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music friday: iris dement

Iris DeMent, The Great American Music Hall, a couple of dates including October, 1996. I'm not totally clear about Iris ... we saw her at least twice, and had tickets for one other show that we had to give away (conflicted with a Bruce concert). The 1996 show was the second time we saw her, I know that. For that 1996 show, she was touring behind The Way I Should. My memory is that album was considered a disappointment, but I never agreed ... it's just that the two albums that preceded it, Infamous Angel and My Life, were so great they were hard to top. She didn't release another album for eight years, and that one featured church tunes she remembered from her mother (there was one original song). Eight years later, she gave us another album, this one of originals, her first in sixteen years. The easy explanation is writer's block, but I don't know if she would agree. It's not that she was inactive in those years ... she recorded with other artists, including several songs with John Prine that appeared on In Spite of Ourselves (a wonderful album, and DeMent is one reason).

Here's her first classic, a song from her debut album:

From The Tonight Show in 1994, the title song of My Life. I'm pretty sure this is around the time we saw her for the first time.

Her third album, The Way I Should, was her "political" album and featured a more rockish sound. People who wanted to hear more country folk songs about "life" were unhappy, and this song in particular pissed off a lot of conservatives:

Finally, here she is with John Prine:


losing it at the movies: one flew over the cuckoo's nest (miloš forman, 1975)

Picking this up after still yet another long break, this is the twelfth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for almost two years ... maybe I'll finish in 2021.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:

Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey's novel about a rebel outcast, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is locked in a hospital for the insane. The book was a lyric jag, and it became a nonconformists' bible. Published in 1962, it contained the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic. Miloš Forman, who directed the movie version, must have understood how crude the poetic-paranoid vision of the book would look on the screen after the 60s paranoia had lost its nightmarish buoyancy, and he and the scenarists--Lawrence Hauben, and then Bo Goldman--did an intelligent job of loosening Kesey's schematism. Set in 1963, the movie retains most of Kesey's ideas but doesn't diagram them the way the book does. Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance as Nurse Ratched--she's the company woman incarnate. And Will Sampson, a towering full-blooded Creek, is very impressive as Chief Broom, the resurrected catatonic. Forman's tentative, literal-minded direction lacks the excitement of movie art and there's a callousness running through his work; he gets laughs by pretending that mental disturbance is the same as ineptitude. But the story and the acting make the film emotionally powerful. And Nicholson, looking punchy, tired, and baffled--and not on top of his character (as he often is)--lets you see into him, rather than controlling what he lets you see. With William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Scatman Crothers, Danny De Vito, Vincent Schiavelli, Sydney Lassick, Louisa Moritz, Marya Small, and Christopher Lloyd; cinematography by Haskell Wexler.

Not being privy to the selection committee for the original Quad Cinema festival, I can only guess at why they chose certain movies. On the one hand, Kael praised Cuckoo's Nest with her usual extravagance, but far as I can tell, it isn't featured in either of the anthologies of her work, including the one where she chose the reviews. As she often did with films based on novels, her take on the book is as insightful as what she has to say about the movie, and in comparing the two, she illuminates them both. She is able to take a more distanced approach than I do, though ... though I was only nine when the book came out, it, and Kesey in general, was a touchstone for me in the 60s ... I am one of those people Kael comments on as jumping right into the novel's world view.

Kesey refused to see the movie, which he felt ruined his book. And indeed, a few of the changes from book to movie are crucial. The film almost completely lacks the psychedelic feel of the novel. Kesey has Chief Broom narrate ... as Kael describes him, the Chief is catatonic, which the other inmates and staff take to mean he is deaf and dumb. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and his first-person narrative is largely where Kesey instills psychedelia in the novel. Kesey was pissed that in the movie, McMurphy is the central character, with the Chief pushed to the side for much of the film. Whatever else he is, McMurphy is not schizophrenic ... his perspective is far from psychedelic. So the film version has an entirely different feel from the book, and if you read and loved the book for it's paranoid vision of "The Combine", you'll notice something is missing. I think Kesey missed out, if he really didn't see the film, because Will Sampson as the Chief is magnificent. I used to think it was Sampson who saved Kesey's vision, but watching it now, I think I was wrong. Sampson/Chief is an important character, but his psychedelic narration is gone.

The film famously won all of the top Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), which hadn't happened in more than 40 years. Jack Nicholson is at his most iconic ... it's safe to say that if you like Jack, you'll love him in this movie. Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched is much more subtle than you might think. Her competition for Best Actress was a mixed bag: two-time winner Glenda Jackson, the odd choice of Ann-Margret in Tommy, Carol Kane wonderful in the little-seen Hester Street, and Isabelle Adjani, to my mind Fletcher's equal in The Story of Adele H. Fletcher's Oscar was deserved.

But then there's the problem with women in the story. Nurse Ratched represents the most oppressive aspects of the establishment ... Kesey (and the film) doesn't really contest this notion of Mom as Evil. The other women in the film are a couple of prostitutes, and a few of Ratched's underlings. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was a kid, and I probably was still clueless in 1975. In 2021, it's impossible to miss.

Forman's treatment of the inmates is also odd in ways that aren't always positive. Writing about Forman's work in general, Kael wrote, "I experience a streak of low, buffoonish peasant callousness running through his work. He locks people into their physical properties." Back in 1975, I thought maybe Forman hired some actual inmates and exploited them, they seemed so exaggeratedly real ... like "crazy people" might look. (The movie was filmed at an actual state hospital.) Now, what I see are a lot of actors who were unknown to me at the time ... Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Michael "Hills Have Eyes" Berryman, Brad Dourif (in essentially his screen debut). There is some good acting here, especially from Dourif. But Forman does have Lloyd walking around bug-eyed, Berryman looks like Berryman ... so does Vincent Schiavelli, who has a part, as well. Danny De Vito isn't any shorter than usual, but it feels like a more defining feature of his character. Forman's use of these actors equates looking odd with having mental/emotional problems, as if we can spot the crazies because they look different from the rest of us. The acting overcomes most of this, but never completely.

So, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest still great? Does it, as they say, hold up? I'd say yes to both questions. There are problems that need to be confronted, but as Kael wrote, it's smashingly effective, and a lot of these people did their best work on this film.


original cast album: company (d.a. pennebaker, 1970)

This is the thirty-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 32 is called "Documentary Now! Week".

As film enthusiasts, we owe it to ourselves to watch anything that caters to the more niche aspects of our hobby. And Documentary Now! may be the most inside baseball show about movies since The Critic. Helen Mirren hosts this Masterpiece-Theater-in-its-own-right lampoon of some of the most influential documentaries ever made. Its a show made with so much respect and love for its source material while also providing delightful caricatures of said films. In order to get the most of the show, this week's a little bit of a challenge+, as you must check out both a documentary they have parodied and the episode that parodies the film you select.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film parodied in "Documentary Now!" AND the corresponding episode.

This is only my second year doing the Letterboxd Challenge, but I'd have to say this week's category was the most complicated I've seen yet. Not only did I watch a movie, I watched a related televsion show, from a series I admit I'd never heard of, Documentary Now! It's a mockumentary, created by some SNL folks, that takes a real documentary and parodies it. Helen Mirren appears as the Masterpiece-like host. Some of those real docs were hard to find, and I ended up with Original Cast Album: Company almost by default. It's a "direct cinema" film from D.A. Pennebaker, which in itself gives it some interest.

Pennebaker was invited into the session to record the cast album for Company, which had just begun its run. It was intended to be a pilot for a proposed series, but that idea fell apart, leaving just this one example. It's the usual fly-on-the-wall approach, and more interesting if you are familiar with Company (I was not). There were a few familiar names, even to me. Dean Jones, who starred in a zillion Disney movies like That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug, was the male lead and showed off a fine voice. The legendary Elaine Stritch was her inimitable self. Best of all was Beth Howland. At the time, she was known for appearing in stage musicals, and she was the original Amy in Company. But I recognized her for the nine years and 200+ episodes she appeared in the TV show Alice. I don't think I even knew she could sing. Amy, it turns out, gets to be the main singer for "Getting Married Today", which is described by Wikipedia: "With 68 words sung in a total of 11 seconds, "Getting Married Today" was notable for being the most difficult musical song with the fastest verse in history."

As for the Documentary Now! parody ... what's the word, meh. It was close to the original, too close ... the only humor came from making the connections to the original. There was nothing inherent in what they were doing that was funny. It's quite the academic exercise, though.


film fatales #113: shadow in the cloud (roseanne liang, 2020)

My friend Steve Fore, who has steered me to so many good movies in the past, tipped me off to this one, writing on Facebook:

Looking for a period war movie with horror elements that's wall-to-wall kineticism for 83 minutes? An homage to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Bugs Bunny, and "Aliens" that transcends all three? That winningly draws on the go-for-broke non-logic and wild narrative implausibility of classic Hong Kong action movies? That has the heroine stuck in the belly turret of a B-17 for half the movie and makes that strategy both claustrophobic and thrillingly dynamic? ... [T]ry watching "Shadow in the Cloud."
Good call, Steve! Shadow in the Cloud is everything he said it was, with an emphasis on kinetic implausibility. This movie is loony from start to finish. Chloë Grace Moretz may seem implausible as the hero, but she makes her abilities seem real amidst all the logic-free plot. It's non-stop action that doesn't overstay its welcome ... Steve was right to mention it's only 83 minutes long. Director/co-writer Roseanne Liang was unknown to me. She's a Chinese New Zealander who delivers an unpretentious popcorn movie. I always have time for those.
 

as you like it

Watched a production of As You Like It tonight, put on by The Vagrancy. Our friend Arthur Keng was Touchstone ... it was fun seeing him, as always. As I said on their Facebook page, it was a wonderful performance. The production team created an inventive way to showcase the play and the players via Zoom and YouTube and whatever other trickery was in there. There were clever touches throughout, and the ending credits were perfect. In other Vagrancy Zoom productions, the "Zoominess" is obvious. In this play, they shot much of it in the forest, and the editing was good enough that I often forgot that two people in a scene weren't actually together during the shoot. You get a little feel for it in this preview:


three resurrected drunkards (nagisa oshima, 1968)

This is the thirty-first 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 31 is called "Director Recommendations: Bong Joon-ho Week".

As of this writing, the Academy Awards for 2021 are set for this week, but who's to say what the future holds? Regardless, let's indulge in some of the films that Best Screenplay/Director/Film winner Bong Joon-ho has decided are noteworthy.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film recommended by Bong Joon-ho.

This was a weird one, and I admit I wasn't prepared. The only film I'd seen by Nagisa Ôshima was the notorious In the Realm of the Senses, and that was outrageous enough that I should have been prepared for anything. Perhaps my usual insistence at knowing as little as possible beforehand hurt me here ... if I knew people saw 60s Godard in Ôshima, I might have cut him more slack. I found Three Resurrected Drunkards incomprehensible a lot of the time, but then, people often say that about those Godard films I love.

My confusion is twofold. First, Ôshima really does mess with the audience here. More than one person has said that they thought their disc player had malfunctioned halfway through the movie, because Ôshima suddenly repeats what has come before with very few changes ... the characters seem to have learned from their earlier escapades, something like Groundhog Day, but the similarities between the first half and the second are so striking it throws us off (purposely, I'm sure). Ôshima works overtime with the repetition as the film nears its conclusion, by which time I was at least more prepared. But I never did see the point of it (again, many people think the same of Godard).

The second problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture in the late-60s. There is a lot going on in Three Resurrected Drunkards that went right over my head, although some post-viewing research at least clued me in a bit. It helps to know something about the relationship between Japan and outsiders, especially Korea. The film is also critical of the American presence in Vietnam, at a time when such criticism was vital. But I didn't necessarily pick up on it more than casually. The reuse of the iconic Eddie Adams photograph of the execution of a prisoner is interesting, if uncertain, in its multiple recreations by the film's heroes, and the appearance of the actual photograph in another confusing sequence at the end mostly muddled whatever meanings we were meant to discern. In fairness, though, a lot of this could be explained by my not knowing the cultural milieu of the film.

The most interesting piece of trivia (and it was not trivial to the people who saw the film when it came out) is that the three main characters are played by members of the folk-pop band The Folk Crusaders. The fractured, goofy beginning of the film suggests for many a Japanese version of a Richard Lester Beatles movie. It's unclear how this is connected, but the film's title is a take on a hit song by The Folk Crusaders, "Kaette Kita Yopparai", and that song pops up throughout the movie.

Three Resurrected Drunkards is a good movie for people who like off-the-wall entertainment. I wish I liked it. I didn't.


oscars

Of the 2020 movies I've seen, the three best, in alphabetical order, were Da 5 BloodsJudas and the Black Messiah, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The latter two have 11 nominations between them. Da 5 Bloods has one, for Best Original Score. So there's one particularly large error, because Da 5 Bloods is better than at least 7 of the 8 movies nominated for Best Picture, and I saw them all.

Eight pictures get an honorable mention nod from me ... these are all very good movies (once again, alphabetical): Dick Johnson Is Dead (0 nominations), Minari (6), The Nest (0), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (0), Nomadland (6), One Night in Miami (3), She Dies Tomorrow (0), Totally Under Control (0), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (6). That adds up to zero nominations for five of my eleven favorite movies of 2020. If I have to narrow it down to one error, I'd go with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which really deserves a lot of nominations.

As I said, I saw all of the Best Picture nominees, and they are all at the least good ... there are no stinkers. I was especially glad to see Promising Young Woman on the list.

Off the top of my head, here are my favorites among the actual nominees:

Best Picture: Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan or Vanessa Kirby (I didn't see Andra Day)

Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya

Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bakalova (I didn't see Glenn Close)

Best Director: Lee Isaac Chung for Minari

Best Adapted Screenplay: Kemp Powers for One Night in Miami (didn't see The White Tiger)

Best Original Screenplay: why not, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman

Best Sound: Sound of Metal (only saw 3 of the 5)

Here is Sidney Flanigan in the ignored-by-Oscar Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This was Flanigan's first acting job in a feature film.


music friday: blondie, julia michaels

Blondie, Oakland Auditorium, August 1979. They were at the peak of their popularity. Early in 1979, "Heart of Glass" was released as a single ... it's their biggest-ever hit. It came from the Parallel Lines album, their most popular. The month after we saw them, they released Eat to the Beat, with their big hit "Dreaming". For this show, their opening act was Rockpile, and perhaps that's the problem ... much as I like Blondie, Rockpile plays "my kind of music". After their set, Blondie felt a little disappointing. Here they are, a few months after we saw them:

Julia Michaels, SAP Center at San Jose, April 2019. Last year, I wrote of Michaels in concert, "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." She opened for Pink, and as you can see from what I wrote above, she had already made a name for herself. And, as you can hear on this video, from a show a month before we saw her, she already had quite a following. It's a sign of an artist's popularity when the crowd knows their songs well enough to sing along. It's very rare in my experience when this occurs with an opening act. (Pink has always given us good opening acts ... besides Michaels, we've seen The Hives, The Ting Tings, and Matt Nathanson, among others.)


geezer cinema: the father (florian zeller, 2020)

Watching The Father, I was reminded of Sound of Metal, which I think deserves awards for using sound as an entry into the main character's experiences. In The Father, Anthony Hopkins plays an old man with growing dementia. It was a hard movie to follow, until I realized that the director was using confusion as an entry to the main character's experiences. Nothing made sense, just when you thought you understood something, it turned into something else ... just as was happening with Hopkins' character. Weird thing is, I wasn't liking the movie, even after I realized what it was up to. Not sure why what worked for me in Sound of Metal turned me off in The Father.
 
It's easy to see that I was being unfair to Florian Zeller, who had a smart method of presenting his material. In fact, The Father is one of the better screen representations of dementia. (Zeller originally wrote it as a play, and its stage origins are obvious, although they are not intrusive.) Considering this was Zeller's debut as a feature director, the results are even more impressive. I found it funny at times, but I wasn't sure if Zeller had written a comedy or not ... I found myself worried I was laughing at the "wrong parts". Ultimately, there is no question that The Father is filled with sadness, but I'm pretty sure if I watched it again, I'd laugh once more at those parts.
 
Anthony Hopkins is very deserving of his Oscar nomination. It's a role with the potential for plenty of Oscar bait, but Hopkins never falls into that trap. He covers a lot of ground, from charming to mean-spirited to simply confused, but he's always believable ... you don't get the feeling he's polishing his Oscar for his shelf at home. He's now been nominated for five Oscars since his lone win for The Silence of the Lambs, an impressive if frustrating achievement. As good as he is here, and he is the equal of the other nominees, he likely stands no chance against the equally deserving Chadwick Boseman. In fact, The Father earned six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman). I'd say the best of the movie's nominees is Yorgos Lamprinos for Editing ... he is the reason I was so confused, so I suppose I should be mad at him, but he pulls off the confusion.
 
Fans of acting should enjoy The Father. And fans of challenging approaches to films will appreciate what Zeller pulls off.