It's odd, I've changed the format of Music Friday many times over the years, but I never get around to dumping the concept entirely. I used to do random lists ... I'll do something semi-random here. As I type this, Last.fm tells me the last song I listened to as I type this was "Better By You, Better Than Me" by Spooky Tooth. The website also tells me that Spooky Tooth is tied with five other artists for 310th place in the list of my most-played performers. So here are those six, with the songs I have played the most from each. First, Spooky Tooth:
Among the band members were Gary Wright, who had a couple of solo hits, and Luther Grosvenor, who later joined Mott the Hoople as Ariel Bender.
At this point, reviews of Ron Howard movies write themselves, i.e. I can just cut and paste from earlier reviews and it will make perfect sense. He has made movies I liked OK (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) and movies I really didn't like (Apollo 13), but I've never loved any of them. I once wrote of Howard, "Ron Howard is the great disappearing director of our times. He doesn't make bad movies, he doesn't make great movies. He makes movies that get 6 out of 10 and he makes movies that get 7 out of 10. In other words, I don't have the slightest idea what Ron Howard brings to a movie." And about Cinderella Man, the story of boxer James Braddock, I wrote, "When asked why he fights, Braddock says it's to keep milk on the family table, and there's Ron Howard in a nutshell ... while this movie has tiny pretensions towards statements about poverty, they are overwhelmed by sappiness, and the sap is never, ever balanced with even a bit of knowing irony ... Ron Howard believes in that glass of milk."
Not all Ron Howard movies are sappy, and as I say, once in a while he makes a good movie. But there is no way to tell in advance, because Ron Howard's directing is anonymous.
Rush is about the rivalry between two Formula One drivers in the 1970s, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I admit I knew nothing about either driver, or about Formula One racing in general, which actually helped in a way ... I didn't know how the rivalry would turn out, so that aspect of the film had suspense for me. The movie centers on their relationship more than it does on the racing ... the racing is the background for the relationship, rather than the other way around. Hunt and Lauda are different kinds of people striving towards the same goal, and those differences drive the film (no pun intended) in good ways. The racing scenes seem realistic, although we're constantly being told by a track announcer what is happening, because it isn't always clear the way it is during a horse race. There are some women characters, but they are very secondary ... this isn't about them, except as they fit into the lives of the racers. Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth give appropriate performances as not-too-perfect heroes. The editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill is effective, as is the score by Hans Zimmer.
There is no reason not to see Rush. It's appealing, it's not boring, it's got Thor. It's just that I've about given up hope that a Ron Howard movie will ever be better than "no reason not to see it".
Woman in the Dunes is the story of a Japanese entomologist who misses his bus while hunting for specimens among sand dunes, and is invited by the local village people to stay the night at a woman's house, prior to catching the bus in the morning. He is lowered into a pit via a rope ladder, and finds the woman living within the dunes in a ramshackle building. Here, he wakes up in the morning and finds the ladder is missing:
Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another) works with a great team here, including composer Tôru Takemitsu and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. There is a lot going on in the film, even if the plot itself seems almost stagnant. The entire setup is nonsense: a woman living in a sand dune, a trapped man joining her against his will. But it never feels like the setup matters in a realistic manner. We're watching an allegory. What's amazing, though, is that despite the enforced oddities of the setting, Teshigahara throughout convinces us that what we are seeing is real. The agonies of the scientist are no less upsetting because it's hard to imagine a person actually getting kept in a hut in a sand pit. Teshigahara always brings us back to the existential nightmare of the individual.
Capitalism itself comes under scrutiny, and again, the film doesn't make "real" sense but the critique is strong. It's confusing, but apparently the villagers can make money selling sand to a construction company. Don't think about it too hard ... instead, think about how the woman in the dunes (and her tenant) are trapped in the hut, performing endless, backbreaking work just so the construction company can make a profit.
And there's more. The sexual tension is alive, and both Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida do wonders with their parts ... they are a primary reason why the characters seem more real than allegorical. Meanwhile, Takemitsu's score is intrusive in the best ways.
I had put off seeing Woman in the Dunes for many years because it just seemed silly. But now that I have seen it, I can say that "silly" is the least important note about the movie. #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Here is a brief clip of Siskel and Ebert rhapsodizing over the film. It's ironic that they talk about how beautiful the movie is, given that the clip itself is just awful, but that's YouTube for you.