art films", but documentaries often rely on a straightforward offering of facts. There are "facts" in Strong Island, but Ford's use of unusual transitions (fading into and out of black in order to shorten lengthy interviews) and the specificity of his camera shots (Ford's mother, a key interviewee, almost always appears in medium shot, while interviews with Ford show him in extreme close-up) work to direct us away from the narrative. Ford has a story to tell, but he seems more interested in the arc of the lives of the characters than he is with giving us "what really happened".

This is not a Rashomon-style film, with multiple perspectives describing the same event from different perspectives. Ford wants to show emotional realities, and when the various people tell their stories, he shows how events change their lives. Strong Island is about the murder of Ford's brother, but there is no recreation of that event, and only a few times do we even get details about the murder. Whenever we do get details, the purpose isn't to explain the crime, but rather to demonstrate how it affects the people who lived, family, friends, all of whom have their lives changed by the murder. Everyone at some point blames themselves, trying to figure out what they might have done differently to prevent the situation that resulted in death. Throughout, Strong Island is extremely emotional ... at times it's hard to watch, especially when Ford speaks in closeup.

The underlying theme ... it's more than subtext, but it's secondary to the emotional trauma ... is of race in America, and how it destroys lives, one at a time. Ford worked on the film for ten years, and when he started, names like Trayvon Martin were still in our future. Ford carefully constructs the history of his family so that we know that the story would be quite different if they were white. And in the ten years he was making Strong Island, it gradually seemed like every week there was another story of a dead African-American male taken down under racist circumstances. The story of Strong Island fits into those patterns, but Ford mostly leaves it to the audience to place things in a social context that reflects on our country's racism. Ford wants to show how his family was destroyed by the murder of his brother ... we can extend that to a general dissolution of society, but what grabs us as we are watching is the intense emotionalism of the Ford family story.

Ford doesn't present the material in a chronological fashion, and he cheats a bit by withholding some information until the movie has run for an hour. But by the time we get that information, Ford has given us equally important information about the Fords and their history, from the time the parents married, to the birth of their kids, to their move to Long Island, so that when tragedy strikes, it hurts especially hard because we know these people. 9/10.


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

-- Martin Luther King

I've posted this the last couple of Martin Luther King Jr. Days. I used to assign it to my students. It still hasn't lost its relevance.

music friday: 1968

B.B. King, "Lucille". B.B. never sings and plays at the same time, because he doesn't want to interrupt Lucille.

Manfred Mann, "Mighty Quinn". Dylan wrote and recorded it during the Basement Tapes era ... it ended up on the Great White Wonder. The flute part at the beginning is played by the guy who won a Grammy for drawing the cover of Revolver. The singer is the cousin of a Bond Girl. Thus ends my Casey Kasem imitations.

Aretha Franklin, "The House That Jack Built". A two-sided hit with "I Say a Little Prayer".

Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man". Dusty and Aretha used to be labelmates.

The Dells, "Stay in My Corner". Released in 1965, they re-recorded it in 1968 and hit #1 on the R&B charts.

The Beatles, "Revolution 9". It is easier to find this song on YouTube with the track played backwards, than it is to find the original.

Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". From 1967-1970, there were three great, popular versions of this song (Gladys Knight, Creedence).

Status Quo, "Pictures of Matchstick Men". More than 20 years later, Camper Van Beethoven took their remake to #1 on the Modern Rock charts.

Mary Hopkin, "Those Were the Days". The music is a Russian romance song. This was Apple's second single release, after "Hey Jude".

Lee "Scratch" Perry, "People Funny Boy". Perry's first big single.


what i watched last weekend

Call this my "Let's Guess What Will Get Oscar Nominations" post.

Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017). Icarus is only the second feature (and first documentary) directed by Bryan Fogel. Fogel is, among other things, an amateur cyclist who decides to try performance-enhancing drugs to increase his chance of winning a big amateur race. His scheme leads him to Russian Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the real star of the movie. He has charisma, he has a backstory (he was the head of Russia's anti-doping lab, where he worked to help Russian athletes escape being caught using drugs), and he is the gateway for an examination of Russia and doping that leads, cliche or not, right to the top, i.e. Vladimir Putin. This would make a good one-hour documentary, even 90 minutes if you include the unreliable narrator aspect of Rodchenkov's presentation of himself. But Icarus runs two hours, with Fogel wasting far too much time on the setup, in which he is, of course, centrally involved. If Fogel had spent a couple of minutes explaining how Rodchenkov enters the scene, he'd have a more focused (and shorter) movie. Instead, Fogel, purposely or not, puts himself at the front of the narrative more than is necessary. Icarus is a solid film, but it's no classic. 7/10.

Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Here we have a "based on real life" historical drama about England, Churchill, and World War II, set in May 1940. Wright doesn't make any mistakes about who is the center of his movie: the larger-than-life Winston Churchill (with an interesting performance by Gary Oldman, who stops just short of hamming it up in creating a believable Churchill). Darkest Hour is close enough to the real events that it's mostly nitpicking to point out where it deviates. Ultimately, your reaction to the movie may depend in large part on your opinion of the real-life Winston Churchill. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make sure to include just enough unlikable details to forestall any criticism that they have created a hagiography ... Churchill drank all the time, he smoked stinky cigars all the time, none of his fellow politicians liked him. But we get nothing of his imperialist tendencies, and I suppose it could be argued that this not a movie about that, but nonetheless, I liked the film less because Churchill was the hero, and I distrusted the film a bit because, well, because Churchill was the hero. I might feel differently if I were British ... it is certainly true that Churchill was vital in leading Britain during the war. Suffice to say that the Churchill family apparently likes the movie.

There was one scene I found objectionable, and I'd think most would agree with me, except Owen Gleiberman called it a "showpiece sequence". At a crucial moment, Churchill decides to take the subway, and ... well, I'll let Gleiberman explain:

He introduces himself to the citizens, communing deeply with each one of their names, and asks them whether Britain should stand tall against tyranny. The answer comes roaring back, from citizen after shining-eyed citizen: Yes! Stand against tyranny! The scene culminates with Churchill offering words of Macaulay that are completed, in a flawless quotation, by a vibrant black Londoner. It’s all so rosy and multiculti and inspiring that you feel like you’re seeing a remake of “My Beautiful Laundrette” directed by the ghost of David Lean.

Of course, that’s what’s utterly fabricated and even eye-rolling about it. It’s a scene that’s — transparently — too good to be true. Yet it plays as Oldman’s Oscar-clinching moment: the clip that was made to be shown, in triumph, on the telecast. It’s the best scene in the movie, or the worst. Or maybe both.

Count me on Team Eye-Roll. The black guy ... the only black guy on the subway car, pretty much the only black guy in the movie ... he's the one literate enough to complete Churchill's quotation. He's a concoction designed simply to show that Churchill listened to all of the people, even the black guy. Churchill, the man who famously said, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

So you have a lead performance worthy of an Oscar in an interesting movie that, when it falters, fails miserably. 7/10.