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expectations (thoughts on game of thrones)

The last two episodes of Game of Thrones, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" from last week and "The Long Night" from last night, will be remembered for different reasons. Both episodes worked as culminations of the last eight years of watching. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" draws its power from the ways we have come to know the characters over the years. "The Long Night" ended the part of the saga that began in the first scene of the first episode, when we met the White Walkers. Some complained about "Seven Kingdoms" because "nothing happens", which translates to "where was the action?" Meanwhile, "The Long Knight" was basically one long, epic battle. Game of Thrones has always been about both character and action (and sex) ... perhaps it's appropriate that, taken together, these two episodes cover all the ground.

Still, it seemed to me that the episodes foregrounded the way different people in the audience expect different things from the series. At best, the action fans tolerated "Seven Kingdoms" because they knew of the big battle to come. They would feel cheated, though, if the show went multiple episodes without some action of some sort. People like me enjoy action scenes, but absent interesting characters, the action would get old fast, and I found "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" to be one of the finest episodes in the show's run. Many pairings of characters came to resolution in "Seven Kingdoms", resolution that didn't rely solely on "let's kill some White Walkers". This may be the best moment ever in a series of best moments:

Without trying very hard, you can find reactions to "The Long Night", most of which are about how dark the episode was. For once, "dark" doesn't refer to the tone of the series, but to something else, which Dave Itzkoff summarized perfectly, tweeting "just an incredible episode so far" and adding this screen capture:

(An informative discussion of the cinematography comes from Matthew Dessem: "Why You Couldn’t See a Damn Thing on This Week’s Game of Thrones".)

Meanwhile, I'll tip toe around spoilers, and just say that in a crucial scene involving Arya, I was reminded of something I wrote about Avengers: Endgame:

Captain Marvel kicked some serious ass, which resulted in some screenplay chicanery ... early on, she explains that there is so much trouble in the universe that she has to cover a lot of ground. Thus, she disappears for a good part of the movie, only returning when she is needed to kick ass. If she had stuck around at the beginning, the movie might have been half as long.

I'm not saying I wish Game of Thrones had only lasted for four seasons, and like many, I find Arya to be one of the best characters on the show. Her character arc over the years has been well-done, and her big moment in "The Long Night" is appropriate. But, as with Captain Marvel and Endgame, I couldn't help wondering why I sat through 80 minutes of barely-visible action when matters could apparently have been settled in far less time.

film fatales #55: la ciénaga (lucrecia martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:

Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.

Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."

La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.

You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.

And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.

Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.

"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.

La Ciénaga is #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

avengers: endgame (anthony and joe russo, 2019)

This movie was not made for me. I've now seen 11 MCU movies (I think), and for the most part, I prefer Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Not to mention Agent Carter. As I have noted before, I think all of the Marvel movies I've seen are OK, with Black Panther far and away the best, and the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies the worst. But the main reason I've seen as many as I have is that my wife is a fan. And so today, on opening day, she suggested we check out Endgame.

I should note that we saw it at the worst theater in Berkeley, a theater I hadn't gone to in a few decades. But it had available seats. This also meant we didn't see the IMAX version. It also means the seats were uncomfortable. Basically, this theater hasn't gotten any better in 30 years.

The acting was good, as it usually is in these movies. I thought we had to wait too long for Black Panther to turn up ... when he finally appears, I thought, "About time!" Captain Marvel kicked some serious ass, which resulted in some screenplay chicanery ... early on, she explains that there is so much trouble in the universe that she has to cover a lot of ground. Thus, she disappears for a good part of the movie, only returning when she is needed to kick ass. If she had stuck around at the beginning, the movie might have been half as long.

Still, Endgame serves the hardcore fans well. Each character gets screen time, and just as the film itself serves as, well, as an endgame for the series so far, the end of the film gave the audience one last chance to see their faves. I wanted more Black Panther and Captain Marvel, but that wouldn't have been appropriate. What Endgame does is take care of the main characters that have been there since the beginning.

And I'm not one for spoilers, so I'll only say that there was even a little scene at the end that brought a tear to my eyes. Once you've seen it, you'll know what I mean, if you've read anything I've written about this universe over the years.

music friday: george jones

My knowledge of country music does not run deep. It's not that I don't like it ... it's more that it rarely enters my music world, and when it does, it's often when old rockers turn to country (Jerry Lee Lewis being the best example). Looking back, I've seen the following people in concert, who might be considered part of the country music world: Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Union Station, k.d. lang, and Willie Nelson. Not exactly a cross section of the vastness that is country music.

And so it is with George Jones, who died on this date in 2013. I have vague memories of "White Lightning", which was a hit when I was a couple of months shy of six years old, and "The Race Is On" in 1964. Somewhere along the way, I became aware in an intellectual way of Jones' importance, enough so that I'd consider a blog post like this. But I don't want to make it sound like I am a George Jones fanatic, or that I know his work in depth. If memory serves, I only ever owned two of his albums, and I was probably influenced there by rock critic Robert Christgau, who covered the Jones catalog in depth in his Consumer Guide. Thus, the first of those two albums was All-Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, which received an A- from Christgau but which is not highly regarded in general, because while it contains a lot of great hits, the versions on this album were re-recorded, not the originals. So it has "White Lightning" and "The Race Is On", but not in the versions that first caught my attention (I'm not sure I noticed the difference). There is also "Window Up Above" and "She Thinks I Still Care", among other classics. A few years later, I picked up I Am What I Am (Xgau: A-), which included the record often called the greatest country song of all time, "He Stopped Loving Her Today".

Not to be disrespectful, but I watched the TV show Hee Haw occasionally, and it featured all of the great country singers, so I probably saw Jones there, as well.

Here are a few George Jones songs. First, "White Lighning" on Hee Haw in, I believe, 1969:

"The Race Is On" from 1986 at Farm Aid:

"He Stopped Loving Her Today":

Bonus: a couple of those other country acts I've seen. Rosanne Cash, "Seven Year Ache":

And k.d. lang, "Crying" (if you only watch one of these videos, make it this one):

a brighter summer day (edward yang, 1991)

This is more of a placeholder than a review. I watched A Brighter Summer Day under less than ideal circumstances, and don't really feel competent to evaluate it yet. It's just under 4 hours long, and I had figured I'd have to at least invent an intermission. But then the Criterion Channel didn't want to work properly in my browser, and by the time I realized that and switched back to the TV, I'd already lost a day. And I was half asleep for that one. So I ended up watching about 90 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, and the rest of the movie on the third day. Since this is a movie that rewards close attention, I was not giving it the respect it deserved.

I had trouble keeping the characters straight. This might have been a result of my fragmented viewing, I can't say. Also, Paul Dano notes on one of the extras that he thinks it would be useful for viewers to first learn a bit about Taiwanese culture (it takes place in a few years around 1960). I was often confused, and I think Dano is right. I'd just read an essay about how spoilers are actually good for you, and it's possible I'd have had an easier time following the film if I already knew what would be happening. (This makes it a good candidate for a second viewing.)

Finally, I was reminded a bit of the great City of God, one of my favorite movies. Like A Brighter Summer Day, City of God deals with youth gangs. But that movie's characters were a lot like the gangsters I was used to from the U.S., in particular Menace II Society. I lacked a deep understand of life in the favelas, but I felt I knew the characters. The young boys in A Brighter Summer Day are connected to American pop culture as well ... the title comes from the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" But they seem to draw their cues from a different place than what I'm used to as an American. City of God was easier for me to connect to, compared to this film.

In the meantime, I must mention the exquisite visual compositions in the film. I've only seen one other movie by Yang, Yi Yi, which I liked but which I confess I don't remember very much about.

Here is a scene I particularly liked, in part because it makes an American pop culture reference you know I'll love: teens are at the movies, and on the soundtrack, you can hear that they are watching Rio Bravo:

#123 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

a net plus for trump

Matt Taibbi on what he calls a "fiasco [that] will surely end up being a net plus for Trump". "The Press Will Learn Nothing From the Russiagate Fiasco".

So, yay journalism! You were more truthful than Donald Trump, at times. This is like being proud of beating a fish at Boggle.

We’re not trying to be right more often than Trump — we’re trying to not be wrong, ever. It’s a standard, not a competition. [emphasis added] ...

Reporters are going to insist all they did was accurately report the developments of a real investigation. They didn’t imply vast criminality that wasn’t there, or hoodwink audiences into thinking a Watergate-style ending was just around the corner, or routinely blow meaningless episodes like the Sessions-Kislyak meeting out of proportion, or regularly smear people who not only weren’t part of a conspiracy but had no connection to anything (see here for an example).

They’ll also claim they didn’t spend years openly rooting for indictment and impeachment via wish-casted predictions disguised as reporting and commentary, or denouncing people who doubted the conspiracy as spies and Putin apologists, or clearing their broadcast panels and op-ed pages of skeptics while giving big stages to craven conspiracy-spinners like Malcolm Nance and Luke Harding....

The obstruction parts of the report make [Trump] look like a brainless goon and thug, but the absence of what Mueller repeatedly calls “underlying crime” make his ravings about an elitist mob out to get him look justified. This is not an easy thing to achieve, but we’re there, and the press is a big part of that picture.

don't know what this means

Which means I'm not sure why I did this, other than it was there. This comes from the I Side With website, where you answer a bunch of questions and they tell you which presidential candidates come closest to your views. You can see the results here:

I pretty much lost any confidence I might have had when it said Beto O'Rourke was my guy. There was a question that asked straight out, if the election was today, who would you vote for, and I said "undecided", so I guess it serves me right that I left it up to them. While I am not a member of any party, the top 13 out of 16 were Democrats (or Bernie Sanders), followed by a Libertarian and two Republicans. (I am 65 years old, and have still never voted for a Republican.) There were 10 candidates who finished from 92% (Amy Klobuchar) to 97% (Beto) ... not sure what the numbers mean, but that's how they rank candidates. Elizabeth Warren came 5th, and she's probably who I would vote for now.

Among the additional notes:

Left Wing vs. Right Wing: "You side extremely towards 'left wing', meaning you very strongly support policies that promote social and economic equality."

Pacifism vs. Militarism: "You side strongly towards 'pacifism', meaning you strongly believe we should use non-violent diplomatic discussion to resolve conflicts."

Centralization vs. Decentralization: "You are a centrist on centralization and decentralization issues."

Secular vs. Religious: "You side strongly towards 'secular', meaning you strongly support policies that reflect a separation of church and state."

Big Government vs. Small Government: "You side strongly towards 'big government', meaning you strongly believe the government should do more to address social inequality, corruption, and assistance for its citizens."

revisiting spartacus (stanley kubrick, 1960)

I don't usually include my ratings in my posts anymore ... I still give them, I just don't post them. But in this case, I think my ratings are illuminating. Here are all the Stanley Kubrick movies for which I have assigned a rating:

1956: The Killing 9/10

1957: Paths of Glory 10/10

1960: Spartacus 10/10

1964: Dr. Strangelove 10/10

1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey 7/10

1971: A Clockwork Orange 5/10

1975: Barry Lyndon 5/10

1980: The Shining 6/10

1987: Full Metal Jacket 6/10

1999: Eyes Wide Shut 4/10

I don't have a lot to add to what I have written before, so I'll indulge again in cut-and-paste. I mentioned:

[T]he quality of the acting [in The Killing], with a fine cast of B-level actors like the reliable Elisha Cook ... Marie Windsor, the ever-oddball Timothy Carey, and Vince “Ben Casey” Edwards. Not to mention Sterling Hayden in the lead. At some point (around the time Hal became the most interesting character in 2001), Kubrick seemed to lose interest in actors. Malcolm McDowell was good in Clockwork Orange because he was right for the part, but Jack Nicholson in The Shining was not his finest hour (and Kubrick had no idea what to do with Shelley Duvall), and the stars in Kubrick’s movies varied between extreme overacting and sleepy underacting, with no one resembling an actual human being. None of this was true in Kubrick’s early movies.

On 2001:

Kubrick’s disdain for actors is evident. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

Kubrick disavowed Spartacus, the only movie he made without full control (he took over for the original director with a script that had already been written). There are things he clearly put himself into ... the mass movement of the Roman armies in the final battle scene are powerfully impressive.

But I can't help thinking the reason there are so many interesting characters in Spartacus is because Howard Fast, who wrote the novel, and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, had already created them before Kubrick got his hands on them. And, as with The Killing and Paths of Glory, the whole cast delivers. Special mention goes to Peter Ustinov, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar, the only person in a Kubrick movie to ever receive an acting Oscar (Peter Sellers was the only other person to even get nominated). Kubrick wasn't done making great movies, but before the end of the decade, the fall had begun. And yes, I am aware that this is a personal preference, that Kubrick is considered one of the all-time greatest film directors, and that many of the movies I didn't like are some people's favorites.

The film's IMDB trivia page includes these items:

  • The movie's line "I am Spartacus" was voted as the #64 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
  • When Kirk Douglas asked Stanley Kubrick his opinion of the "I am Spartacus" scene, Kubrick (in front of cast and crew) called it "a stupid idea". Douglas promptly chewed Kubrick out.

It's the most famous scene in the entire movie. And Kubrick thought it was stupid. He made sure he never again had to let someone else's stupid idea into one of his movies.

music friday: kidcutup

Having now enjoyed KidCutUp at two separate Pink concerts, I thought I'd give him a shout out here. He does a great job of bringing the crowd into his sets, even when the people aren't there to see him in the first place. His blend of current and older music appeals to an interesting cross-section ... at least, he knows what Pink fans want, from 8 to 80. My wife (65) isn't much of a fan of opening acts, but she likes KidCutUp, and it's fun to see her as she sings along to things like "Just a Friend". These don't give a real feel, but it's the best I could dig up. First, here he is in a studio:

Next, a poorly-recorded short taste of what his Pink shows are like:

And finally, he has a playlist on Spotify that will give you an idea of the kinds of songs he's liable to slip into a set:

KidCutUp: Beautiful Trauma Opening Set Playlist (Spotify)

Special bonus for my wife: