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what i watched last week

A History of Violence. Writing about movies in the abbreviated form of these "what i watched" posts shrinks my ambitions the way Twitter does for communication in general. But it helps me solve one problem with which I've always struggled on this blog: since I tend to watch movies past their sell-by date, I assume everyone has already seen them, forgotten them, formulated their opinions, or whatever. What I'm trying to do with this shorter format is attach some personal reaction ... I don't intend my comments to be definitive, but I like to offer something that might be particular to me. In this case, I come to the movie as someone who isn't a big fan of David Cronenberg. I've liked some of the ones I've seen, and only really disliked one (Videodrome, if you care). But he's not someone I seek out. So when I say I liked this more than any Cronenberg film I've seen, well, one, I haven't seen that many, and two, I appreciate that this is fairly mainstream for Cronenberg, and I don't object to mainstream. I'm also a big fan of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello (another movie where the acting is top-notch), and they play very well at being married to each other (the first of the two sex scenes is remarkably honest, and funnier than Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, one of the greatest married sex scenes on film). Their casual interaction made me believe in the small-town setting, so I was suckered in by what followed. Cronenberg's attitude towards the "history of violence" was complex enough to make for an excellent movie. #10 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

Total Recall. Awhile back, I was involved in a discussion about which Arnold movies were the best. I think this is second only to the first Terminator movie, and I'm starting to wonder if it's time to call this one underrated. What are the Arnold movies that people like the best? T2, maybe True Lies, Predator? The voters at the IMDB rank them like this: T2, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, True Lies. So I guess it's not underrated by fans. Critics aren't as kind. For true Philip K. Dick-iness, this one blows all the other Dick adaptations out of the water except for A Scanner Darkly. (We can argue over the quality of something like Blade Runner, but I don't think it is as Dickian as Total Recall. Until Scanner, there was no scene more like a Dick novel than the one in Total Recall where the doctor tells Arnold, "What's bullshit, Mr. Quaid? That you're having a paranoid episode triggered by acute neuro-chemical trauma? Or that you're really an invincible secret agent from Mars who's the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he's a lowly construction worker? Stop punishing yourself, Doug. You're a fine, upstanding man. You have a beautiful wife who loves you. Your whole life is ahead of you. But you've got to want to return to reality.") This is also probably my favorite Paul Verhoeven movie, for what that's worth. 8/10.

friday random ten, 1978 edition

1. The O'Jays, "Used ta Be My Girl." When this came out, it seemed like they would be at the top forever ... it was their 8th song to hit the top of the Black Singles charts and it hit #4 on the pop charts, as well. Instead, they wouldn't hit #1 again for nine years.

2. Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Carcass." Great video for punk fans ... everyone else, beware. Awful quality, terrific stuff. Be limblessly in love!

3. The Village People, "Y.M.C.A." Punk and Disco did not co-exist easily. But at their best, they were both excellent counterpoints to the dreary mainstream.

4. The Rutles, "Ouch!" An inside joke that most people got, which means it wasn't so inside, after all ... but then, when you're making fun of one of the greatest pop explosions of all time, you have to assume your audience will know the context.

5. The Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated." Meanwhile, not enough people got the Ramones. No matter how beloved they became later, during their musical heyday, they cranked out one great pop song after another, and no one listened but the punk rockers. They never had an album rank higher than #44.

6. The Police, "So Lonely." Their best rocker, and the video shows how, in the early days of punk, they were showing off their instrumental chops. Which should have elicited yawns in 1978 ... no one accused Siouxsie and the Banshees of being able to play their instruments ... but in the case of "So Lonely," it didn't matter.

7. Hot Chocolate, "Every 1's a Winner." The mainstream wasn't ALL bad.

8. Elvis Costello, "Radio, Radio." Elvis Costello seems to have constructed the longest career of any of the punks ... who am I forgetting? ... yet for me, his second album remains his best, and the only one I still listen to with any regularity. In grad school, a friend told me this was because I was a guy.

9. Blondie, "Heart of Glass." Sometimes a group hits it big after their best moments are past, and some would argue that the earliest Blondie is the best. But I think Parallel Lines is a tremendous combination of their junk-art roots and their popular destiny.

10. Bruce Springsteen, "Prove It All Night." If I'm honest, then I'll apologize for the nostalgia and just accept that 1978 was the greatest year of music for me, personally ... the year kicked off with the Sex Pistols at Winterland, and ended with Bruce Springsteen at the same venue. The above songs were a big part of that greatness, but the biggest part was right here. The greatest live performer in rock and roll, on the greatest tour of his career. I had the pleasure of hearing him play this three times in '78. Oftentimes, fans of the great live acts will say the studio albums don't capture the essence of the band. In the case of Bruce, "Prove It All Night" is the ultimate example of this old saw. On record, it was almost lighthearted compared to the dark songs that surrounded it. On tour, Bruce and the E Street Band did indeed prove it all night, every night. In some ways, the current band is better than ever ... Max is probably a better drummer now than he was then, Nils brings an exquisite touch on guitar, Soozie's violin adds color, she and Patti and Nils are fine backup singers, Charlie's a better player technically than was Danny. And they deserve every hosanna for still proving it all night, every night, at their age. But there's something to be said for the hunger that accompanies youth. Bruce had yet to turn 30 when this performance was captured:

my future was so bright

As everyone knows who either reads or writes a blog, the entire genre is odd. That's not quite right ... there are informational blogs that serve specific purposes. What I mean is, personal blogs are odd. I wrote about this some years ago, in an essay soon after I started this blog:

[T]he very act of posting my writing to a public space admits the existence of an audience, no matter how small. This wouldn't be worth noting if all I was doing was creating Lists o' Links. But I'm writing a diary. Therein lies the rub. For diaries, at least as I imagine them, are private affairs. When you write "Dear Diary," you are speaking to a schizophrenic audience of one, a combination of the abstract "Diary" and yourself (in theory the only person who will ever read what you write). Nothing is more fear-inducing than the idea that someone else will read your diary; it records the thinking you want to keep to yourself.

So, why post it to a blog, where someone, anyone, can read it? ...

The subject matter of the diary blog is also affected by the audience lurking in the background. The most straightforward and "honest" writing on my blog is probably the movie reviews. I can express myself in those write-ups without wearing my heart on my sleeve. My heart is still there, it's just offered at a distance, through the conduit of whatever movie I'm talking about. I can say "what I really think" in ways I won't if I have some deep personal secret to share with the world at large. In those latter cases, my writing becomes cryptic, and basically uninteresting to anyone except myself. Ironically, I expose myself most when I write about something outside myself, and I hide myself most when I purport to write about Me.

I've pointed this out more than once, but it bears repeating. There is a reason I chose that Pauline Kael quote to appear at the top of my blog. (Pauses while everyone who has forgotten the quote goes and looks at it.)

I have something I want to write here that is "personal" in a non-movie-review way. I hesitate for a variety of reasons ... I resist the rawness of unfiltered cries from my heart, I don't think most of my readers care about that stuff (I don't blame them); the people who will care, the people I am talking about when I get personal, will be uncomfortable at best, angry and/or sad at worst.

So, what to do, when people stop by here to see what ten songs from 1978 I've dug up, or what TV show I watched, or what Obama's done that pissed me off ... do I jabber away about personal crap?

Recently, some old home movies have turned up from the mid/late-80s. My ex-brother-in-law had them, and he gave them to my younger brother to put on DVDs. A couple of days ago, my brother posted a short excerpt to our family email list, a Xmas video from 1986 or so, filmed at my parents' house, the house they moved into just before I was born. It's wonderful to see ... brings a tear to your eye one moment, is mortifying the next. Obviously, everyone is younger ... our now-grown children are youngsters, while the people of my generation are the age our kids are now.

My wife watched the video ... she squealed with delight on several occasions, if one can squeal via text-chat. Various family members are chatting, and my sister has the camera, encouraging everyone to talk to her for posterity's sake. About 2/3rds of the way through the clip, dinner is served. There's my mom and dad, my sister, her kids, and her then-husband, who has just arrived from work (on Xmas!). There are a few close-ups of food, grace before eating, and then the video ends. When it's over, my wife tells me that not once did our (immediate) family ever have dinner with my parents with no other siblings/family around. The scene of my sister and her family eating Xmas dinner with my parents never happened with my wife, kids, and I. We were married in 1973 ... our kids were born in 1975 and 1978 ... my dad lived until 1989 and my mom until 1995. And we never had dinner with them, except when the whole extended family was there.

My son watched the video. He's adorable, although I suppose he'd hate my using that word. I talked to him about it earlier today. At one point in the video, my mom is playing the piano while every one sings Xmas carols. My son tells me that he never once saw my mom play the piano. He was 20 years old when she died ... she was a fine pianist, good enough to have won a music scholarship to Mills College out of high school, good enough to be a church organist for several years, good enough to give piano lessons. He never saw her play the piano, not once in 20 years.

When certain family holidays come around ... the birthdays of my mom or dad, Mother's Day or Father's Day ... I don't say much. I've learned not to open my mouth ... I piss my siblings off, they wonder why I bring up bad stuff, wonder why I never talk about the good, wonder why I don't understand that our parents were as good as they could be, and that there is no sense bringing up the worse parts of the past. (Kinda like Obama trying to change the subject when people talk about torture.) I suppose they're right in one sense ... it's not that I have bad memories of my parents, it's that, more often than I'd like, I have NO memories. And I imagine one reason for that can be found in the reactions of my wife and son to that video. As my son said about the clip, the party didn't really get started until we left.

I posted a 30-second excerpt from the clip on Facebook (if you're one of my Facebook friends, you can see it there). I sing a few bars of "Santa Claus Is Back in Town." I'm wearing Ray-Bans ... my wife noted that I've got those shades on throughout the video, even though we're inside. At the end of my little song, I stare at the camera, smile, and say "I couldn't do this if I didn't have my shades on. I'd be too embarrassed."

I couldn't write this blog if I didn't have my shades on. I'd be too embarrassed. Oops, I just noticed I wasn't wearing them ... I better put them back on.

There, that's better. Now, where's that Random Ten, 1978?

24 or vote

Let's see ... on the one hand, there's an election in California that is pretty important. On the other hand, there's the season finale of a TV show that is long past its due date. Which one should I write about?

24 isn't really much dumber than it ever was ... it just seems dumber because the dumbness accumulates over time. (OK, the election ... I voted no on everything.) The novelty is gone, and all that remains is our interest in the continuing characters, the pizzazz new characters can bring, and action scenes. This year, Cherry Jones made a fine president, and Agent Walker's journey into becoming Jackie Bauer was pretty good. Tony Almeida took on some added depth, and Carlos Bernard made the most of it. We even got the return of Kim, who shows up once in awhile because of her mad computer skillz and sensitive family relationships and ... oh, cut the crap, they bring her back because Elisha Cuthbert is hot.

In the finale, they milked Jack's "final" moments for all they were worth. It was horseshit. First off, like everything else on 24, they'd done the "Jack evaluates his life and finds it unsatisfying" schtick more than once in the past. Second off, at this point, nobody gives a shit about these "characters." The show has such a tenuous link to reality that it's stretching to believe we honestly want to know how Jack feels about torturing people. We just want to see things blow up, and that's not because we in the audience are crass, it's because the show treats us like we're crass. And I have no problem with that. I just don't want to see whiny "character" stuff. Blow shit up, put the country in danger, toss in a couple of useful guest stars, and leave it at that. It is ludicrous for the powers that be to spend 23 out of every 24 episodes giving us nothing but thrills, then try in the last five minutes of a season to pretend that all we really wanted to see was Jack on his death bed, talking to an imam about getting his things in order.

Grade for finale: B

Grade for season: B

another trivial use for a mostly trivial tool

For some reason, I started paying more attention to the Advanced Search function on MovieLens, the movie recommendation site that predicts how much you'll like a film based on the ratings you give for other films. I currently have rated 1,274 movies. Advanced Search lets you find all movies by a certain director, or starring a particular actor, or movies within a genre. OK, nothing special there. But it also lets you filter the search results so that only the movies you have rated show up. Which makes it an easy way for me to see, say, what I think of Marlon Brando movies.

It turns out I've rated 9 Brando movies, with a total rating of 32.5 stars (MovieLens uses a 5-star rating system). So, an average Marlon Brando movie will get a rating of around 3 1/2 stars from me. What is an average Marlon Brando movie, according to me? Apparently, Apocalypse Now and The Wild One, both of which got 3 1/2 stars from me. (Godfather and Streetcar got 5, Island of Dr. Moreau got 1.) Of course, I can filter OUT my ratings, which should give me a Brando movie I would like. I'll try that ...

MovieLens suggests The Young Lions or Julius Caesar. I haven't seen the first ... been awhile since I saw the latter, which is probably why I didn't rate it. I remember liking it in the past. What Brando movie should I avoid? A Countess from Hong Kong and The Formula.

Of course, if I were rating actors, Marlon Brando would get a lot more than 3 1/2 stars. But his movies were rarely up to his abilities. Maybe directors are a more useful thing to insert into the process. By that method, Renoir might be my favorite director ... I've only rated two of his films, giving them both the highest 5-star ranking. Somebody like Hitchcock might be more accurate, since I've ranked 16 of his movies (average rating: 4 stars).

Oh well ... this isn't much of a game. It does make me want to check it whenever I watch a movie. Today I watched A History of Violence. I gave it the highest rating of any Cronenberg film I've seen, and I now give Cronenberg an average of just over 3 stars out of 5. Viggo Mortensen movies get just under 4 stars from me ... apparently I like his movies more than I like Brando's. Maria Bello? 3 1/2. William Hurt, just over 3 ... Ed Harris, the same. Johnny Depp, exactly 3 ... I'm just thinking of names off the top of my head. Helen Mirren, more than 3 1/2. Humphrey Bogart, almost 5 ... I've rated six of his movies, four getting 5 stars, the others getting 4. Maybe he is my favorite actor. Lauren Bacall, on the other hand, is only 3 1/2.

I have to quit this. Who should be my last lookup?

Bruce Campbell, just under 4 stars. Yes, I like his movies more than I like Brando's.

joss whedon and dollhouse

Dollhouse has been renewed. This is a series that got off to a very rough start, and the network and Whedon had some disagreements about how the show should work. It got poor ratings ... I mean, stinko. It costs too much money to make. Whedon has a track record, but it's not necessarily for creating monster hit TV shows ... Buffy was always more important in the zeitgeist than it was popular with viewers, Firefly didn't make it past a season.

Yet the series will be back for a second season, and that shows just how highly regarded Whedon must be. If he can't even make a hit, and if he can't seem to get along with his network, and yet that network brings back his ratings-deprived show ... as a Fox exec said, it's "a bet on Joss Whedon."

I can vouch for this on a personal level. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, while I loved Buffy, I never watched Angel, thought Firefly was only OK, felt Dr. Horrible was good but overrated, and found Dollhouse extremely frustrating. Yet I am excited to hear the news that Dollhouse will return.

what i watched last week

I've Loved You So Long. This movie reminded me of a couple of others. I'd just watched The Wrestler the week before, which I thought was raised above the mundane by the remarkable lead performance from Mickey Rourke and support from Marisa Tomei. Well, here we go again. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic. At first, it looks like she's perfected an extremely narrow range of human existence, but her wary silences gradually grow into something more open, and the process is fascinating to watch. Elsa Zylberstein as her sister is the Marisa Tomei of the film, superb in support, making it possible for Scott Thomas to shine even as she is playing the more recessed character of the film's beginning. I also couldn't help but make a connection with another movie/play I'm involved with right now, although the comparison is only on the surface. We're reading A Streetcar Named Desire in my class right now, and I had a flash of recognition at the beginning of this movie, when the long-lost woman with a mysterious past came to live with sister, to the initial dismay of her brother-in-law. Anyone who loves great acting will like this movie. 8/10.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Still more great acting, although this time, the material matches the quality of the thespians on display. I do not know much about plays ... I'm always ready to watch another production of one of the classic Shakespeare tragedies, but that's about it. Except for A Streetcar Named Desire. It's my favorite American play, but don't take my opinion to heart, because I've barely experienced enough American plays to compare it with. I was first drawn to it because of Marlon Brando, for what it's worth ... my favorite actor in arguably his greatest role. Watching it again for my class, I was struck by how Vivien Leigh holds her own and then some, up against the animal force of Brando, mostly by deflecting Stanley and searching for her frail illusions. I suppose it's proof that I'm an unrepentant solipsist ... confronted with a great play like this, I found myself thinking about how I am, in some ways, a combination of Stanley and Blanche, insisting on the necessary important of the "real" while spending as much time as possible living in my own fantasy world. If you somehow have never seen Streetcar, trust me: there's a lot more to it than supposed insights into the character of Steven Rubio. #356 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time, a ranking that would be closer to correct if they removed the "3". 10/10.