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what i watched: oscar contenders

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020). I wrote of the first Borat movie, "Simply put, Borat is a mean-spirited movie. Nothing wrong with that, and Baron Cohen isn't making any claims to being kind." The same holds for this sequel. Most of Sasha Baron Cohen's targets are deserving ... America is a pretty fucked-up country right now ... but that can't hide the fact that Baron Cohen gets people to participate via subterfuge and then presents them in the worst possible light. Still, Rudy Giuliani is both deserving and fucked-up, and I don't mind a bit that he comes off like a pedophile. Meanwhile, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova steals every scene she is in.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #108: Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020). It's an accident that these two movies ended up in one post ... there couldn't be two movies as different as these. Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder about aging nomads in America. It tells the story of people in their 60s and older who live outside of "the norm", traveling in vans and RVs, picking up seasonal work, and dealing with life as it comes. There is nothing mean-spirited about Nomadland. Writer/director Chloé Zhao treats all of the characters with respect, never condemning them or even being judgmental. The film is honest about the lives of these people ... they didn't necessarily choose the life of a nomad (Fern, played by Frances McDormand, lived in a company town that was shut down ... her husband was dead, she had nowhere to go, so she hit the road). The non-professional actors, playing versions of themselves, are believable, exhibiting great trust  in Zhao to present their lives without too much negativity. What plot there is addresses Fern's growth over time, but in the end, we're left with a character study without much plot at all. Fern gets a job, works a bit, lives in her van, the jobs ends, she gets in her van and drives to the next job, and it starts all over again. She meets some interesting people along the way, but by the end of the film, it is clear that for whatever reason, Fern was never going to settle down. Repetitive without being boring, both casual and intense, Nomadland felt longer than its 108 minutes, but that wasn't a problem, because the time spent with the characters was a unique experience. McDormand's fearless, un-actorly performance fits so perfectly with her non-professional co-stars that the actress almost disappears.

(Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies)

music friday

Foghat, Winterland, 1-16/17-76. Foghat was a popular arena rock band in the 1970s who are still plugging away all these years later. They were formed when several members of Savoy Brown left that band and formed their own. They were known for their live performances, and hit it big in late 1975 with the album Fool for the City, which included their biggest hit, "Slow Ride". We saw them a few months later on a show headlined by the J. Geils Band. No disrespect intended, but if you were on a bill with J Geils, I probably don't remember much about your own set.

Rod Stewart, Cow Palace, 12-19-77. A disappointment, one I have written about before. His first solo albums, from 1969-1972, were masterpieces, and his simultaneous work with Faces was sloppy rock and roll fun. Then he got even more popular and famous, and it's simplifying things, but it was all downhill from there. (In 1980, Greil Marcus famously wrote, "Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody – and sells more records than ever ." At his best, Rod was able to pull off softer music with literary touches, and balls-out rockers. In his greatest song, "Every Picture Tells a Story", he managed to work in a line about "Dickens, Shelley or Keats" without sounding dumb. In 1977, he was touring behind his recent release Foot Loose & Fancy Free, which was one of those self-parodies that sold a lot of records. The big two-sided hit from that album was a perfect example of where Stewart had gone: the stoopid raunchy "Hot Legs" backed with one of his most poignant ballads, "I Was Only Joking".

At that concert, he came out to "The Stripper" by David Rose, and finished with a snippet of "Every Picture Tells a Story". It was never more true, or more sad.

Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Keystone Berkeley, 7- 2-80. I wrote quite a bit about Lane a few years ago ... you can read it here. Meanwhile, here's one of her songs from back then:

(She opened for The Undertones at that show. We exchanged emails awhile back, and I told her about that show. She replied, "Boy did the Undertones hate us. We liked them a lot though."

The Black Keys, GAMH, 2-3-03. Yet another band I saw when they opened for Sleater-Kinney. They only had one album out then. They were a cult band that made it big, winning several Grammy awards along the way. A guitar-and-drums duet, I didn't connect with them at the time. They played a lot of covers: The Beatles, The Stooges, "Have Love Will Travel".

I think I know now what's making me sad
It's a yearnin' for my own back yard
I realize maybe I was wrong to leave
Better swallow up my silly country pride
Going home, running home
Down to Gasoline Alley where I started from
Going home, and I'm running home
Down to Gasoline Alley where I was born

the switch (bobby roth, 1993)

This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 23 is called the "Tangerine Dream Week".

You know how every film nowadays seems to go for that retro synth sound aesthetic? Well these folks are a big reason why that's a thing. As a German electronic band, Tangerine Dream lent their musical style to a number of films that gave the 80s its signature sound.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

I can't say this was a disappointment. I can blame myself for an uninspired pick. I could have picked Michael Mann's Thief with James Caan, or William Friedkin's Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer. Instead I chose The Switch, directed by Bobby Roth. Roth has had an interesting career, directing countless TV series and movies. He has also done a few independent films, a couple of which I have fond memories of (The Boss' Son and Heartbreakers). Most importantly for my purposes, it turns out The Switch was a TV movie, and it shows. It doesn't look cheap ... Roth is an efficient pro who makes good use of what in retrospect are clearly only a few sets, and the cast is full of underrated actors, many known mostly for their television work (Gary Cole, Craig T. Nelson, and Max Gail, not to mention Kathleen Nolan, who starred on The Real McCoys and was later president of the Screen Actors Guild, and Hinton Battle, who had a memorable appearance in the Buffy musical Once More, With Feeling). Beverly D'Angelo has a fairly substantial part, although for some reason she is uncredited. Put it all together, and there is no reason why The Switch would be a bad movie. And that is true ... it is not a bad movie.

I can't go much further, though. It begins with the dreaded words, "based on a true story", which never bodes well. It's the story of Larry McAfee (Cole), who is quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. At first, he fights for the right to end his life ... by the movie's end, he has found meaning and wants to live. (Ironically, McAfee died a couple of years after the movie was released.)

Roth and company do what they can, but they are held back by the realities of television in the early 90s. Nowadays, we're used to productions like Game of Thrones, with big budgets and bigger ambitions and big-screen cinematography, but The Switch has the 1.33:1 aspect ratio then standard for TV, and Roth makes extensive use of closeups, I'm guessing because in 1993, with our small TV screens, closeups wouldn't seem oppressive, but in fact be welcomed.

The is nothing wrong with The Switch, and the people involved gave it their best. No one seems to be just cashing a paycheck. Beyond that, there is no particular reason to run out and watch it.

If you can't resist, her is the entire movie on YouTube:

Oh, and Tangerine Dream? I suppose the soundtrack was OK ... I didn't really notice it, to be honest. On the other hand, it was hard not to notice the appearance of Bruce Springsteen's "Human Touch" a couple of minutes in.

easy riders, raging bulls: how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved hollywood (kenneth bowser, 2003)

There isn't a lot to say about this movie, which YouTube thought I'd be interested in. They were right, of course ... I read the book by Peter Biskind long ago, and it covers probably my favorite period in film history, America from Bonnie and Clyde to Jaws. Biskind's book was a fun read, as I recall, although my main memory (uncertain as it is) is that he had the knives out for Pauline Kael.

Funny thing is, I watched the movie only a few days ago, and I already barely remember it any better than I do the book, which was published more than 20 years ago. Yes, it includes a few iconic clips from the movies of the era, one of which gave me fond thoughts of the great film editor Dede Allen. Instead of reading the quotes from interviews, in the movie you get to see the interviewees.

Honestly, you're better served watching a few of the movies highlighted in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Bonnie and Clyde, the first two Godfathers, something from the era by directors such as Peckinpah, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Listen to the great podcast series on Polly Platt by the extraordinary Karina Longworth. Note the absence of film makers of color in most accounts of the era. And then, if you're still eager for more, read Biskind's book or watch this movie

Here is the entire film:

redes (fred zimmerman & emilio gómez muriel, 1936)

This is the twenty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 22 is called the "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema Week".

From The Austrian Film Museum:

"Beginning in the early 1930s and continuing for a quarter-century, Mexico was home to one of the world’s most colorful and diverse film cultures: not many other countries could claim a comparable range of production, diversity of genres and number of master filmmakers. The excellence of Mexican cinema was founded on its commercial strength – Mexico supplied all of the Spanish-speaking markets in Central and South America, and delivered several box-office successes in the United States as well. During the thirties, the country also became an important refuge for European exiles. Numerous filmmakers and craftsmen had their own (usually semi-secret) Mexican Period, and German-born Alfredo B. Crevenna became Mexico’s most prolific director. In the 1940s, few other film cultures were quite as potent."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Try looking here or here for starters.

Another win for the Challenge. I had only seen one film in either of the suggested links (Los Olvidados), and in fact have been remiss in watching Mexican films in general (my favorite being Y Tu Mamá También from Alfonso Cuarón).

Redes has a complicated history, and is perhaps better called an international picture than simply a Mexican film. On the one hand, the film was commissioned by the left-wing Mexican government. There was Mexican co-director Emilio Gómez Muriel ... he went on to direct close to 80 movies, but Redes was his first. Redes was filmed at a small fishing town in Mexico, using a mostly non-professional cast. The score by Silvestre Revueltas, his first, is considered to be a great success, although I confess I found it overbearing at times. On the other hand, the film began as an idea from left-wing photographer Paul Strand, who was from Brooklyn. Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian who had moved to New York, was brought in to co-direct, although he didn't speak Spanish so Gómez Muriel worked with the actors. Strand and Zinnemann cited influences like Eisenstein and Flaherty, and Redes is often compared to Italian neorealism, which hadn't happened yet. So Redes is unmistakably Mexican, but with influences from many places.

Redes tells the story of fishermen who are exploited by the rich, and it's clear what side the film is on. It never looks amateurish ... there is a lot of talent behind the camera, and the non-professional actors are mostly appealingly natural. It's a small picture, to be sure, but its ambitions are large.

geezer cinema: hamilton (thomas kail, 2020)

Well, I finally found out what all the excitement was about. We actually had a plan to see this in London, but then travel kinda took a back seat to the pandemic. Honestly, I wasn't too sad that we missed it ... I didn't have high expectations, by which I mainly mean no matter how good it was, I doubted I would like it.

I take it back. Hamilton was much better than I expected. One problem is that most Broadway "rock" musicals are far more Broadway than they are Rock, and I thought Hamilton would be the same for rap. But in this case, it felt right. It took me awhile to get used to the rhythms of rapping dialogue, and in the end, I'm not sure this was "authentic" rap or hip hop, anymore than Hair was "authentic" rock. But for whatever reason, I ceased caring somewhere along the way. I can't say I remember any of the songs, although if I spent some time with the soundtrack, that problem would probably solve itself.

It was fun recognizing a few members of the cast, especially Oakland's own Daveed Diggs. I admit I didn't realize Aaron Burr was played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke from One Night in Miami), but he was good, too. But ultimately, it's Lin-Manuel Miranda who astonishes. He wrote the music, lyrics, and script for Hamilton, while playing the title role. The play won a Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tonys. Hell, the cast recording spent ten weeks atop the rap charts.

What we watched was a filmed version of the stage play, with the original cast. It was straightforward ... there was no attempt to "open up" the play, it was just a document of an actual performance. Miranda and director Thomas Kail had a few tricks up their sleeves ... they shot three different performances and edited them seamlessly into one. But this was a play as much as it was a film.

I never thought I'd say it, but Hamilton was a highlight of the year.

music friday

Dave Mason, Oakland Coliseum, August 1975. This was a Day on the Green, headlined by Robin Trower. Mason was second-billed, even though Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton were also on the bill. I loved (and continue to love) his solo debut, Alone Together, but his output since then has been hit or miss. Here he is in 1974 ... this set includes his version of "All Along the Watertower".

The Sex Pistols, Winterland, January 14 1978. What more can I say about this show that I haven't already written? It was the band's last concert with Sid Vicious, and in fact their last concert until much later, when they started played reunion shows. Here is the whole show:

John Hiatt, Warfield, May 1982. Hiatt has never quite made it as high as his fans think he deserves. At this show, he was opening for Graham Parker. Hiatt may be best known for the songs he wrote which were recorded by others, most notably Bonnie Raitt with "Thing Called Love" from her breakthrough album Nick of Time. Hiatt was featured once on the late-great TV series, Treme.

John Prine, Concord Pavilion, October 1991. Speaking of Bonnie Raitt, she and John Prine had a nice partnership over the years, with their duet on Prine's "Angel from Montgomery" being most memorable. Prine opened for Raitt at this show, which turned out to be the only time I saw him. One of the greats in my book. His most recent album in 1991 was the excellent Grammy-award winning The Missing Years. Here he is in 1992, performing the title song:

And why not:

the sunshine makers (cosmo feilding-mellen, 2015)

Amanda Feilding, aka Lady Neidpath, is a long-time advocate of drug reform in England. In 2018, Wired said that "If LSD is having its renaissance, Feilding is its Michelangelo." Feilding is now 78 years old, and still on the job.

She is the mother of Cosmo Feilding-Mellen, who directed and co-wrote The Sunshine Makers, about two men who in the 1960s were the creators of Orange Sunshine acid. The film takes you back ... if you lived through those times, you'll suffer a large hit of nostalgia. And I learned a little about those two men, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, who are not as famous as Leary and Kesey (not to mention Owsley Stanley, who was so famous, his name was synonymous with high-quality LSD). All of this makes The Sunshine Makers sound right up my alley.

But the movie feels like a missed opportunity. It's hard to know just how much Feilding-Mellen had to work with. He fills his movie with a collage of modern-day interviews, footage from the 60s, and what seems to be home movies that Sand and Scully took. Honestly, it's possible the only "real" thing in the movie is the interviews ... a lot of the scenes of drug busts and the like feel more like the kinds of re-creations you see on reality crime shows than they look like actual footage. To some extent, this fit with what the film is presenting, not a history of the times as much as a look at Sand and Scully. As I say, I learned something about them, and Orange Sunshine was a big deal. But, as someone who not only lived through this time but also lived in the area where much of the story takes place, I think the focus on Orange Sunshine may misrepresent the times. Yes, there was "brand-name" LSD, but by the time I joined the party (which admittedly was in 1969-72, which was just after the heyday of Sunshine), you could get acid that you were told was "Owsley" or "Orange Sunshine", but the actual product, even if it started in those forms, was usually cut with other ingredients, especially speed.

What I really wanted from Orange Sunshine was a sociological look at drug culture in the 60s. But that's not the movie we get. The center of the story is the friendship and partnership of Sand and Scully ... the ambience is secondary. What Feilding-Mellen gives us is not without interest. It just wasn't what I wanted to see.

I kept thinking of Magic Trip, the documentary from Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, who took the endless footage of the Merry Pranksters' famous bus trip to New York and back and somehow gave it some coherence without losing the anarchic spirit of the film the Pranksters shot. Like Feilding-Mellen, they were working with less-than-ideal resources, but they miraculously turned it into a movie that not only told the story of the bus trip but hinted at the larger meaning of the Pranksters. It's far from a perfect movie, but I fear it's what I hoped to get out of The Sunshine Makers. I was probably expecting the wrong thing.

A bit from Magic Trip: