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geezer cinema: wind river (taylor sheridan, 2017)

A bit of a cheat in the Geezer Cinema tradition. It was my wife's turn to pick, but she had hip replacement surgery, so she told me to pick for her, i.e. not what I wanted to see necessarily, but something she might have picked if she wasn't on pain meds. As it happened, I'd been intending to watch Wind River for some time, after it was recommended to us by our nephew. So it was an easy choice, and he was glad we finally got around to it ("it's about time!").

I knew nothing about this one coming in, which makes for a nice surprise when the movie is as good as Wind River. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen co-star in roles completely different from their Marvel appearances. Renner is a game tracker in Wyoming and Olsen is a young FBI agent who comes to Wyoming to help with a homicide that took place on a Native American reservation. The refreshing thing about Wind River lies in how it sidesteps clichés so common you expect them without thinking. The tracker and the agent appreciate the skills each brings, and they become closer over the course of the film, but they don't get romantic. There's none of that first they fight, then they come together routine. There is an awareness of the conflicts between the Native Americans and the whites, but it's not simple, and there is crossover respect in some cases.

I haven't seen other movies directed by Taylor Sheridan, but he is familiar to me, not least for his time on the series Sons of Anarchy. He wrote the scripts for Sicario (a good film), Hell or High Water (a better film that won him an Oscar nomination), and Without Remorse (which wasn't very good). He gets good performances from his cast in Wind River, and the whole film is a success on the level of Hell or High Water.

music friday: joan jett

I watched the 2010 movie The Runaways with Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, which prompted this Music Friday. I was certainly aware of the Runaways back in the day, but didn't pay much attention to them, and even now I think of them mainly as the band where Joan Jett got her start. Here is the video of their biggest hit:

And here is the same song, with clips from the movie:

The movie focuses primarily on Jett and Cherie Currie, but in real life, it was Lita Ford who came closest to Jett in the popularity of her solo career. Here's Ford:

In 1982, a version of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts hit #1:

In 1987, Jett starred with Michael J. Fox in Paul Schrader's rock drama Light of Day, featuring a title song written by Bruce Springsteen:

Jett and the Blackhearts were 2015 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

Jett has been an inspiration to countless musicians over the years, and she has always managed to blend the charisma of a rock and roll star with the feel of a regular fan of the music. Robert Christgau got off what I've always thought was one of his best lines when he wrote, after four consecutive albums to which he gave a "B+" grade, "Though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B+." Then, some years later, he gave one of her greatest hits packages an "A" grade. That's Joan Jett: reliably B+, but with plenty of A to keep us all going.

better things series finale

Pamela Adlon created a miracle. Semi-autobiographical, which is no guarantee of success. She had to deal with the flak from the early involvement of Louis C.K., which mostly just meant she threw herself into the show even more than before, directing everything, while of course also starring and often writing. She gave us a believable family of mom, three daughters, and grandmother where each character was distinctive. She blended funny and dramatic seamlessly.

I think one example of how well Adlon made the show work is the three daughters. They don't really look related, nor do they look related to Adlon. Yet, thanks to the writing and the acting, they are exactly what you'd expect three sisters to be like. There are no false moments with those three. It's easy to just cast actors that look alike, but to build characters that are real and, to say that word again, believable is v.hard. Adlon did it episode after episode, season after season.

At the end, she said something important: don't feel sad that the show is finished, feel glad that now you can watch every episode on Hulu whenever you want.

el dorado (howard hawks, 1966)

In the most recent version of my top directors list, I had Howard Hawks at #1. I have no problem with that, although if I'm asked, absent any algorithms, I usually say Jean Renoir is my favorite. A list of my favorite Hawks films would always have Rio Bravo at the top (I think it's the best western ever made, among other things). When I saw El Dorado many years ago, I wasn't fair to it, because it is such a clear remake of Rio Bravo, but without most of the quality that made the earlier film a classic. So I decided to give it another chance, to watch it without comparing it to another film.

Well, it's impossible not to think of Rio Bravo when watching El Dorado. You've got John Wayne, you've got a drunken gunfighter (Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum), you've got a young guy named after a state (Ricky Nelson as Colorado, James Caan as Mississippi), an old guy (Walter Brennan, Arthur Hunnicutt), and you've got a woman too young to partner up with John Wayne (Angie Dickinson, Charlene Holt). You've got a bad guy in jail and other bad guys trying to get him out.

I can imagine it was a fun movie to make. On the screen, it ambles along, never forcing us to watch, never getting complicated enough to make us sorry we weren't paying attention. The big stars are fun. It just doesn't amount to much. Everyone goes through their paces as if they'd done it a hundred times before, resulting in a movie where, as Pauline Kael wrote, "You have the sense of having come in on a late episode of a TV series." If you feel like watching a western, you won't hate yourself for choosing El Dorado. But the next day, your hunger for a good western won't have been satisfied.

african-american directors series: crooklyn (spike lee, 1994)

Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. Just based on the number of his films I've seen, he ranks high (Letterboxd tells me I've only seen more movies by three directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, and Hitchcock). At various times, I have listed Do the Right Thing as the best film of 1989, the best movie of the 1980s, and one of the 25 best movies of all time. In my most recent list of the top directors, I had him at #37, between Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci. The quality of his films is variable ... just think of Bamboozled ... but that could be said about most directors not named Jean Renoir (think Casino or Hook or Rope ... OK, some people like that last one).

One way to think of directors is by looking at their most typical films, typical meaning it falls in the middle of his films as I rank them. Like, say, 25th Hour, a good movie but not a great one. Spike Lee is always capable of making a movie as good or better than 25th Hour, and that's a high standard, one that makes each new Spike Lee joint something to look forward to. Which means I'm not sure why it's taken me almost 30 years to get around to Crooklyn.

Crooklyn is one of the good ones, reminiscent of Do the Right Thing in its insightful portrait of a neighborhood and a community. Crooklyn mostly lacks the biting social commentary of Do the Right Thing ... at its core, it's a family drama. As we have come to expect, Lee gets many of the details right. You could call Crooklyn affectionate (it's rated PG-13, a rarity for Lee). He gets a large cast of fine actors to do fine jobs, including people like Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, Lee regulars like David Patrick Kelly, Spike's sister Joie, and Spike himself (the two of them, along with brother Cinqué Lee, wrote the screenplay, which emphasizes the semi-autobiographical nature of the film). Young Zelda Harris is great in the key role of Troy, the lone girl in a family of brothers. Harris is a teacher now, having become frustrated by the way the movie industry tried to typecast her as "the best friend" ("Your Friendly Black Sidekick").

Special mention must be made of the soundtrack, filled with 1970s tracks, so filled, in fact, that it took the release of two soundtrack albums to get it all in.

Special mention must also be made for an odd decision by Lee to remove the anamorphic adjustment for 20 minutes that take place when Troy spends time with family outside of Brooklyn. Lee wants to show visually how disorienting the trip was for Troy, and he certainly succeeds, such that audiences thought there was something wrong with the projection. Signs were placed in theaters warning viewers in advance that it was meant to look as it did. Watching on TV, I cursed Starz for a while, thinking they'd screwed up, before I checked online and found what was going on. For me, this was a failed experiment.

jigsaw (fletcher markle, 1949)

This is the thirty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 31 is called "Classic Performers: Marlene Dietrich Week":

A German-American actress of the Golden Age, Marlene Dietrich was a staple of her era. Though most known for her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich starred in a number of great films across her career, and here is our chance to examine what made her the star she was.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Marlene Dietrich.

I don't know how else to put this: watching Jigsaw was a waste, especially considering the context. I chose an unseen Marlene Dietrich film to fulfill this week's challenge, only to find that Marlene had only an uncredited cameo (even "cameo" exaggerates her presence ... we see her walking out of a night club ... she's on screen about as long as Hitchcock is in his cameos). The movie wasn't very good, an overly-complicated noir starring Franchot Tone, his then-wife Jean Wallace, and a handful of "that guys". The cast was filled with trickery, for Dietrich was not the only famous, uncredited cameo. There was Henry Fonda and John Garfield and Marsha Hunt and Burgess Meredith and Everett Sloane and more. The end credits included the following note: "This picture was filmed with the obvious good will of many famous stars. The producers wish to thank them."

I have no idea who was friends with all of these people, who talked them into the cameos. They didn't help the picture ... in many cases, they were unrecognizable, at least to me.

Then there was the print. Jigsaw is one of those movies that fell into the public domain, meaning there are lots of crappy prints out there, including the one on Prime Video. Maybe the black-and-white cinematography was appropriately noirish, but I couldn't tell, with the scratches and the washed-out picture that made everything look grey.

Honestly, the only good thing about Jigsaw is that it was over in 70 minutes. I should have just watched Touch of Evil again.

geezer cinema: i, tonya (craig gillespie, 2017)

Margot Robbie is an interesting actress. She's been in some excellent movies (as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and she's been in some stinkers (Birds of Prey). Her roles aren't always predictable .... as bad as Birds of Prey was, she played the same character in The Suicide Squad, which was a good movie. She worked hard for I, Tonya, becoming a decent enough skater to make CGI less necessary (although was they did use was remarkably seamless ... shout out also to editor Tatiana S. Riegel, who got an Oscar nomination). She doesn't really look like Tonya Harding (among other things, she's nearly half-a-foot taller). But she does right by Harding, and she is the best thing about the movie.

One nice thing about I, Tonya is that it never feels like a standard biopic. Also, while the film is sympathetic towards Tonya Harding, it doesn't sugarcoat the character. Harding blames everything on others, and is frequently annoying. Of course, she looks good next to The Worst Mother in the World (played by Alison Janney, who won an Oscar) and The Worst Husband in the World. But I, Tonya is a warts-and-all portrait.

The multiple points of view, a la Rashomon, is effective, as is the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. Combined with the strong acting and compelling story, I was surprised to find, just as I thought the film was ending, that there was still half-an-hour to go. I, Tonya is not an extremely long movie (two hours), but I wonder if the pacing was off, since I was so thrown by the time remaining. The movie was never boring, so perhaps it's all meaningless.

Robbie was nominated for an Oscar, and while several of the other nominees were at least as good as Robbie (including winner Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) I hope she isn't overlooked in the future, especially since Janney did win but the film is Robbie's.

music friday: fillmore auditorium, april 1966

Another odd bill by today's standards, but nothing new for Bill Graham. Two nights at the Fillmore, April 22-23.

I can't find much about the opening act, the Family Tree, so this might be all made up. Bob Segarini from Stockton was in a band in Los Angeles with Gary Duncan, later of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Later, Segarini formed the Family Tree ... they recorded a few tracks for a small label and were picked up by RCA. They released one album in 1968, but that seems to be all, and I'm looking at 1966, which I suppose was very soon after the band was formed. Anyway, here's what they sounded like in 1966:

The aforementioned Quicksilver was next on the bill. They were one of the core examples of the "San Francisco Sound". Their first album didn't come out to 1968 (that's one vinyl LP I wore out at the time), although they had appeared with the Steve Miller Band and Mother Earth on the soundtrack to the movie Revolution. This Fillmore gig was very early ... best I know, they had only played their first show as Quicksilver Messenger Service a few months earlier. Here is their earliest existing live recording, from later in '66:

And here they are in 1969:

The headliners ... well, nothing wrong with them, but their fame would come with hit singles, not a typical Fillmore headliner. Now, I'm going to be honest ... I can not figure out exactly who were the Grass Roots who performed at the Fillmore in April of 1966. I'll quote extensively from the All Music site:

The Grass Roots was originated by the writer/producer team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri as a pseudonym under which they would release a body of Byrds/Beau Brummels-style folk-rock. Sloan and Barri were contracted songwriters for Trousdale Music, the publishing arm of Dunhill Records, which wanted to cash in on the folk-rock boom of 1965. Dunhill asked Sloan and Barri to come up with this material, and a group alias under which they would release it. The resulting "Grass Roots" debut song, "Where Were You When I Needed You," sung by Sloan, was sent to a Los Angeles radio station, which began playing it. The problem was, there was no "Grass Roots." The next step was to recruit a band that could become the Grass Roots. Sloan found a San Francisco group called the Bedouins that seemed promising on the basis of their lead singer, Bill Fulton. Fulton recorded a new vocal over the backing tracks laid down for the P.F. Sloan version of the song. ... "Where Were You When I Needed You" was released in mid-'66 and peaked at number 28, but the album of the same name never charted. Amid the machinations behind Where Were You When I Needed You, no "real" Grass Roots band existed in 1966.

So who were those guys at the Fillmore?

Eventually, The Grass Roots got very, very popular. They had three top-ten hits, and 21 singles in total that made the charts. Here's an early version of the band lip-syncing to an early version of their first hit ... I don't know if anyone in the video was actually on the record to which they were miming.

Here they are on Ed Sullivan in 1970, with a medley of hits:

Eventually, The Grass Roots entered popular culture in an entirely different way. A musician named William Schneider changed his name to Creed Bratton and joined The Grass Roots, with who he played from 1967-69. Later, while still making music, he took up acting. On the U.S. version of The Office, Bratton got a continuing role as one of the office workers, who happened to be named Creed Bratton. Who happened to have once played with a band called The Grass Roots.

paisan (roberto rossellini, 1946)

Paisan was the middle film in a trilogy Rossellini released just after WWII, after Rome, Open City and before Germany Year Zero. I am not alone in thinking Open City was the best, but all three are important films. Rossellini combined documentary techniques and mostly amateur actors to create a neo-realistic approach to his fictions. He was a major figure in Italian neo-realism, with this trilogy being perhaps the foremost example.

Paisan is broken into six episodes that roughly tell a chronological account of Italy from the moment when the Allies invaded Sicily. A common thread throughout is the difficulties the various characters have communicating with each other, since they speak different languages. In the first episode, a local Italian woman helps an American patrol where only one of them speaks Italian. In a later episode, some American chaplains stay at a monastery. The language isn't the only source of communication difficulties, because only one of the chaplains is Catholic (the others being Protestant and Jewish).

While the episodes have a certain flow, they also serve to break up the continuity in a way that reflects life during wartime. It's hard to predict what will happen next, both for the audience and for the characters in the war. This adds to the special version of realism the film embodies.

The music, by Rossellini's brother Renzo, is unfortunate. Renzo was an accomplished composer, and the quieter scenes in Paisan are effective. But whenever the action becomes rousing, the music overstates things, overwhelming the visuals, sounding like nothing more than canned background music. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

film fatales #138: the joy of life (jenni olson, 2005)

This is the thirtieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 30 is called "Lesbian Stories Week":

Another weekly theme based on the list of a Letterboxd user, this week we take a dive into films that include lesbian stories, either directly or through theming. I am not one to speak on if all the films included fit the bill or not, but I trust the list's creator (who seems to be getting a bit of unnecessary vitriol for having an opinion), and hope you all give one of these films a chance.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film featuring a lesbian story as dictated by Sarah's list.

The Joy of Life is an unusual movie, thanks to the methods Jenni Olson uses to, not exactly tell a story, but to present a vision of San Francisco. The documentary has three segments, although I suppose some might quibble and say there were only two. At the beginning, a voiceover narration by Harry Dodge offers memories of loves past and present. Olson is credited as the writer, so it's up to us to decide if those memories are Dodge's, Olson's, or completely fictional. The narration is accompanied by landscape shots of various places in San Francisco. Olson doesn't often specifically connect the narration to what we see, but there is a general feel for The City, in both audio and visual. The middle segment has the narrator breaking down the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe. The transition is smooth enough, but I can't say I ever quite knew why we were learning about that movie. Finally, there is an extended look at the Golden Gate Bridge as a place where people come to commit suicide.

The narration is purposely flat, although again I don't know why. In the first segment, we are hearing about the emotional life of a butch lesbian, and the unemotional narration feels off. The talk about suicide also exists at something of a disconnect, but in both segments, there is a palpable feeling that what we are seeing and hearing is important to Olson. The film is dedicated to Olson's friend Mark Finch, who himself jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns up in the middle of the film as a voiceover reading one of his poems, which makes the film even more San Franciscan.

The Joy of Life is experimental, and its "differentness" makes it important. It also played a role in the continuing debate about constructing suicide barriers on the Bridge.