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music friday, 1980 edition

The S.O.S. Band, “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”.

The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”.

Diana Ross, “Upside Down”.

Blondie, “Rapture”.

The Jam, “That’s Entertainment”.

The Undertones, “There Goes Norman”.

The Clash, “Police on My Back”.

Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks”.

Bob Marley & the Wailers, “Redemption Song”.

Bruce Springsteen, “Drive All Night”.

by request: lawrence of arabia (david lean, 1962)

This was requested a couple of years ago, which shows how long it is taking me to get through the requests. I like having a request list, though, and am always looking to add to it. It was Jeff Pike who asked for this one.

Jeff has a lot of interesting things to say about Lawrence in the link provided above: that the long first half is more engrossing than the shorter second half (Jeff would say “better”, and I’d probably agree), that the amazing desert photography engulfs the viewer, that the iconography of the Western influences the way we see the visuals. One thing I’d disagree with is when Jeff says, “There's not much character study here—it isn't that kind of movie.” I agree that most of the characters fit stereotypical roles … the acting often brings depth to those characters, but in the end, Omar Sharif is the soulful Arab, Claude Rains is the devious politician with a glint in his eye, etc. But one of the reasons I find Lawrence of Arabia odd is that it is a massive epic that offers a psychological profile of its titular character. I think it is a character study, of Lawrence.

I also disagree with Jeff, who says Peter O’Toole is “carefully wooden”. To me, O’Toole regularly seems like someone just one tiny step away from madness (and, of course, he eventually takes that step). I do think Lawrence is a confusing character … probably because it was 1962, the film only flirts with his possible homosexuality, and since they don’t come down firmly on one side or the other, Lawrence just seems a tad flighty. The progression from a man who doesn’t want to kill to a man with a deep-seated bloodlust is more sporadic than gradual. Lawrence was a complicated man, and I’m not sure how the film could be honest to his story without being complicated itself. Kael wrote, “[Robert] Bolt and Lean turn the hero into such a flamboyant poetic enigma that he is displaced in the film by a simpler hero-Omar Sharif's Ali, a handsome sheik with liquid brown eyes and conventionally sympathetic lines to speak. Ali, an old-fashioned movie hero, was more at home in what, despite the literacy, was a big action movie.”

Still, even these oddities add to the power of the film. Between Lawrence and Ali, Lean has his cake and eats it too … Lawrence is the enigma, Ali the solid one. The film is a masterpiece of epic production … every shot is perfectly placed, and if the themes are sometimes muddled, at the least we are always aware big things are going on. In the continuing discussion about the importance of form in current movie criticism, Lawrence of Arabia stands as an excellent example of a movie that is intelligent and well-acted, but which must be seen in a venue that allows for the visuals to take over. There might be an interesting small-scale movie about Lawrence the man, you could even transpose the scenes and dialogue for this film to that scale, but absent the largesse, you would have something very different from Lawrence of Arabia.

I wouldn’t call this my favorite big-budget epic from the 1950s-60s … that’s still Spartacus. But it is my favorite David Lean movie, this or Great Expectations, and in the context of the typical overblown epic from that era Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus are very much better than the competition. #22 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. You don’t really need a companion film when Lawrence is as long as it is, but The Bridge on the River Kwai is another successful Lean epic. Doctor Zhivago, on the other hand, isn’t very successful at all.

true blood, series finale

There are plenty of good reviews of the series finale that you can find with a brief Google session. Suffice to say, it wasn’t very popular. My question is, why did we expect any differently? Partly, we hope for some justification for spending time watching seven seasons of a TV series. For the most part, we give up when a show gets too bad, but I stuck with True Blood to the bitter end. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason was simply that I liked counting on a show with lots of sex and violence.

As is usual for a show that lasts too long, I don’t have anything new to say. I’ll just direct you to my post about the Season Six finale, where I walked through the various seasons to see if there was a progression. That post quoted earlier posts, so here I am, quoting myself quoting myself.

First, I gave the first two seasons a grade of B+, which fell to a B for the next few seasons (with a B- thrown in for good measure). Quoting from my post on Season Two, I described its good points as “Anna Paquin takes off her clothes at the drop of an Oscar, vampires like blood, some humans like vampire blood and others like vampire sex (and some like both), the sex and violence are surrounded by the kind of hilarious dialogue you might get from a road-company version of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and everyone’s accent is different.” By Season Three, the problems with True Blood were taking over, although the sex and violence were still there: “True Blood is a show that lazily allows the context of vampire mythology to create the illusion of depth in a series that is about titillation above all else. It’s a highly-entertaining show, one of my favorites. But it’s entertaining because of the shock value and violence-instilled titillation, not in spite of it.” For Season Four, I said “True Blood gets stupider every season”, and got off a good line about Season Five: “It will always be worth watching, even or perhaps especially because in the end, it’s not worth watching.” (I also called it “enjoyable junk”.) Season Six was “same old, same old”. By the time of the Season Seven Premiere, the grade was down to a C+.

Baseball players are often given very large contracts based on their past performances, which turn bad because those performances came when the players were at their peak, while the contract covers the years of the players’ decline. This is especially noticeable when the player is very good but not great, for the fall off from very good to average to mediocre is bad for the team. However, if you offer one of those contracts to a great player, it won’t hurt the team as much, because the fall off will look more like excellent to very good to average. Some people think the final season of The Wire wasn’t up to the other four, but even if they are right, it’s still worth watching because it’s The Wire, and the worst season of The Wire is still better than just about anything else you could watch. But even at its best, in those first couple of seasons, True Blood was only a B+ show. When it fell off, which usually happens with shows that run seven seasons, we were left with mediocrity. Compare it to another vampire show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The first three seasons were essential, the next three seasons hit the highest peaks even if the seasons as a whole weren’t quite a good as what came before, and Season Seven, while the least of the seasons, felt necessary to the character of Buffy. And the final scene gave good closure. Buffy went from excellent to very good to average … at best, True Blood’s first two seasons were close to being as good as Season Seven of Buffy, and it was downhill from there.

So, why did we think True Blood would go out with a classic episode? Hell if I know. A better question is, why didn’t I bail on it a few years ago, the way I did with shows like Dexter. You still had one the finest-looking ensemble casts of men and women, running around naked and drinking blood, and that probably is the reason for hanging on. Even there, though, the finale let us down. Alison Herman astutely caught the early clue: “I knew True Blood‘s series finale was bound to be terrible when there was no nudity warning on HBO Go.”

Grade for series finale: D. Grade for Season Seven: C+. Grade for series: B.

what i watched last week

The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 1993). (Siu-tung Ching must also be mentioned from the start for his work as “martial arts director”, i.e. wire fu.) I don’t remember exactly when I saw John Woo’s The Killer for the first time. I know we rented the VHS video from Palmer’s Cameras, so that might narrow the time frame. I knew nothing about it, but the in-store advertisement looked interesting. About halfway through the movie, I said something like “holy shit”, and became an instant convert to Hong Kong movies. It was a good time for such movies, and one of the pleasures of finding something new-to-you is that there is already an established batch of things to watch. (Binge-watching TV series carries some of the same feeling, or reading the first book in a series.) First I watched Woo’s classics, then Jackie Chan, then anything I could find. The UC Theatre showed HK double-bills on Thursday nights, which meant there was always something new. Michelle Yeoh was a particular favorite, thanks to her great beauty and terrific ability in action scenes (she had no martial arts training, but used her past as a ballet dancer to good effect). There was Yes, Madam! with Cynthia Rothrock, Police Story 3: Super Cop with Jackie Chan, and Wing Chun, which she carried largely on her own, although Donnie Yen was along for the ride. The Heroic Trio came between Super Cop and Wing Chun, and it’s a truly loony piece of work. The plot makes no sense, but it doesn’t try anyway so that doesn’t matter. The laws of gravity are broken with regularity, as is always the case with wire fu, so there is no reason the laws of narrative would fare any better. There is a surprising amount of real grossness to some of the violence, which needs to be mentioned for folks who are squeamish. But the hook for Heroic Trio is the actors who play the titular characters. There’s Yeoh as “Invisible Woman”, Anita Mui as “Wonder Woman”, and Maggie Cheung as “Thief Catcher”. I don’t know if I can translate this cast to an American production … maybe if they made Charlie’s Angels with Sigourney Weaver, Madonna, and Michelle Williams. Yeoh would become famous in the West as a Bond Girl, and later for her part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon … Cheung is loved worldwide for movies like In the Mood for Love and Clean (for which she won a Best Actress award at Cannes). In Asia, Mui was the biggest star of the three, often called the “Madonna of Asia” for her music, which placed her atop the charts for many years. But Mui was like Madonna, if Madonna could act … Mui won awards for acting as well as singing. In short, these are three of Asia’s most honored and respected actors, and they show up in a bizarre wire fu movie. It’s quite fun, if you’re in the right mood. You can tell Yeoh is handling most of her own action work, but To makes Cheung and Mui look good, too. Yeoh also has the most showy role as far as acting goes, and she makes the most of it. (Cheung is often comic relief, as she was in the Police Story movies with Chan.) Perhaps Charlie’s Angels is a good comparison: three absolutely beautiful actresses kicking ass. But Charlie’s Angels didn’t have Siu-tung Ching. 7/10. For a follow-up, you could catch the sequel, Executioners, which I haven’t seen but which isn’t highly regarded. For Yeoh, try Wing Chun. I never miss a chance to tout In the Mood for Love with Maggie Cheung, although it is nothing like this movie. Finally, Mui won awards for her work in Rouge.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011). The viewing experience isn’t always relevant, but in this case, I need to state upfront how I watched this movie. I watched the first half on Blu-ray, but the disc kept screwing up, so I finally gave up and returned it to Netflix. They sent me a replacement, and I watched the second half a couple of days later. (Creepy sidenote: when I put the replacement disc in the Blu-ray player, the movie started up where I’d left it with the other disc.) I mention this because Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a long movie (a little more than 2 1/2 hours), and it is built to be watched in one sitting, so that it will draw out a cumulative response. Since I took a break in the middle, I was able to put off some of the possible boredom that might have ensued otherwise. (Mick LaSalle called it “colossally, memorably and audaciously boring”.) I could certainly see why some people would be bored … “nothing happens” for long stretches of the film, and the first two hours offer multiple renditions of the same events: police are driving a murderer around, looking for where he buried the body, but he was drunk at the time, can’t really remember where the grave is, and many places in that part of Anatolia look the same, so they drive to a spot, get out of the car, look around, murderer says that isn’t the place, they get in the car, drive to a spot, etc. As they drive around, we listen to their conversations, which seem extremely mundane (click here for a discussion of yogurt). It all reminded me a bit of L’Avventura, where the characters wandered around, seeming aimless, while Antonioni turned their lives into something bigger. Anatolia is designed to frustrate your expectations … it’s a police procedural, it’s noir, it is, in Andrew O’Hehir’s words, “like an episode of ‘CSI,’ scripted by Anton Chekhov, stretched to two and a half hours, and photographed against the bleak, impressive scenery of Turkey’s central steppes.” There are no clear solutions to anything, and what we learn about the characters lacks clarity as well … what you think you know could slip through your fingers. It’s not a movie for everyone. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. I give it 9/10. I haven’t seen them, but Ceylan’s earlier movies Distant and Climates are also highly regarded. Or you could watch my 17th-favorite movie of all time, L’Avventura.

Spider Baby, or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (Jack Hill, 1964?). Another one of those movies where it’s as much fun talk about the extraneous stuff as to discuss what’s on the screen. Let me get the latter out of the way. Spider Baby is a low-budget Inbreeding Meets Lolita story that is part horror film, part comedy, and overall better than you would expect. One poster read “Seductive Innocence of Lolita, Savage Hunger of a Black Widow!” It will never rise above cult status, but within that context, you could do worse. Now to the fun stuff. It’s the first film directed by Jack Hill, who gave us such classic 70s exploitation movies as Coffy and Foxy Brown. It stars Lon Chaney, Jr. who actually does a decent job. (The above-mentioned poster says, “Starring Spider Baby and Lon Chaney”.) The cast includes cult faves like Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, even Mantan Moreland. It was filmed in 1964 for around $60,000 … the title at the time was Cannibal Orgy. The money men behind the production went bankrupt, so the film wasn’t released until 1968. The song that plays under the opening credits is performed by Chaney. One of the actors, Quinn Redeker, went on to some success as a soap opera actor, and also was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay to The Deer Hunter. Jill Banner, who plays Spider Baby, died in a car accident at the age of 35 … at the time, she was working with Marlon Brando. A lot of cheapo movies are incompetently made. Credit to Jack Hill for making a movie where the camera is where it belongs, where the performances are reasonably OK, where you’ll see something a little bit different. Doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, but relatively speaking, it’s fine. 6/10. For a companion, you could watch one of Hill’s Pam Grier movies. There’s also Chaney in The Wolf Man, which is very good, or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which also features Chaney (and Bela Lugosi as Dracula!) and which is very very good.

The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958). I originally intended to give this movie its own post in the Blu-ray series, but I don’t think I can do it justice, so I’ll just attach it here. It’s almost universally admired as one of the greatest films of one of the greatest directors, but it mostly left me cold. I’m willing to accept that I just wasn’t in the right place to appreciate it. It’s an hour shorter than Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but I found it much harder to get through. Again, the might be my own fault … I didn’t realize half the film is a flashback until I read it in reviews after the fact. I get the comparisons to King Lear, but this movie is far too quiet for the comparison to work … the main character never explodes against the world the way Lear does, and in fairness, emulating Lear is not likely to have been Ray’s intention. I can’t blame him for what others said about his film. Perhaps because I was bamboozled by the time frame, I never found the main character to change. It could have been a 20-minute short and worked just as well for me. For now, I’ll file it under “watch it again in a few years”. #218 on the TSPDT list. 6/10. I obviously don’t have any recommendations for similar movies to watch. Perhaps Charulata, another Ray film that I saw 40+ years ago and remember liking.

music friday, 2001 edition

The Strokes, “Last Nite”. Acclaimed Music calls this the top album of 2001. They didn’t go away, but nothing matched the impact of their beginnings.

Pink, “Don’t Let Me Get Me”. A fascinating video, ending with Pink morphing into her fans; they want to be her, she sings “I wanna be somebody else”.

Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood”. Without the video, you’re getting just a reminder of what Gorillaz are up to. Del tha Funkee Homosapien transcends this.

Missy Elliott, “Get Ur Freak On”. When she becomes eligible, she deserves serious consideration for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair”. I wouldn’t say the same about Mary J, but I could be convinced.

Basement Jaxx, “Where’s Your Head At? It’s safe to say, if you only watch one of these videos, this should be it.

Alicia Keys, “Fallin’”. For me, a perfect record that she has never matched.

Destiny’s Child, “Bootylicious”. They sold 60 million records, yet it’s almost like they’re a footnote to the career of Beyoncé.

Ryan Adams, “New York, New York”. The video begins, “This video was shot on Friday September 7, 2001.” The reason for the warning is immediately clear.

Andrew W.K., “Party Hard”. Like a cleaned-up GG Allin.

motown throwback

53 years ago today, Motown released what would be their first #1 single, “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes. The lead singer was Gladys Horton, and among the players in the Funk Brothers for the recording were the great James Jamerson on bass and Marvin Gaye on drums.

The Beatles were playing “Please Mr. Postman” early enough that it’s fun to imagine the record traveling across the Atlantic in 1961. It turned up on their second album, With the Beatles, in late 1963:

The Marvelettes’ version made an appearance in a great scene from Mean Streets:

And the Carpenters had a version … oops, out of time!

revisit: smiles of a summer night (ingmar bergman, 1955)

A couple of years ago when I did my Facebook Fave Fifty list, Smiles of a Summer Night was one of the last cuts … in the end, I had it at #58. This was the highest-ranking Bergman movie on my list … The Seventh Seal, another late elimination, was #66. I seem to think more highly of Smiles than do other people, which isn’t to say it’s underrated, just that I like it even more than the norm. For instance, it’s only #722 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which means it’s highly regarded, of course, but 722 isn’t 58. The TSPDT list includes 11 Bergman pictures that rank higher than Smiles, headed by Persona at #24. We’re talking about a bunch of great movies, and I’m splitting hairs a bit, here. But it interests me that the Bergman movie I like more than most people is one of his rare comedies.

In some ways, Smiles of a Summer Night reminds me of Renoir’s Rules of the Game, in the way manages to get its characters into a place apart from daily life. There are differences, though … Bergman’s film takes place in the early 20th-century, and by putting the action in the past, he adds a further layer of distance to that supplied by the setting of the weekend party. Renoir’s film takes place just before WWII, the present at the time he made the movie, and he is explicitly directing his social commentary to the French people at that time. The dialogue Bergman gives his characters is arch, often very funny … many of the people are quite witty, while others serve as the butt of the joke. But Renoir, while offering a condemnation of class structure, nonetheless humanizes his characters … they aren’t just conduits for the good dialogue.

So I prefer The Rules of the Game. That’s hardly fair … on my Top 50 list, Rules was #6. But all of this demonstrates that in my personal canon, Smiles of a Summer Night just misses being one of the greatest of the great. Nonetheless, other critics think it misses by a much larger margin.

Enough of what isn’t quite perfection. What does work is pretty much everything. Bergman has always done well with actresses, and he has some of his best here, all doing great work: Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson, Margit Carlqvist, and the irrepressibly sexy Harriet Andersson. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand leads a strong group of male actors who mostly fall under the spell of their women. The men don’t know what they want … the women know what they want, and they also know what the men want, and once the action moves to the weekend party, the women proceed to get everyone where they belong. It’s all quite romantic, and on the surface, everything settles in for the best as the film ends. But the undertone is decidedly, realistically cynical. As one character says, “I shall remain faithful in my way”, which is good enough in this world, where affairs are expected and tolerated. And love? “We invoke love, call out to it, beg for it, cry for it, try to mimic it. We think we own it and tell lies about it.” Which elicits the reply, “But we don’t have it.” 10/10. I can’t actually recommend them, but A Little Night Music is Sondheim’s musical take on the story (yes, you can blame Bergman in a roundabout way for “Send in the Clowns”), and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is Woody Allen’s reworking. Better to check out something like Bergman’s early Summer with Monika with Harriet Andersson.

charles m. young, 1951-2014

I’ve often told the story of hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time at Rather Ripped Records and becoming an instant punk fan. (That’s the appropriate term, “punk fan”, since I wasn’t a punk, just a wannabe.) I had heard about the band, but I guess I hadn’t heard the band, which is why that day at Rather Ripped stood out for me.

I don’t recall the chronology, and I wouldn’t trust my memory even if I did have that kind of recall. But in those days, I was a subscriber to Rolling Stone … I think it was the only subscription I had … and their October 20, 1977 issue had Johnny Rotten on the cover. Inside was a piece by Charles M. Young that started by quoting the Book of Isaiah and closed with a shout out to Robert Frost. Young did such a great job of describing London and the Sex Pistols in 1977 that I absolutely had to see the band when they toured America. That concert, the last the band ever played with Sid Vicious, came on January 14, 1978.

The body of the story includes interviews with Johnny and Sid that humanize them in ways you don’t usually see (this is especially true in the case of Sid). Cameos are made by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, who were working on a Sex Pistols movie at the time (Who Killed Bambi? never came close to being completed). Elvis dies while Young in covering the band, which leads to this exchange between Young and Rotten (it makes more sense in the context of the article as a whole):

"You got any comment for the world on the death of Elvis?"

"Fuckin' good riddance to bad rubbish," he snarls. "I don't give a fuckin' shit, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."

"Is it true you used to tell people you had to cut off your piles with a razor blade?"

The biggest impression on my malleable mind (I was 24, our son had just turned two and my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who would be born the day after the Sex Pistols concert) came from Young’s description of a Pistols concert (they played under the pseudonym The Spots, because they were banned from most places).

At midnight, the Sex Pistols finally emerge from the dressing room. The crush around the foot-high stage is literally unbelievable and skirmishes with the security men immediately erupt. The ten-foot stacks of PA speakers are rocking back and forth and are dangerously close to toppling over. …

Some kid has put his fist through one of the speakers and a few more have escaped the security men to stomp on wires and knock over electronic equipment. The song is barely intelligible over the explosions and spitting noises from shorts, just the way anarchy ought to sound. The crowd pogos frantically. … Sid Vicious' bass playing is highly energetic and completely without subtlety. He's been up for two days prior to the gig and, hilariously, looks like he's trying to cop some zzz's between licks. Still clad in his swastika T-shirt, Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I've ever seen. He really doesn't do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it's the eyes that kill you. They don't pierce, they bludgeon. …

Several burly roadies join the security men to form a solid wall in front of the band. Rotten is completely hidden from view, so he climbs on top of a monitor and grabs the mike in one hand and the ceiling with the other for balance. Someone in the balcony pours beer on him. …

Grasping a profusely bleeding nose, a kid collapses at my feet. Another pogos with his pants down. The "God Save the Queen" chorus – "No future, no future, no future for you" – sparks a similar explosion and closes the set. "No Fun" is the encore and, true to its title, blows out the entire PA.

The Sex Pistols, and Young’s description of them, made it seem like the world was changed forever. Such was the year 1977.

On Tuesday, Charles M. Young died of cancer.