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music friday: new year's eve, 2016

A couple of nights ago, during one of my incessant vivid dreams, I found myself at some function or another with Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. In the dream, Janet had already been excised from the band, yet things seemed congenial enough.

I saw them on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2016. It was my 15th S-K show, the third since their long hiatus. It was the first, and likely the last, New Year's Eve show I attended, and we had a blast. I've seen two post-Janet S-K shows, and they were OK, but Janet meant so much to my feelings for the band that those shows were reduced to "just another concert", quite a drop from when I would see what was my favorite band of the past 20 years.

So that New Year's Eve show five years ago remains the last time I saw the Corin-Carrie-Janet version of the band, which will always be the one that matters to me. It's not as bad as when The Who continued after Keith Moon died, but the way it ended still makes me sad.

I wrote about the show here, if you want to get my immediate reaction. I went with Elisa Salasin, who among her many talents is an incomparable photographer. We have two of her photos from that night framed on the wall of the entrance hall of our house.  Here is one:

S-k new years 2

Here they are, shot by the incredible Admiral Needa, performing one of my live favorites, "Let's Call It Love", sliding into "Entertain", before counting down the seconds until the New Year:

Honestly, it makes me wanna cry seeing Janet behind those drums for what would be my last time.

geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

don't look up (adam mckay, 2021)

My experience with Adam McKay is limited, perhaps because he specialized in Will Farrell movies. Nothing against Farrell, but as I've noted too many times, I'm not much for modern comedies. I actually liked The Other Guys, but I thought Step Brothers was a disaster, and that's all I've seen up to now. Based on what I've seen, Don't Look Up is different, and it isn't much like a modern comedy ... it's not exactly a comedy at all, although there are funny parts. McKay, who also wrote the screenplay, takes a kitchen sink approach, and it's inevitably uneven. But the high points are interesting, some of the comedy works, and the cast has fun with their characters, not an easy task considering Don't Look Up is about the end of the world as we know it.

The basic plot connects with our current climate crisis ... a large comet is headed straight for Earth, and if it collides, the result will be complete destruction, so something needs to be done, and quick. You've got geeky scientists who can't get people's attention, corrupt politicians only interested in their next election, and citizens who are often like sheep, with no cares or beliefs about science. Leonardo DiCaprio is a professor of astronomy who gets caught up in the perils of media fame, Jennifer Lawrence is his PhD candidate who discovers the comet. Meryl Streep is the president, Jonah Hill her son and chief of staff. All sorts of people turn up, like Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett as hosts of a happy-hour news magazine, Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi as music stars, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Perlman ... McKay got himself quite a cast. My favorite is Mark Rylance as a spacey gazillionaire with goofy ideas and enough money to put them into action.

The movie is way too long, but McKay does a good job of making the audience anticipate a happy ending that never comes. A family dinner with the scientists, family, and friends is actually touching. Every other scene will remind you of other movies, some better than this. Melancholia is the one I thought of most often, although Don't Look Up lacks the visual beauty of that film's end-of-the-world. It might be the case that Don't Look Up will play well in home viewing, since any distractions are not all that important considering the movie should be a lot shorter anyway. There is a lot of Oscar talk about this film, and the cast does include five Oscar winners and a couple of nominees.

And where else are you going to hear Ariana Grande singing "Get your head out of your ass, listen to the goddamn qualified scientists. We really fucked it up."

sex, lies, and videotape (steven soderbergh, 1989)

Sometimes said to be Soderbergh's feature directorial debut, which isn't quite correct ... he had directed a concert film of the band Yes. But it is what Wikipedia calls his "narrative directorial debut". Made dirt cheap and in a hurry, it won an Oscar nomination for Soderbergh's screenplay. Laura San Giacomo got her first movie credit after a few TV appearances and one uncredited film. Former model Andie MacDowell showed how far she had come since her film debut five years earlier as Jane in a Tarzan movie where her Southern-accented speech was dubbed over by Glenn Close.

The title of the film suggests something lurid, and indeed, according to the IMDB, "The film was playing in Berlin's largest movie theaters when the Berlin Wall fell. A lot of East Germans crossing over to West Berlin went to see it, expecting Western-style porn." The title is in fact perfectly honest as to the contents, but not in the way those East Germans hoped for. There is sex, but not much of it is on screen. There are lies ... everyone tells them. And there is most certainly videotape.

This was the tenth Soderbergh movie I have seen (I also like to mention his fine TV series, The Knick), and it's been an interesting career. The earlier films I saw were all quite good (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic), then came Ocean's Eleven which made lots of money and spawned sequels (I didn't care for the first one so I passed on the later editions). Then came movies that were all good, never bad, never great: Contagion, Haywire, Logan Lucky, and this year's No Sudden Move. It adds up to a fine body of work ... I have him at #52 on my most recent Best Directors list. But one reason he ranks so high is that I have avoided a lot of his movies that received less-than-positive reviews. So I'd say Soderbergh is hit-or-miss, but his hits are frequent enough and good enough to warrant our interest. I don't think he's ever made a masterpiece, but he's made enough good ones to suffice.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is one of the better ones. The acting by the four principals is excellent ... you'll wish better use had been made of James Spader in his later career. There are probably many college theses about the use of videotape here, but Soderbergh thankfully doesn't beat us over the head ... it's there, we can draw our own conclusions about what the tapes in the film mean for the characters. At the time, the film promised great things from the new director ... it won two awards at Cannes. How much he fulfilled that promise is the question. At the 2001 Oscars, he lost for Best Director (Erin Brockovich), mostly because he beat himself (winning for Traffic). I don't think we can blame him for being prolific, and his percentage of good movies is pretty good.

ten best movies i watched this year

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2021. All of them get my highest 10/10 rating. Sorted by release date:


geezer cinema: shang-chi and the legend of the ten rings (destin daniel cretton, 2021)

Watching Shang-Chi, I was torn between the thought that Tony Leung was the greatest actor to ever feature in a Marvel movie, and thinking he was the greatest actor of his day, period. I loved his work in John Woo movies like Red Cliff, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled, and have said more than once that In the Mood for Love is the best film of the 21st century. It's fascinating to see him in a superhero movie. Shang-Chi is his first English-language film (he has always been fluent in English) and his first American movie. Credit goes in part to writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writers Dave Callahan and Andrew Lanham for giving us a villain with depth, but ultimately we can thank Leung for embodying the part of Xu Wenwu in such a compelling way. He is never not a villain, but he has believable motivations, and we have sympathy for him in ways we never felt for the likes of Thanos.

If Shang-Chi doesn't quite reach the heights of Black Panther, that's not a reason for dismissal ... few films in any genre are as good as Black Panther. But in giving us a different kind of Marvel universe (i.e., one that features Asians at its core), Cretton et al do make a Marvel movie that is a cut above the norm, Tony Leung is the primary reason for this, although it doesn't hurt that Michelle Yeoh pops up. There's something about Awkwafina that annoys me, but she certainly manages to be in some good movies. And Simi Liu as Shang-Chi is a proper hero, good looking, adept at the stunts, and a solid actor.

The latter parts of the movie are filled with CGI, when the film until that point had demonstrated the characters were what mattered. Still, it's good CGI, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who go to Marvel movies primarily for the action. This movie makes me anticipate the inevitable sequel, although I assume Tony Leung won't return, and he will most definitely be missed. In the meantime, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the best Marvel movie since Black Panther.

african-american directors series: the guilty (antoine fuqua, 2021)

I have seen a lot of Antoine Fuqua movies, for some reason. Training Day was pretty good, Chow Yun-Fat's English-language debut The Replacement Killers was pretty awful, and all of the others I have seen are mediocre. (Letterboxd list of Antoine Fuqua movies I have seen.) It's not that Fuqua is incompetent ... he made a lot of strong music videos prior to switching to movies, and his films are not disastrous (except Replacement Killers). But rarely do his movies rise above competence. All of which is why I am happy to say that The Guilty is one of Fuqua's best, which is all the more remarkable because due to COVID, Fuqua directed the entire film from a van parked outside the set.

It's a remake of a 2018 Danish movie I liked a lot. I've read several discussions of the differences between the two movies, most of which argue that the American remake is inferior. But as I watched, I had no such feelings. Fuqua maintains tension throughout, and Jake Gyllenhaal delivers in a demanding role that requires him to be on the screen virtually the entire time. It's the kind of performance that often gets Oscar attention (although Will Smith is the solid front-runner with the oddsmakers), and I don't necessarily mean that in a positive way. But Gyllenhaal is the best thing about the film, as was the case with his Danish counterpart, Jakob Cedergren, in the original.

Fuqua adds some touches ... there is a political context to much of the plot, which I don't recall being as strong in the 2018 film. Nic Pizzolatto wrote the screenplay, and he deserves some of the credit, as does Gustav Möller, who wrote (and directed) the original. Something I wrote about the original is true for this movie as well: "The Guilty is a genre exercise that achieves all that it sets out to do, and that is far more rare than you'd think."

tv 2021

It's been slim pickings for me and television this year, not because there was nothing good to watch, but because I didn't watch much of it, good or bad. I've tried to figure out why this is true, and I have no clue, to be honest. I watch a LOT more movies than I used to (far more than 300 over the last two years), which takes up a lot of screen time. I checked my TV 2020 post, and none of the shows I mentioned have been on during the past year, some because they were cancelled, others because the pandemic has slowed production. I look forward to the return of such shows as Gentleman Jack, Atlanta, and Outlander. But the show I am most excited about is the second season of Euphoria.

The pattern nowadays is that I watch and episode or two, get behind, and forget to catch up. This is true of some shows I have been watching for years, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. More often, I check out new shows, like them, and forget to keep watching: Mare of Easttown, PEN15, Reservation Dogs, Blindspotting, Hacks, Gangs of London. We just started watching Station Eleven, and we might stick with it. A series I caught up on was La Casa de las Flores.

Four 2021 series did stick out for me. Two were mini-series of a sort. Get Back, Peter Jackson's extension of Let It Be, was wonderful for Beatles fans, and McCartney 3,2,1 could have been appreciated by all music fans. The White Lotus was an imperfect but intriguing show from HBO. And the Korean series Squid Game was an international phenomenon that I watched when we were in Spain. I'd recommend all four of those shows, although Squid Game requires a tolerance for violence.

The White Lotus had a great cast, and Alexandra Daddario gave her best performance yet.