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music friday: 2014

Future Islands, "Seasons (Waiting on You)". #1 single on that year's Pazz & Jop poll.

St. Vincent, "Digital Witness". People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window.

Flying Lotus, "Never Catch Me". Featuring Kendrick Lamar. Video directed by Hiro Murai.

Aphex Twin, "minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix)". Ad copy said "This is the first Aphex Twin dong fore 13 years between the publication of the first a formal music."

HAIM, "Oh Well". A band identified with a middle-of-the-road rock of bands like Fleetwood Mac play much harder in concert, which may partly explain why the Mac cover they choose is Peter Green's wailer (with a tip of the cap to Danny Kirwin's solo).

D'Angelo, "The Charade". D'Angelo's first album in 14 years.

SBTRKT, "NEW DORP. NEW YORK". Pronounced "subtract".

Kiesza, "Hideaway". Impressive one-shot video. Shades of "Wannabe". Kiesza is a better singer and dancer than Posh is. Probably the best video on this list.

DeJ Loaf, "Try Me". Her first single, she still hasn't come out with a full album.

Tacocat, "Crimson Wave". I'm pretty sure this is the only video on this list featuring George Takei.

Spotify playlist ... HAIM never recorded "Oh Well", so I've included the Fleetwood Mac version.

barbara lee and aoc

In 2002, Randy Newman finally won an Oscar for Best Original Song, after being nominated without winning more than a dozen times.

This blog was in its early days, and I was desperate for material, so I live-blogged the Oscars, and at one point, I wrote, "Not sure what it means, but Randy Newman was the first person where I thought, 'hey, that's one of us up there!' This was rather silly ... by that point, even Bruce Springsteen had won an Oscar. And there was a far more noteworthy example at that Oscars of people getting to see themselves ... Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the Best Actor awards, with Berry being the first African-American to win Best Actress. Berry made history. But I can't deny my instant reaction to Randy Newman's win.

Barbara Lee has been my representative in the House for 20 years. She does us proud. A campaign motto of hers, "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me", couldn't be more true. You might say that in Congress, she is both Halle Berry and Randy Newman.

She just lost her bid to become the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. The Intercept suggested she lost because of her association with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that she was punished for being on the side of the woman who unseated a man popular with centrist Democrats. I'm not sure about that. But neither am I surprised that the woman who Speaks for Me was unsuccessful in this case. I never expect the Democratic Party to make me feel good.

I was checking out Ocasio-Cortez' Instagram account, which is a delight. And I realized that the fact she uses Instagram the way many people do, as a way to present the "human" side of herself while also making policy statements, is one way she is of her generation. Instagram is more popular with the young than with geezers like me. Ocasio-Cortez' use of Instagram is just one item among many that tell us she isn't your father's Congresswoman. So far, I love her, but she speaks for a different demographic than mine. And that's a good thing.

So when she posted a brief Instagram video from a meeting of some sort for progressive Democrats, it warmed my heart that sitting right next to Ocasio-Cortez was ... Barbara Lee.

two more from nicolas roeg

Thinking about Nicolas Roeg, I decided to watch two more of his films, one an old favorite, the other a movie I admit I'd never heard of.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976). This was the fourth movie Roeg directed, and as such, it was a must-watch on its release, since the first three, Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now, were all big favorites of mine. I still love all of those movies, and when it came out, I loved The Man Who Fell to Earth as well. But over time I realized that I wanted to love it, but that it ultimately fell short. We went to see a re-release with a friend, and it felt very long. It was long compared to what I'd seen before, since the original U.S. release had been cut by 20 minutes. I can no longer imagine what that butchered version was like, and the one we have now is the real thing, all 139 minutes of it. It has a distinct style, which is no surprise; it looks gorgeous, which is no surprise. But the plot never excites. The setup is intriguing ... an alien from outer space comes to Earth looking for water for his dying planet. But the rest is fairly ludicrous, which reflects poorly on what seemed appealing at the beginning. There are some good performances ... Rip Torn, as always, Candy Clark doing what she can, David Bowie accepting that he was perfectly cast and going with it. And the critique of capitalism, which peeks out once in awhile, is welcome if by-the-numbers. I was quite taken with the literally alienated hero when I was 23, and I can still recall that feeling today. But the movie is too long, with plenty of memorable moments but not enough to make the film as successful as the Roeg films that preceded it.

Glastonbury Fayre (Peter Neal and Nicolas Roeg, 1972). This was new to me. It's a documentary of the second Glastonbury event from 1971 that eventually became the Glastonbury Festival we all know and love. It's haphazard in a rather charming way ... it's no Woodstock, as a festival or as a movie. It wouldn't be a Roeg move without full nudity, although in this case it isn't famous actors doffing their duds but rather numerous fair-goers. 1971 seems like a long time after the Summer of Love, but in the movie, it's as if the hippie dream never died. Roeg made this between Walkabout and Don't Look Now, or somewhat simultaneously ... it's hard to be sure. Traffic and Melanie are probably the best-known performers for American audiences, although there are also performances by acts more popular in the U.K. ... Arthur Brown, Family, Fairport Convention, Terry Reid, and others. No one turns in a great performance ... there are no revelations here. But it works as a time capsule. One last note: this may be the last movie I watch on FilmStruck, which is shutting down tomorrow. They had a Nicolas Roeg festival at the end, which is where I found this movie.

And here is what Glastonbury music videos look like today:


nicolas roeg

Nicolas Roeg died yesterday at the age of 90. There was a time when he was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don't Look Now) remain tremendous. I didn't like his next two, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing, as much, and then I mostly lost track of him, although he directed for another 27 years

I wrote about Performance a couple of months ago: "Revisiting Performance". I ranked it #10 on my 50 Favorite Films list back in 2012. In an earlier post:

Performance no longer seems like a very complicated movie. I showed it to a friend a few years ago who had never seen it, and he thought it was fairly straightforward. This is because the techniques of Performance, the things that made it seem so remarkable in 1970, are commonplace now. Fractured editing, uncertain chronologies, plots full of puzzles, these are all part of the standard bag of contemporary directors’ tricks.

Walkabout in 2011: "Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this."

I discussed Don't Look Now in 2013:

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure.

music friday: 2013

A quicky ... the holidays meant I didn't spend enough attention on these to warrant comments. So enjoy the videos, or the Spotify playlist.

Daft Punk, "Get Lucky".

Lorde, "Royals".

Drake, "Hold On, We're Going Home".

Justin Timberlake, "Mirrors".

Kacey Musgraves, "Follow Your Arrow".

DJ Rashad, "Let It Go". The video is a posthumous nod to Rashad.

Charli XCX, "You (Ha Ha Ha)".

MØ, "XXX 88".

Omar Souleyman, "Warni Warni".

Vampire Weekend, "Hannah Hunt".

Spotify playlist: 

And a bonus song:

african-american directors series: set it off (f. gary gray, 1996)

Had to watch this again after seeing Widows. There are obvious similarities between the two movies ... both involve four women turning into robbers. But it doesn't go a lot further than that. Returning to my comments on Widows...

I said Widows was a heist movie with a high-class sheen. Set It Off is most definitely not about the upper classes. In Widows, four fairly well-off women whose partners die in a robbery band together to pull off a heist of their own, because their men hadn't left them anything to live on. In Set It Off, four working-class and lower women who always need money realize they could make a score by robbing a bank. Only one of the four had a white-collar job, working in a bank, and she was fired, resulting in her joining her friends who work for a cleaning service. The women of Widows want to resume their good life ... the women of Set It Off want to escape from the low-rent drudgery of their lives.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, lies in the four characters in each movie. In Widows, the four have never met before their husbands died. In Set It Off, the four are friends from way back. Widows shows women of disparate backgrounds coming together for one heist. Set It Off shows four women, distinct characters to be sure, who all come from the same background.

One noteworthy aspect of Widows is the cast and crew, filled with Oscar winners and a ton of "That Guys". It's a prestige picture, even though it's a heist film, because it has Steve McQueen directing and Viola Davis and Liam Neeson and more. Set It Off gets superb performances from the four leads, but they don't come pre-packaged as a prestige outfit. Queen Latifah was nominated for an Oscar, but that came seven years later. Director F. Gary Gray, who came out of music videos, had only directed one feature, Friday. Kimberly Elise, who plays one of the four, was making her first movie. Jada Pinkett was still mainly known for A Different World. And while Vivica A. Fox had a breakout year in 1996, that's because she was in Independence Day. Finally, while Widows had an abundance of riches in its supporting cast, Set It Off had Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley, and Ella Joyce (all of whom were fine). Oh, and Dr. Dre made his movie debut as a gun dealer named Black Sam.

The point being that expectations were different for Set It Off, which was happy to be a genre movie, than for Widows, which was after other things (like an Oscar for Viola Davis). I'm willing to say that Widows is the better movie. But Set It Off is more enjoyable, and there is nothing in Widows to match the camaraderie of the four bank robbers in Set It Off. Roger Ebert said it well. "The movie surprised and moved me: I expected a routine action picture and was amazed how much I started to care about the characters."

And, as I said to my wife when the song turned up, "Now you know where this song came from".

Finally, here's a making-of short that is actually interesting:

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

widows (steve mcqueen, 2018)

Widows is a heist movie with a high-class sheen. It's director Steve McQueen's first film since he won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. He wrote the script with Gillian Flynn, from a TV series by Lynda La Plante. The cast includes A-Level stars like Viola Davis (one Oscar), Liam Neeson (one Oscar nomination), Robert Duvall (one Oscar), and Colin Farrell (hey, he has a Golden Globe). It has a bunch of "hey, it's that guy" players, all of them actors we like to see: Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Bernthal. It's genre fare, but with pretensions towards more. And it's worth noting that McQueen doesn't beat those pretensions over our heads. But I can't help thinking that those pretensions get in the way of Widows at times. It wants to be a great heist movie, but also more than a heist movie. But because McQueen is relatively subtle in working social context into the story, I got a bit antsy at times, wishing we could get back to the heist.

The problem is that there is too much extraneous material in the film. I haven't seen the TV mini-series, but I imagine there was plenty of room for expansive examinations of character and place. But Widows tells its story in just over two hours, which isn't enough time to fit everything in. There's a political subplot involving Farrell, Duvall, Henry, and others that isn't clearly necessary, beyond showing that corruption runs deep in Chicago. Davis plays a mother whose son died in the kind of way that screams relevance, and in real life, such events are terribly relevant, but here it just gets in the way, which is unfair to the subject and to Davis, who as usual acts up a quiet storm. I'd say there's a good 100-minute movie hiding in Widows, except I don't really object to what I've called extraneous, and I imagine for many people, the social context is what they'll like best.

There is plenty to like in Widows ... my complaining gives the wrong impression, this is a fine movie. The actors are uniformly great, although the script doesn't always serve them well ... Carrie Coon and Jacki Weaver in particular aren't given enough to do, so their characters lack depth. The plot involves four thieves whose caper goes bad, leaving their four wives up a creek. Those wives, led by Davis as Veronica, decide to pull off a heist of their own, based on information left to Veronica by her partner (Liam Neeson), who was involved in the caper-gone-bad. As is usual in such movies, each of the four has a unique personality, and to the extent those characters move beyond the stereotype, they make the movie. Davis is probably incapable of playing a shallow character ... Cynthia Erivo is very charismatic ... Elizabeth Debicki, all 6'3" of her, has the best arc, going from insecure victim to powerful badass (it's fun to see her in victim mode early on ... she seems to shrink before our eyes ... then, as she blossoms, that 6'3" towers over everyone, although she doesn't have a scene with Neeson). Michelle Rodriguez isn't asked to do much more than be Michelle Rodriguez, which is fine but she doesn't stand out amongst the foursome because there isn't a lot to her character. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya devours the screen as a bad guy who is a real bad guy.

Widows is entertaining, and even if I've moaned about the bloat, the social context ultimately adds to the film. There are some Oscar nominations to be found here, Davis for sure, but I'd like Debicki to get some love as well.

If you want a double-bill, try this one:

syndromes and a century (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2006)

 For the third time, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". Now, if you had told me at some point I would have seen three of Joe's movies, I'd have thought you were a little nuts. They aren't "my kind of movies". Think Terrence Malick, only Thai. Joe's films move at their own speed, inviting you to meet them on their own terms. He doesn't insist on this process ... he has said more than once that he doesn't mind if people fall asleep during his movies. Oddly, I never feel like dozing off when watching one of his films. It helps that they aren't endless ... the ones I've seen all get in under two hours. Joe doesn't piss me off with his obscurities, the way other filmmakers do. I don't know why.

Syndromes and a Century is split in half, a fact I'm glad I knew in advance (I always try to remain clueless about a movie before I've seen it, and don't how this information snuck in, but it helped). Both halves tell similar stories about similar people. The second half uses some of the same dialogue as the first. And "nothing happens" in either half. (It should be noted that there is no moment marking the switch into the second part.) The movie, like all of his I have seen, is beautiful looking and eccentric. And besides the feeling of giving myself over to Joe's rhythms, I could see that he was playing with the ways memories work (and don't work). If he had told the story a third time, it would be similar yet different once again, the ways memories are.

I'll add that there are some funny things in Syndromes and a Century. A monk who once dreamed of being a DJ. A doctor who keeps liquor in a prosthetic leg. Even the way, during what seems to be a job interview to work as a doctor in a hospital, the prospective employee is asked what "DDT" stands for. ("Destroy Dirty Things?") In one scene, a sick monk tries to con a doctor out of prescriptions for drugs for other family members, making us question not only if these family members exist, or even if the monk himself is actually sick. If you can stick with this movie, you will find rewards. Just don't look for them in the narrative (or lack thereof).

Thai censors demanded that Joe cut several scenes. These included a monk playing guitar, doctors kissing, and monks playing with a toy UFO.

The other Joe movies I have seen are Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tropical Malady. #55 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 film of the 21st century, #728 on the All-Time list.

Here is a scene (for lack of a better word) that culminates in a remarkable shot of a vent sucking up smoke:

music friday: 2012

Frank Ocean, "Pyramids". A ten-minute single that went gold. Cleopatra, pimps, and a John Mayer guitar solo, and that's not the half of it.

Bruce Springsteen, "We Take Care of Our Own". A pissed-off Bruce makes one of his best post-Tunnel albums. Christgau named this his top single of 2012.

Solange, "Losing You". This video looks beautiful.

Kendrick Lamar, "Swimming Pools (Drank)". It's not that this introduced Lamar to the world at large, but it's when he exploded.

Tame Impala, "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards". Trippy video. "I've got my hopes up again, oh no, not again. It feels like we only go backwards, darlin'."

Fiona Apple, "Every Single Night". The album was titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Ever Do.

Sky Ferreira, "Everything Is Embarrassing". Wikipedia says this is "a synth-pop, dance-pop, and alternative pop ballad."

Spiritualized, "Hey Jane". Another really long track.

Santigold, "Disparate Youth". Is it catchy? It's been used on the soundtrack for commercials for insurance companies and Honda automobiles.

Wild Flag, "See No Evil + Ask the Angels". This is a bit of a cheat. Their one and only album was released in 2011. But I saw them three times, the last at the Fillmore in 2012, so here they are, covering Television and Patti Smith.

Spotify playlist (Wild Flag never recorded these songs, so I've added the originals): 

the magnificent seven (john sturges, 1960)

A manly piece of entertainment based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. A lot of the men at the factory where I worked in the 70s and early 80s could name all of the Seven, just as they could name all of the dirty Dozen. (For the record, the Dozen were played by John Cassavetes, Tom Busby, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Ben Carruthers, Clint Walker, Charles Bronson, Colin Maitland, Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini, Trini Lopez, Telly Savalas.) The Dirty Dozen was much more of a guy movie than was The Magnificent Seven ... the female characters in The Magnificent Seven were just as insubstantial as those in The Dirty Dozen, but the men in the Western were more than just the embodiment of masculinity, which you can't really say for the Dozen. I know my wife was happy to watch The Magnificent Seven with me, and I doubt she's ever seen The Dirty Dozen, or even wanted to.

The Magnificent Seven is expansive. The cinematography is often pretty, the Seven are distinguished from each other in fairly interesting ways, the other characters are stereotypical but mostly fun to watch, and, of course, there's the music. If you're old enough to remember cigarette commercials on television, then you'll recognize the theme from The Magnificent Seven in an instant:

Elmer Bernstein's score earned the picture it's only Oscar nomination ... it lost to Exodus.

The casting was also interesting. I was going to say it comes from a less-enlightened time when ethnicity was cast in unusual ways, but then I remembered we still suffer from this problem in 2018. Yul Brynner, a Russian, played the leader of the Seven, a Cajun (I think this was supposed to explain his accent). Charles Bronson, of Lithuanian descent, played "Bernardo O'Reilly". ("Irish on one side, Mexican on the other... and me in the middle.") Bronson was the only actor to play both as one of the Dozen and one of the Seven. The German actor Horst Buchholz played "Chico". The Russian Vladimir Sokoloff played a wise old Mexican. And Eli Wallach was the head bandido.

The story, of a village needing the help of gunslingers to fight off bandits, is hard to screw up, and if The Magnificent Seven isn't as good as The Seven Samurai, at least it doesn't embarrass itself. And it has the immortal Whit Bissell!