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music friday: the doobie brothers

The newest inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced: Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, The Notorious B.I.G. and T-Rex.

I agree on Depeche Mode, Whitney, and Biggie, although only the latter actually mattered much to me. Kraftwerk is the biggest snub, especially if they are starting to include more synth music.

Rationally, I think the Doobie Brothers are the worst of this group of six. I mean, I was never a fan of Whitney Houston, but it's hard to argue with any woman managing to get inducted. I'm pretty sure I'd only recognize one Depeche Mode song, but that's on me, they clearly belong. But the Doobies?

And yet ... in terms of the amount of enjoyment I took from all these artists, the Doobie Brothers probably rank at the top. And I should recognize that fact, before I consign them to the pit of overrated bands.

Basically, I'm talking about the pre-Michael McDonald Doobies, i.e., fuck Yacht rock.

I lived near Santa Cruz in 1970-71, and the Doobie Brothers were in the air. They released their first album in '71, and they were something of a house band at the Chateau Liberté in the Santa Cruz mountains. I really started to notice them when the hits arrived. Any band that came up with "Long Train Runnin'", "China Grove", and "Black Water" is OK by me, and I listen to those songs to this day. (Their covers of "Jesus Is Just Alright" and "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)" are good as well.) Whether this amounts to a Hall of Fame career is something I'm not prepared to say. But in honor of those three songs, I can at least give them a Music Friday.

sacro gra (gianfranco rosi, 2013)

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 17 is called "Golden Lion Week":

One of the three major film festival awards (the other two being the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Goldener Bär, or Golden Bear from the Berlin IFF), the Golden Lion, or the Leone d'Oro, is the highest prize a film can receive at the Venice International Film Festival. Introduced in 1949, the Golden Lion represents the Lion of Saint Mark, which had appeared on the flag of the Republic of Venice when it was a sovereign state, and is one of the highest awards achievable in the film industry.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Golden Lion winning film.

One good thing about the Letterboxd Challenge is that I see movies that aren't ordinarily in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd never heard of Sacro GRA before.

One bad thing about the Letterboxd Challenges is that I sometimes see movies I don't like. And now that I've not only heard of Sacro GRA but seen it, I can say I didn't like it.

Gianfranco Rosi spent two years filming on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a highway that encircles Rome. Another 8 months were spent editing. The result was a series of short vignettes of various people who live in the vicinity. They all get multiple appearances, but honestly, I didn't learn anything from the third time as I did on the first. The EMT guy was nice, the father/daughter living in a small room were OK, the guy who fished for eels was a guy who fished for eels, the guy who checked for bug infestation in palm trees was obsessively scientific. Any one of these people might have made an interesting half-hour short. Spreading their "stories" over 90 minutes without spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on any particular person results in a film that is barely worth saying awake for. I have no idea why it won a Golden Lion.

geezer cinema: 1917 (sam mendes, 2019)

1917 is a movie with a trick. It's a technical trick, and it isn't always clear that it serves the picture as well as a more ordinary approach might. But the trick is so well done that you can't help but admire it, even though, paradoxically, the film works best when you forget about the trick.

That trick is to make 1917 appear to be shot in one take. You can't help but notice it at the beginning, when the two heroes are making their way through a long trench (1917 is a World War I story). But as the heroes encounter increasingly dangerous happenings, you occasionally forget about the one-take angle. I don't want to say the movie is at its best in those moments ... the technical achievements really are remarkable. But what raises 1917 above the level of a novelty is the acting, in particular that of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the heroes. There is plenty of war horror, but Chapman and especially MacKay are the human element. That is what makes 1917 more than a trick.

1917 is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The cinematography award will surely go to Roger Deakins, and the film is worthy of many of the other Oscar categories. The narrative draws us in, and we really want the end to resemble a happy one. The movie is often hard to watch; it's not exactly entertaining, although this is appropriate for a war movie. But after two hours, we feel like we deserve a little something as we leave the theater.

What I especially liked is the way the trickery is human rather than CGI. You know that real people pulled this off. It's a bit like what makes Fury Road so much better than other recent action pictures.

World War I was one of the stupidest and most brutal wars, even given that all wars are stupid and brutal. 1917 doesn't stop to notice this ... no historical context is provided, and a lot of the brutality lies on the ground as the heroes make their trek. It might have been a better movie if such context were at least hinted at. Certainly it would be different. But the accomplishment of Mendes, Deakins and the rest isn't to be denied.

apollo 11 (todd douglas miller, 2019)

It sounds like a straightforward documentary: using newly-found footage, Todd Douglas Miller tells a story you've seen and heard many times before, the first time a man walked on the moon. But the way he uses the footage leads to something less straightforward, and if you know the basics of the story, you haven't seen it told quite like this.

Miller uses no narration. As with the new footage, he has unearthed audio that was previously unavailable, and he edits everything together to give us the Apollo 11 trip as if it were new. The lack of narration means there is nothing to tell us what we're seeing, which results in a movie that feels like we're back in 1969. If you were alive then, you will recall the wonder you felt when the mission was happening. If you're younger, you can get that feeling for the first time. Either way, Apollo 11 is less about facts and figures and more about how the trip affected people at the time.

Sometimes, Miller uses multiple angles to present imagery that seems brand new. When the lunar lander returns to dock in space with the orbiting space capsule, we see what the camera in the lander sees, while also seeing what the capsule sees. If it were done in a studio, you'd be impressed at the combination of the two. Knowing that it is real-time footage means you're impressed that they managed to come together at all.

I was ready to accept a poor image ... it's 50 years old, and footage from the moon has never looked good. But Miller applies modern techniques to make everything look so much better than you remember, and it's especially beautiful compared to what you've seen before.

marriage story (noah baumbach, 2019)

I'm gradually coming around on Noah Baumbach. For too long, I thought of him as that Wes Anderson guy, which is unfair because 1) he hasn't worked with Anderson all that often, and 2) I'm not much of an Anderson fan and that's not Baumbach's fault. Marriage Story is the fourth movie I've seen directed by Baumbach (I didn't care for Margot at the Wedding, but liked The Squid and the Whale and especially Frances Ha), and I think it's the best of the four.

I've seen Marriage Story described as a love story that uses a divorce to tell its story, which if nothing else makes the title in the running for Irony of the Year. Yes, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are in love, or were. And I can see that we're supposed to experience the realities of the marriage through the lens of the couple breaking up. But Baumbach, who also wrote the script, is so good at showing what's wrong with Charlie and Nicole as a couple that, for me, it overwhelms the good times they enjoyed. This is one reason it's such a good movie, but it can be excruciating to watch. I constantly thought about how lucky I am to have avoided divorce, because based on this movie, divorce sucks.

It is not surprising that the film builds to a big Oscar-bait scene where Driver and Johansson give us Charlie and Nicole at their most vicious to each other. It's heartbreaking, and the actors are great. But it's almost unbearable. (It also reminded me of a similar all-out fight in Before Midnight, but in that film, we had two-and-a-half films to get to know the characters, while in Marriage Story, we only get two hours, so the fight in Before Midnight hurts more.)

The cast helps, as well. I'm a Scarlett Johansson fan, and Marriage Story is one of her best (over all of them, though, I'm still partial to Ghost World). I've liked every non-Kylo Red movie Adam Driver has been in, and it's good to see him in a leading role. Laura Dern is a potential Oscar nominee, Ray Liotta is Ray Liotta, and Merritt Wever is incapable of a bad performance.

music friday: kookie

Edd Byrnes died on Wednesday.

In the mid-1950s, Warner Brothers began producing television series that were versions of their old B-movies. There were Westerns like Cheyenne, Maverick, and Sugarfoot, detective shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye), and the like. 77 Sunset Strip, which ran for six seasons, was about a private detective agency in Los Angeles. A supporting character, Gerald Lloyd Kookson III, known as "Kookie", worked as a parking attendant next to the agency offices, and he, as well as actor Edd Byrnes, who played him, became breakout stars.

Hawaiian Eye was a similiar series that took place in Hawaii and ran four seasons. One supporting character, photographer and singer Cricket, was played by Connie Stevens.

What followed was inevitable, given Byrnes' popularity with teenagers: a hit single, "Kookie Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)", performed by Byrnes and Stevens. Here they are lip syncing on American Bandstand:

A clip from 77 Sunset Strip:

And an episode of Family Feud featuring the casts of Hawaiian Eye and Lost in Space:

throwback thursday: iran in the u.s. 20 years ago

At the 1998 World Cup in France, a match took place which was called "the most politically charged match in World Cup history". The participants were the United States and Iran. Iran won the match, 2-1, eliminating the USA from the tournament.

In January of 2000, Iran's men's soccer team took a brief tour of friendlies in the United States, including one against the Americans. The first match on the tour was against Mexico, and was played 20 years ago today in Oakland. We were there.

A sign of how relations between Iran and the United States were in 2000 can be seen in the demand by the Iranians that fingerprint formalities would be waived (in those days, Iranian visitors to the U.S. were frequented fingerprinted by immigration authorities).

More than 34,000 fans showed up for the match against Mexico. Soccer fans will recognize some of the names that played in the match. For Mexico, there was "El Emperador", Claudio Suárez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco (currently the Governor of the State of Morelos in Mexico), and Luis Hernández, "El Matador". Iran featured Ali Daei, who scored more than 100 goals for the national team, and Khodadad Azizi, who later spent a season with the San Jose Earthquakes. Goals were scored by Hernández, Blanco, and Daei, as Mexico won, 2-1.

Here's a short video showing Blanco's trademark move, the Cuauhtemiña:

geezer cinema: star wars: episode IX - the rise of skywalker (j.j. abrams, 2019)

This should be quick. I am not the audience for Star Wars movies, and my take is largely irrelevant to anyone who loves the franchise. I've seen them all, but only once in most cases, and never remember who is who ... I forgot who the Sith were, and I never remember who is related to who.

The Rise of Skywalker struck me as a present for hardcore fans. I could be wrong, and I'm not sure how hardcore fans have embraced this one. What's important here is that I didn't get the present ... it wasn't for me. I kinda wish I was a hardcore fan, for it must be great to have new Star Wars movies to look forward to.

I liked The Rise of Skywalker while I was watching it. If the 142 minutes didn't exactly breeze by, neither was it boring. I thought it was nice that Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver were actually given characters with depth ... they weren't just icons in an epic ... and both actors delivered. On the other hand, unless it was meant as a joke, I wondered why they hired Keri Russell, a great actress with striking good looks, and covered her face with a helmet for the entire movie. (It admittedly was a pretty cool helmet.)

As for the action scenes, people who are used to CGI and love it ... and I know at this point that is probably most people, and that I'm showing my age ... don't get bothered by the same things that I find unfortunate. As with pretty much every action movie since Fury Road, I kept going back to that movie and finding The Rise of Skywalker falling short. But again, these are taste preferences. So take all of this with a grain of salt. I did like the moment when all of the good guys in their ships assembled to help save the day ... you knew it was coming, but that didn't stop it from being rousing. And the last line of the movie might have been predictable, but it was appropriate, even necessary.

I didn't think this movie stunk, but it fell into the category of "not as good as IV and V but better than I and II."

the irishman (martin scorsese, 2019)

Much attention has been paid to Scorsese's use of CGI to allow his elderly stars to play younger versions of themselves, and he gets credit for using this not as a stunt but in an attempt to make a better movie. Matt Zoller Seitz argues that the CGI isn't particularly convincing, "but if you decide it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter." The icon status of the main actors does matter, and the movie is better with De Niro et al as themselves than it would be with less iconic actors playing in the flashback scenes.

Scorsese is returning to the gangsters he has obsessed about throughout his career, which makes The Irishman a bit retrograde. But the tone is autumnal, which separates it from something like Mean Streets (still his best film). Scorsese is looking back, just like Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) does throughout the film.

Just by casting stars from his earlier movies, Scorsese invites us to make comparisons. And those comparisons remind us how far we have all come ... at least, we're all older. It's not clear if Scorsese's attitude towards his characters has changed as much as CGI makes the actors change.

The cast does wonders. Robert De Niro doesn't suck, which is always a possibility in his later years. Al Pacino modulates his usual bluster ... it comes out when appropriate, not constantly. Joe Pesci is the biggest surprise. The man known for over-the-top tantrums plays it low-key here. He convinces us of his power, even as he refuses to over-emote. Meanwhile, Anna Paquin is amazing as Sheeran's daughter. She purposely doesn't have many lines ... Scorsese counted on her to be able to express her thoughts and emotions on her face, and the result is a condemnation of her father that is more powerful than words. The complaints that she doesn't have enough lines are misguided. (The general complaints about the superfluous nature of the women characters, on the other hand, are sadly on target.)

By the end of their lives, these characters can barely move for being so old. They are stripped of the glamour that filmmakers like Scorsese have always given them. In that sense, Scorsese is growing older, too. And with the realization that Paquin's daughter is right, that Frank Sheeran is ultimately an empty vessel with no real positive attributes, Scorsese reaches a point he doesn't often go after. The last half hour or so of The Irishman can even be read as Scorsese's admission, at long last, that his and our fascination with this milieu is based on an attraction to a false iconography. The script is based on a book by Charles Brandt whose veracity has been challenged. Even as he is dying, it seems, Frank is trying to take credit for things he did and didn't do, thinking that those things bring him glory.

Finally, editor Thelma Schoonmaker deserves special attention. She just turned 80, so she fits right in with this production. I love one of her most famous quotes, when asked how a nice lady like her could work on all those violent Scorsese movies. "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them."

Top 8 Scorsese Movies

are we having fun yet? happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

Today, this blog turns 18. Man, that number is both delightful and bizarre. Back in 2002, it was on Blogger. I apparently moved to TypePad because Blogger's site was always down in those days. (I think I moved in late 2003.)

Here is an excerpt from what I wrote on Online Life's 14th birthday:

This blog began 14 years ago today.

Who the hell does anything for fourteen years?

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

Here is the #1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart for January 6, 2002:


Some things last forever. I don't know if I'd say that about this blog, but it would seem that Nickelback will never die. Here is a Saturday Night Live skit from 2018 (!):