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shelter in place

When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves. In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

-- Albert Camus, The Plague

geezer cinema: extraction (sam hargrave, 2020)

Geezer Cinema lives, even though movie theaters have yet to open. Extraction is the seventh movie we've seen in our weekly Geezer series ... I'm almost getting used to it, although I always need to remember we got the idea for this as a reason to get out of the house once both of us were retired.

Extraction would have played well on the big screen with Dolby Cinema turned up to the max. It's a loud movie filled with a gazillion rounds of ammunition from a variety of guns. There are also grenades that make a lot of noise, car crashes that make a lot of noise, explosions that make a lot of noise, and for variety, there is the occasional blood letting by knife. Sam Hargrave doesn't seem interested in any deep meanings ... he's an award-winning stunt coordinator directing his first movie. He is competent, but the movie cranks up to another level when Hargrave can focus on stunts.

A lot of technical skill is on display during the stunt fests. It looks very efficient and relatively seamless. The selling point is a "oner", an 11 1/2-minute single-take action scene. It works not only as "look what we can do", but also as an effective action sequence.

The movie comes to a halt whenever the action does the same. There are the usual attempts to make us care about the characters, none of which worked on me. The actors are good. Chris Hemsworth is believable, and some of the supporting cast are quite good at trying to turn clichéd material into something more. Special shoutout to Golshifteh Farahani (About Lily), who doesn't get nearly enough screen time but who is clearly part of the setup for any possible sequels. Rudhraksh Jaiswal does well as a kidnapped kid ... I'd like to see him in something else down the road.

Extraction does what it sets out to do, and occasionally adds some panache. In a world with Fury Road and the Raid movies, Extraction doesn't really stand out. But it does get our attention during a period when few pictures are being released (our local newspaper ran a review from their #1 movie critic), and fills that role well. Don't expect more, and you'll be satisfied.

shelter in place: the trip that never was

Everyone has a story to tell about the virus. Ours is minor compared to most. It grows out of privilege, and we aren't suffering. 

Sometime today, we would have landed in London on the trip to Spain we would have begun last night. Oh, I'm not exactly sure about the dates. We were to be gone for four weeks, would have stayed a bit in London on the return to visit friends, but most of the time, we'd be in our favorite apartment in Nerja on "our street":

Our apartment is on the right (60 Carabeo) just past Mini Market Mena on the left just after the 4-minute mark. (We get most of our groceries at the Mini Market.) It would have been our third time staying there, our ... well, I've kinda lost track over the years of how many times we've stayed in Nerja. 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2017, that seems about right.

I like to trot this out. There is a famous paella place on the Burriana Beach in Nerja. It has a long name, but everyone calls it Ayo's after the man who runs it. (He's in his 80s, I hope he's still with us.) In 2009, an Andalusian TV network, Canal Sur, visited Ayo's and the reporter took a turn helping Ayo cook. At about the 1:40 mark, someone special turns up for a few seconds.

We had already paid for all the plane fares, hotels, apartments, etc. Everyone is very nice about allowing us to postpone our visit at no extra cost, but so far, no one is actually refunding our money. Which is fine, except we were/are flying Norwegian, and we keep hearing that airline is going bankrupt, so we might want our money from them sooner rather than later.

Here is a little something I've been thinking about lately. No, I don't read French ... I've been reading this in translation for most of my life. But I thought it might be worth going with the original here.

Ecoutant, en effet, les cris d’allégresse qui montaient de la ville, Rieux se souvenait que cette allégresse était toujours menacée. Car il savait ce que cette foule en joie ignorait, et qu’on peut lire dans les livres, que le bacille de la peste ne meurt ni ne disparaît jamais, qu’il peut rester pendant des dizaines d’années endormi dans les meubles et le linge, qu’il attend patiemment dans les chambres, les caves, les malles, les mouchoirs et les paperasses, et que, peut-être, le jour viendrait où, pour le malheur et l’enseignement des hommes, la peste réveillerait ses rats et les enverrait mourir dans une cité heureuse.

Here is one of the English translations:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

El Pulguilla:

Seven at la pulguilla

And the view from the balcony of "our" apartment:

Nerja balcony morning

fist of fury (wei lo, 1972)

A couple of days ago, W. Kamau Bell posted an interesting piece, "Me and Bruce Lee would like to have a word with you." Bell writes about growing up in Chicago and seeing Fist of Fury:

In the 1970’s many Black people adopted [Bruce Lee] as if he was one of us. Maybe it was because of the themes of racism that were often in his films. Maybe it was because he always played the underdog, which meant Black folks could watch and go, “Yup! I know that fight.” ... Maybe Black folks liked Bruce because of the way he moved on screen, bouncing on his toes like his hero Muhammad Ali. Who knows why. But Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for an explosion in interest in martial arts in Black America. Whatever it was that made Bruce feel like ours, I was there for it and still am.

On a basic level, Fist of Fury is an excuse for a series of set pieces that allow Lee to kick Japanese ass. And Lee is unmatched in such scenes. It's not just his command of martial arts ... it's the beauty of his style, "bouncing on his toes like Ali". He was beautiful to look at even when he wasn't moving, but movement made that beauty special. But it was more than beauty. Lee gave the impression of compressed violence. You could say he plays the title character in this movie, and there is immense power in the ways he uses his fists. He is lethal.

The plot is a fairly standard revenge tale. There's a romance that mostly serves to slow the movie down. But you don't watch Fist of Fury for plot or romance. You watch to see Bruce Lee kick ass.

Japanese ass. That matters ... the story takes place in Shanghai in the 1910s, when the Japanese have much power over the daily lives of the Chinese. Worse, they disrespect Chinese culture. After the death of the leader of the school Lee is a part of, the Japanese show up, make threats, and give a "gift", a poster with the message "Sick Men of Asia", referring to the Chinese. Lee is the one who stands against the Japanese, returning the poster with a message of his own.

Bell writes of this scene, "Apparently when Chinese movie audiences first saw this scene they would stand and cheer. And as a prepubescent kid in Chicago, I might have done the same thing. As a Black boy in America, I felt that line in my bones. I wasn’t Chinese, and my oppressors weren’t Japanese, but I was in my mom’s apartment on the South Side of Chicago going, 'I’M NOT A SICK MAN EITHER!'"

Lee had incredible charisma on the screen. I wish Fist of Fury was slicker ... it looks kinda cheap. But that's what Enter the Dragon is for.

three days of the condor (sydney pollack, 1975)

As I was watching this movie, I thought that I should make a list of my favorite Robert Redford movies. But when I looked at his movies that I have seen, I realized I'm not a fan. I thought he was great carrying the film All Is Lost, I liked Avengers: Endgame (although as I recall, Redford was barely in it, and he certainly wasn't the reason to watch the film), and I have an inordinate fondness for The Chase, and Redford was fine in that although he got a bit lost amidst that amazing cast (Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, James Fox, Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, even songwriter Paul Williams). But I hated Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and didn't like The Way We Were very much, either. Still, I understand my impulse to make a long list of fave Redford films ... even after writing this paragraph, I don't dislike the guy.

I could say the same thing about Sydney Pollack, although it would never occur to me in the first place to list my faves of his movies. He directed The Way We Were ... he won an Oscar for Out of Africa, which did not impress me. The only movie of his I liked unreservedly was Tootsie.

And I think of myself as a Faye Dunaway fan, but really that comes from Chinatown and my beloved Bonnie and Clyde. Besides, she's not particularly good, here, although she isn't given a lot to work with. The "romance" between her and Redford fizzles rather than sizzles.

So, what do we have? Another of those paranoid thrillers that were so common at the time (The Parallax View, The Conversation, All the President's Men). Three Days of the Condor is an OK way to spend a couple of hours, but the thriller aspect wasn't very thrilling, and what passes for gender politics here can be summed up by the way Redford's character introduces himself to Dunaway's character by kidnapping her, tying her up, and gagging her ... naturally they end up fucking (and if you think I'm being crude, Dunaway herself at one point refers to herself as a "spy fucker").

There is this contribution to pop culture, though:

music friday: the mahavishnu orchestra and the screaming gypsy bandits

On this date in 1972, I saw a concert that is in the running for the loudest show I ever attended. (Only competition I can think of is Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace, which you can see/hear by watching the movie Rust Never Sleeps.) The opening act, The Screaming Gypsy Bandits, were a highly-regarded local band (I was living in Bloomington, Indiana at the time) led by singer Caroline Peyton, who remains in the music business ... she recorded an album as recently as 2014. Here are a few excerpts from a 2016 interview with Michael Bourne, who played with the Bandits for a time and spent a lot of time in Bloomington (a college town ... Indiana University is there).

Caroline was a wonderful singer. She could've been a bigger star if she was handled right. But we all fell apart in the studio, like I said. They could've gone on to great things. But she did go on to greater things - she did come to New York and started working in the theater.

It's a very odd thing when you think about her career. She was this really wild hippie girl with a great voice, and then she ended up singing in musicals and operas in New York, then ended up in Nashville with a church choir. It was a complete ark of all these different styles of music....

It was just an extraordinary time. When you look at it politically, Indiana was a red state, but Bloomington was a blue city. Music was involved in all the politics of the time. It connected to everything in every way, from the Women's Liberation movement to Civil Rights. People were naked everywhere. All this sex was happening everywhere. There were people writing poems who were never creative at all. People were getting involved politically. It was remarkable how much the music scene did.

Here is a track from an album of unreleased material the band put out in 2009:

It was the Mahavishnu Orchestra that was extremely LOUD. Don't know how much I need to say about that band. "Mahavishnu" was the brilliant guitarist John McLaughlin, who had played on several crucial Miles Davis albums (including In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and probably my favorite Miles album, Jack Johnson). He could play at blistering speeds, and Billy Cobham was the perfect drummer for those speeds. The band also including Jan Hammer, who gained fame later for his music on the television series Miami Vice.

I am not a jazz aficionado, by which I mean, I know what I like, but I don't know much about the music in general. When I think jazz, I think improvisation, and McLaughlin and Cobham, at least, were capable of that. But as I heard the music of the Orchestra, it grew out of repeated segments, and live, they sounded pretty much like they did on record. Of course, that's how rock bands worked, and their first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, was an amazing early example of jazz fusion, and a fairly "easy" listen for fans raised on rock.

Here is "Awakening" from that first album. P.S. TURN IT UP!

geezer cinema: leave her to heaven (john m. stahl, 1945)

The idea of Geezer Cinema is that my wife and I would enjoy our retirement by going to the movies on Tuesday afternoons. This was great until the virus moved everyone indoors. Our first in-home Geezer Cinema was Contagion, for obvious reasons. After that, while we were stuck at home, we still managed to watch recent films, three from 2019 and one from 2020.

Well, those days are gone. This week, I chose a movie from 1945.

Leave Her to Heaven has several interesting facets. While it is nominally a noir, the movie is in ripe Technicolor that looks great in the new Criterion edition. The movie is simply beautiful, with cinematographer Leon Shamroy winning the film's only Oscar. (There were four total nominations, including Gene Tierney for Best Actress.) There are quite a few scenes that seem to walk close to the edge of 1945 censorship. This is a case where you are best left unspoiled, so I won't say more, but Tierney's femme fatale, Ellen, goes to some remarkable extremes in her attempt to get what she wants.

It has the feel of a Douglas Sirk movie, and Stahl is known as a precursor of the kinds of movies Sirk specialized in. Tierney lost the Oscar to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, and it's an apt comparison. Mildred is more vibrantly awful than Ellen, Crawford is more locked into her role than Tierney, and while it is no shame to be not as good as Mildred Pierce, perhaps the comparison is why I thought a little less of Leave Her to Heaven than some critics. Tierney has been praised, but I found her lacking, although the fact that Ellen does a good job of disguising her emotions may mean Tierney understood her character only too well. Cornel Wilde was OK, but he's not the most dynamic performer in any event.

Scorsese loves Leave Her to Heaven, and there is no denying the shocking impact of its best scenes. But I think it's less than a masterpiece.

A couple of caveats about this clip. For one, it's got a big spoiler. For another, the quality isn't the best ... it doesn't show off the brilliance of Shamroy's work. Nonetheless, here it is:

the sex pistols vs. bill grundy (simon delaney, 2017)

Well, that was a surprise. I saw the title and instantly hit the record button, although I'd never heard of it. I assumed it was a documentary. I also assumed it would suck, but I couldn't resist.

Turns out it was an episode of the British television series Urban Myths. The Sex Pistols vs. Bill Grundy was the final episode of the second season (there have been three so far). Lo and behold, it wasn't a documentary. According to the infallible Wikipedia, "Urban Myths is a British biographical comedy drama television series ... Each episode featured a story surrounding popular culture which may or may not be true". In the episode in question, actors portrayed the various actual people who participated in the infamous Bill Grundy affair. The only real thing was the snippets of actual Sex Pistols songs on the soundtrack.

The interview, when it comes (the episode is 22 minutes long, so there is a lot of backstage stuff), looks accurate. Clearly, someone spent some time on YouTube watching the actual event. The costumes are right, and the actors look pretty right, too ... at least they resemble their real-life counterparts. But it's all very pointless. If you're dying to see this (and haven't seen it already a hundred times), here it is. Accept no substitutes:

empire of the sun (steven spielberg, 1987)

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 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week".

The past couple years, the week before the Oscars has been saved as a Best Picture nominee category for that year's awards. But following last year's supreme blunder of a Best Picture winner, I say we skip the normal category (at least for this year) and check out some films that should've won instead. According to Danny Peary, of course, who suggests that the Academy usually gets it wrong anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars: Best Picture list.

This was a bit tricky. When Week 20 came around, I couldn't find anything from Peary's list that I hadn't seen and was available for streaming. So I watched The Beast of Yucca Flats, which was my Week 32 pick, and at the time I thought I'd be in Spain by then and wouldn't be able to watch it on schedule. Whatever ... it's confusing, but it explains why I'm watching the Week 20 movie on Week 32.

I am a fan of Steven Spielberg's. I think I've seen more movies directed by him than by any other director, and I liked most of them. Four are canonical for me (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.), a couple of others come close (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Schindler's List), and many more I would watch again in a second (especially Minority Report). Only Hook was a stinker; for the most part, I find Spielberg reliable, and not just in a good-but-not-great way, because more than once he has given us greatness.

For me, Empire of the Sun is in the middle. There are some great moments ... face it, Spielberg specializes in Great Moments ... and Christian Bale, 13 years old and at the beginning of his career, is tremendous. As I have often said, when we see a great performance by a child, at least some credit needs to go to the director for eliciting that performance. (It's fine to say Bale turned out to be a great actor, but he was an unknown at the time of this movie.) Still, the film felt long (it is long, at 153 minutes, and I felt every one of those minutes). I'm not sure what could have been cut ... the various segments were all important, and the length gave the movie the feel of an epic ... there were multiple "almost endings" that were a bit much, but I may be nitpicking.

The thing is, I was aware when Spielberg was going for one of his Great Moments, but I wasn't awed by them the way I was in, for instance, Close Encounters. Despite its epic nature, Empire of the Sun is essentially a coming-of-age story that takes place in a notable historical period. I don't know how Spielberg could have done better ... trying to combine the intimate story of a boy becoming a man with World War II isn't easy.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work here (Daviau sadly died just a few days ago). Everything in the movie is professional at the highest level. But the one thing that makes it stand out is Christian Bale.

This is almost a brilliant scene. The Americans have finally come to save the day, and Bale's character, Jim, who loves airplanes, is overcome with joy. It's beautifully shot, and Bale delivers. It is peak Spielberg. But then here comes the inevitable John Williams score, and while it is meant to reflect the grand emotions of the moment, it's just piling on. Spielberg couldn't resist.

music friday: julia michaels

One year ago today, we saw Pink in concert (it was my sixth time). The opening act was Julia Michaels, who I knew little about. My favorite of her songs, coincidentally, is named "Pink":

I was surprised when Michaels opened her set with this song, and the audience sang along ... they knew the words. I thought Michaels was just another newcomer opening act. I was wrong. She was already known as a songwriter for artists like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Gwen Stefani. She had also already been nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year and Best New Artist. So I guess I was a little behind the times. To quote Robert Christgau, I'm too old for that pop world (although Bob, like me, loves Billie Eilish).

Here she is singing "Pink" live: