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geezer cinema: richard jewell (clint eastwood, 2019)

It's a Clint Eastwood movie. I'm tempted to stop there ... I feel like Clint-as-director is consistent, if rarely great (I think Mystic River comes closest to greatness). But I don't want to get carried away ... I liked his Iwo Jima movies more than most people, and I have a soft spot in my heart for Bronco Billy, but some of his earlier westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider aren't all that. Plus, movies like Absolute Power stink. Mostly, I call him consistent because he has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get feel, because his movies are always straightforward (just as we are told his work on the set as a director is straightforward).

Richard Jewell is straightforward. It lays out the facts of the story chronologically. It doesn't shy away from Jewell's flaws, and you could argue those flaws are why he was in a place to be a hero. The FBI and the press are the villains, but they are mostly not cartoon villains.

But then there's reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. She comes closest to a cartoon, and there's a reason her real-life colleagues complained. She is wily ... she uses sex to get information ... she is the primary example of how the press made Jewell's life hell. Some of this might have been true, but it's safe to say, not all of it (that sex part is especially scuzzy). And while Jon Hamm's FBI agent was a composite with a fictional name, the film uses Scruggs' real name, casting aspersions on the real person in the process. It doesn't seem fair.

There is some good acting going on, as is usual in an Eastwood film ... he knows when to leave his actors alone. Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, Sam Rockwell as his lawyer, and Kathy Bates as his mother all shine (Bates got an Oscar nomination, losing to Laura Dern in Marriage Story). It's a Clint Eastwood movie. You know what you are getting beforehand, and then you get it. The treatment of Scruggs is a slip-up, so Richard Jewell won't be remembered as his finest work. But, as one reviewer said, it's "probably the best film ever made by an 89-year-old director".

Here are the first ten minutes:


germany year zero (roberto rossellini, 1948)

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 30 is called "Martin Scorsese Week".

One of America's most well known and celebrated film makers, Martin Scorsese made a name for himself with landmark films of the New America film wave, such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and continues to inspire through his films today. Here, we have a list of films that Scorsese considers imperative to watch for anyone learning the art form.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Martin Scorsese's Film School.

Germany Year Zero is the third film in an unofficial trilogy from Rossellini (following Rome, Open City and Paisan). The Germany of this film is a post-war disaster area, with bombed-out buildings and people desperate for basics like food and water. There is a neo-realist feel to much of the film, as is to be expected, but Rossellini also gives us sequences that are almost flights of fantasy in comparison to what the genre usually offers. The scenes showing the blasted lives of Germans after the war are indeed realistic. The women prostitute themselves for money, while the men and children work the black market. In one scene, a horse lies dead in the street, surrounded by people cutting it open and stealing the meat. Many of the ex-Nazis hide their previous lives, but among themselves they feel a bit more free to remember.

A young boy, Edmund, tries to do well for his family, selling things, stealing potatoes, whatever it takes, but his efforts are not enough for the family, which includes a sick father and two older siblings. They only have three ration cards because the older brother, a committed Nazi who fought to the end, is afraid to turn himself in for his own card. The boy watches all of this, and is clearly suffering from the reality of their lives. He meets up with an old school teacher who makes sexual advances and gives Edmund tasks, from which the boy gets a pittance to take home.

Germany Year Zero is dark and oppressive. Edmund comes up with a plan to kill his father so there will be one less mouth to feed. He listens to his old Nazi teacher talk about survival of the fittest, while his father says he wishes he were dead. When Edmund poisons his father, he thinks he is doing a good thing. Such is the world of Germany Year Zero that we understand what leads Edmund to his actions, even as we condemn him for what he has done.

The final segment of the film has Edmund wandering the streets of Berlin. He sees nothing to make him think the world is or ever will be a good place, and makes a decision that is emphatically final.

One imagines Buñuel using surrealism to show us this world, but Rossellini treats it, not as surreal, but as all too real. With hindsight, we know that Germany recovered, but in 1948, Rossellini saw only destruction and despair. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


we still kill the old way (elio petri, 1967)

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 29 is called "Poliziotteschi Week".

From Wikipedia:

"Poliziotteschi [films] constitute a subgenre of crime and action films that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and reached the height of their popularity in the 1970s. They are also known as Italo-crime, Euro-crime, poliziesco, spaghetti crime films, or simply Italian crime films. Influenced by both 1970s French crime films and gritty 1960s and 1970s American cop films and vigilante films, poliziotteschi films were made amidst an atmosphere of socio-political turmoil in Italy and increasing Italian crime rates. The films generally featured graphic and brutal violence, organized crime, car chases, vigilantism, heists, gunfights, and corruption up to the highest levels. The protagonists were generally tough working class loners, willing to act outside a corrupt or overly bureaucratic system."

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

Here is why the Challenge exists. I had never seen a Poliziotteschi film, even though the above link lists 100 of them. So this was definitely new to me.

I ran into some technical problems with this one. It was hard to find ... it finally turned up on the Epix Channel. The problem there was twofold. First, the aspect ratio was wrong, from the original 1.85:1 to what looked like 1.33:1. Second, it was a dubbed version. The latter didn't seem so bad, considering how many Italian movies use post sync for their films. Nonetheless, it wasn't ideal, and I would like to see it again sometime with a better version.

We Still Kill the Old Way was interesting, in any event. I think I was unfair with the movie, which is a crime film that takes place in Sicily. I kept waiting for it to turn into The Godfather, but it was never intended to be that kind of gangster movie (another reason I might appreciate it more on a second viewing). Also, the movie didn't exactly match the Wikipedia definition of poliziotteschi films ... there wasn't that much violence, and it wasn't graphic, while the main protagonist, far from being a working class loner, was a professor. Still, there was plenty of corruption in We Still Kill the Old Way, a corruption embedded into society.

The professor, played by an excellent Gian Maria Volonté, tries to solve a murder that occurs early in the film. It's a bit like a procedural, except with a professor instead of a cop. He keeps bumping into the dead ends of the corrupt society. His lawyer friend (the prolific Gabriele Ferzetti) seems helpful, but he really isn't, although it's not clear if he is a Bad Guy or just someone who knows how to get along. Irene Papas also stars as a mysterious woman who seems involved in everything and nothing simultaneously.

In fact, the film is fairly vague about the crime at the center of things. By the end of the film, nothing is resolved. We never find out who was really in charge of the murders. We assume the Mafia is involved, mostly because while the Mafia isn't explicitly identified, it's obvious that sinister figures run things. I was going to say shadowy, but they aren't in the shadows ... they operate, quietly, in plain sight. The professor's quest becomes almost existential. It's not just that he can't get to the bottom of the crime, it's that it feels like the entire society is against him, ultimately leaving him by himself with no real support from friends or colleagues.

We Still Kill the Old Way seems better as I look back on it, so for the third time I'll say that it warrants another viewing.


music friday: john prine

Sweet revenge

Lots of people dying these days, and musicians seem to be especially susceptible. Each one made their mark, and the grieving of their fans emphasizes how much our favorite musicians mean to us. John Prine is the one I felt closest to. He's was in his 70s, but it was somehow still a surprise when he fell victim to the virus.

Back in the mid-70s, I had an English teacher who told me one day that my writing reminded him of John Prine. This made no sense, then or now, but I've always appreciated the compliment nonetheless. If only I had Prine's ability to write songs that touched us in multiple ways, songs that could be funny and touching and lifelike and sad all at the same time.

We saw him once ... I think it was 1991. He would have been touring behind his then-new album, the wonderful The Missing Years, which among other things won him his first Grammy. There were so many good songs, it's hard to pick a favorite. Here's one I don't think I've posted yet on Facebook:

Prine had a way of rooting the slightest fantasy into real situations, and as a wordsmith, there was no one better. He always added just enough specifics to nail a song down:

When the farmers come to town
And they spread them eggs around
And they drop their daughters down at the roller rink
Well you're prob'ly standin' there
With your slicked-back, Brylcreem hair
Your Lucky's and your daddy's fine-tooth comb
If they knew what you were thinkin'
They'd run you out of Lincoln

In 2018, he released what now stands as his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness.

Prine was always a great collaborator ... there was room for others in his songs ... which is one reason among many that his duets album, In Spite of Ourselves, works so well.

I'd say Iris DeMent was his perfect partner, except someone else was there first. Back in 1991, Prine opened for this woman, and they sang this song together, as they did so many times:

(Ann Powers always writes great obituaries. It just sucks that she has to write them so often. "John Prine's Songs Saw The Whole Of Us".)


throwback thursday: liz and jewel

25 years ago today, we saw Liz Phair and Jewel in concert.

Jewel wasn't famous yet. The 20-year-old had just released her first album, which was going nowhere. A year later they finally put out a single from the album, "Who Will Save Your Soul", which was a hit. Eventually that first album found an audience ... it sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. But none of that had happened yet when we saw her as an opening act for Liz Phair in 1995. I remember she had a winning stage presence, and she yodeled a lot. Like Phair, she played solo that night.

Liz Phair had two albums out at the time. The first, Exile in Guyville, was so good it inevitably set her up for a downfall, at least among "hip" fans. (The great Gina Arnold wrote a "33 1/3" book about the album 20 years after the fact ... it's worth hunting down.) Exile still holds up.

For that show in 1995, she performed, like the folkie Jewel, solo, just her and her electric guitar. Honestly, back then, Phair lacked the stage charisma of Jewel. But also honestly, so what?  Over the last 15 years, I've listened to Jewel songs exactly twice. But I still listen to Liz Phair.

There are plenty of videos of the tour on YouTube, including at least one full concert, but for some reason, the quality of the videos sucks. So I'll cheat and pick a performance from later in her career.

I woke up alarmed
I didn't know where I was at first
Just that I woke up in your arms
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love 'cause he's in it?
 
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
 
You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
 
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
 
I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend another year alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
 
You almost felt bad
You said that I should call you up
But I knew much better than that
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
Without or without my best intentions
 
I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend my whole life alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve

geezer cinema: once upon a time ... in hollywood (quentin tarentino, 2019)

If nothing else, the pandemic gives me the chance to catch up. Missed this last year ... rectified it for this week's Geezer Cinema. Not the best way to watch it: on a 30" TV with no external sound system, and the Starz version was cropped to fit the screen. It seemed like Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson may have anticipated this ... even when two characters were on opposite sides of the screen, they managed to be visible on our TV.

I once wrote of Tarantino, "Tarantino’s flaws are easy to pick out, because they are often the same as his good points." It would be easy to balance out the good and the bad as a measure of how successful a Tarantino film is, but I don't know that it works, or rather, for me, the good always outweighs the bad. I've seen all of his movies except The Hateful Eight, and I've liked them all. The only thing those flaws do is prevent Tarantino from making a classic, but his best is way more than good enough. And Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is one of his best.

For one thing, every actor wants a chance to work with Tarantino's dialogue, so he is able to do things like get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to star in his movie, as a fading actor and his stunt man. Tarantino's love of pop culture comes out partly in the way he casts his films with favorite actors of his that haven't been seen much of late (Clu Gulager, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro). Besides Leo and Brad, OUATIH trots out Al Pacino and Bruce Dern. There are younger actors like Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, and Dakota Fanning. He brings back people who have been in previous QT pictures: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth (Roth gets a credit even though his part was edited out of the movie). I don't know if I thought of this before, but at least here, Tarantino shows an eye for actors better known for television: Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry (his final role), Damian Lewis (who looks so much like Steve McQueen you think they used CGI), Costa Ronin, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Mikey Madison (a long way from her work on Better Things), Sydney Sweeney, Scoot McNairy. OK, I've made my point.

Tarantino applies the same personalized touch to his soundtracks ... as we were watching, I told my wife if the official soundtrack included every song that we hear even for a short bit, it would be at least a 3-disc set (it turned out to only have 21 songs, along with commercials and DJ patter).

His connection to the (movie) past is one of those good-but-flawed aspects of his movies. I could make another list of historical figures who appear in OUATIH ... the fictional Leo's character lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and of course, there's the Manson family. You might be fooled into thinking this is a true story, although you'd quickly figure out you were wrong. Perhaps the key is in the title: "Once Upon a Time" suggests a fairy tale is coming our way.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the way Tarantino indulges himself in ways that result in really long movies, but that indulging is often delightful. His recreations of old television series are detailed ... he makes up fake shows that look just like the real ones, and he has no problem stopping his movie for a bit just to show a bit of one of those excursions.

As the film moseyed along, I felt that rather than create tension, Tarantino was just relying on our knowledge of Manson, Tate, et al to give unearned suspense to his movie. As Mick LaSalle wrote, "It’s amazingly discursive. Tarantino knows he has our attention, because he knows that we know where the movie is heading, toward that fateful night in Bel Air. He also knows we’re not exactly in a hurry to get there." But the tension is real in the last part of the movie, partly because "we know where the movie is heading", yes, but also because Tarantino takes us there. And, of course, we don't necessarily know where it's heading, we just think we do.

Brad Pitt got an Oscar for his performance (Supporting Actor ... Leo was up for Best Actor, but the truth is, they are co-leads), and he deserved it. He commands the screen, even though he doesn't always seem to be doing anything, and even though he's working with DiCaprio, who is pretty good himself.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is #132 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 film of the 21st century.


the punk rock movie (don letts, 1978)

There are various versions of this movie, with various titles, of varying quality. The one I just watched was terrible looking, a dub of a dub of a dub, all done on VHS. There is something appropriate about that.

I first saw The Punk Rock Movie so long ago it shows how old I am and how old punk is. It exists as a document of a particular place and time. Don Letts took a Super 8 camera into the maelstrom, and this was the result. Picture's bad, sound's bad, what can I say? I suppose I can't recommend it, even though it is as much a marker of its time as Don't Look Back was of the time before Dylan went electric.

The following people appear in the film: The Sex Pistols, Shane MacGowan, Eater, Slaughter and the Dogs, Generation X, The Slits, The Clash, Subway Sect, Alternative TV, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Soo Catwoman, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and X-Ray Spex.

I suppose none of these acts are seen/heard at their best, but Letts' grubby footage feels right. My favorite acts were The Slits, where you get to see what Ari Up was like on stage, and X-Ray Spex when Lora Logic was still on saxophone.

Hey, this movie is right up my alley. I've now seen it twice in 40+ years. But even I know it's mostly crap, so if you have no interest in the early year(s) of British punk, avoid this movie.


opening day 1987

(There isn't going to be any baseball for a long time. I have been to 40 consecutive Giants Opening Days, and have/had tickets for #41, but it is entirely possible my streak is ending. So I thought I'd occasionally look back at some of those 40 Openers, make up a bit for the absence of current baseball. Some of these have gotten mentions in blog posts past, but whatever.)

1986 was a promising year for the Giants. It was the first full year under manager Roger Craig, it was their first winning season in four years, and it was the rookie season for Forever Giants Will Clark and Robby Thompson. So it was with a feeling of optimism that we showed up for the 1987 opener at Candlestick.

The Padres' lineup included one future Hall-of-Famer, Tony Gwynn. It also included three players who were traded to San Francisco later in the season, one of the biggest Giants' trades of the time, acquiring Kevin Mitchell, Dave Dravecky, and Craig Lefferts. (They also had Tim Flannery, who later became a legendary coach for the Giants.) The starting pitchers were Eric Show and Mike Krukow. And there was one more future Hall-of-Famer: plate umpire Doug Harvey.

The Giants struggled against Show, and while Krukow mostly held off the Padres, going into the bottom of the 8th the Giants trailed, 3-0. But the Giants' bats awoke in the 8th. With one out, Mike Aldrete pinch-hit for Krukow and drew a walk. Chris Speier pinch-ran for Aldrete, and Clark singled. Chris Brown, who was later dealt to the Padres in that mid-season trade, doubled home Speier, and one out later, Candy Maldonado, appearing in his first game for the Giants, doubled home Clark and Brown to tie the game.

After which, no one scored for a while. The Giants threatened in the bottom of the 10th when Clark led off with a triple against Lefferts. Padres manager Larry Bowa ordered two intentional walks to load the bases with no one out. But Joel Youngblood hit one back to the mound, with Clark out at the plate, and Chili Davis hit into a double play.

It all came together in the bottom of the 12th. After new pitcher Craig Lefferts retired the first two batters, he gave up consecutive singles to Jeffery Leonard, Bob Melvin, and Chili Davis, sending the fans home happy with a 4-3 Giants win.

The Giants went on to win the NL West, marking their first trip to the post-season in 16 years. They won 3 of the first 5 games against the St. Louis Cardinals, but didn't score in the final two games, ending the season.

Here is Game Five of the NLCS against the Cardinals. That series was the first I had ever attended in person, and after this game, which put the Giants up 3 games to 2 as they went to St. Louis, all of us in the stands said we'd see each other at the World Series. Oops.


revisiting the awful truth (leo mccarey, 1937)

Last watched this eight years ago. Back then, I wrote:

Another highly-regarded comedy, this time of the screwball variety, and, like many such movies, a favorite of mine. Irene Dunne apparently elicits mixed reactions from viewers, but I’ve always loved her in this movie. Cary Grant is Cary Grant, the Chow Yun-Fat of his day. The Awful Truth is less screwy than something like Bringing Up Baby, but that extra bit of grounding might actually help the film. Dunne and Grant play so well off of each other that you can watch The Awful Truth multiple times without the gags getting old. The gags are good, but the actors are even better. And the final scene, which is barely screwball at all, is witty and very sexy.

I wouldn't change any of that, although I'm no longer sure what I meant about Irene Dunne. I'm surprised I didn't mention a great, hammy performance by Skippy the Wire Fox Terrier. Skippy had quite the career ... even has his own Wikipedia page. Here he plays Mr. Smith, and he's even a key part of the plot. He's best remembered as Asta in some Thin Man movies, but he was also in Bringing Up Baby. He never got nominated for an Oscar, but The Awful Truth got six nominations, including Leo McCarey (who won Best Director), Best Picture, Dunne, Ralph Bellamy (his only nomination), Best Screenplay, and Best Editing. #414 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (It was #365 eight years ago.)


film fatales #80: welcome to me (shira piven, 2014)

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 28 is called "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week".

A play off of last year's "Lee, Lee, Lee, or Li" week, I initially struggled to find a fourth Leigh, but then I remembered Vivien Leigh whom I somehow forgot. Obviously these selected people have little in common with each other, but its just something I threw in for fun.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Mike Leigh or starring Janet Leigh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Vivien Leigh.

This was harder than I expected. I originally chose something called Jake Squared, which featured Jennifer Jason Leigh, but after watching the trailer, I decided I really didn't want to see that one. So I went with Welcome to Me, which I had been thinking about watching for some time. It's a bit of a cheat, though ... Jennifer Jason Leigh is in this one, too, but her part is pretty small. (For one of my favorite Leigh films, check out The Anniversary Party.)

Welcome to Me is interesting, but not completely successful. Director Shira Piven, screenwriter Eliot Laurence, and star Kristen Wiig as Alice deserve credit for presenting a bipolar character without resorting to some of the stereotypes we're used to. Wiig is often just a little off (and sometimes, a lot off) ... she doesn't play the part as if she's begging for an Oscar. And the film doesn't make the mistake of making Alice overly lovable, or suggest that bipolar people are somehow "better" than the rest of us, even as they suffer. (I'm cheating a bit using the word "us" ... I, too, am bipolar, although I'm "II" and Alice is clearly Type I.) Alice is troubled, but she is also so self-absorbed that she is practically clueless about the possible problems of others.

But the film doesn't really go anywhere. Alice makes some marginal changes, but not enough to wake the movie up. It is funny at times (it's Kristen Wiig, after all), although you get the feeling they were trying for farce and not getting there. It is extremely sad at times ... in this way, Welcome to Me is rather bipolar itself. But despite the best efforts of all concerned, there are times when we are laughing at Alice as much as we are suffering for her.

All of this makes Welcome to Me an uncomfortable film to watch, and really, that's a good thing ... this isn't a run-of-the-mill movie about a crazy person. But the discomfort comes in part from the feeling that the material is moving beyond the grasp of the intentions of Pivan and crew.

Kristen Wiig is very good, and plenty of good names turn up, especially Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend. Welcome to Me is OK, but that's as far as I'd go.

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