Previous month:
February 2015
Next month:
April 2015

the jinx, series finale: quick notes

The final two minutes of The Jinx were the ultimate Holy Shit moment ... just check Twitter. I could do like the pros have done, and crank out a piece right now about the series and how it ended. But I’m not a pro, so I get to take my time.

I can think about what to do regarding spoilers (hint: I won’t be able to avoid them). I could already talk about the show from an aesthetic perspective, how the documentary was constructed, the creepy appeal of Robert Durst. I could even just say “Holy Shit!” along with everyone else who watched those last two minutes.

But The Jinx warrants some more measured thoughts, particularly about ethics and journalism. I don’t know how I feel about the ethics of The Jinx, and I’m not ready to just blather on the topic. For now, suffice to say the connection between what was on the screen and what was happening in real life went beyond the usual for documentaries. The question must be asked: was the astonishingly dramatic final scene, which went where non-fiction is rarely able to go, so worthy in terms of the art of The Jinx to overcome some obvious questions about withheld information.

So I’m going to postpone my more detailed thoughts for a few days.

music friday: the rolling stones, sticky fingers

If I had this blog 40 years ago, each Friday I’d be writing about an album. Nowadays, even when I get a new album, I chop it up into pieces and shuffle play the leftovers. You could say that it proves I really love an artist if I actually listen to their albums, as albums. (Hello, Sleater-Kinney.)

A trend in recent years is for artists to play entire albums from their catalog in concert. Bruce Springsteen has done this several times ... I’ve got a DVD of him doing one of his albums, I forget which, maybe Born in the USA. The Rolling Stones are apparently going to tour North America this year, and one rumor is that they will be playing Sticky Fingers in its entirety. Since that album comes from the times when I listened to LPs, I thought maybe I’d take it on for this week’s post. But, in line with how I usually do things nowadays, I’ll look at it track-by-track, without attempting too much overall contextualizing.

First, though, I’ll indulge in a bit of that context. Sticky Fingers is one of my favorite Stones albums, but the best of the best are pretty close in quality. It’s easier to list the albums that aren’t quite as excellent: the debut is a lesser album compared to 12x5, Now!, and Out of Our Heads. December’s Children isn’t quite as good as Aftermath or Between the Buttons. Got Live If You Want It! isn’t very good, Their Satanic Majesties Request is underrated but still below their best, Flowers is as good as Yesterday and Today. But Sticky Fingers sits amidst the best four-album run of studio albums they ever produced: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. (Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is the live album from the period, and overrated.) Suffice to say that Sticky Fingers is sitting in some pretty impressive company.

Brown Sugar”. Perhaps Jagger gets away with some of the controversial material in this song because there is so much going on, it’s hard to pinpoint anything. As he said, “God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” Wikipedia tried to list those subjects: slavery, interracial sex, cunnilingus, sadomasochism, lost virginity, rape, and heroin. Bobby Keys adds a sax solo, which was something different as I recall (not for music, but for Rolling Stones music). The video, taken from Top of the Pops, is interesting for another reason. You’ve got a song that begins, “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, Sold in a market down in New Orleans”. I’ve already thought it was odd that the inspiration for the song is said to be about a Black girlfriend, Marsha Hunt, or Black singer Claudia Lennear. I hear slavery more than I hear girlfriends. Anyway, the Top of the Pops appearance features the band syncing to the recorded track while Jagger adds live vocals. When the sax solo arrives, Black musician Trevor Lawrence pretends to play the recorded solo of Bobby Keys, white guy. Just another part of the mishmash, I guess.

Sway”. Where we are reminded that this is the Mick Taylor Era. He lays out some fine guitar work here. Charlie Watts is esp. good, too. And then here come Paul Buckmaster’s strings! The druggy feel could fit right in on Exile.

Wild Horses”. One of their most successful attempts at country. Video is from their 1995 “unplugged” album ... this song plays well in such an environment. Jagger? I’m reminded of what Xgau said about A Bigger Bang: “Mick ... once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his ‘vulnerability,’ but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it.”

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Prior to this, the one time the Stones ventured into the kind of long tracks that became popular with bands like Cream came with “Goin’ Home”, which appropriately consisted of Mick turning a short song into an eleven-and-a-half-minute track by moaning and cooing and exhorting about his baby that he’s going to see very soon. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, on the other hand, is dominated by Bobby Keys and (especially) Mick Taylor. This is yet another of Taylor’s shining moments with the Stones.

You Gotta Move”. Oddly minimalist blues. Listen to Charlie’s drums ... this could be a “Kiss”-era Prince recording. Since we’re treating this as an album, I’ll note that this was the last track on Side One. Full circle, you might say ... here, Mick tries harder than usual to sound Black (and for him, that’s pretty hard indeed). I’m touched that he cares enough to try.

Bitch”. Killer riffs, killer Charlie Watts, this one crushes your skull. Unlike “Brown Sugar”, which was ultimately disturbing, “Bitch”, despite its title and the Stones’ reputation, isn’t a woman-hater in the “Stupid Girl” mode. Love is a bitch, Mick explains, and when she calls his name, he salivates like Pavlov’s dog. Video is from a club date about a month before the album was released.

I Got the Blues”. The horns have a Stax-Volt feel to them. Nice organ solo by Billy Preston.

Sister Morphine”. Awesomely moody and depressing, and therefore a highlight of the album back in the day. We didn’t know that Marianne Faithfull had written the lyrics (uncredited at the time), had even recorded it as the B-side of a single that did nothing. It was the first sign of the Faithfull who would emerge with Broken English at the end of the decade. It always seemed ironic, that Marianne Faithfull, of all people, put out an album in 1979 that was better than any subsequent Rolling Stones album. Take that, Mick. I saw Marianne a couple of times in the early-80s. Granted, I get star struck pretty easily, but even so, I was amazed at her charisma. She knew it, too. (Don’t know why, but this reminds me of the movie Mister Lonely, which features aging James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in bed together.) (The video is of her version of the song.)

Dead Flowers”. I suppose it’s time to mention Gram Parsons, who hung out a lot with Keith and the boys in those days. His influence is clear whenever the band cranks out a country-rock tune. One problem is that Mick’s tongue is always firmly in cheek on these songs ... he says he always thought of himself as a blues singer, so he couldn’t totally give himself over to the country tunes. This sounds almost jaunty, but as with many songs on the album, a peek at the lyric sheet shines a different light: “Well when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac, making bets on Kentucky Derby day, I’ll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon and another girl to take my pain away”. Video is from the same club date that featured “Bitch”.

Moonlight Mile”. What a beautiful exit song. The lyrics aren’t particularly novel ... it could be a more elegant version of “Going Home”, with Mick lonely on the mad mad road, thinking about coming home. But there is precious little distancing in Jagger’s vocals, for a change. Paul Buckmaster’s strings actually add something, and trumpet player Jim Price plays lovely piano. (It’s as surprising as finding out drummer Jim Gordon plays the piano coda on “Layla”.)

togetherness, season one

Series on HBO only run for ten or so episodes a season, so the feel of HBO Sundays changes over the course of a year. Right now, the triad of Girls, Togetherness, and Looking turn Sundays into ... well, what to call it? The life and anxious times of middle-class white people? Each show has a particular setting within that grouping: Girls is about NYC women in their 20s, Togetherness is about SoCal adults in their late-30s, Looking is about gay men in San Francisco about 30+ years old. Although the geographies are different, you could imagine the various main characters knowing each other, or at least knowing people like the characters in the other shows. The combination of sameness and difference makes for a solid programming slot, but watching the shows, you see how the differences are what matter.

Togetherness just ended its first season (beating the other two because it was only eight episodes.) It sounds pretty generic: middle-class couple, late-30s, married for ten or so years with two kids, reach a point in their marriage where nothing seems quite right. The husband’s best friend moves in with them; so does the wife’s sister. Hilarity ensues, sort of ... Togetherness is another one of those genre-busting series that the word “dramedy” was coined for, although it doesn’t really feel right here. Suffice to say that laugh-out-loud moments are rare, but there are plenty of humorous situations, as well as serious things happening to the characters. The show is not groundbreaking, and, as many critics have noted, it would be unfair to tout Togetherness too effusively, because it you approach it as if it’s the next big thing, you’ll be disappointed by the often low-key presentation.

But it does stand out from the crowd. The characters are interesting, and the acting is on target. The great Melanie Lynskey does wonders with a role that too often comes across negatively: Michelle, the frustrated wife. Amanda Peet’s sister shows another angle on how it feels to approach middle-age ... she still hasn’t “found herself”, and she’s getting old enough that time may be running out. Steve Zissis is a real find as the best friend ... again, you think you’re getting a stereotype (lay-about slob), only this time, the character has depth and a love of life and of love. Some good character actors turn up, with John Ortiz especially good as a single father who catches Michelle’s eye (and maybe heart). This is not a show where nothing happens, but it moves quietly enough that you might not think it’s headed anywhere, in which case, the season finale will be a surprise. None of the characters are to blame for their actions, although at times they act poorly. But Togetherness helps us understand why the characters act as they do.

I want to say that everyone would find something to like about Togetherness, but its charms are probably too subtle, and you might decide you don’t like the characters in the first place (my wife didn’t make it past the first episode). The finale sets up some interesting possibilities for Season Two, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Grade for Season One: B+.

what i watched last week

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Inevitably present on any list of the best film noirs. As much as any movie, Out of the Past could be shown as an ultimate example of the genre. It would make a fine introduction to people who haven’t experienced noir before. The striking black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale (more than one, actually), the femme’s dupe (more than one, actually), the plot that makes increasingly less sense as the film progresses ... it’s all here. Roger Ebert once wrote a guide to film noir, ten things that make the genre stand out. Many of the items on his list are here: “A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.” “Locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.” “Cigarettes.” (He calls Out of the Past “The best smoking movie of all time.” “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.” Robert Mitchum is excellent as the detective with a past ... oftentimes, the dupe is a near-moron (see William Hurt’s character in Body Heat), but Mitchum’s detective is rarely fooled, which makes his actions even more impressive. He knows what he does with Jane Greer’s femme fatale will lead to destruction, and he does it anyway. Greer’s character is set up before she even appears on screen ... we’re told everyone falls for her, and soon enough, Mitchum falls in line. Toss in Kirk Douglas early in his career, and you’ve got it all, or close enough (and if you’re still hungry, there’s Rhonda Fleming as the back-up fatale). #179 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. For a companion noir, try Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

The Suspect (Shin-yeon Won, 2013). 7/10.

mls, season 20

Twenty years ago, MLS began its history with the inaugural match at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The home team won on a late goal by Eric Wynalda. We were there.

The Earthquakes’ season is about to begin. In two weeks, they will play their first official match at their new stadium. There have been highs and lows during San Jose’s years in MLS. There were the two MLS championships in 2001 and 2003. There were the dark days when the team moved to Houston. There was their return to MLS in 2006, with an expansion team.

Highs ... and lows. I might not have paid much attention to MLS when the Quakes were gone, but I started following the team as soon as they returned.

You know, in 1971, I moved to Indiana for a year. That fall, the Giants made the playoffs, losing to Pittsburgh in the NL Championship Series. My friends in Indiana thought I should have rooted for Pittsburgh, because I lived in the Midwest. I paid them no attention. The Giants were my team.

If I moved back to the Midwest now, I’d still root for the Earthquakes.

On the other hand, I know how it feels to break up with a loved one. Robin broke up with me in 1969, and even though we married in 1973 and are coming up on our 42nd anniversary, I still get bitter thinking about when she left me. But, as she says, you have to get over it.

music friday: what are my friends listening to?

This is an easy way to hear new songs: check out what Spotify says my friends are listening to.

Lauren was listening to “I Am Music” by Common with Jill Scott (not “new”, this comes from 2002, but I hadn’t heard it lately):

Stafford went back to 1990 for Dwight Yoakam and “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose”:

Ann Powers went in another direction with “There’s a New Creep on the Block” by Snow White’s Poison Bite:

Nick Hornby (no, we’re not friends, but I follow him on Spotify) went back to the 50s for Johnny Griffin and “Nice and Easy”:

And Olivia was listening to “It’s All You (Ooh Wee)” by Davina:

by request: the suspect (shin-yeon won, 2013)

I had very little idea what to expect with The Suspect. I have a rather narrow view of what a Korean movie might offer ... stylish gore and violence, mostly. But this turned out to be something different.

Not different as in “I’ve never seen anything like it,” but different as in “this isn’t Oldboy”. In fact, The Suspect is a fairly standard action spy thriller in the modern mode, a Korean version of the Bourne franchise, if you will. It’s pretty good at this, even if I wouldn’t recommend it as the first movie for viewers new to modern Korean films.

The plot is suitably complicated. I never understand these kinds of plots, anyway, and the Korean angle really threw me off. The Suspect has agents and double agents and whatever they call faux-double agents. But there is lots of border crossing ... the main character was a North Korean spy who ran into trouble when the new regime took over, which led to his escaping to South Korea, where he learns information that turns him into a weapon of vengeance. It’s assumed he’s a double agent, but in fact, he’s out for himself. He’s a defector, not a double agent. Meanwhile, the film shows a South Korea rife with corruption ... if there’s an ultimate bad guy, it’s the government, itself.

The Suspect goes on too long, but the defector, played by Yoo Gong, has charisma, and Hee-soon Park is also good as the man chasing the defector. Da-in Yoo turns the typical “let’s put a pretty girl in for eye candy” role into something more substantial ... she plays a journalist who is a key to exposing the corruption.

But the only real reason to see The Suspect is for the action scenes. And while there are some good ones, two stand head and shoulders above the rest. Both are car chases, which by now you’d think was an exhausted idea. But the first car chase marvels for 7+ minutes, and when a second car chase emerges late in the film, and you think they’ve already done this, they add just enough to make it an entertaining reprise. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929). There aren’t many films as notorious and highly regarded as Pandora’s Box. Pabst is regarded as one of the great directors. And, of course, Louise Brooks is a legend, and Pandora’s Box is the movie that, more than any, feeds that legend to this day. I’ve heard it said that Pandora’s Box seems like a modern movie, that it hasn’t aged ... I guess the idea is that Brooks’ Lulu is the kind of character you could still see today. Or maybe it’s the open lesbian content. Ultimately, Lulu anticipates the femme fatales of film noir, but that was “modern” 70 years ago. It sounds like I’m complaining, and I think I did find the movie disappointing because I expected a full-out classic. That’s not fair, and Pandora’s Box deserves a second look down the road, when I won’t be distracted by its reputation. In the meantime, Lulu’s single-minded selfishness is almost fun until the tragic end ... the fun comes from Brooks, who really does seem like she could seduce everyone who crosses her path. #246 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Fellini’s Casanova (Federico Fellini, 1976). One could say that Fellini was just being honest when he started attaching his name to the titles of his movies. In fairness, some of the time, his name was added to foreign releases of his films. But this one is indeed his Casanova ... the original title is Il Casanova di Federico Fellini. Since Casanova doesn’t come across as a very good person, and since he also seems to be a stand-in for the director, you can’t help but wonder why the director hates himself. Some of Casanova’s problems arise because he doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves. But in the film, it’s never clear he actually does deserve respect. The film has the colorful pageantry you associated with Fellini, all meticulously shot in a studio. But as the movie goes on (for more than 2 1/2 hours), it loses its energy the way the older Casanova does when he can no longer service the women who have helped make his reputation. Fellini was only in his mid-50s when he made Casanova, and you wouldn’t think he was burned out. In fact, it is said he thought Casanova was one of his best movies, although the critics didn’t agree. (It does make #883 on the TSPDT list.) 6/10. For a companion piece, I’d recommend “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology film, Spirits of the Dead.

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). It’s all Angelina Jolie. Oh, there is a lot of CGI work ... first-time director Stromberg has spent his career in visual effects, and has two Oscars for Art Direction. And there’s the story, a reworking of Sleeping Beauty that carries some contemporary attitudes alongside the classic tale. But it’s a Disney film, which means there are things that I suppose are for the little kids in the audience (the Three Pixies are the worst offenders) but which won’t likely do much for the parents who bring the little kids. Still, the combination of “for the kids” and “give the grownups something, too” works well enough, although the darker turns in the plot might give one pause when thinking of those kids. Elle Fanning plays the Beauty as a constantly-smiling, beloved-by-all Princess-to-be. It’s not Fanning’s fault that the role is fairly narrow in scope. But where the Beauty’s role constricts Fanning within its goodness, the title character Maleficient gives Jolie plenty of room to offer several shades of both good and bad, and Jolie takes full command of the role. She is what you’ll remember from Maleficent ten years from now. 7/10. Most obvious pairing would be with Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.

Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014). 7/10.