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what i watched last week

Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010). Atmospheric, but overlong and perhaps not as profound as was intended. There are things to like, including a look at the Barcelona that doesn’t appear in the tourist guides. But the film is simultaneously sprawling and monochromatic. Javier Bardem, though, deserves all the acclaim he received; he is the reason to see the movie. 7/10.

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972). Once again, I find myself in the minority when it comes to comedy. This film has been praised by everyone from Kael to Ebert to Phil Dellio, who had it as #50 on his Facebook list. The best I can say for The Heartbreak Kid is that I get what its champions are saying. May’s direction gives us satire that isn’t too mean, and the acting of the leads is fine and then some. But I am not surprised this film was compared to The Graduate, another popular comedy where I get why it’s popular more than I actually like it. Charles Grodin does his thing, and I like his thing … more so in Midnight Run than here, but he’s fine. But he is never likable, and if that was the point, OK, but I think we are supposed to identify with him, at least at first, when his honeymoon goes bad just because his new wife likes egg salad and Milky Ways. Jeannie Berlin deserves a better fate; I was always on her side, but as often as not, she’s treated with barely-concealed disdain, overcome only by Berlin’s wonderful performance. The same goes for Cybill Shepherd, who gives hints of the comedic talents she would eventually display, but is used mostly for her beauty. Ultimately, I find The Heartbreak Kid to be a movie filled with characters I didn’t like, and characters I did like who were presented in unlikable ways. 6/10.

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011). This is an example of how to make a summer blockbuster that is actually worth watching. It takes its time getting to the CGI, and that’s a good thing, because the time is spent creating characters we care about, characters who are distinct from one another … if this was a non-sci-fi story about kids in 1979, it would still be good, it doesn’t need the FX to cover up for the general lameness because it’s not lame. The sci-fi stuff is good, too, though, so this one should please everyone. I also had some serious nostalgia in the scenes about making a Super 8 movie. From the packages of film to the copy of Super 8 Magazine, so much of those scenes took me back to my own time in the 70s as a budding film maker. (Oh, and Elle Fanning is really, really good.) 8/10.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). #25 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list. #128 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 10/10.

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998). #24 on my Facebook list. 10/10.

first season finales: the killing and game of thrones

One thing about being a blogger who lives on the West Coast is that by the time I see a television show, most of the critics have already had their say. It’s their job to put material out there, and they see the episodes before me. At times, this means I’ll have formulated some thoughts, only to find that someone else has already said it.

More often than not, that someone else is Alan Sepinwall. Alan’s beaten me again, this time regarding The Killing. I’ll add a couple more of my own thoughts, but first, here’s what Alan thought of the season finale … note that I have no argument with anything he says here:

"Orpheus Descending" itself is a mess, and an insult to the audience who have stuck around for the last three months. …

So this will be the last review I write of "The Killing," because this will be the last time I watch "The Killing." Because I have no interest in going forward with a show that treats its audience this way. …

[T]o pull the rug out from under one last time, in grander fashion than ever before? On a show that many viewers have lost complete and total faith in? On a show where even the supportive reviews and comments have had an undercurrent of, "Let's wait for the finale; I'm sure there's a plan to all of this" to them? That's as colossal and unpleasant a miscalculation in a TV season finale as I can remember.

Actually, I don’t have anything to add, I just have a different way of saying it. A series that began with great promise, an atmospheric setting, and some fine acting ended up being a shaggy-dog story with an atmospheric setting and some fine acting. Fuck it, I’m with Alan. Robin can watch Season Two by herself, if she’s so inclined.

It’s an insult to the greatness of Game of Thrones that I’m writing about both shows in the same post. Game of Thrones could be subtitled, “HBO Does It Again.” I am not the only person who came to Game of Thrones thinking “that’s not the kind of thing I like.” Some people stopped right there, and didn’t bother to watch at all. Me, I figured HBO had earned a little of my time and patience. And it was rewarding indeed. Game of Thrones is filled with great characters and terrific acting, and if the storytelling was a bit hard to follow at times for someone like me who hasn’t read the books, well, I mostly got the drift, and as good as the narratives are, it often didn’t matter if I was confused … individual scenes sparkled. Game of Thrones creates a brand new world, and if I hedged my bets because fantasy isn’t for me, I was proven wrong. In fact, the fantastic element is precisely what allows for a world different from our own, recognizably human but always with the potential for things outside of our real-world experiences. The closest HBO show to Game of Thrones, I think, is Rome. In that series, humans acted in ways that seemed very odd to us, because it took place so long ago, attitudes were different, beliefs were different … in other words, the world of Rome was as fantastic to a modern audience as is the world of Game of Thrones.

So, grades … people seem to like it when I give grades. After the first two episodes of The Killing, I was in the B+/A- range. But I’d give the finale a D, and the season as a whole a C-. I won’t be back. As for Game of Thrones, when it began, I wrote, “It has the potential to be one of the top series of its time. Having said that, at the moment, I’d probably only call it the second-best TV series on Sunday nights, after The Killing.” Boy, did I get that wrong. Grade for Season One: A.

thank you, clarence

btrIt was sometime in mid/late summer, 1975. I’d managed to get Robin and I tickets in the next-to-last row of the balcony at the Paramount Theater to see this guy Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band in October. I bought Springsteen’s new album, Born to Run, and we went two doors down to our friend Stephanie’s house for a dinner party. Go ahead and put that new album on, she said, and so I took the wrapper off and stuck it on the turntable, choosing Side Two first since that was the one with the title song.

The record played in the background as we did whatever. “Born to Run,” “She’s the One,” “Meeting Across the River,” great songs all, but I don’t remember exactly what impression they made. “Jungleland” started up, and Bruce told the story of the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl, the midnight gangs and visionaries and that giant Exxon sign, and again, 36 years later, I don’t remember what we were doing or thinking or saying as the song played. But then the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, played his greatest and most famous solo, and we heard it for the very first time, and gradually, the conversation dissipated and we stopped and listened. When Clarence’s solo ended, Stephanie sighed, “You’re going to see a great show.”

Here’s a secret request I’ll make in advance: play this song at my funeral. For now, I’ll think of Clarence:

tales of the city

Our friends Jillian and Doug gave me a very sweet birthday present, a trip to ACT for the new musical, Tales of the City. It was the perfect setting for the play … not only is it charmingly provincial that it takes place in The City, but, as librettist Jeff Whitty pointed out, it’s even more specific: when a character sings about bag ladies on Geary and points into the distance, she is pointing at the actual Geary Street on which the theater is located.

I also think Bay Areans of a certain age feel provincial in a protective way towards Tales of the City. We remember reading the daily installments in the Chronicle, and think of it as “ours.” What is fun about the musical is that it reminds us of the universal nature of the tales. Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters do the music, and Shears tells of how important Tales was to him as a young gay man (who did not live in San Francisco). Jillian is from England, and she read the books when she first arrived in the Bay Area many years ago, feeling a firm connection to the basic story of Mary Ann Singleton, new to The City. And, of course, the television miniseries brought Tales of the City to a larger audience. So it’s not really “ours” at this point.

Still, there was a feeling that the audience was full of people who call San Francisco “The City,” and who chuckled at all the right reference points.

Yes, I hear you asking, but how was the play? I had a lot of subjective angles competing as I took it in. On the one hand, I remember the emergence of “Tales of the City” in the Chronicle, and it all came back to me … 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs. Madrigal’s secret, Mona Ramsey. And there’s the pleasure of being with friends on a lovely birthday excursion. Still, musical theater is not exactly my genre. And, a day later, I can only recall a few of the songs, and even in those cases, I remember lyrics, not melodies.

But I had a fine time! I think it could have been shorter by half-an-hour, and could have lost a few of the lesser songs, but the main actors were quite good, with Judy Kaye as Mrs. Madrigal and Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann being the obvious vocal talents (which isn’t to say the rest of the cast was tuneless, only that Kaye and Wolfe are top-class singers, and thus had most of the show-stopping numbers). Mona has always been my favorite character … it didn’t hurt that Chloe Webb played her in the first miniseries … and Mary Birdsong was a delight in the part. (Her frizzy/curly wig had a life of its own, so I didn’t really recognize her, and was thus startled when I realized later she had been a regular on Reno 911 and an occasional correspondent on The Daily Show.)

Do I think my dear readers would like it? Yes, I do. None of the flaws are fatal, the spirit is good and fulfilling (and corny, but I suppose “good and fulfilling” implies “corny”), and it’s a solid production. (I should mention the set, which is a marvelous piece of carpentry and pulleys and backdrops, used in a versatile fashion.) All in all, a memorable start to my extended birthday weekend.

music friday: treme

Not much commentary this week, just as many useful video clips as I can find. There have been some excellent programs on Sunday night television of late, but to my mind, none is greater than Treme, now in its second season. I may be forgetting something, but I can’t recall any series which made better use of music than Treme. Music is part of the lives of the people, not just the musicians, but the folks who listen to that music. Hell, “listen” doesn’t really get the way they experience the sounds around them. You also get a strong sense of the work musicians put into making those great sounds.

So, some links. One complaint folks have about Treme is that there are so many stories being told, we often get the music in bits and pieces. Apparently iTunes is selling full-length videos of some of the music that appears on the show each week, if you are so inclined. Still, aggravating as it is when they cut away from a groove, it makes dramatic sense, with the music part of the flow of everyday life.

In this scene, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux and other Indians pay their respects to a lost one:

“At the Foot of Canal Street” (video is kinda dark):

John Boutté with “Bring It on Home to Me”:

And, because I can never get enough Kim Dickens, here she is as Janette, drunk at Mardi Gras:

Steve Earle has a regular gig on the show as a busking musician. His song “This City” ran under the closing credits for Season One:

And finally, John Boutté again with the show’s theme song:

cult of giants fandom

Salon has a piece today by David Sirota, “How the cult of individualism is ruining baseball.” His argument? Citing a University of Michigan study, Sirota writes:

Fans are more financially supportive of individual superstars than they are of winning teams. Yes, for the baseball fan, it's the individual superstar, stupid -- and that means, according to the data, many Americans would rather watch a superstar hit lots of home runs on a losing team than watch a bunch of role players hit singles and win the World Series.

I happened to be the first Giants fan to respond, but there were several others as the day rolled by. Here is what I said:

Anecdotal information does not trump hard data, but I can't help myself here.

I have been a fan of the San Francisco Giants since they came west in 1958. I have had the pleasure of cheering on some of the greatest individual players of all time, from Mays to Bonds. I enjoyed them all. But nothing tops what happened last season when the Giants finally won the World Series. And I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way.

i am (in)souciant

Some old friends of mine started a new magazine in the last year called Souciant, “a magazine of politics and culture. Or culture and politics. It all depends on your starting point.” With the encouragement of Charlie Bertsch, I have a piece up on the Souciant web site called “Speakers, Cornered” that grew out of something I posted here last week. I think it’s a good piece, and it’s exciting to have it on Souciant, which is worth checking out in any event.

I couldn’t have done it without Charlie, who first got me to write it and then made editorial suggestions that raised it a level or two.

As I told one of my friends at the magazine, a professor once told me I was “insouciant”. Now that is finally true … I am indeed in Souciant.

what i watched last week

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton, 1928). #27 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

The Informer (John Ford, 1935). Victor McLaglen gives the performance of his life, winning an Oscar in the process (he was up against three actors from the same movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, and votes for them were probably split, but still, McLaglen is very good). Legend has it that John Ford kept McLaglen hungover all the time to get just what he wanted from the actor. I wonder if he ever tried that with John Wayne. Ford was influenced by the visual style of Murnau in Sunrise, and you can see it throughout The Informer. Ford also won an Oscar for his work on this film. #800 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

The Railrodder (Gerald Potterton and Buster Keaton, 1965). I have Keaton on my mind, after watching Steamboat Bill, Jr., so when Mark Evanier directed readers to an online copy of this short, I had to watch it. There’s not much to it … Keaton rides across Canada on rail via some kind of maintenance vehicle … and the gags are less than side-splitting. But there is a charm to seeing Keaton, almost 70, revisiting his silent days, and one sight gag involving camouflage is quite funny indeed. 6/10.

Buster Keaton Rides Again (John Spotton, 1965). OK, I promise after this I’ll stop. This documentary was shot while Keaton was making The Railrodder. Most people note the running time (it’s twice as long as the movie it is documenting). It’s actually an interesting look at the mind of Keaton, as he constructs gags, mixed in with brief historical interludes and on-the-spot footage of Buster signing autographs for kids and receiving a key to the city. 7/10.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). #26 on my Facebook list. #264 on the TSPDT list. 10/10.

music friday: sly and the family stone, “thank you”

By the end of 1969, Sly and the Family Stone was one of the most acclaimed bands in the world, as well as one of the most popular. They were the Prince of their day, combining funk and psychedelia while breaking down barriers of race and gender. Earlier in the year, they had released their finest album to date, Stand!; in the summer came their cataclysmic appearance at Woodstock.

Things were not what they seemed on the surface, though. This was hard for fans to notice; while there was a long gap between Stand! and their next album of new material, there was “Hot Fun in the Summertime” in August of ‘69, the single “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” in December, and a Greatest Hits album that remains one of the great party albums ever. In March of 1970, the movie Woodstock opened, exposing an even bigger audience to the power of the band’s live shows. But there were no new albums until late in 1971, as drugs and inner turmoil overcame the band.

On November 6, 1971, a new single was released in advance of an upcoming album. “Family Affair” was the band’s biggest-ever hit, which was ironic, since the only band members on the track were Sly and his sister, Rose. “Family Affair” was not the usual party hit, but even so, it could not prepare the audience for the album that came out two weeks later. The title, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, might have suggested a fevered and hopefully funky look at the new decade, but the actual record’s contents were perhaps best shown by the title track, which was listed as the final track of Side One, with a running time of 0:00. The most terrifying track on the album was a remake of their hit from two years earlier, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.”

People looking to draw a picture of the slide from the 60s to the 70s often point to Woodstock and Altamont as examples of the changes that were happening. You can hear the same thing in these two versions of “Thank You.” The original sounded like classic funk, with Larry Graham’s trend-setting slap bass leading the band on. But a close look at the lyrics showed that, no matter how much the music made us want to dance, something else was going on in the backroom of the dancehall. It began:

Lookin’ at the devil
Grinnin’ at his gun
Fingers start shakin’
I begin to run
Bullets start chasin’
I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle
I was on the top
I want to thank you for lettin’ me be myself again

By 1971, there was no mistaking what Sly was saying. The beat is slowed to a crawl; the bass is no longer conducive to dancing. The introduction drags on for almost two repetitive minutes before Sly finally begins his tale. When he moans, “I was on the top,” it’s impossible to imagine how he can be on top when he is clearly so low.

“Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” is arguably the greatest cover version by the original artist ever recorded. It is also extremely difficult to listen to. After hearing it, you’ll never hear the original the same way again.

No fancy videos here … the idea is to listen to the songs. First, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)":

And “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa”: