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music friday: capitalist blues

"Resist false hope: America under Trump is in big trouble, and there's no going back"

In a time of crisis such as the Age of Trump, what the American people need the most are "hope warriors." These are journalists, pundits, writers, activists, elected officials and other opinion leaders who will tell the truth about the state of their country and society, and about what must be done to heal it. Empirical reality and context must come together with sustained analysis and critical thinking. A slavish devotion to "both-sides-ism" must be jettisoned. Hope warriors connect institutions and structures to the daily challenges being experienced by real people. Hope warriors explain that power is not neutral or something ineffable. It is real. It works through, by and on individuals, groups and communities.

-- Chauncey DeVega

geezer cinema: pain and glory (pedro almodóvar, 2019)

Some artists make such a strong impression on me that I feel like I've seen more of their work than I actually have. Take director Pedro Almodóvar. Prior to Pain and Glory, I had seen three of his movies and liked them all. If you had asked me off the top of my head, I would have said I've seen a lot of his films, because I remember the ones I like. But I haven't seen that many. Or Antonio Banderas ... I've seen half a dozen of his films, but none where he was the star. I have seen a few more Penélope Cruz movies, and this is the third one I have seen that was directed by Almodóvar. Point is, they've all done work I've liked, yet I haven't really dug deep with any of them.

I loved Pain and Glory. I hesitate to say it's the best work of any of the three people I have mentioned, because I don't feel I know enough of their work. But Banderas certainly deserves his Best Actor Oscar nomination. He does a lot with a little here ... he is mostly subdued, but he communicates with the audience with his eyes, with the way he carries himself. Penélope Cruz is not a lead character here ... one happy result of Almodóvar using flashbacks is that Cruz plays Antonio's mother. I have found over the years that she is much better in Spanish movies than in English films. Meanwhile, Almodóvar's work here seems less outrageous than I remember from him. But he is 70 years old, and if Pain and Glory is autumnal, well, Almodóvar has earned it.

Pain and Glory is also nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar, where it is up against the best movie of 2019, Parasite.

Ultimately, I don't know that Pain and Glory quite lives up to the performance of Banderas. But he is so good, and the film is so quietly impressive, that the result is moving.

road to bali (hal walker, 1952)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 19 is called "Comedy Duos Week":

Sometimes, when the chemistry works, it just works. Which is why some comedic film duos appeared in multiple films, because people just loved seeing the two work off each other. So, for this week, we are going to take a look at the films of comedic duos. To be a little more specific, the duo whose film(s) you choose must have had at LEAST 3 outings together in starring roles, solidifying their identity as a "duo". So, where Amy Poehler and Tina Fey may not make the cut as they only have two outings and only bit parts in Mean Girls, an unlikely duo like Kid 'n Play DO make the cut, as they were in three of the House Party films. Strange, I know, but them's the rules.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring a comedy duo with three or more outings together. I've created a list that offers a few examples to choose from.

I had planned to watch a Jay and Silent Bob movie, but I didn't really want to, so at the last minute I substituted this "Road" movie that I hadn't seen before.

I wrote, of Road to Morocco:

The movies were ... how about “insouciant”? They were nonsensical, offering parodies of popular genres of the day. There were lots of ad-libs, with Hope often talking directly to the audience. As in Hope’s comedy act, there were plenty of topical references, one reason the films don’t hold up as well as some ... there was no attempt to be timeless. I guess the closest thing in more recent years would be the Naked Gun movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Road to Bali comes near the end of the series ... there was only one more, a decade later, and it's barely worth remembering. It's the only one in color. It's not the best, or my favorite, but the silliness factor is good. I'm not going to give away the cameos ... it's enough to know that they are there ... but among the goofy stuff, you've got a dangerous giant squid, a recurring snake charmer bit, Bing and Dorothy and Hope singing, Hope breaking the fourth wall (just before one Crosby song, he looks at the camera and declares, "He's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go out and get the popcorn"). Hope and Crosby play patti cake. The plot is unimportant ... when I mentioned to my wife I'd watched it, she asked with a smile what the plot was. I told her Hope and Crosby were on the lam, and they both fell for Lamour. "I figured", she said, since that was always the plot. Hope and Crosby ad-lib, Lamour patiently puts up with it. Many, perhaps most, of the topical material is lost on today's audiences (unless you are up to date on who was the head of the Chicago Musician's Union at the time, or which baseball teams Hope and Crosby owned in real life, or which of the duo had won an Oscar and which hadn't). But the insouciance I referred to earlier remains. The racism is pretty casual ... the Indonesian setting is clearly placed in the Paramount backlot, and the "natives" are led by Leon Askin, who plays the king as if he is auditioning for his famous part as General Burkhalter in Hogan's Heroes. There is a discussion of whether the natives are head hunters, cannibals, or both. It's neither better nor worse than other movies of its time.

There is one scenario full of subtext. Both Hope and Crosby (I could use the character names, but why bother) think they are marrying Lamour. They wake up in the morning to realize they were going to marry each other. King Leon Askin finds this hilarious ... "two grooms, no bride! Hahahahahaha!"

It interests me that I replaced a more modern comedy with this relic from my childhood. I am so predictable in my lack of feel for comedies today, but Road to Bali isn't all that different from an Adam Sandler picture. It would seem that nostalgia affects my response to comedies.

OK, here's one cameo spoiler, as well as a spoiler for the end of the movie, so don't watch if that bothers you. Trivia: the star who turns up here is wearing their costume from a different picture they made with Hope:

just mercy (destin daniel cretton, 2019)

Just Mercy is successful thanks to good intentions and excellent performances. It's fairly straightforward as a courtroom drama, and there's nothing wrong with that, although it means the movie lacks a certain spark. The story of an African-American wrongly placed on death row is one that needs to be told, one based on events from many years ago yet still relevant today. If Just Mercy doesn't rise above its generic roots, it nonetheless uses genre to effectively tell its story.

Just Mercy is helped immensely by its cast. The two primary supporting actors are former Oscar winners, Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx. Larson is a favorite of mine, and she's good here, but her character feels as if the studio wanted a white face for "balance". (It's worth nothing, though, that as far as I can tell, Just Mercy sticks closer to the actual facts than many such movies.) Foxx is terrific ... he has the type of role that has Oscar written all over it, and it is puzzling that he did not get a nomination. (The same could be said for the movie as a whole. It is mainstream enough, good enough, and contemporary enough that it got lots of Oscar buzz, but it ended up with no nominations.) And Michael B. Jordan is apparently incapable of a bad performance. His quiet intensity makes Foxx's more energetic acting look even better.

It's an odd coincidence, but all three of these actors first came to my attention on television shows: United States of Tara for Larson, In Living Color for Foxx, and most notably, Jordan in The Wire.

Just Mercy is good, not great, but often, good is good enough.

klaus (sergio pablos, carlos martínez lópez, 2019)

This will be quick. Klaus falls into two of my oft-mentioned categories, "It's Not for Me", and "Liked for What It Isn't".

I'm not much of a fan of animated features that don't come from Studio Ghibli. Granted, I liked Toy Story 4, which is one of the competitors with Klaus for this year's Best Animated Feature Oscar. Klaus isn't a musical, which pleased me, and it looked good, which was nice. But I was nonetheless mostly uninterested, and I found the main character (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) annoying in the extreme. I couldn't stand to watch him, and he was on screen most of the time.

Klaus is being praised for existing outside the usual Pixar style that is so prevalent today. Like I said, it looks good, a nice combination of current technology and old-school visuals.

So I didn't care for Klaus, but your mileage may vary.

music friday: tim buckley

On the final episode of The Monkees TV show, Tim Buckley was invited to sing.

Here are a couple of my favorite Tim Buckley songs. First, from my favorite of his albums, Goodbye and Hello:

From Happy Sad:

And, from 1974, a cover of Fred Neil's "Dolphins":

geezer cinema: underwater (william eubank, 2020)

My first "2020" film, which is ironic since it was shot in 2017. In 2020, it became the final film released under the "20th Century Fox" name (a week after its release, Disney changed the name to 20th Century Studios).

It is easy to reduce Underwater to something recognizable, and you won't even have to lie: it's Alien, but underwater, and with Kristen Stewart in place of Sigourney Weaver. Naturally, the comparison doesn't reflect well on Underwater, but if you get past that, you'll find an economical thriller that wastes no time getting to the good stuff. You don't want to show up late ... the action begins almost immediately. If you are a fan of character development, you'll find Underwater underwhelming. Me, I usually find character development in this kind of movie to be a waste of time, so I appreciated the move directly into action. I didn't come to the theater to find out the dark secret past of Kristen Stewart's character ... I came to see her and her mates fighting against a monster.

The monster is cool enough, although to be fair I'm surprised they spent $80 million on this ... it's better looking than a Syfy made-for-TV special, but it's no Alien (or The Abyss, for that matter). Kristen Stewart is her usual reliable self, and she and co-star Jessica Henwick even give a shout out to Ripley when they start running around in their panties.

Underwater is cheesy but not that cheesy, and it takes care of business in 95 minutes. Face it, you don't need my advice: you already know whether you want to see it.

come drink with me (king hu, 1966)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 18 is called "Wuxia Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Wuxia, which literally means 'martial heroes', is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of fantasy literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms such as Chinese opera, mànhuà, films, television series and video games. It forms part of popular culture in many Chinese-speaking communities around the world. The word "wǔxiá" is a compound composed of the elements wǔ (武, literally "martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá (俠, literally "chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiákè (俠客, literally "follower of xia") or yóuxiá (遊俠, literally "wandering xia"). In some translations, the martial artist is referred to as a "swordsman" or "swordswoman" even though he or she may not necessarily wield a sword. The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. Chinese xia traditions can be compared to martial codes from other cultures such as the Japanese samurai bushidō."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Wuxia film.

This was a late substitute, after Tsui Hark's directorial debut, The Butterfly Murders, became unavailable. Come Drink with Me is an excellent replacement. It is one of the earliest wuxia movies, and stars Cheng Pei-Pei, who many years later played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I realized after watching the film that I had the mistaken notion that wuxia films were all "wire fu". The above Wikipedia description shows that wuxia is much broader than that, and in fact, Come Drink with Me seems to have very little wire work.

Cheng had a background in dance, which King Hu thought was more useful than training in martial arts. (Michelle Yeoh had a similar story prior to her work in action films.) Given how influential Come Drink with Me turned out to be, it's interesting that there is probably more plot than action in the film. To my eye, the action was not as impressive as in later films, but I'm not certain King Hu intended the action to be mind-blowing.

Cheng is good (and very young, only 20 at the time). The rest of the cast are more archetypal than "real", which fits the way the story is told. The version I watched was dubbed, not ideal, but better than nothing, and it added a retro feel ... it was a bit like watching dubbed kung fu movies on TV back in the day. My favorite wuxia movie is probably A Chinese Ghost Story.

where do we go from here

I've posted this more than once on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I used to assign it to my students. It still hasn't lost its relevance.

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

-- Martin Luther King

film fatales #72: honeyland (tamara kotevska and ljubomir stefanov, 2019)

Honeyland is a cinéma vérité portrait of a woman in Macedonia who is a beekeeper. Often with vérité documentaries, it is obvious that the people in the film are aware of the camera and crew. This never happens in Honeyland, and Hatidze Muratova, the beekeeper, is particularly "natural" in front of the camera. But it helps to remember that however it seems, there is a camera and crew that is present throughout the shooting of the film. 

While I usually prefer to know as little as possible going into a film, in the case of Honeyland, some advance knowledge would have been helpful. It was filmed over a period of three years, and while events occur over time, you couldn't build a real timeline based only the information in the film ... for all I knew, it could have been filmed over one year, or six months. It's not crucial to appreciating the film, but it's an example of how, absent context, Honeyland is often rather abstract. At one point, Muratova gets neighbors, a large family that sees her successes and decides to enter the beekeeping business as well. Muratova lives in harmony with her environs, but the family doesn't quite get how that harmony contributes to a balance that benefits all. Soon enough (or not ... again, I don't know how long this part of the movie takes in real time), the family's business fails while Muratova's suffers as well.

Honeyland is often gorgeous ... the Macedonia countryside is shown to great advantage. And the film makers do wonders with limited resources, working in an area without electricity, filming in Muratova's dark, cave-like home, at a location that is far removed from cities. Muratova herself is a remarkable character, without whom I'm not sure there would even be a movie.

But at several points, I wondered how Kotevska and Stefanov managed to maintain the hands-off needs of this kind of anthropological documentary. A young child almost drowns, and I was thinking, jeez, I hope if this turns really serious, they'll put down their cameras and save the little tyke.

Honeyland is nominated for two Oscars, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature, which points to the breadth of its accomplishments. If part of what film can offer is a window into lives far different from our own, then Honeyland delivers.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)