Quick thoughts on three favorite Sunday shows that are all disappointing in their own way.
Outlander has one more episode in Season 4, which has turned out to be the worst so far. "Worst" is harsh, for the show retains much of its appeal (i.e., Claire and Jamie Fraser). But this season takes place mostly in colonial America, and the folks in charge don't seem to know what to do with slavery or Native Americans. A few episodes take place on a family plantation, and here, Outlander is only marginally better than Gone with the Wind. In fact, the black "characters" (most of them don't rise to even the level of an identifiable character) exist mostly to show how the white heroine is disgusted by slavery. That is, the problem with slavery isn't being a slave, it's being a sensitive white person. Meanwhile, the Native Americans are never more than plot devices. I understand that there is only so much time to squeeze in everything from the books on which the series is based, but this is worse than nothing.
Shameless returns for the second half of Season 9, also known as The Season Where Emmy Rossum Leaves the Show. Shameless has been on a downward spiral for a long time, now. It took longer than usual for a Showtime series, but it's barely worth watching now. I'm sticking with it until the end of the season ... I feel I owe it to Rossum. But it's a shadow of its former excellence.
SMILF just began its second season. It's a unique half-hour charmer, unlike most other shows, and Frankie Shaw, who created, writes, and at times directs, while taking on the title character, is a revelation. It's the one show of these three that looks to still be at the top of its game. Except ... there are accusations of misconduct on the set, and you can't watch SMILF without remembering that fact.
The movie version of Hair occupies an odd place in both movie history and U.S. cultural history as a whole. When the stage play came out (1967 Off Broadway, 1968 Broadway), it was well-received by critics and garnered two Tony nominations (it lost to 1776). It ran for 1,750 performances on Broadway, and 1,997 performances in London. The original Broadway cast album sold 3 million copies and won a Grammy. Various companies toured ... it arrived in San Francisco in 1969, and some of my friends went to see it.
I didn't go with them. I was a purist hippie-wannabe, and didn't understand how hippies could be accurately represented in a Broadway play, which seemed like the antithesis of hippie. (For what it's worth, I probably still think that.) Like some old Get Offa My Lawn geezer, my 16-year-old self was cranky about the existence of Hair.
Now I've finally seen Hair. Aficionados will point out that the movie version isn't the same thing. As Wikipedia points out, "The film's plot and soundtrack both differed greatly from those of the original musical stage play", adding that the creators claimed "Any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us". This is not the first time a stage play has been changed on its way to the screen; I just point this out to clarify that when I say I've seen Hair, I mean the movie.
The film Hair was released in 1979, long after the period Hair recreates. I may have been suspicious of the original, but clearly many people saw it as an accurate representation of the times, the music, the people. They were operating within the frame of the play ... there was no distance, it was a story about the present. Forman can't do this, because 1979 isn't 1968. He tries to recapture 60s by offering a version of a version. Hair wasn't the 60s, it was a play about the 60s (a Broadway musical, ferchrissake), and the movie isn't a version of the 60s, it's a version of a Broadway musical about the 60s. I can be forgiven for thinking the movie Hair has about as much to do with the 60s as Happy Days had with the 50s.
I will seem silly, but a few minutes into the movie, I thought to myself, "This is a musical!" Duh, to be sure, but that was just one more reason I wouldn't like it, and for some reason that hadn't occurred to me.
Can I be at all fair to this movie? Probably not. The best I can do is point out the things I liked. I've always been a fan of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", the 5th Dimension hit, although again, I knew less than I realized ... I thought the two songs belonged together, and was surprised to find that "Aquarius" was the opening song while "Let the Sunshine In" was the closer. In between were a lot of forgettable songs. The "famous" ones don't fare much better. Awhile ago, when talking to my six-year-old grandson about silly songs (he knew plenty, he's a kid, I wanted him to appreciate that we had silly ones, too), I gave as an example "Good Morning Starshine", a hit for Oliver that was truly stupid ("Glibby gloop gloopy, Nibby Nabby Noopy, La La La Lo Lo. Sabba Sibby Sabba, Nooby abba Nabba Le Le Lo Lo. Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba nabba, Early mornin' singin' song"). I didn't know if came from Hair ... I really was clueless about all this. Anyway, it's just as stupid "in context".
As for the performers, Treat Williams is defeated by a truly awful wig (ah, the irony). Ren Woods does a find job with "Aquarius". It was fun seeing performers who are still well-known ... Annie Golden from Orange Is the New Black, Richard Bright (Al Neri in the Godfather movies), Charlotte Rae from The Facts of Life. Not much, really, to get me through two hours.
I did find the finale (apparently one of the things changed completely from the original) at first stirring and then inspiring, but then, I'm not sure you can fuck up "Let the Sunshine In" ... I once saw the drag group Sluts-a-Go-Go sing it, incense burning, at the Mabuhay Gardens and it brought a tear to my eye:
Five years ago today, I posted about an interview Ann Powers did with Bruce Springsteen about his then-new album, High Hopes.
I mentioned on Twitter that I had a favorite part of the interview, but that I wasn’t sure why. It comes when Bruce is describing what it was like making records when he was in his 20s: “It was terrible, you know. In truth, it was awful, an awful way to make records but it was the only way we knew how. Everybody simply suffered through it and the endless, endless, endless hours I can't begin to explain.”
Ann’s response was the part I loved most: “We thank you for those hours.”
I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, and I think I know now why this resonated so deeply with me. When I first heard she was going to interview Bruce, I thought she was a perfect choice, that people like myself would be well-represented. That one sentence is what I meant, when she stepped back momentarily from her professional role and briefly spoke as a fan. I am not the only Bruce fan to spend too much time wondering what I would say if I met him. Part of me thinks I’d just ask him to play “Back in Your Arms” the next time he comes to the Bay Area. That’s part of why people bring signs requesting this or that favorite song … it’s a way to talk to the man on the stage.
But the truth is (and from talking to friends over the years, I know I’m not alone in this), if I had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen, the one and only thing I’d want to say is, “Thank you”.
So consider this blog post my way of thanking Ann for thanking Bruce on our behalf.
I included a video that is one of my favorites. Here it is again. As always, I tell people, look at the faces ... if you've never been to a Bruce concert and want to know what it's like, look at those faces. As wonderful as Springsteen on Broadway is, it is missing one thing: those faces.
Somehow, I have seen seven movies directed by Antoine Fuqua. Seven, without finding any of them great. Only one was above-average, Training Day. Denzel Washington won his second Oscar for that movie, his first as the leading man, and it was a worthy performance, even though he was better in Malcolm X. The rest were tolerable time-wasters ... Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer and Equalizer 2. The worst by far was his first, The Replacement Killers, which completely wasted the U.S. debut of the immortal Chow Yun-Fat. There is something to be said for a director who can crank out one decent picture after another, even if I forget I've seen them a week later. I once wrote of Olympus Has Fallen, "Worth watching five years from now when you’re sitting at home, bored, and it shows up on TNT." The easy forgetfulness of these movies is actually a good thing in these circumstances ... when you watch it again on TV, you'll forget you've seen it and can enjoy it like new.
The Magnificent Seven fits in with all the rest: better than The Replacement Killers, not as good as Training Day, OK to have on in the background five years from now when it's on TV. The catch here, of course, is that it is a remake of a popular Western from 1960, although it's worth noting that the original was not a classic, despite the fond memories it evokes from Boomer fans of cowboy movies. You could spend a little time thinking about the ways the 2016 version updates the original ... Fuqua insisted on a diverse cast, so you've got an African-American lead, the female lead isn't useless, The Seven includes a Korean, a Native-American character played by an Alaskan, and a Mexican playing a Mexican. (The Mexicans in the original were played by two Germans, a Russian, and Charles Bronson, with Eli Wallach as the main bandido.) Fuqua also gets rid of the Great White Savior model ... no longer are The Seven there to save poor Mexicans. (Instead they are saving poor white people.)
There are things to like. The movie looks good, a bit dark maybe. The actors do their jobs. Importantly, Fuqua directs the big action scene in a way that keeps our bearings ... you always know who is where. (Isn't all that important, I suppose, since the main thing about the battle is the good guys are almost perfect shots.) There is no reason not to watch The Magnificent Seven ... well, it's kind of violent for a PG-13 movie. But there really isn't any reason to watch it, either.
Back in the day, Leonard Maltin was shorthand for giant paperback books filled with thousand of mini-reviews of movies. Which is interesting in part because his first book came out in 1969, by which time a man named Steven Scheuer had been putting out similar tomes for 11 years. I mention this mostly because I was reminiscing about those review books, and the name Maltin was obviously part of my memories, but the specific memory I'm thinking of came before 1969. So I might have duplicated this little game in the post-Maltin years, but for now, a tip of the cap to Steven Scheuer.
Not sure it was even a game, more just something to do when I was bored. I'd pick up the book (which one doesn't really matter ... they were updated once a year) and flip through it. As I did, I'd fantasize ... I want to say I thought about running a rep cinema, but I don't think I knew what those were (talking about the mid-60s), so I was probably just pretending I had a late-night show showing movies on a UHF channel (no time for a history lesson ... for you youngsters out there, UHF channels were numbered 14-83 in the pre-cable days, and were inevitably independent channels showing old movies and wrestling). There were many such shows in those days ... there was The Old Sourdough and Wachikanoka, which was actually in the 70s so it doesn't quite fit my memory, and J Brown's Spartan Theater, which was also early-70s, so OK, I have no idea what I was doing playing this "game" in my bored youth (maybe it was Creature Features). But the "idea" was the same: flip through the movie guide, find a film at random, and imagine I was trying to convince the audience out there in TV Land to watch the movie.
I can't imagine anyone doing this today. Not just because it's lame, but also because we don't need those books anymore to imagine watching one of thousands of movies. We don't even have to imagine. We just go to On Demand, or Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or Hulu, or wherever, and start watching. Have an idea of what you want to watch, but don't know where to find it? Check out JustWatch, a website and app that tells you where each movie can be found ... even if it's only in a theater.
Here is a copy of an article from the Stanford newspaper in 1972. It's about the immortal J Brown, and was written by then-Stanford student Todd McCarthy, who went on to a long career as a film critic. Here's the link to the article:
For those with long memories, Angie Tribeca is a child of Police Squad!, the short-lived series the led to the Naked Gun movies. It is stupid and silly, and you'll know after watching two minutes of any episode whether Angie Tribeca is your cup of tea. Season Four brings the total number of episodes up to 40, which is 34 more than Police Squad! ever got (although Angie hasn't gotten any feature-length movies yet).
The easiest thing for me to do is offer a couple of lists. Consider them a consumer guide ... if they sound funny to you, watch the show (it's on TBS, with the first three seasons on Hulu).
First list: some character names from the first three seasons.
Detective Jason "Jay" Geils. Lieutenant Pritikin Atkins. Dr. Scholls. Sgt Eddie Pepper. Mayor, then Vice-President Joe Perry and his wife, Katy. Diane Duran. Angie's mom Peggy, played by Peggy Lipton. Pierre Cardin. Jean Naté. Fisher Price. Special Agent Laurie Partridge. Samantha Stevens. Dr. Moreau. Betty Crocker.
Angie Tribeca has also managed to corral an amazing list of guest appearances (this list is far from complete):
Alfred Molina, James Franco, Heather Graham, Lisa Kudrow, Bill Murray, Gene Simmons, Aaron Carter, Joe Jonas, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Portman, Lizzy Caplan. Season Four added such actors as Anjelica Huston, Rose Byrne, Gina Torres, Carl Reiner, Kathryn Hahn, and Carol Burnett as the President of the United States.
And I haven't mentioned Jagger as Hoffman, a crucial member of the team. Jagger is a dog, as is Hoffman.
Meanwhile, Bobby Cannavale joined the cast as Angie's son Angela Geils, Jr. At the beginning of the season, Angie is getting out after spending 20 years in jail for murdering Angie Tribeca (I told you it was silly). When she emerges from jail, she looks the same, as do all her workmates. Cannavale is her son, and by the plot would appear to be around 22 years old, but neither he nor Rashida Jones wear any makeup to help them look different ages. There was the episode "Freezing Cold Prestige Drama" that parodied Fargo, and one called "Irrational Treasures" (I'll let you guess which movie that one takes on).
Hoffman may be the best joke the show has. Because it's the same joke every time ... a dog is doing police work ... and somehow it's as funny at the end of Season Four as it was at the beginning of Season One.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven graduated from film school in 2006. Nine years later, Mustang became her feature debut as a director. Of this time, she has said, "If I had the body and the voice of an alpha male, it would be easier. It took nine years from leaving film school until Mustang was screened at Cannes, and those years were demoralising. It's difficult not to be affected. You work for the minimum, to have your roof and four walls, so you can write. It's not super fun." Because of this, or despite this, Mustang is a confident film, one that won numerous awards, at Cannes and elsewhere, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The performances by the five young girl leads are very good ... they interact quite naturally as sisters, even though only one of them had acted before. I usually give credit to the director when that happens.
The girls aren't always recognizable as individuals. though ... I kept forgetting which one was which. (Ergüven has referred to them as "one body with five heads".) They made a bigger impression as a group. The best scenes are when the sisters are alone together. The narrative is dramatic, unflinching in exposing the oppressions of patriarchy at the core of Turkish society. It wasn't unanimously praised in Turkey. It is noteworthy that the director was born in Turkey but raised in France. The film was submitted to the Oscars as a French film.
The score by Warren Ellis has gotten much praise; I confess I don't remember it, good or bad. What I will always remember is those five sisters. Ergüven tells the story solely from their perspective, and it's effective. The film is often compared to The Virgin Suicides, which makes surface sense but perhaps exaggerates the two films' similarities. (In an excellent analysis of the two movies, Beth Winchester writes, "This comparison isn’t unfounded, but to compare the two is an easy option and coasts over not just the importance of the factors that make them similar, but the crucial differences that ultimately make them two distinct stories rather than an original story and a rehash that came 15 years later."). #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Happy 48th birthday to Mary J. Blige! She is still going strong ... if her 1992 debut What's the 411? arguably remains her best, she came close with the aptly-named The Breakthrough in 2005, and her most recent, 2017's Strength of a Woman, is no embarrassment. The sobriquet "Queen of Hip Hop Soul" might have been a promotional tool at first, but Blige made it real. She has had a record 23 Top Ten tracks on the Billboard Adult R&B charts. And she has maintained an acting career that is more than just a sideline, receiving an Oscar nomination for Mudbound. Here are some of her best:
I'd been thinking about watching Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) again, and seeing Roma made it seem like the perfect time. Buñuel's movie takes place in a similar place to Cuarón's, Mexico City and in particular the same general neighborhood. But whereas Roma is about a working-class maid for a middle-class family, Los Olvidados shows an environment where the middle-class is a pipe dream. The Spanish title translates as "The Forgotten Ones", and those are the people we see, young juveniles left to fend for themselves, virtually abandoned by society. It's not presented as a case study; there is little explanation for why these kids got to this place, nor is there much suggestion of how to fix things. It's a brutal picture about brutal kids in a brutal space. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times faulted the movie for this:
[I]t is obvious that Luis Bunuel, who directed and helped write the script, had no focus or point of reference for the squalid, depressing tale he tells. He simply has assembled an assortment of poverty-stricken folk—paupers, delinquents, lost children and parents of degraded morals—and has mixed them altogether in a vicious and shocking melange of violence, melodrama, coincidence and irony.... The suggestion of madness is plain. But why there should be this wild coincidence of evil and violence is not explained, nor is any social solution even hinted, much less clarified.
Crowther may not see any focus, but it is there ... the squalid, depressing melange is the point of reference. Buñuel avoids moralizing ... the kids' actions fit their living situation, so that there is very little time to find them sympathetic the way you might see in a TV movie. You want to like the kids, but before the film has ended, those kids have fought each other, killed each other, robbed a blind man, beat up a legless man, and more. Buñuel works in something resembling neorealism, but he doesn't trust the method. He wrote, "Neorealist reality is incomplete, official -- reasonable, above all else; but poetry, mystery, that which completes and extends immediate reality, is completely absent from its productions."
While for much of his career, Buñuel specialized not only in the surreal but in the satirical, Los Olvidados has none of the distancing satire allows. (Saul Austerlitz examines this point in his essay on the film for Sense of Cinema.) Kael, who called Los Olvidados "the most horrifying of all films about juvenile crime", said "it's a squalid tragedy that causes the viewer to feel a moral terror." Understandably, the film met with resistance in Mexico, from the authorities and from the people, who felt the Spaniard presented too dark a picture of Mexican society. Buñuel had to shoot an alternative, "happy" ending (which didn't surface for decades). But the movie won awards at Cannes, and was eventually reconsidered by Mexican critics. It is now considered a classic of Mexican cinema.