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journey to italy (roberto rossellini,1954)

Journey to Italy is the title of the movie as I saw it, although the original Italian translates as "Voyage to Italy", and I've seen it listed both ways. In its day, it was butchered by censors in several countries ... the U.S. version was called "Strangers". There are many versions ... it originally ran 105 minutes, "Strangers" was edited to 80 minutes, and the one I watched, from Criterion, was 85 minutes. It was a flop at the box office, despite the fact it starred Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders (just a couple of years after he won an Oscar) and was directed by the highly-regarded Rossellini. The latter may have been part of the problem, since Rossellini was there at the beginning of the Italian neorealist movement, while Journey to Italy "imposes" Hollywood stars on the local culture.

Bergman and Sanders play a married couple who travel to Italy and realize it is the first time in their long marriage that they have been alone together. They also realize, or think they realize, that they don't like each other very much. Not a lot happens from a narrative standpoint, but the crumbling marriage accumulates in a way that mimics narrative. It is very influential ... some point to it as an early example of a "road movie" ... and you see elements of it in L'Avventura and Before Midnight (in the latter, Julie Delpy describes seeing it when she was a teenager). I don't think it's as good as either of those two. It looks great, and it's ironic seeing Sanders playing someone who is bored (his suicide note in 1972 read, in part, "I am leaving because I am bored"). (Sanders was famously frustrated with the making of the film ... he didn't care for the way Rossellini would only give the actors the script for the day, on the day of shooting.)

There are also some closeups of Bergman that are transcendent. Watching the movie, you can't help but think that the roots of the breakup of her marriage to Rossellini is reflected in the relationship between the husband and wife, but those closeups reveal a man in love with his wife. (It might play well with one of Godard's Anna Karina movies.)

Journey to Italy is now considered a classic of world cinema. I can't go that far, but for Bergman, for Sanders, for Pompeii, it's well worth seeing. #71 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time. 8/10.


hell or high water (david mackenzie, 2016)

I'm probably not going to give Hell or High Water the attention it deserves. I saw it more than a week ago, and have since been preoccupied with a medical procedure which is now thankfully over. I found much to like about the film, and I've read some interesting criticism, but the movie hasn't stuck in my mind, so this will be unfairly brief.

I was surprised to find out that Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Hell or High Water. Not that his performance wasn't worthy ... Bridges is one of our most consistently fine actors. But I thought he played the main character. That's just silly. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers are the clear leads. But I felt Bridges' presence throughout the film, and it was only in retrospect that I realized his was a supporting role.

That's not to belittle the performances of Pine and Foster, who are fine. But Bridges brings along the memories of the 80+ movies he has been in. We are familiar with him, he fits us like the proverbial glove. And that is appropriate here, when he plays a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement whose mind is sharp and whose detective skills are solid. Bridges is just there, we trust him, he doesn't have to chew the scenery (and there is some beautiful scenery here). Ben Foster has that covered.

Hell or High Water doesn't revitalize the Western, as some have claimed. It proves that there is still a market for a good film that falls into the Western genre, but it's kind of like Bridges' ranger: there's a lot to like, but it's ready for retirement.

Mackenzie doesn't overplay his hand. The banks are the bad guys here, but not as blatantly as in, say, Bonnie and Clyde. He barely takes a false step, which makes Hell or High Water easier to watch than other, more flamboyant, films. It doesn't reach the peaks, but it regularly comes close to the top. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.


colonoscopy and me

Every year, Kaiser sends out a FIT kit, "FIT" being an acronym for "fecal immunochemical test". You take a dump on a piece of paper, scrape a tiny amount of poop onto a brush, stick the brush into a tube, and mail it to Kaiser. They check it for blood, and if any shows up, they recommend a colonoscopy. I had a positive test several years ago, and did the preliminary procedures, but no one ever contacted me to actually get the colonoscopy. For many subsequent years, my tests were negative. Honestly, I think they just caught a hemorrhoid that one year.

Well, this year, it came back positive again, and my doctor put his foot down and said I was getting the colonoscopy done for sure.

Everyone said the same thing: the prep was far worse than the actual procedure. Many of you will have gone through this yourself, but for any rookies out there, this was my schedule:

Thursday: Thanksgiving.

Friday morning: Quit eating high fiber food.

Saturday night: Eat a small dinner, which will be my last solid food until the procedure was done.

Sunday morning: Drink 8 ounces of clear liquid every hour until I go to bed.

Sunday evening: Beginning at 6:00, drink half-a-gallon of colon cleanser, 8 ounces every 15-30 minutes. This stuff WORKS. I spent most of the next two hours sitting on the toilet. It doesn't help that our toilet is currently semi-broken, with the plumber coming to fix it on Tuesday. Go to bed whenever you want, but you're going to get up very early the next day, because ...

Monday morning: Get up at 4:30 and do another half gallon of colon cleanser. Finally, get to the hospital at 9:00 for a 9:30 procedure.

To be honest, nothing was as bad as I expected. The two sessions of constant shitting were completely water-oriented, if that makes sense, more like peeing out your butt. The cleanser, which supposedly tastes vile, seemed tolerable to me once I added the lemon-lime flavoring. I was gulping 8 ounces of liquid every 15 minutes ... well, I drink like that all the time. And it's not like this was the first time I sat on the toilet, reading a book. They sedate you for the actual procedure, so who knows what that was like ... I was in a zone.

FWIW, they found 7 polyps.

The best story comes last. On Sunday, my wife made a pumpkin pie, and today, when we got back from the hospital, I broke my fast with that delicious dessert.

As is so often the case, the anticipation for something far surpasses the actual event. I wrote about this once, in reference to Picasso's Guernica:

As we walked down the city streets to the Reina Sofia, my eyes filled with tears of joyous excitement. The work had brought me to tears before I'd even seen it! The "aura" seemed to have escaped from the painting itself and wafted its way onto the streets, where it compelled me with an insistent uniqueness.... As it turned out, the Guernican aura on the street was itself what I'd been waiting for; to be in the presence of great art mattered more than the art itself. The aura had taken over from its source.

Similarly, my colonoscopy was nothing compared to what I imagined it would be like.

That anticipation, though, ruined more than a week of my life. Not the colonoscopy, but the anticipation. Because I couldn't get the damn thing out of my mind, I lived in a stupor while I waited. If you read this blog, you experienced this. I posted on Friday the 17th. I posted on Friday the 24th. And that was it ... two posts in ten days, until this one, which hopefully marks the return of my brain.

music friday: sweet soul music

It's the anniversary of Arthur Conley's death. He died 14 years ago today. He seems destined to always be remembered as a One-Hit Wonder, that hit being "Sweet Soul Music". Conley was taken under the wing of Otis Redding, who helped put together "Sweet Soul Music". He seemed to be an ideal mentor for Conley, but he died in a plane crash later that year. Conley career floundered. Ed Ward tells the story:

In the mid-'70s, Conley abruptly moved to London. That proved expensive, so the next stop was Brussels, which he found too hectic. He then headed to Amsterdam and changed his name to Lee Roberts. Nobody knew Lee Roberts, and at last Conley was able to live in peace with a secret he'd hidden - or thought he had - for his entire career - he was gay. But nobody in Holland cared.

"Sweet Soul Music" was "based" on a Sam Cooke tune, "Yeah Man" ... "based" as in a lawsuit resulted in Cooke's name being listed a co-composer.

The horn introduction borrows from the theme for The Magnificent Seven:

Here is Arthur singing his hit in 1967:

Finally, here's Bruce Springsteen, who has performed "Sweet Soul Music" many times.

the handmaiden (chan-wook park, 2016)

I got off to a mediocre start with Chan-wook Park. The first movie of his I saw, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I thought it was a mess made by a talented director. ("It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.") I've seen a lot more Korean horror movies since then, and I might think differently about that movie now. Anyway, next up was Oldboy, and color me impressed. ("While Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.") Finally, there was the third film in the "Vengeance Trilogy", Lady Vengeance, which was as gorgeous to look at as the others (if you can make it through the violence, that is) and found a way to bring the plot together with a remarkable ending.

None of this prepared me for The Handmaiden. It's gorgeous, and yes, there are some violent scenes, although nothing to match Oldboy. But so much is different. It's based on a novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Waters set her story in Victorian Britain ... Park moved the setting to Korea in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. This adds depth to the film, although I admit I'm sure I missed much of it. Still, the relationship between Koreans and Japanese culture is shown clearly enough. The plot, which as far as I can tell sticks fairly closely to the novel, involves a con man trying to marry a rich woman for her money. I could say a lot more, but one of the great pleasures of The Handmaiden is following the twists and turns of the plot, so I'll just say that very little is as it seems. Even the manner in which the various twists unfold is elegant ... it's almost a spoiler to say that the twists exist, because Park takes his time getting to that part of his tale.

The film features a handful of fairly explicit sex/love scenes, and I'm of two minds about them. On the one hand, the scenes are lovely, and the actresses are quite beautiful. These are not what you might call "Game of Thrones" scenes, either, tossed in just for titillation. No, these scenes reveal both character and plot, and are, as they say, "integral" to the story. Nonetheless, more than one critic has accused Park of falling back on the male gaze to inform his work in those scenes. Park has argued that his film shows the damage the male gaze does to women, citing in particular scenes where one of the women reads books to groups of men. I'm not sure where I come down on this. They are used effectively, but I don't think Park totally escapes his desire to show hot women doing hot things with each other in a way that men would enjoy.

Still, there is much to like here, even to love. At times, it's like watching a Korean movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, and I mean that as a compliment. #399 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.


bipolar disorder

The Kaiser website for patients offers an incredible amount of information, and makes it easy to get appointments, order prescription refills, email doctors, and the like. It's not very well designed, in my opinion, but if you wander around enough you'll usually find what you are looking for.

One page lists "Ongoing health conditions". Mine has nine items, which sounds worse than it is, since a few of them are related enough that I consider them one condition, not several. There aren't any real surprises on the page. I have high blood pressure, which has been true for decades, although it's under control. I've had asthma since I was a kid, although it's not a very serious case. There's the rather innocuously named "Allergic Rhinitis (Nose Congestion)", which on a daily basis is probably my #1 condition. I had headaches for as long as I could remember, until once an emergency room doctor looked up my nose and prescribed steroid nose spray. I've been taking that spray for almost 20 years now, and I haven't had a single headache. This is miraculous. (I am not symptom free, but when the occasional pain arrives, it's clearly sinus related, and the additional drug of choice becomes a decongestant. Which is thankfully simple, considering the various treatments I had tried over the years for my headaches: migraine medicine with ergotamine, acupuncture, having four wisdom teeth pulled, becoming addicted to caffeine for years on end.)

I have a history of "Renal Calculus", which sounds bizarre but which is just kidney stones. Perhaps the thing I have that frightens most people is a history of methicillin resistant staph aureus, better known as MRSA. It is kinda spooky if I think about it ... I've had two breakouts I can remember, one of which put me in the hospital for almost a week. I feel like a walking infection, and am always "under the weather", which I imagine is related to this somehow.

But none of these are the reasons for this blog post. What got me thinking was when I discovered that one of my listed ongoing health conditions is "Bipolar Disorder".

There it is, right on the page, spelled out and everything.

It was 2005 when I finally broke down and went to the doctor about my mental state. Kaiser has (had?) a system where you saw a psychologist if you wanted therapy, and a psychiatrist if you wanted meds. I wanted meds. I got some, and I got lucky ... the initial choice (Wellbutrin and Depakene) worked from the start (or it had a tremendous placebo effect). I've been taking those meds for a dozen years now ... I remember the doctor at the time telling me that it was possible I'd take them the rest of my life, and I should consider that before I decided to go in that direction.

That first meeting didn't take very long, and I only saw that doctor one more time. She moved to Spain, and I saw a second doctor a couple of times, but I haven't seen him for a few years now. The meds are just part of my pharmacy collection. When we met the first time, the doctor listened to me describe what made me feel bad, and then told me that there wasn't anything particularly special about my case. (It's funny, I somehow want to be special at a time like this, like I'm the only person who has my problems.) She then told me she wasn't much for labels, didn't like to use them, but everything I described fit into the general category of Bipolar II. (For a rather scary definition of Bipolar II, check out the Wikipedia page on the topic.)

I have tried to be honest about this over the years. There should be no shame attached to the disorder. About the only thing I hesitated to do was label myself ... it was as if being Bipolar was just a newly-fashionable disease, and I didn't want to seem like a bandwagon jumper. But eventually I realized it was just another thing, like having a history of MRSA.

And yet, when I saw it listed on my Kaiser page ... well, I was startled. I can remember a time when my pharmacy doctor told me the medical folks didn't have access to my psychiatry files. It was a privacy issue or something. I told her this seemed silly, since she knew every prescription I had (that's why I have a personal pharmacist), and she knew what they were for, so she didn't need access to files to know I took Wellbutrin and Depakene. Now, it's just listed as one of my "conditions".

That is probably appropriate. I guess after all these years, I can officially claim to be Bipolar ... II, that is. It's not a romantic thing, I assure you. Most of the time, it's not even worth bringing up. But that Kaiser page got me thinking.


by request: final girl (tyler shields, 2015)

This movie is a piece of junk that doesn't deserve much discussion. I was going to add the trailer, but even it is boring. It marks the directorial debut for Tyler Shields, better known for his work as a photographer ... he's the one who took the photo of Kathy Griffin holding up a severed head that looked like Donald Trump. Abigail Breslin stars, trying to show everyone she's grown up now. It cost $8 million to make, and didn't even make that small amount back, although it's hard to be sure, since it was barely released before going to On Demand. It looks evocative, and with that, I've paid it all the compliments I can muster. The title has no real relation to Carol J. Clover's landmark work.

What interests me more is why we watched it in the first place. As noted above, this was a request. I asked my wife if she wanted to watch a movie, and we began the arduous process of picking something to watch. It had to be something we agreed on. Since she knits constantly during the movie, subtitles are out, and in these instances, she prefers something she's either already seen or knows will be relatively mindless, since she won't be paying very close attention. She also does what I assume is pretty normal ... as we scroll through titles, she wants to know who is in the movie. She is unconcerned about critical acclaim or the lack of same.

We were going to end up watching a horror movie, and I guess Final Girl seemed OK, albeit we had low expectations. Of course, even those were not met. At one point, I said maybe she just didn't like good movies. Surprisingly, she agreed with me.

Now, I watch a lot of junk, like 50s monster movies and the like. But most of the time, I'm looking for the critical favorites. It's why I enjoy having a "By Request" on occasion, because it gets me out of my own preferences. And when that request turns into Final Girl, I'll say hey, it's only 84 minutes, how bad could it be? Also, in fairness, I really liked Get Out, which was another "let's watch a movie together" film.

But when I watch something like Final Girl, I worry that two people will never be able to compromise enough to pick a movie both will like. More often than not, you end up with the lowest common denominator. And I end up thinking that, no matter how badly I want to share a favorite like In the Mood for Love with the one I love, my biggest concern is that she won't like it. Better that she never sees it, than that I find out she doesn't love it.

Oh yeah, a rating. Final Girl: 3/10.

creature feature saturday: the haunted strangler (robert day, 1958)

Some years ago, Criterion put out a box set titled "Monsters and Madmen" that included four late-50s B-movies of no particular merit: The Atomic SubmarineFirst Man into SpaceCorridors of Blood, and The Haunted Strangler. While none of these movies are stinkers, neither do any of them rise above the level of Saturday afternoon watchability.

The latter two films on the above list star Boris Karloff, who was in his early-70s. He gives an excellent performance in The Haunted Strangler ... he is easily the best thing about the movie, as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. It's fun to see the "Jekyll" side ... you realize it's a rare thing to see Boris Karloff smiling and kindly. He pulls off both sides of his character, and shows a spry physicality that is impressive.

The movie also benefits from solid black-and-white cinematography and the usual B-movie short running time (in this case, 78 minutes). Even at that length, though, The Haunted Strangler is stretched out with mostly unnecessary footage of dance-hall girls doing their routines. The first half of the movie is a bit of a detective story a la Sherlock Holmes, before it moves into horror. It's never scary, but it is a bit gruesome at times.

I only bought this box set because it was a chance to revisit The Atomic Submarine, a favorite from my youth. And I'm glad I got that chance. But other than that nostalgic trip, there is no clear reason why these movies ended up on Criterion. Still, they released a couple of Michael Bay movies, so I suppose anything is possible. 6/10.


music friday: john fogerty with brad paisley

Three years ago I devoted a Music Friday to Creedence Clearwater Revival, highlighting their jam, "Keep on Chooglin'". I spent most of that post looking at the ways Creedence were different from other Bay Area bands more identified with the FM underground radio explosion of the late-60s. I described in passing just how prolific (and great) the band was in those days:

In 1969, Creedence released three albums. On those albums were tracks like “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Lodi,” “Down on the Corner,” and “Fortunate Son”. All in one year. This wasn’t the Grateful Dead … this was a hit-making machine, cranking out one hit after another from the pen of John Fogerty. And they weren’t done. In 1970, there was Cosmo’s Factory (“Travelin’ Band,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”).

"Grapevine", of course, was a cover, and CCR did some great ones. Besides "Grapevine," there was "I Put a Spell on You", "Suzie Q", and "Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" on their debut album, and then later, "The Night Time Is the Right Time", "The Midnight Special", and others. It's a sign of their greatness as a band, and of Fogerty as a songwriter, that their covers are terrific, but the originals fit right in and match the quality of the classic songs they covered.

I guess I'm trying to say that I've underrated John Fogerty too often over the years. He is in the rock and roll pantheon. And many of his songs are frighteningly relevant to this day. Here he is with the band and one of their cheery numbers:

Just got home from Illinois lock the front door oh boy!
Got to sit down take a rest on the porch.
Imagination sets in pretty soon I'm singin'
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
There's a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearin' high heels.
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.
A dinosaur Victrola list'ning to Buck Owens.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Wond'rous apparition provided by magician.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
Forward troubles Illinois, lock the front door oh boy!
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.