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what i watched last week

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004). As I did with Shaolin Soccer, I found this Stephen Chow movie a delight to watch, even as I knew there were inside jokes I was missing. If Jackie Chan was his generation’s Buster Keaton, I suppose Chow is our Chuck Jones. I’ve only seen two of his movies, but they resemble a Road Runner cartoon more than a silent comedy. In Kung Fu Hustle, Chow is very generous with his fellow filmmakers … he doesn’t really have a standout fight sequence until the end of the film, while a parade of middle-aged stars from the glory days of martial arts movies get plenty of time to act and to kick ass. Something very different is promised in the opening scene, which includes a dance sequence, but then the film settles in to a mostly-nonstop run of action scenes. Which is fine … this is an entertaining movie above all else … but it’s not exactly deep. #238 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 movies of the 21st century.

Ivan the Terrible, Part One (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944). It’s probably unfair to rate this one before seeing Part Two, but the two films were made a couple of years apart, and I’ve only watched Part One so far. It’s a unique film, even impressive, but not in a way I enjoy. I’m sure someone will tell me it isn’t meant to be enjoyed … there certainly isn’t any joy in the film. Magnificent photography combined with hammy acting results in characters about whom it is difficult to care (this was likely different for Russian audiences when it came out). Lyudmila Tselikovskaya is breathtakingly beautiful as the Czarina, but even she, who supposedly helps humanize Ivan, is given little to do (and her beauty is closer to that of a Hollywood movie star than to a 16th-century monarch … she looks about four centuries different from every other character in the film). #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the greatest films of all time.

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953). Audrey Hepburn’s coming-out party. What I noticed this time around was the way William Wyler offers up a Hollywood version of neo-realism, which is really no version at all, beyond filming on location. But the on-site filming does add something to the film, and if it seems a bit decadent to use the tools of neo-realism to tell the story of a princess, well, there’s nothing wrong with a little decadence. #648 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the greatest films of all time.

they get the press release

From Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter (subscription only, but well worth it: Joe Sheehan), Joe’s thoughts on the new program from Major League Baseball imposing HGH testing on minor-league players:

The testing program for human growth hormone is a wildly inefficient search for nothing. HGH, whatever benefits it may have medically, does nothing to help baseball players who take it be better than the ones who don’t. Moreover, the devised test, the availability of which is the reason for the implementation of the plan, is approximately as reliable as just looking at the blood and guessing whether there’s bad stuff in it.

The thing is, this program isn’t about HGH. It’s about power. MLB has the power to force minor leaguers to do this, so they’re doing it. They get the press release and the press conference and the news cycle, and they can say they beat the NFL, which lacking minor leaguers can’t force them to give up blood so it can be searched for a substance that’s as powerful as a decent meal at a mid-level steakhouse. MLB gets to bask in the glow of positive press from the usual reactionaries who have never gotten past the idea that athletes should be serfs kept under a thumb, rather than supremely talented individuals treated as the best in their profession. …

I ask, though, that if we’re really OK with a private industry taking blood samples from thousands of people for no reason other than the public relations benefit – neither HGH nor the test itself are effective enough to worry about – is there a line where you would begin to object? Because MLB’s unilateral decision to take the blood of its employees is premised on the flimsiest of reasons. If you allow this decision to stand, aren’t you essentially setting the bar for blood testing so low as to allow it by any entity, on any one, at any time?

random friday, 1988 edition: lucinda williams, "passionate kisses"

If I wanted to override Mr. Random, I’d choose “Changed the Locks,” myself, but since I’m going to talk about the whole album anyway, it doesn’t matter.

Longtime readers know of my theory about the Career Trajectories of Rock Stars. In short, they are more like athletes than they are like artists, with the vast majority of them in decline by their late-30s. The true greats are always capable of pulling a masterpiece out of their hat, but even they don’t maintain the consistency of their younger days. You can check it out for yourself … I’ve done it too many times to go for it again, so you can take my word for it, or you can try to prove me wrong (beyond the “exception that proves the rule” thing). My favorite musical artist is Bruce Springsteen. Bruce still puts on a terrific live show (that doesn’t seem to fade away for these rockers), and he’s put out some good music over the last several decades. But his peak was from 1975-1984 … you can start earlier if you think E Street Shuffle was a great album, you can end later if you want to include Tunnel of Love … but even with the latter included, he’s sliding downhill before he reaches 40. The Rolling Stones had an unparalleled run through Exile on Main St. … when they released Goat’s Head Soup, Mick and Keith were 30, and despite the occasional fine album, no one would argue that their post-Exile career was up to their early standards. The list goes on … make your own, it’s a fun way to waste a few hours.

I mention this because Lucinda Williams might the all-time ultimate Exception That Proves the Rule. Lucinda released two albums when she was 26-27 … they went largely unnoticed. She didn’t record a third album until 1988, when she was 35 years old. That self-titled album was a gem … Christgau gave it an “A” while Rolling Stone managed 3 1/2 stars out of 5. The charts didn’t pay attention, but some of us heard her, nonetheless, including Tom Petty (who later recorded a cover of “Changed the Locks”) and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who would finally get Williams into the mainstream spotlight via her cover of “Passionate Kisses.” Williams won a Grammy for Best Country Song for Carpenter’s version … in 1994, six years after she had recorded it herself, by which time she was in her 40s.

I have no idea why any of the above paragraph is true. Williams was, for a long time, a notorious perfectionist (there was an 8-year break between her second and third albums, and a 6-year break between fourth and fifth). One result of this was that as the 21st century rolled around, Williams, now into her late-40s, had only recorded 5 albums. (She has pretty much gotten past this, with five albums in the last nine years.) Whatever the reason, if you want to identify the peak of Lucinda’s career … well, it’s hard to find her peak, for one thing, but you could make a case for the time between Lucinda Williams and World Without Tears (although she’s had her biggest commercial success since then), which means she was still in her prime when she was 50 years old.

Again, I’m not saying there are no other 50-year-old rockers making good albums. But find me another artist who recorded five highly-regarded albums in a row, culminating with one at age 50. I’m sure they are out there, but they are few and far between … I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Lucinda Williams’ career has been as remarkable as any in popular music.

Here’s the original video for “Passionate Kisses”:

Here is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hit version … I’ve never understood why she enunciated so clearly in a song about passion. Lucinda: shouldn’tahavethis. Mary Chapin: shouldn’t – I – have - this.

Here’s “Changed the Locks” from last year:

Here’s something else she did last year:

The wedding came between the main set and the encores. Here’s the first of those encores:

not good enough

Jonathan Bernstein on the Sherrod case (I saw this first on Jonathan’s blog and thought it worth reposting … now I see Salon agreed with me!):

[W]hat appears to have happened is that the administration was quick to eliminate a target when she was attacked, and backed down once she was no longer a target at all.  Now, there are all kinds of ambiguities here...we've been told that it was just the Ag Department, and not the White House, that panicked in the first place, and I'm sure everyone would claim that they weren't waiting for conservatives to give the okay before they reversed course.  As I said: Not Good Enough.  The only solution here is for Barack Obama himself, in person, to send a clear message that this was contrary to his policy, and that going forward no one's job is going to be put in jeopardy just because conservatives make a fuss. …

So, Mr. President: make it clear.  You can't be bullied by the crazy.  Correct?

i wasted ten minutes of my life trying to think of a title for this post

Heather Havrilesky writes “for the productive motherfuckers in paradise”:

I'm 40 years old now, and I need to stop comparing myself to productive motherfuckers with 3 really good novels and half a dozen knitted tea cozies under their belts. Fixating on other people and their accomplishments and their energy and their ability to get shit done is just like wanting someone else's shiny car. It's like being 40 and paying a surgeon to make your tits look like a 20-year-old's tits. Once you start down that road, nothing will ever be good enough. You can't be a combination of Mary Gaitskill and PJ Harvey and Georgia O'Keefe and Joan Didion and Giselle Bundchen and Meryl Streep. You can't even be one of those people. …

Serene, productive professionals are getting on my nerves – maybe because they really are annoying, self-satisfied motherfuckers, or maybe because I just happen to prefer people whose sweaters are unraveling, who are second-guessing themselves, who just spilled coffee all over their pants.

botox: auto-tune for faces

Up until the time I gave up and quit watching Glee, I complained a lot about the hypocrisy of using auto-tune for performances that were supposed to represent the triumph of talented but shunned geeks … I didn’t understand why the producers didn’t trust their performers.

Now it turns out there is more than one way to auto-tune. From the Boston Herald:

Filipino singing sensation Charice Pempengco has had noninvasive cosmetic procedures in preparation for her debut in the second season of the hit TV show "Glee."

The 18-year-old Charice, whose singing career rocketed after appearing on Ellen DeGeneres’ and Oprah Winfrey’s shows, underwent a 30-minute Thermage procedure, involving an anti-aging skin tightening device, and Botox treatment to make her "naturally round face" more narrow, celebrity cosmetic surgeon Vicki Belo told ABS-CBN television.

Charice, in the same interview, said last week’s face makeover was part of her big preparations "to look fresh on camera" for the Fox show "Glee.”

what i watched last week

Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002). I’m using this film in my summer class, so I watched it again. I like this movie very much, and wrote about it back in 2002:

Minority Report is … one of the best representations yet on film of the world of Philip K. Dick. Dick's novels and short stories have enticed film makers for some time now, but in the eyes of this Phil Dick fan, they have rarely captured the Dickian essence (perhaps only in one scene from Total Recall when Arnold thinks he's on Mars and a guy is trying to convince him he's really just sitting in an Earthbound chair enjoying a pre-paid fantasy). … Minority Report … delivers the goods, and brings many moments of recognition for fans of PKD: the drug-abusing hero, the mechanical spiders, the confusion over identity, the way in which the future is recognizably connected to our present. … Best scene: when Tom Cruise and the "pre-cog" are on the lam, and the pre-cog helps their escape by anticipating the immediate future.

This was written before the movie of A Scanner Darkly was released, and that movie is probably now at the top of my Gets Dick Right list. But I think Minority Report is a better movie overall. And off the top of my head, I’d say it’s my favorite Tom Cruise movie, too. #183 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.

Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000). Another one I’ve seen before, but I wanted to watch the sequel, which I haven’t seen, and it had been years since I saw the original, so I thought I’d return to it. Quoting myself from 2002: “Ginger Snaps is a terrific movie. Not for everyone, since it's got a fair quotient of gore. But it's as smart about using horror cliches as metaphors for teenage existence as Buffy. … DVD fans should note that the Canadian DVD is much superior to the U.S. version.” My second viewing reminded me a bit of Ms. 45, another movie that paid rather obvious attention to feminist theory. Both films would be good in an Intro to Feminist Film Theory class, I think, because you can’t miss what they are up to. Advanced students might want something a bit more subtle. The acting by the leads is terrific. And I can’t quit without once again quoting my favorite line: "I get this ache. And I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces."

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). Masterful, understated work by Colin Firth. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only reason to see this movie.

Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989). Revisiting this one many years after a first viewing was a bit disappointing. A movie from Peter Jackson’s splatter period, Meet the Feebles comes between Bad Taste and Braindead, and isn’t as good as either. Not that it is worthless … it’s a one-joke film, but the joke is pretty funny, and I never get tired of the paparazzi reporter (this will make no sense if you know nothing of the movie, but here goes: the reporter is a fly who gets hot scoops by diving into the toilets of the stars and eating their shit … heck with hot scoops, this is hot poop). Not the place to start if you’re curious about Jackson’s early splatter movies. Well, really, there is no place to start … you either want to watch them or you don’t (my fave is Braindead, Robin prefers Bad Taste).