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what i watched

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). Interesting, unpleasant take on comic book evil. Joaquin Phoenix does wonders in the title role ... it's clearly intended as Oscar bait (and it worked ... he won the Oscar over Antonio Banderas and others), but Phoenix doesn't take the easy route. He's showy in that Oscar way, but he never invites us in, never turns sympathetic. Compared to the charisma of Jack Nicholson (or Cesar Romero, for that matter), Phoenix's Joker is practically another character. That character is Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy, a clear influence on Joker.

There's little attempt to blame society for Joker's problems ... whatever social commentary sneaks into the movie is mostly unrelated to the story of Arthur Fleck, a disturbed individual (although his presence does create the environment for rioting mobs). Arthur had an abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. Phoenix dives right in, and it's something to behold, but as I say, it's unpleasant. I don't know why anyone would watch this a second time. If I did, I might examine why I find Taxi Driver so much better than this film. #919 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Not that it explains anything, but if you watch this scene, note that Arthur works as a clown (hence the outfit), and he suffers from a disorder where he laughs at inappropriate moments.

Geezer Cinema: Project Power (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2020). By-the-numbers futuristic action film with sci-fi elements. Jamie Foxx is allowed to have charisma, and Joseph-Gordon Levitt is good, as always, but Dominique Fishback (The Deuce) steals the film. The rationale for the plot (pills that offer five minutes of superpowers) is silly, although I don't know that anyone making the movie cared. The special effects are solid, it's a passable way to waste two hours, and it sets up a possible sequel. I can't wait.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

"you know i hate politics" -- michelle obama

Michelle Obama was the key speaker at the first day of the Democratic convention. She's a powerful speaker. Here is what I got out of her speech:

Vote for us because we are not Donald Trump.

That's a good reason. I'm going to vote for them, myself.

But for me, her speech can be summed up in this: "You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children."

Her "argument" seems to be that we are nicer than Trump, therefore we deserve to win.

Early on she said, "I am here tonight because I love this country with all my heart, and it pains me to see so many people hurting." Later, she noted that Trump has "a total and utter lack of empathy." She continued, "Empathy: that's something I've been thinking a lot about lately."

A bit later, she added, "And like so many of you, Barack and I have tried our best to instill in our girls a strong moral foundation to carry forward the values that our parents and grandparents poured into us." That is, we have stronger morals than Trump, so vote for us.

She worries because she sees "a nation that's underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character. And that's not just disappointing; it's downright infuriating, because I know the goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation." We have goodness and grace ... vote for us.

And this, which hits the nail on the head:

So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.

She is right. But her point once again is, vote for us, we're not Trump. And "I know Joe. He is a profoundly decent man, guided by faith." (He's not Trump.)

"This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another." (We're not Trump.)

This is not a message of hope, beyond hoping that we can get rid of Trump. But that's what you get when you speak for a political party and admit "I hate politics".

revisiting 20 favorite albums

A couple of years ago, I did a 20 Favorite Albums thing on Facebook that I cross-posted here. I was looking at the list again, and it couldn't be more Boomer Centric if I tried.

There was A Hard Day's Night, and Highway 61 Revisited, and Surrealistic Pillow, and Beggars Banquet, and Astral Weeks, and an Aretha Franklin hits package, and a Velvet Underground album, and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. There was James Brown Live at the Apollo, and Elvis'  68 Comeback Special. That 10 albums if you're counting at home, out of 20. Toss in Layla and Horses and Born to Run and Broken English, and I still haven't really escaped the 60s.

Only six albums stood apart from that trend: a Little Richard hits collection that featured mostly stuff from the 50s, along with The Clash, Prince, Hüsker Dü, Sleater-Kinney, and Pink.

So I know it's not Music Friday, but here are a couple of more recent releases that have gotten my attention.

The inescapable Cardi B with Megan Thee Stallion:

The inevitable Billie Eilish, "No Time to Die":

Haim, "Summer Girl":

Lori McKenna, "The Balladeer":

Sorry ... it appears the only current artists I listen to are women.

creature feature: rodan (ishirô honda, 1956)

I chose this for the nostalgia factor, as I usually do with these Creature Features. I watched Rodan many times when I was a kid, and while in my memory it was just another crappy Japanese monster movie, that's what I was in the mood for.

But I'm not entirely sure that's what I ended up with. For I noticed the Criterion Channel had Rodan, their version was 10 minutes longer than the one on Amazon I was going to watch, and, well, it was Criterion after all. So I checked them out, and what I saw was not the movie I watched as a kid. This was subtitled, the print had been improved ... in short, it was Rodan the way it was intended. (Afterwards, I peeked at the Amazon version for a few minutes ... the print was crappy, it was dubbed, and the opening was an invention for the American market. In other words, it was the movie I grew up on. I'm glad I chose Criterion.)

Now I don't want to go too far. I've watched a lot of kaiju movies, so I have a tolerance for them, but I don't think of them as great movies. Rodan came from the 50s, when the movies were still taken fairly seriously, so it's a decent film ... this isn't Son of Godzilla. But it's decent, no more. While eventually we get the usual brief explanation of events being related to nuclear bomb testing, there is a moment early on when a scientist suggests maybe climate change is to blame ... which was surprising, to say the least!

It's hard to recommend Rodan. If you're the type who can handle subtitles, you're likely not that interested in Rodan. And if you just want nostalgia, the dubbed version on Amazon is a mess. Still, I enjoyed myself.

One last anecdote. We had a friend who was an artist, and one day we were driving in a car and I was in the backseat with his kids. They had some toys to play with, one of which was a little pterodactyl. I picked it up and said, "Rodan!" Our artist friend in the front seat immediately launched into a discussion of the great sculpture Rodin. It was pretty interesting, too. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was talking about a Japanese monster. Or maybe I just didn't want to expose my love of junk culture.

Here's a trailer for the American version:

olympia (gregory dixon, 2018)

I had made a note to watch Olympia, but when I settled in, I realized I didn't feel like watching a 2-part, 4-hour movie about the 1936 Olympics. So you can imagine how happy I was when I realized the movie on my list was this much-shorter indie film out of Chicago.

Olympia is the master's thesis for Gregory Dixon, from a script written by McKenzie Chinn, who also plays the title character. The film is a bit unassuming ... Dixon and Chinn don't try to knock our socks off. But they demonstrate their ability to create a feature-length film, and that's no small accomplishment. Chinn's performance as Olympia may be the best thing about the movie, but all of the performances are at least adequate ... Olympia never feels like the film of an amateur. The filmmakers are very familiar with Chicago, where the entire movie takes place, so it feels real, even when it slips into a bit of fantasy. Olympia is an illustrator, and Dixon occasionally places little drawings on the screen. If he did it too much, it might seem precious, but he does it just the right amount of often.

The story is of a woman turning 30, and the decisions she and her friends are making as they cross over into what passes for adulthood. I imagine it would play especially well with audiences whose age matches those of the characters. A shout out also to Charles Andrew Gardner, who plays the male lead. Everything about Olympia is low-key, which is refreshing, although even at 93 minutes, I found myself looking at my watch.

Olympia is not just an excellent master's thesis, it's a good movie, which suggests Dixon and Chinn could have a solid career in film. I might have passed it by if I hadn't stumbled upon it by accident, and it was better than I expected. It's worth checking out.

music friday: the hot 100, august 14 1970

I got the idea of revisiting a Top Five list, and chose 1970, 50 years ago today, wondering if the list would be good or bad. As expected, it was a mix. (On August 14, 1970, I was 17, two months beyond graduating from high school, with no idea what to do with my life.)

5. Mungo Jerry, "In the Summertime". They got their name from T.S. Eliot. Ray Dorset wrote this song in ten minutes.

4. Eric Burdon and War, "Spill the Wine". One of the odder songs to become a hit. By 1971, Burdon was a solo artist. War became one of the biggest bands of the first half of the 1970s.

3. Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours". Wonder was 20 years old. His first big hit came seven years earlier. War was big, but Stevie Wonder ruled the 70s (won 12 Grammies in the 70s alone).

2. Bread, "Make It with You". Everything here is David Gates ... he wrote it and played every instrument except drums. This track, and #1, are examples of "Soft Rock", which ruled the airwaves for a long time. I will grudgingly admit there was some good music under the "Soft Rock" label. This song wasn't good.

1. The Carpenters, "(They Long to Be) Close to You". Some of my best friends love The Carpenters. I can make fun of Bread, but Carpenters fans are still out there, and they can be vicious. Perhaps the most famous person to ever post a comment on this blog was Jimmy Iovine, who ripped me a new asshole for bitching about Karen Carpenter. (That particular post received 56 comments, which may be a record for me ... 56 and counting, since the post was from 2003 but it was getting comments as recently as 2017.)

the sixth karen sisco award: high fidelity

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), Luck (2012), Agent Carter (2016), and Sweet/Vicious (2017).

This year's winner is High Fidelity, which has been cancelled after one season (as is the trend these days, it's always possible someone will take if over and movie it to another outlet, but I'm treating it like it's gone). A couple of months ago, I wrote of High Fidelity, "From a Nick Hornby novel to a film with John Cusack, always very guy-oriented. This version benefits greatly from 1) making the main character a woman, and 2) casting Zoë Kravitz in the role. She's the best thing about it, although the supporting cast is appealing, as well. Never quite essential, but often fun to watch."

I doubt it means anything, but I notice the last three award winners were centered on women. High Fidelity had another marker. As Kravitz said on Instagram, "It's cool. At least Hulu has a ton of other shows starring women of color we can watch. Oh wait."

Some people seemed to think it pointless to make Rob, the main character, a woman of color. Merely substituting Kravitz for Cusack/Hornby was too easy. But in this case, as with so much of Hornby's work (and I am a fan), the perspective is very much male, and so Kravitz's Rob had automatic resonance. That she was so good helped, of course. The supporting cast offered a few hopefully-future stars in Da'Vine Joy Randolph and David H. Holmes. Parker Posey appeared in a good episode that had its roots in the novel (and made the cutting-room floor of the movie). Debbie Harry has a fun cameo as a nod to Bruce Springsteen's appearance in the film. And Natasha Lyonne directed an episode.

Without access to Hulu's ratings, I can't say if High Fidelity bombed. There's no apparent reason for why it didn't get a second season. But it should have.

I can't let Zoë leave us with her show cancelled, so here is her appearance earlier in the year on Hot Ones:

geezer cinema/film fatales #90: the assistant (kitty green, 2019)

Writing about the TV remake/prequel of Perry Mason, Sarah Marrs explained:

Something has happened in prestige dramas over the last few years: shows have stopped being ABOUT things. Spectacular performances and writing abound, but ask me what these shows are ABOUT, and I draw a blank. Plot has replaced story as the engine of good drama (plot = what is happening, story = why it is happening), and Perry Mason perfectly exemplifies the trend.

I read this the day before watching The Assistant, and the distinction between plot and story had extra resonance. When it is my turn to pick in our weekly Geezer Cinema, I take my wife's taste into my decision. I won't watch something unless I want to see it, but if I've narrowed it down, I might pick a movie I think she'll like, as well. She liked the trailer for The Assistant, and it seemed like a safe pick, although as is usual for me, I knew next to nothing about the movie going in.

For more than half the movie, it seems as if nothing is happening in The Assistant. My wife likes plot, and I sensed The Assistant wasn't doing anything for her. So, when our viewing was interrupted for a moment, I took the opportunity to talk about Marrs' notion of plot and story. Our movie lacked for plot, but we were learning about the title character, which passes for story. She liked the concept, and we continued with the film.

Eventually, a plot emerged, and if I watched it a second time, I suspect that plot would be obvious quite early. As is usual for us, my wife figured out what was going on long before I did. But it may be a step too far to say The Assistant ever got around to a plot. Instead, there was a situation, a situation that illuminated the film ... we learn the Why.

It's possible that Kitty Green, the documentary filmmaker who makes her fiction debut here (she also wrote it) may have made The Assistant too good. The largest part of the film shows an office assistant (Julia Garner) dealing with the drudgery of her job. We see how she is ignored ... she does things without which the office would fall apart, but no one notices her. Garner is excellent, and Green certainly makes us feel the awfulness. But she is so successful that my attention wandered. As Mick LaSalle noted, "The film is worthy and ages well in memory. It was definitely worth making and is almost as definitely worth watching. But it must be admitted that this movie, which is about someone in an office assistant job, is sometimes as stultifying as actually being in such a job. In a sense, boredom is part of the director’s strategy, but boredom is a dangerous substance and must be employed carefully."

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

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

double feature: the killers (robert siodmak, 1946) and film fatales #89: the killers (marika beiku, aleksandr gordon, and andrei tarkovsky, 1956)

It used to be a big deal to try and make movies of the works of Ernest Hemingway. I feel like that time is past ... a quick look tells me there hasn't been one since 2001, although I'm sure I'm missing something. Most critics seem to think Hemingway's style doesn't translate well to film. In a story that may be apocryphal, Howard Hawks told Hemingway he could make a movie from the author's worst story ... the result was To Have and Have Not.

"The Killers" was a short story Hemingway wrote in 1927. (You can read it here.) The first movie to be based on the story came out in 1946, with Burt Lancaster in his film debut, and Ava Gardner as the femme fatale. It's an interesting extension of Hemingway's story. The film opens with a scene that closely follows the short story:

Since the movie runs 103 minutes, something has to fill in the remaining time. So we get an insurance investigator (played by Edmond O'Brien, who later spent a couple of years on radio as "Johnny Dollar", also an insurance investigator). His job is to figure out what really happened in a murder for which the company he works for is paying a beneficiary. This allows for several flashbacks that rebuild the story, effectively showing us what happened to Hemingway's characters before the story began. The screenwriters (Anthony Veiller and uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks) do a good enough job that the characters feel close to the story.

This version of The Killers is now considered a classic example of film noir. The supporting cast includes people like William Conrad (his first credited role) and Virginia Christine, better known to Boomers as Mrs. Olson. The cinematography by Woody Bredell deserves a lot of credit for the film's success.

When I referred in the title of this post to a double-bill of The Killers, most people were probably thinking of the 1964 version, which included Ronald Reagan in his final role (he gets to slap Angie Dickinson). But I was thinking about this one:

It's the first student film of Andrei Tarkovsky, who made the 19-minute short with fellow students Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon. It's fascinating, partly because, like the first scenes in the 1946 version, Tarkovsky et al followed Hemingway's story. In fact, if the English subtitles can be believed, this Russian version is an almost word-for-word translation of Hemingway to the screen. If Tarkovsky films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker are too long for you, The Killers is a brief way to get started on his work.

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

ah, radio

I'm sure I've written about radio many times. I could search for relevant posts. But what I'm thinking about today is the category I assigned to Radio. Categories on this blog are there to help you find things. There's a category for Baseball and Bruce Springsteen, for Film and Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema, for Music and Pink and Sleater-Kinney. Recently, I added a category for African-American Directors ... haven't yet turned it into something "official" like my Film Fatales posts, but I tagged a lot of appropriate movies from past entries.

Well, the first time I tagged a post with "Radio" (and thus, the time I invented it as a category for the blog) wasn't as long ago as I might have thought. The post was called "Serial Radio", and it drifted from the Serial podcast to some thoughts about Old Time Radio, with examples. The date was November 13, 2014. Like I say, I know I've talked about radio before, especially FM "Underground" Radio in the 60s. I may have to go back and tag a few posts, make the Radio category relevant. Because after that first post, I wrote one Radio post a year for three years, with the last one being in 2017, when I talked about William Conrad and Gunsmoke.

The other two posts were tied to my life with radio. One came when longtime Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons died. Baseball fans develop close, interesting relationships with the people on the radio who describe the action for six months out of the year.

The other Radio post was the most personal of them all: "Al Collins, Grasshopper Pie, and Me". I think it's a good one, so I won't quote it here ... check out the link. Al Collins was a legend, but a good half of that post is about the grasshopper cocktail and grasshopper pies.

What would I write about radio today? The main place I listen to the radio is in the car, and guess what? There's a quarantine, and we never drive anywhere. Spotify playlists are what pass for music radio in 2020, and I will still listen to Giants games when I'm not watching them on TV.

But perhaps what I'm saying is there's a reason why I have so few radio posts. Radio just isn't as important to me any more.