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what i watched last week

Three movies, all of which were directed by people whose work I have found intriguing in the past.

Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956). Melville’s Army of Shadows came out in 1969 but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2006, which is a good short anecdote to demonstrate how Melville didn’t get enough respect during his career. Bob le Flambeur is difficult to place in film history, because it was/is many things. It’s a heist movie, albeit not the first. It often has the feel of a film noir. It was a big influence on the French New Wave, but it doesn’t really belong to that movement. Roger Duchesne is great in the title role ... he seems equally suave when he is flush and when he is broke. (“Flambeur” is variously translated as “gambler” and “high-roller”.) Isabelle Corey makes the viewer wonder just how old she is (in actual years, not old enough ... she was 17, or maybe 16, there are many versions ... in what she brings to her part, older than her years). The film is simple on the surface, but always suggests deeper meanings. In my mind, that’s a very French attribute. #829 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014). I liked Iñárritu’s debut, Amores Perros, quite a bit, and while his critical reputation seems to fluctuate, I’ve liked the others I’ve seen (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) without thinking they reached the heights of the first film. Birdman adds to that list, good-not-great, making me think that Amores Perros wasn’t great either, but just really good. Iñárritu helpfully includes a speech by Michael Keaton’s Riggan that preempts any criticism:

Let's read your fuckin' review. "Lacklustre..." That's just labels. Marginality... You kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That's a label. That's all labels. You just label everything. That's so fuckin' lazy... You just... You're a lazy fucker. You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don't, You know why? Because you can't see this thing if you don't have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge. ... There's nothing here about technique! There's nothing in here about structure! There's nothing in here about intentions! It's just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons... You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin' anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!

Well, pardon me! Still, the point is well-taken. I missed a couple of key items in the movie ... apparently it was a comedy, which I barely noticed, and it is driven in part by a parlor trick that makes the entire film look like it is one long take. What does it mean, that I didn’t even notice that trick? Was I so engrossed I didn’t notice things, or was I a lazy viewer? I think I know what Iñárritu would say. Winner of 4 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. #267 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 7/10.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-wook Park, 2005). Last film in the “Vengeance Trilogy”, which is a bit of a misnomer, since Park didn’t intend the films to be explicitly connected. The first of the films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, bombed, and I found it mostly style over substance. But the second film, Oldboy, was so good I might have a little more sympathy for the first one. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance comes closer in quality to Oldboy than to the earlier film. Stylistically, the film is consistent with the others ... it would be nearly impossible to ignore how beautiful it is to look at. Park plays around some with narrative chronology, but this time it works ... anyone who has seen Oz or Orange Is the New Black will quickly pick up on the way Park conveys bits and pieces of various characters who, like the titular character, spend time in prison. Lady Vengeance also is clearer than Mr. Vengeance in explicating its meaning (“Everyone make mistakes. But if you committed a sin, you have to make an atonement for that sin. ... Big Atonement for big sins. Small Atonement for small sins.”). Park does a great job of suggesting more violence than he actually shows ... we get the buildup, we get the aftermath, but usually don’t see what happens on the screen. (And what happens ... well, let’s just say a lot happens. A little doggy is shot point blank, a woman cuts off one of her fingers, there is torture and lots and lots and lots of screaming, terrified children.) It all culminates in a remarkable final half-hour or so when a group of victims of horrible crimes first confront the reality of their loss, then discuss what to do about their desire for vengeance, and then finally act on that desire. Remarkable, yet I admit I wasn’t sure of the tone ... was this cathartic, or just revenge porn? Whichever, Park exposes some raw feelings. Min-sik Choi, so good in Oldboy and I Saw the Devil, is his usual fine self here, but the real draw is Yeong-ae Lee as Lady Vengeance. She is allowed to steal the show, and she succeeds. Oldboy remains the standard, but Lady Vengeance stands on its own as a very good film. Oh, and unlike with Birdman, this time I got that it was partly a comedy. #652 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10.

music friday: linda perry, pink, "what's up?", and sense8

In 1992, a San Francisco band called 4 Non Blondes released what would be their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! The second single from that album, released in 1993, was “What’s Up?” It was a hit, and the video for the song was very popular on MTV. When the dust had cleared, that one album by 4 Non Blondes had sold six million copies. Critical opinion of “What’s Up?” varies ... it makes lots of One Hit Wonders lists, and also makes lists of the worst songs of all time. It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.

Now, I would have thought this song came and went, occasionally recalled by folks nostalgic for that time in the early-90s when they were teenagers and this was their anthem. People like Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, who was born in 1979 and was a big fan of the song and Linda Perry, who wrote it and sang it. Pink asked Perry to work on her second album, Perry offered up the song “Get This Party Started”, and the album, M!ssundaztood, eventually sold thirteen million copies. On tour, Pink would sing “What’s Up?”. I caught this the first time I saw her in concert in 2002, and then again when she played the Fillmore in 2006. After that show, I wrote:

Her audience was completely in love with her ... there were a lot of young girls there, young women as well, as is appropriate, and it was their show, they knew every song and sang every lyric. They even knew every word to 4 Non Blonde's "What's Up," which Pink claims as her own. No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts, it would seem, since I wrote about a singalong in my blog post about that earlier show four years ago.

What's odd is that Pink hooked up with Linda Perry for M!ssundaztood, and Perry wrote a lot of the songs for that album, when in fact Linda Perry had written the ultimate Pink song eight years before the two even met. So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.

Which brings us to the new Netflix TV series, Sense8. Briefly, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers who have some kind of psychic/emotional link to each other (we’ve only watched four of the twelve first-season episodes, so I’m guessing this gets more clear as the show progresses). Near the end of the fourth episode, one of the eight drunkenly attempts to sing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar. All of the other Eight feel the song inside them, and it binds them together in a beautiful way that correctly identifies why “What’s Up?” works no matter how bad or irritating the song might be.

There wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Kinda makes me hate the song, but damn, does it work!

In a fascinating article on the series (“Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination”), Claire Light argues convincingly that the show offers “a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality”, but that “To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes ... The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views.... ‘Universing’ everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms”. (“The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag.”)

And yet ... that hideous anthem, which did indeed come from America, approached the universal long before Sense8, and not just because young girls knew all the words at Pink concerts. “What’s Up?” hit #1 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Granted, this only disputes Light’s claim by half ... Africa and Asia and South America are missing from these charts. Her essay is very enlightening. But the pull of that “hideous anthem” somehow seems just right in this case.

Here are two more versions of the song. First, Linda Perry is joined by Pink for an acoustic version:

And finally, the version many think is the best, by He-Man:

throwback thursday, recent edition

Mass Shooting Tracker is a website that calls itself “the world's only crowdsourced mass shooting tracker”. They have an ongoing page with Mass Shootings in 2015. Yesterday alone there were four shootings in the USA. The one that got the most attention was the live-on-television shooting of two Virginia journalists. Three people died, and one was wounded. There was also a shooting in Minnesota that left four wounded, a shooting in Florida that left two dead and two wounded, and a shooting in Chicago that killed one and wounded three. These brought the total number of shootings in 2015 to 248.

You can go to the website and see lists for 2013 and 2014 as well, if you want to look back in honor of Throwback Thursday.

what i watched last week

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). I can’t blame Scorsese, who is in his 70s, for returning to the well that has given him so much artistic nourishment in the past. And he’s still making good movies ... if my favorite Scorseses are from the 1970s, the 2000s have seen such fine efforts as The Aviator, Hugo, Shine a Light, and especially The Departed. So when I say that The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me a lot of past movies by Scorsese, most particularly Goodfellas, that isn’t a complaint. But as memorable as Goodfellas was, it wasn’t as good as Mean Streets (and Casino was far worse than Goodfellas). And The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t as good as Goodfellas, either. There are diminishing returns. The Wolf of Wall Street deserved its Best Picture Oscar nod, but Gravity and the winner, 12 Years a Slave, were better. The movie got five nominations, all in major categories, and all were legitimate. And Leonardo DiCaprio was magnetic in the title role. So no, this isn’t a complaint. But for all the vibrancy on the screen, I never felt I was seeing something that was more than that vibrancy. The film has been compared to The Great Gatsby (both the novel and film versions), and that’s fine, but The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest novels ever written while The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty good movie. Even as I write this, I see what I am doing, comparing the movie to classics and then finding it falls short. It’s not fair of me. But I feel like The Wolf of Wall Street got a lot of praise because “Marty’s still got it!” That’s not fair, to Scorsese or to the movie. #319 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004). One of those movies that are praised in part for what they are not. It’s not a stupid action picture of the Transformers variety. It isn’t ludicrous like many James Bond movies are. In fact, many people think the Bourne films had an influence of Casino Royale, which rebooted Bond in an excellent way. I’ve seen the Bourne movies in the wrong order ... I saw the third one, The Bourne  Ultimatum, in 2008, now I’ve seen the second one ... I guess this means I’ll be seeing the first one in the series sometime in 2022. This movie is mostly chase scenes, and they’re good, especially a colossal car chase scene near the end that answers the question, is there really anything new they can do in a car chase? (Yes.) There is a modicum of actual interesting characterization. It’s a pretty good movie. Having said that, it is also an example of what happens when you expand your Greatest 21st Century films list from 250 to 1000. #963 on the TSPDT 21st century list. 7/10.

music friday: born to read

Last night, we attended a Litquake show, “Born to Read: Celebrating the Lyrics of Springsteen”. Here’s how it was described on the website:

[A] one-of-a-kind celebration, including personal reminiscences and dramatic and musical interpretations. With rock critic and author Ben Fong-Torres, musician Tom Heyman, author/humorist Beth Lisick, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia, poet Daphne Gottlieb, rock critic Joel Selvin, and music biographer and musician Sylvie Simmons.

There were a couple of cute “reminiscences” before the start of the actual show, which was hosted by Fong-Torres. He was one of the best things about the show, and I actually learned something from his performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. Fong-Torres said the song exposes some of Springsteen’s admitted influences, and he proceeded to start singing the song in the voice of Bob Dylan. His Dylan impression could use some work, but it served its purpose, showing how Dylan-esque Bruce’s lyrics remained on his third album.

What followed was a mixed bag. Part of the problem is down to taste preferences, as usual. I don’t much care for treating song lyrics like poetry. Song lyrics don’t stand alone ... remove the music and you change the meaning. The lyrics of “She’s the One” on the page are lacking the central point of the song: the Bo Diddley beat, with the volume cranked up at the start of the second verse. So the songs where the performer did a reading of the lyrics were not my cup of tea. Alejandro Murquia did what he could with “Meeting Across the River”, but any insights came from having the voice of a Latino behind the words. Joel Selvin sped through “Night” in about 45 seconds ... I assume he was trying to convey the rush of the song, but again, absent the music, he just sounded silly. “Backstreets” has great lyrics, sure, but the meaning of the song is told through the piano and the guitar and the way Bruce channels Van Morrison.

Tom Heyman, a working musician, had a tough job. At least he got to sing and play guitar. But the songs he was given, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland”, don’t lend themselves to an acoustic rendering (even Bruce struggled with this when he sang “Born to Run” solo on one tour). Similarly, Sylvie Simmons was never going to be able to turn “She’s the One” into a ukulele classic (see above). It’s not that these musicians were bad, it’s that their reworkings were doomed to failure from the start. Honestly, Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a better handle on “Born to Run” than Heyman.

Out of all this, one performance rose above the rest. Beth Lisick performed “Thunder Road” as a woman listening on headphones. We couldn’t hear the actual track ... we only heard Lisick, singing (too loud, and just a bit off-key, the way we all do when we sing with headphones on). For once, we sensed the joy that Springsteen’s work provides to his audience, as Lisick danced awkwardly, screwing up the occasional lyric, and then, best of all, acting out the instrumental fadeout. You could hear the instruments in your head, even though no sound came from Lisick. And then, in the single most winning moment of the night, she mimed the Professor playing his little piano phrase. It’s the kind of thing only a hardcore Bruce fan would understand, and it was a roomful of hardcore Bruce fans. The communal feel of recognition was sublime.

A friend who lives in the Northwest felt bad for missing the show, but he offered to read the lyrics in his backyard if anyone wanted to do a road trip his way. I wish “Born to Read” had a bit more of that spirit.

(I should add that I wasn’t keeping notes, so I may have mismatched performers to songs. My apologies if this is true.)

throwup thursday

Ten years ago today, my wife and I went to Cafe duNord to see Mary Gauthier in concert. It was just her and a guitar player. The venue is extremely tiny, which turned out to be a good thing, because the electronics on the guitars wasn't working, so Gauthier did the entire show literally unplugged ... she came off the stage to the front of the floor to get closer to us, and sang her songs.


what i watched last week

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). It’s not Heathers, for better and for worse. I realized, as I watched, that my standards for this kind of movie pretty much boiled down to “is it as good as Heathers”, which is odd since, as much as I love that movie, I don’t think it’s great (7/10). Despite the title, Mean Girls is nowhere near as mean as Heathers, primarily because there is no real equivalent in Mean Girls for Christian Slater’s character, J.D., in the earlier movie. J.D. is a psychopath who kills people ... the outsider in Mean Girls who tries to appeal to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady is Lizzy Caplan’s Janis Ian, who is never more than just an outsider. Even as Cady turns into one of the “Plastics”, the level of meanness never rises above making her rival gain weight. Heathers gains added punch because we see why J.D. would appeal to Winona Ryder’s Veronica. This also makes Heathers less real than Mean Girls, which is fairly recognizable as a teenage tale of high school hierarchies. One place where Mean Girls has a clear advantage is in its cast: Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid joke, Rachel McAdams, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lacey Chabert, my beloved Lizzy Caplan, and making her film debut, Amanda Seyfried. OK, I still prefer Heathers, but that’s just taste preferences ... both movies are fun and reasonably insightful. 7/10. #683 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. The obvious double-bill partner would be Heathers.

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). 7/10.

film fatales #4: wendy and lucy (kelly reichardt, 2008)

(Suggested by The Film Fatales)

There were several warning signs ahead of this one. First, it’s not encouraging when a dog’s name is in the title. More importantly, I had only seen one Kelly Reichardt film, Old Joy, which came just before Wendy and Lucy, and I was, to quote from my comments, “bored shitless”. I wrote at the time that nothing happens (I’m erratic about this ... I usually hate it ... on the other hand, I love L’Avventura). What’s funny is that my memory in retrospect (some seven years since I saw it) is that I found the relationship between the two men at the center of the film made me very uncomfortable. The guy who was still a hippie gave me the creeps, and I felt bad for the guy who had “sold out”. Yet all I talked about then was how bored I was.

Wendy and Lucy is not boring, at least not to me. Apparently, I am less bothered by a relationship between a woman and a dog than I am about two men, one of whom seems to make demands on the other. (Wendy doesn’t make demands on Lucy, and of course, Lucy is a dog so she doesn’t make many demands, either.) The style of Wendy and Lucy is similar to the earlier film ... a good feel for nature (and the beautiful cinematography to go with it), a lack of a narrative thrust, the willingness to take the time to let the film develop (if “develop” is the right word). Both films are very short (76 minutes for Old Joy, 80 for Wendy and Lucy), but here the running time seems just right (whereas Old Joy seemed endless, even at 76 minutes).

Michelle Williams has to carry the movie, and she does, which is no surprise, given how often she is excellent. She doesn’t overplay, so she fits right into the film’s tone, and when she finally breaks for a moment, it carries extra weight for being rare. People took note of what Williams did to her looks for the movie ... four of the five trivia items on the IMDB are about her appearance (she went without makeup, didn’t wash her hair, didn’t shave her legs or clean her nails, slept in a car for a few nights, and “was so scruffy during filming that when bystanders came up to chat with the crew they totally ignored her.”). But Williams doesn’t let her makeup (or lack of same) do her work for her. She creates a real character that isn’t purely defined by her looks. (Think of her in My Week with Marilyn.) #148 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

music friday: mean girls

I watched Mean Girls for the first time yesterday, and since I’m in a hurry, I thought I’d milk its soundtrack for a few songs on a Music Friday post. Soundtracks of popular movies often tell us something about the times in which the movie was released, which in this case was 2004.

The Donnas, “Dancing with Myself”. This kicks off the soundtrack album, but in the movie, it plays over the closing credits. The Donnas were everywhere in those days, not just on the music charts but on soundtracks and even video games. Their last album was in 2007.

Pink, “God Is a DJ”. From the follow-up to M!ssundaztood, which guarantees the album would be underrated. Teaming up with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong was an interesting idea.

Kelis, “Milkshake”. An inescapable song of its time.

Boomkat, “Rip Her to Shreds”. Boomkat was/is a sister act, Kellin and Taryn Manning. Taryn is better known now as Pennsatucky on Orange Is the New Black.

Blondie, “One Way or Another”. The “Shreds” originators also turn up on the soundtrack.

“The Mathlete Rap”. The story, perhaps apocryphal although it shows up on the IMDB, is that the actor who performs this in the movie, Rajiv Surendra, was “coached ... on how to rap for his on-screen performance” by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

blu-ray series #23: the curious case of benjamin button (david fincher, 2008)

I approached this movie with mixed expectations. I tend to think of Fincher as a director I don’t like, mostly because I hated Seven and didn’t much like his Alien movie. But I have liked a couple of his more recent efforts (Gone Girl and especially The Social Network), so I need to get past my earlier opinion of the man’s films. But then there’s the part where the screenplay was by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay for the execrable Forrest Gump. And like that movie, Benjamin Button tells the story of a man who finds himself connected to world events over a long period of time.

Thankfully, Benjamin Button lacks the reactionary politics of Gump. It starts with an ingenious idea: what if a man was born old and got younger over time? Through a mixture of CGI, good acting and makeup, and effective depictions of various places and times, Fincher avoids the sappiness I feared. The movie is clever, and while its emotional climaxes didn’t work for me, I am aware that many have taken the film to heart.

The thing is, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never makes any connection with me, emotional or otherwise. It is ultimately a shaggy dog story. It reminds us of the structure of a classic like Citizen Kane, but it’s Kane as if Rosebud actually meant something, which is to say, nothing important matters. There isn’t anything here beyond the concept. I might be glad that this time, Roth avoids the tendency to make a political statement, but he doesn’t replace that with anything else. We get events that happen over time, and there are recreations of World Wars and Broadway in the post-War era, but they exist largely to show us that Benjamin is reverse aging while everyone else gets older ... it’s the anti-Gump, nothing is important except the basic story. The framing device takes place as Katrina hits land, and even there, you don’t get any feeling for what Katrina will mean to New Orleans. Fincher gives us accurate representations of places like New Orleans, but never bothers to show us why we should care.

I’d be lying if I said the story didn’t involve me ... even at 166 minutes, my attention rarely flagged. But there remains something rather tiny about this movie that aspires to epic status. #515 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.