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by request: bad santa (terry zwigoff, 2003)

(This was requested by Neal.)

I thought I was finally going to find a modern comedy I enjoyed. The pedigree was impressive: Terry Zwigoff directed Crumb and Ghost World, two of my favorite movies (especially the latter). And I’m not a fan of xmas, so the grumpy attitude towards the holidays was enticing. Knowing that the word “fuck” appeared more time in Bad Santa than in any other xmas movie in history certainly got my attention in a good way. And the early scenes of Billy Bob Thornton in the title role were pretty good.

Even then, though, I wondered where they would take things. It didn’t seem like 90 minutes of Billy Bob Santa getting drunk and pissing himself would be enough. But there was enough bad attitude that I thought it would be OK.

And then it went soft. Billy Bob Santa took a hankering to a bullied, pathetic boy, and the movie went downhill from there. I’ve read a few reviews that argue the ending of Bad Santa is not the usual feel-good cliché, and it’s true that Santa never quits saying “fuck”. But (spoiler alert) at the end of the movie, I swear to god, Billy Bob Santa gets shot eight times by the cops because he’s trying to get a xmas present to the pathetic boy. And this is played without irony.

Well, I can say “fuck” as good as anybody, and that’s exactly what I said to myself as the movie ended. Zwigoff (and probably the Coen Brothers, who were also involved, and with whom I have a much more problematic relationship) fooled me. And I’m so embarrassed for being suckered that the movie pisses me off, turning a decent 90 minutes of pleasure into the blood-pressure-raising rant you are reading now. Minus one for the ending, leading to 5/10. Come back when you have the guts to take Bad Santa all the way through the end of the movie. For a companion, watch Crumb or Ghost World.

what i watched last week

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014). James tries to cram an entire life into two hours, which we know is difficult, considering the memoir on which it is based ran for around 450 pages. Of course, the film took a different direction when Ebert’s illnesses gradually led him to dying. He worked with James until the end, and while he never saw the movie, his presence isn’t just on screen, but behind the camera with James. The result is pretty straightforward (I can’t decide if that’s an appropriate approach, but it’s what we’ve got), lots of talking heads and still photos. Obviously, the more recent material dealing with Ebert’s physical problems is more immediate, and that lends the film a different angle than the usual straightforward bio-documentary. James covers all the high points … the Pulitzer, Russ Meyer, Siskel and Ebert, Chaz Ebert. He does a decent job of putting on screen how vital Ebert’s online presence was, although I don’t know that any film can get it exactly right … you’d have to check out the Twitter feed for that. There are two areas where I think the movie falls short, connected by a slim thread. First, we don’t get enough about exactly what made Roger Ebert’s work different from that of other critics. We are told he was a “populist”, but that’s a bit too vague. We are told that he was a Chicago kind of guy, which separated him from the critics on the coasts. Mostly, though, we’re told that his TV series with Gene Siskel was important and different. There is a brief section where a few critics offer a more negative view of the series, but mostly we get outtakes of the two stars bitching with each other. It broadens our feel for Ebert the person, but Ebert the person was also Ebert the critic. The second troublesome area might be introduced when Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan offers the guaranteed laugh-getter, “Fuck Pauline Kael!” It’s a confusing statement, given the many ways Kael and Ebert were kindred spirits in criticism. But it is also the only time a female critic is discussed in the movie. There are women, to be sure … Chaz more prominently, Gene Siskel’s wife, a few of the women who worked behind the scenes on the TV screen. But when it comes to discussing Ebert’s critical work, we get A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss … we get filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani and Gregory Nava (and Steve James himself). But the only female voice is that of director Ava DuVernay, who is indeed a welcome presence in the film. The result is that women in film criticism are relegated to one “Fuck her” quote, and DuVernay ends up standing in for every female filmmaker. None of this overwhelms the very real accomplishments of the movie, but Roger Ebert would insist that we face the work in an honest fashion. 8/10. A good companion film might be one of the many that Ebert championed over the years … Hoop Dreams is an obvious choice.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). This film comes highly praised by critics, and by viewers as well … it has grossed almost half a billion dollars. It’s easy to understand the praise … the animation is very good, the voice actors well-chosen, and some of the critique of capitalism is unusual for a kids’ movie, especially one that has commercial tie-in potential like this one. I think, though, that this is one of those occasional movies that gets praised for what it is not, as much as for what it is. It is not stupid. It doesn’t take the easy exploitation route. It was made with care. But ultimately, it’s still a loud-and-fast romp with plenty for the younger Lego fans and their parents (who will like the movie for different reasons), and not a lot more. It is no small thing to make an animated movie in 2014 that doesn’t feel cheap, and I don’t blame people who tell me this is a really great movie. But I don’t think they’ll be saying that ten years from now. 7/10.

Oranges and Sunshine (Jim Loach, 2010). 7/10.

by request: oranges and sunshine (jim loach, 2010)

This was suggested by Karen Roth.

Emily Watson stars in the based-on-a-true story of Margaret Humphreys, an English social worker who uncovers a decades-long system of sending kids from the U.K. to Australia. Eventually it becomes clear that it couldn’t have happened without governmental approval.

Loach and screenwriter Rona Munro, working from Humphreys’ book, gradually let us see how this impacted the lives of the kids, now grown up, knowing nothing about their past … who were their parents, why were they given up for adoption (they weren’t, but the kids had no way of knowing), basically asking themselves, who am I? Humphreys begins connecting the kids with their mothers when possible, at least giving information if the mother has died. Watson does well, stalwart in her mission, even as it causes her personal trauma (she is diagnosed with PTSD).

Loach keeps things moving along … he effectively intersperses the stories of the grown-up deportees with Humphreys’ battles with the two governments. But two problems arise. One is that Loach seems to want to make a film that could play on public television. At times, the victims stop just short in the telling of their tales, hesitating, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. This happens often, and is noticeable. You can’t help but wonder why Loach takes this approach; the effect is to smooth out some of the harshest experiences, which might work for gentlefolks in the audience, but which is a bit of a cheat for those telling their stories. Also, while Watson is good, her character is too central. Oranges and Sunshine is less a film about a government-backed outrage, and more about the intrepid fight of Margaret Humphreys. I don’t want to take this too far … the victims do get the time to tell their story. But the key figure is always Humphreys, and while her story is a good one and she deserves respect, I would have preferred to have Humphreys being the impetus for the story, while the deported children were the key. 7/10. As a companion piece, how about The Magdalene Sisters?

music friday: montara beach

Another trip back to a mix disc for a car trip. I’m assuming from the title that this was for a day at the beach, but that’s probably irrelevant to the songs that were picked. Sometime around 1999, based on the dates on some of the songs.

  1. Golden Earring, “Radar Love”. Brenda Lee’s “Coming on Strong.”
  2. Vicki Sue Robinson, “Turn the Beat Around”. Love to hear percussion.
  3. Will Smith, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wid It”. No love for the haters.
  4. Nick Lowe, “Cracking Up”. I don’t think it’s funny no more.
  5. Better than Ezra, “Desperately Wanting”. They say the worst is over.
  6. David and David, “River’s Gonna Rise”. There’ll be dancing in the street when the river done rise.
  7. Kristin Hersh, “Echo”. I’m scaring everybody.
  8. Gene Vincent, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. She’s the one who gets more more more.
  9. The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Bald Headed Lena”. She’s got a cue-ball head that’s hard as lead.
  10. Alison Krauss, “The Three Bells”. Lead us not into temptation.
  11. Buena Vista Social Club, “Candela”. Ay candela, candela, candela me quemo aé.
  12. Toni Basil, “Mickey”. I’ll take it like a man.
  13. Billy Idol, “Dancing with Myself”. If I had the chance I'd ask the world to dance, and I'll be dancing with myself.
  14. Ben Harper, “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now”. Mama don’t watch your damn football.
  15. Travis, “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” I can’t stand myself.
  16. The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men”. I'm gonna let myself get absolutely soaking wet.
  17. Harry Nilsson, “You’re Breaking My Heart”. So fuck you.
  18. The Police, “So Lonely.” All dressed up and nowhere to go.
  19. Dave Edmunds, “Readers Wives”. The old man watches and the young man jives.
  20. The Hanson Brothers, “Old Time Hockey”. Like Eddie Shore.

throwin' punches

On this date in 1988, the Giants and Cardinals had a baseball brawl that actually included a few punches that landed, for a change. The high/lowlights: Ozzie Smith was a punk, and since this date, the beloved Hall-of-Famer has been booed whenever he turns up at a Giants home game. Dusty Baker was a first-base coach then … you can see him getting in on the action. And best of all, Candy Maldonado, who bursts into the picture from the right, making like Tito Santana, mashing Ozzie’s face.

dealing with all of it

I sleep with the radio on. I’ve done this my whole life. Since my wife isn’t cursed this way, I use a “pillow speaker”, which allows me to hear the radio without bothering anyone else in the room. My bedroom radio is a Squeezebox Internet radio that gets stations and podcasts from around the world, along with Pandora and Spotify and such. There are a half-dozen preset buttons on the front that I use so I can reach up in the middle of the night and switch to a favored station. I’ve got a couple of sports stations, BBC World Service, a comedy channel … no music, using the radio and the pillow speakers together means I miss one channel of the stereo output, so music sounds goofy while talking usually works OK.

When I went to bed last night, I thought I’d turn on the replay of the Giants game from earlier in the day. The Giants had won, and it felt like a nice way to drift into the sleep zone, catching an inning. It’s never more than that … I fall asleep before things get rolling. But when I lay my head on the pillow speaker, I found that the replay had reached the point where starter Ryan Vogelsong was knocked out of the game, and that wasn’t what I needed to go to sleep, so I started hitting the preset buttons. Which is how I ended up on NBC Sports Radio. I have them on my presets because I enjoy Brian Kenny, who has a morning show during the week.

The host of the show at that early hour of the morning was someone named Jason Page. I admit I hadn’t heard of him … outside of Kenny, the hosts all run together for me. I figured to let him jabber … I think it was the beginning of his nightly stint … while I fell asleep.

Then Page got my attention.

You can listen to the first ten minutes or so of last night’s show here.

Page said he wanted to talk about a quote from former NFL coach Tony Dungy, regarding Michael Sam, the recently-drafted member of the St. Louis Rams, who is gay. Dungy was one of the best coaches ever (he’s a TV analyst now), and was the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. In an interview, speaking about drafting Sam, Dungy said “I wouldn’t have taken him … Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

Page then said he wanted to tell two stories. The first was about football player Michael Vick, who did just under two years for his participation in illegal dog fighting. Page detailed some of the things done to the dogs … I admit I was close to dozing off, the story was interesting but to me, it was just part of my nighttime ritual of falling asleep. But I was awake enough to hear the connection Page was making … when Vick got out of prison, Tony Dungy worked hard on Vick’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society and the NFL.

Then Page began telling the story of another person, a person he knew well, who, some years before, was a closeted gay man who struggled to find a place for himself. The internal conflicts that came with living in the closet eventually overwhelmed the man, and one night, he put together a package of pills and prepared to take them all at once. He prepared to take his life. Just before he took the step, he got a phone call from a friend who convinced him not to do it, that it was time to come out of the closet, which he proceeded to do over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Page had my attention. He was being an effective storyteller … he had also moved the story beyond what I’d expect from a late-night sports-talk show.

And then came the punch line: that suicidal young man was Page. “That person was me.”

He spent the next few minutes talking about why comments like Dungy’s could be harmful, but again, I wasn’t being the best audience member. The points Page was making had less of an impact on me than the fact that the sports-talk host had slipped into a personal mode … things had turned “real”.

I don’t suppose I need to mention that this is not the kind of thing I usually hear when I happen upon sports talk radio.

I knew I couldn’t sleep until I made some small effort. So I climbed out of bed, went to Twitter, and sent a tweet to Page: “just heard your story, connected to the Dungy quote. Had to get out of bed to tweet support.”

A small effort, to be sure. But Page had broken through my attempt to fall asleep, and I had to thank him.

what i watched last week

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013). Writing about Farhadi’s previous movie, A Separation, I wrote, “From this simple beginning, Farhadi constructs a terrific melodrama that is part family drama, part police procedural, part an examination of life in Iran, all with more than a touch of Rashomon. There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable. I can’t overstate how good this film is.” The Past takes place in France, and there are no police, and … well, it’s different from A Separation, perhaps I should have skipped the comparison. But as I was watching, I made a note to myself that the plot unfolded like in a procedural, and was interested that I’d said the same thing about the earlier movie. Farhadi takes his time … we meet the main characters, get a feeling for their interactions, see that things are irritable at best. And then we start learning more about the events we thought had been covered in the time the characters were introduced. Watching it unravel is fascinating (“unravel” is not quite the right word … at least one critic referred to the peeling of an onion, which is more accurate but I don’t want to steal their idea). The acting is excellent across the board, especially Bérénice Bejo, and the child actors, particularly the teenage Pauline Burlet and young Elyes Aguis. The manner in which the plot expands is a bit artificial, like a very good play. But Farhadi films everything in a realistic mode that covers up most of the artifice. 9/10. As for companion movies, obviously A Separation, if you haven’t seen it.

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937). Said to have been an influence on Tokyo Story, which is only one of the best movies ever made. As with Tokyo Story, there is no uplifting ending. A group of characters, neither good nor bad, a family of aging parents and their grown offspring (and even a grandchild) acts largely in what they perceive is their own best interests, while trying to convince others (and themselves) that they are acting out of kindness to their family. The setup is that the parents lose their house because the father no longer works and they can’t make the mortgage payments. The solution offered by their kids is that they each move in with a different person … none of them have the room to take them both on. So Pa goes to live with a daughter, Ma goes to live with a son, and no one is happy. There is a lovely reprieve for the parents in the final third of the film, but as noted, the ending offers no solace. As the character asks in Tokyo Story, “Isn’t life disappointing?” The answer is that yes, it is disappointing. #307 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. Tokyo Story is the clear partner for further viewing.

13 Ghosts (William Castle, 1960). William Castle’s films were famous for their goofy gimmicks, and 13 Ghosts was no different. This time, it was “Illusion-O”, which involved wearing special viewers that filtered out the ghosts, or something like that. Nowadays, you can buy DVDs that include the Illusion-O version, but the truth is, Castle’s movies are remembered by many of us because they turned up on TV so often when we were kids. In other words, we never saw Illusion-O … the TV versions had that stuff fixed so the movie would play OK. Some of Castle’s movies were decent enough, but 13 Ghosts without Illusion-O isn’t one of them. I suspect even with Illusion-O, it wouldn’t be much good. Remade in 2001 … that version received a 30/100 rating on Metacritic. 5/10. Castle’s best is likely The Tingler.

Move Over, Darling (Michael Gordon, 1963). I wanted to watch a James Garner movie, and chose this, which I hadn’t seen. Garner was the iconic star of more than one TV series, and he is known as one of the television stars who moved easily into the movies. His deceptively casual style always worked well on the small screen, and his effortless work on the big screen was always welcome. But it often meant he wasn’t quite the lead in movies … Move Over, Darling, for instance, is more a Doris Day vehicle, although they work well as a team. The film had a bit of a complicated history … a remake of the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne movie My Favorite Wife, it was originally meant to star Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin under the title Something’s Got to Give. That one was famously unfinished, with the remnants turned into Move Over, Darling. Day and Garner are good, but your response to the movie depends in part on your tolerance for the kind of unconsummated bedroom farce that Day made famous. It isn’t one of the better ones. 6/10. For a better Day/Garner pairing, check out The Thrill of It All.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971). 9/10.

blu-ray series #14: sunday bloody sunday (john schlesinger, 1971)

There are a handful of movies that have particular resonance with me because I saw them around the time I became a film major and started wondering what kind of movies I would make. Sunday Bloody Sunday was one of my inspirations. I liked the matter-of-fact presentation of ordinary lives (“ordinary” in this case defined as “English white middle-class”). There were very few moments when the movie erupted emotionally, and only one scene, involving a dog of course, that went for sensationalism (even that scene involved an event that was quickly forgotten by the characters). Glenda Jackson was the perfect actor for a movie like this … her acting often suggests an intelligent woman, a bit harsh, able to be in control. Peter Finch matches her … now he’s remembered best as Howard Beale in Network, but he was always capable of playing characters like Jackson’s, smart, inward, controlled. Both were nominated for Oscars (as was Schlesinger, and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt, a film critic whose only screenplay was this one … the movie did not actually win any Oscars).

In 2014, it comes across as fairly blasé about homosexuality. Murray Head (Giles’ older brother!) played a young man having simultaneous affairs with the characters played by Jackson and Finch. The blasé response we have today comes partly because we’re used to the subject by now, but also because Sunday Bloody Sunday is so low-key, about homosexuality, about everything. Head’s character, an artist, is more carefree than his lovers, but the film follows the lead of Jackson and Finch … nothing jumps off the screen. This isn’t Midnight Cowboy. So Finch, a doctor, is mildly but not completely closeted, he and Jackson’s Alex know about each other although they don’t meet until the end of the movie, and it is simply never an issue that Finch/Head is a gay relationship while Jackson/Head is straight.

Watching it again after all these years, I was struck by how unnatural much of it seemed, compared to my memory that it was a film worth emulating because of its ordinariness. Schlesinger’s direction clamps down on emotions, and that’s noticeable. Glenda Jackson in particular is always clearly acting … she’s very good at it, but she isn’t a “natural” actress. And there’s a leftist-hippie family that has a bunch of unruly kids that are supposed to be charming in a rowdy way … they smoke pot (they are too young to do so) and when called on it, accuse the questioner of being “bourgeois”. In other words, they aren’t really like any family you’ve known in real life.

All of which is to say there is a lot of artifice in Sunday Bloody Sunday, and it’s amazing I hadn’t noticed that before.

Still, a case can be made that the first movie I ever made was influenced stylistically by what I thought was going on here. That movie told a straightforward story of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads, and until the final scene, it was slice-of-life all the way.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cool trivia about the movie. I already noted that Murray Head is the older brother of Anthony Stewart Head, who was a regular on Buffy. Even better, Sunday Bloody Sunday marked the screen debut of Daniel Day-Lewis, who was 14 at the time and was paid two pounds for the uncredited part of “child vandal”. I knew it was coming, and I still couldn’t spot him.

This is far and away my favorite John Schlesinger film … in fact, it’s the only one I’ve seen that I actually liked. 9/10. For a companion film, I recommend the 2001 Australian movie, Lantana.