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geezer cinema: top gun: maverick (joseph kosinski, 2022)

Compared to the original, this was Citizen Kane. Compared to an actual good movie? It was efficient; you could picture the checklist from which they wrote the script, and my wife kept knowing in advance which item on the list would be next. If you liked the first one, and as much as I hated it I know such people exist, you would like this one, as it plays expertly on the nostalgia of its fans. Even I was touched by Val Kilmer, but mostly I just felt like I'd been worked over.

There were a couple of oddities at the showing we attended, some three months after the movie had opened. First there was what amounted to a DVD extra, a short Behind the Scenes look at the making of the film that reminded me of how much I disliked the first one. That movie felt like an ad for Navy recruitment ... this promo recalled that, even featuring a current Navy man who said the first film inspired him to join. Then came a very quick promo with Tom Cruise, essentially thanking us for coming to the theater to watch his movie. The whole thing gave off an odd vibe ... why are we watching previews for a movie we are about to see?

I once wrote about Top Gun:

It works on the theme of bonding, but I'd argue not on the level of adult male bonding ... rather, the bonding between guys that goes on in the movie is a glorified version of what 12 year old boys imagine male bonding to be like. Rio Bravo is a movie about adult male bonding; Top Gun is a movie about early-adolescent bonding. Which would be fine if we were talking about Stand By Me, but in Top Gun, the characters are adults, so I'm not sure it accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Well, it took them a few decades and the aging of Tom Cruise, but the bonding here works better, not because a bunch of older guys connect ... the core characters are young Top Guns ... but because there is a more general feeling of looking back. This falls too quickly into nostalgia pandering, but especially in the scene with Val Kilmer, you actually believe these mature men have learned something about life.

The acting can mostly be summarized by saying they cast the film well. No one stinks, everyone fits their characters. Cruise and Jennifer Connelly have more chemistry than Cruise did with Kelly McGillis in the original. In the end, it's appropriate that I'm writing this long after the film came out and made its first billion dollars. No one needs to read what I have to say. If you wanted to see it, you knew that in advance, and those billion dollars tell us you most certainly did see it.

aladdin (ron clements and john musker, 1992)

I make a lot of Letterboxd lists. Too many, really. One of my favorite kinds of lists is what I call "Blind Spots". These lists (I have 35 of them) are full of movies I've never seen. The vast majority are based on IMDB lists of the top this or top that. Before I watched Aladdin, for instance, it was on five Blind Spot lists: the Top 50 IMDB lists of Animation, Family, Fantasy, and Musical movies, as well as the Top 250 IMDB list for all movies. You could say that it was about time that I watched Aladdin, 30 years after its release.

There's a reason I never got around to it. I'm not all that fond of the Disney movies of that era. In particular, I don't like the songs. But for some reason, the songs in Aladdin didn't bother me that much, so I liked the movie more than I expected. It's an OK film, and yes, Robin Williams gets to be Robin Williams.  He's all over the place, although it takes a while for his Genie to appear. According to Wikipedia, "Because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script was rejected for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination."

The version on Disney+ also contained this disclaimer before the movie started:

This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.

Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.

To learn more about how stories have impacted society, please

All I can find specific to this was a line in a song in the original which went, "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face". This was changed to something less stereotypical.

Thanks to Robin Williams, and the relative absence of crappy songs, Aladdin is a good movie. (It did win Oscars for Score and Best Song, so don't listen to me about the quality of the tunes.) It's still a standard bland boy meets bland girl tale. Gilbert Gottfried does a notable turn as a parrot, but he inadvertently shows the problem with using names to dub dialogue in animated films rather than professional voice actors. Gottfried's voice is so recognizable that it takes you out of the movie ... you don't think hey it's a talking parrot, you think hey it's Gilbert Gottfried.

the last black man in san francisco (joe talbot, 2019)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has an interesting history. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails met growing up in San Francisco, and they made some short films while still in high school. They began planning Last Black Man when they were still teenagers. The initial funding came via a Kickstarter campaign. It's based on the life of Fails, who plays a character named Jimmie Fails in the movie. The film was a first for both ... it was Talbot's debut as a director and Fails' debut as an actor.

All interesting, but no guarantee that the resulting movie would be any good. But it's very good, indeed. Falls is an excellent lead, with Jonathan Majors (Da 5 Bloods, Lovecraft Country) offering solid support. The film feels true to San Francisco, but it's a different San Francisco than we usually see, focusing on Hunters Point and the Fillmore. (Everyone does wear Giants gear, which is nice.) Things get a bit slack at times, but you trust Talbot and Falls to make it real. Local icons pop up, in cameos (Jello Biafra) and as supporting cast (Danny Glover, born and raised here). Thora Birch also has a cameo ... Talbot loved Ghost World, and saw similarities between that film and Last Black Man. Perhaps the most delightful cameo comes from singer Michael Marshall, a Berkeley native who sang with Timex Social Club and later had a memorable moment singing in the Luniz' "I Got 5 on It". Marshall turns up here singing the hippie anthem "San Francisco", and then, when asked what else he can sing, he sings, "I got 5 on it" before laughing.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco may have emerged from two teenage friends, but the film is adult and the filmmaking is confident. And I can't find a place to put this, so I'll stick it at the end. Joe Talbot's grandfather was Lyle Talbot, who was in more than 150 movies going back to 1928, and was a mainstay on television for decades, appearing in more than 90 episodes of Ozzie and Harriet as Ozzie's friend Joe. Joe Talbot's father, Lyle's son, is David Talbot, among other things the co-founder of Salon.

music friday

I'm always fascinated by the kinds of concerts Bill Graham used to construct. In the early days, he wasn't afraid of combining acts that didn't necessarily fit together. This show is from August 26, 1966, at the Fillmore.

The opening act was Sopwith Camel. Their first album wouldn't come out until the next year, so they would have been just another San Francisco band as that scene emerged (Graham didn't put on his first Fillmore show until late in 1965). That debut album was a bit of good news/bad news ... the good news was they got a Top 40 hit out of it, which no other SF band had managed yet. The bad news was that hit, "Hello, Hello", was a charming pop tune, perhaps not what "the scene" expected. Amidst the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene, Sopwith Camel's album had no songs over 3 minutes (the entire album was just over 25 minutes long). As Michael Goldberg noted in a 1987 Rolling Stone article, "For San Francisco's psychedelic Sopwith Camel, life as a Sixties pop sensation ended as quickly as it began. In February of 1967, the band scored its one and only hit, a good-time novelty tune called 'Hello, Hello.' Within six months — immediately following the release of its debut album — the band was defunct and slipping from public consciousness, so much so that the album carried a sticker reminding buyers, REMEMBER HELLO, HELLO!"

Here they are lip-syncing their hit on Where The Action Is, a Dick Clark TV show that ran for a couple of years in the mid-60s:

Next up was another local band, The Great Society. This was another short-lived band ... they only recorded one single before they broke up. (Sly Stone was the producer ... he is said to have walked out on them when they couldn't get a track right after 50 takes.) One big reason they broke up is because their lead singer left to join another band. She took with her two songs, one she wrote and one written by her brother-in-law, the group's guitarist. Those songs were "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", the singer was Grace Slick, and the band was Jefferson Airplane. Slick and the Airplane's success led to the release of two Great Society albums of live material. Here's the single:

The headliners were a band from Austin, Texas, the 13th Floor Elevators, led by the legendary Roky Erickson. In August of 1966, they had a single, "You're Gonna Miss Me", that was a local hit in San Francisco, among other places. Their first album, titled The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, came out later in '66. It's a tremendous single, but the band wasn't kidding about the "psychedelic" part ... they were aficionados of LSD ("We're all heads!", as electric jug player Tommy Hall said to Dick Clark):

Erickson had mental health problems that plagued him the rest of his life (he died a couple of years ago at age 71).

Here they are on that same American Bandstand show:

A band with one pop hit, a pre-Airplane band with Grace Slick, and a psychedelic band from Austin. A fine bill! Here's a Spotify list with a mix of related music:

geezer cinema: emily the criminal (john patton ford, 2022)

I consider myself an Aubrey Plaza fan, but the truth is, that comes mostly from her appearances on talk shows.

I've seen a few movies that she is in, although she's never the main character. I didn't watch Parks and Recreations. I liked her in Legion, but I didn't care for the show and didn't watch past the first season. So it's not that I came to Emily the Criminal cold, but I was interested in seeing what Plaza would do with a leading role. (She is the title character.)

She is terrific. The movie would be OK without her, but she raises the level of the film. It's a good thing, since she is in (almost?) every scene, and first-time director John Patton Ford loves close-ups. (At first, I thought he was just infatuated with Plaza, but then I noticed everyone got lots of close-ups.) Plaza has a unique trick ... her signature is her deadpan face, which is great for comedy, but here, she manages to convey a series of emotions, even though her facial expressions don't often change.

Ford's plot isn't exactly groundbreaking ... person who is drowning in debt turns to crime ... but he gives us an economical movie (95 minutes) that includes an increasingly tense series of scenes, as Emily gets deeper into her life as a criminal. Plaza makes the scenario seem believable, and she also seems to have the emotional strength to get her through some scary moments (Plaza isn't very big physically, she's not going to threaten anyone in that manner, but she is intimidating when she needs to be).

Much is made of how timely the script is, and while I can't imagine anyone stretching an analysis of Emily the Criminal into an honors thesis, you could get a decent 5-page paper out of it. Between the massive student loan debt and the misery of Emily's job (only barely better than a delivery gig), you get a feel for how desperate it can be for younger people in 2022. Ford doesn't push too hard on this, but he doesn't really need to. It's there, and that's enough for an action movie that is ultimately more a character study. And Plaza's performance is worthy of note.

welcome to wrexham

I told this story two years ago, and I'm going to cut-and-paste from that post, with a new introduction.

Tomorrow, a new docuseries begins on the FX Network, Welcome to Wrexham:

Lifelong fans of the Wrexham team are surely astonished at the change in fortunes for their team. I am a piker ... never even been to Wales, only heard of Wrexham back in the 90s, but it's safe to say I find it mindboggling that this television series exists.

Here is that original post:

Wrexham A.F.C. are a Welsh soccer club that plays in the English soccer system. They are not a big club ... they currently play in the fifth level of the English system ... but they are an old club, the third-oldest in the world.

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, I read a book called Twenty Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts by Pete Davies.

22 foreigners in funny shorts

It was written for the American market, a way to introduce us to the world's game. Davies broke his story into three basic parts: a history of the sport, and two ongoing sagas, one of European soccer at the time, and one of his local club. He wanted the reader to get a sense of the scope of soccer, from the top to the bottom, so he included that local club, which was in the fourth tier, telling the events of the 1992-1993 season, which saw the club winning promotion to the third tier. That club was Wrexham.

In those days, there wasn't much soccer on U.S. TV after the World Cup had ended, and the Internet as we now know it was a much smaller affair. So it was hard to keep up ... our own league, MLS, didn't start until 1996. I did my best on the old CompuServe sports forum, and because they were as available to me as the biggest clubs in Europe, all things considered, I adopted Wrexham, feeling I knew the players after reading Davies' book. I asked around, and a man named Rhys Gwynllyw was kind enough to update me on Wrexham (he later founded The Webbed Robin, and I believe he is now a Math Professor). I started an email list with his help. Here is something Gareth Collins wrote about that list in 2018:

"Rhys and Steven were the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's of their time. I can still remember being totally overjoyed when I first came across The Webbed Robin, I seem to remember Rhys used to type up (or perhaps OCR?) Wrexham news articles from the Evening Leader and Daily Post that I think his Dad used to mail him. This is in the days before either of those publications had a web site. So if you lived say 100 miles from Wrexham at that time you'd get no detailed news and would have to rely on 2 sentences on Teletext. The Webbed Robin was amazing in its day. Tons of detailed match reports and detailed news stories all lovingly curated. The Webbed Robin and the ISFA e-mail list were like going from the stone age to the electric age in one massive leap for fan-kind."

I have followed Wrexham from afar for more than 25 years now. Saw them on TV a couple of times, and these days, even small clubs have an Internet presence, so I can watch highlights and interviews of them.

The most famous match in Wrexham history is probably their FA Cup match against Arsenal in 1992. The previous season, Arsenal had won the championship, while Wrexham finished last in the lowest division. The match was sure to be a blowout.

the green ray (éric rohmer, 1986)

The Green Ray is the fourth Rohmer film I have seen, and I'm afraid I'm still not overly impressed. I like them OK, but that's as far as I want to go. The same ideas come up whenever I write about his films. I can't resist quoting my previous reviews. Thus, writing about both My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon, I cited my comments on Claire's Knee. I guess you could say that Rohmer has a recognizable style. To copy myself again, in The Green Ray, a bunch of intelligent and articulate people talk a lot. Not for the first time in a Rohmer movie, I was reminded of Linklater's Before series. I love those movies, but I've never fallen in love with Rohmer.

Marie Rivière is strong in the lead role of Delphine, and her improvisations were important enough that she gets a co-writing credit with Rohmer. The dialogue is offhanded in a realistic way. I just never found Delphine to be compelling (surprising in that she reminded me at times of myself). She's adrift, intent on searching for something but lacking any insight into herself. "I don't have anything. Things aren't obvious to me. I'm not normal, like you. When I make an effort I try to listen, to talk to people. I listen, I watch what's going on. If people don't come to me it's because I'm worthless and... if I had something to show, people would see it, that's all."

Delphine isn't worthless, and you can see why her friends try to encourage her to blossom. But there isn't much growth. Rohmer doesn't construct a narrative out of her life, which you could argue just adds to the film's realism. But as she goes from Paris to the beach, back to Paris, to the Alps, back to Paris, to Cherbourg, finally to Biarritz, I finally lost interest. #312 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

for all mankind

This is the TV series, not the fine 1989 documentary film. Season Three just ended, and I finally caught up, watching all three seasons over the course of a month or so. I'd skipped it before ... no reason, just too much to watch. But critics have come around on it (the Metascores are 65 for S1, 75 for S2, and 84 for S3), and it's co-created by my fave Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame ( the other creators are Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, with Maril Davis as executive producer). It's on Apple TV+. I knew I'd get around to it ... I didn't know how much I would love it.

Do I need spoiler alerts for a show that already has three seasons and thirty episodes? It's no real spoiler to say that For All Mankind is an alternate-history sci-fi drama, but once I get into the alternate in that history, I'm giving things away. The story begins in 1969, as the USA and USSR race to be the first to land a human on the moon. The initial trailer gives away the biggest alternate that sets off the story, and I've given you all the warning you're going to get, since I can't believe anyone reading this doesn't already know: the Soviets get to the moon first.

Many of the subsequent alternates to our own history are interesting, but if alt-history was all the show offered, it wouldn't be much to watch. Some vague non-spoilers: people from our world live or die at different times than in "real life", and politics are different (Nixon is President when the show begins, Reagan gets two terms, Clinton runs as the Democratic nominee in 1992, but other presidents differ from our own). One thing I wish were different ... in the For All Mankind universe, Kirk Gibson still hits that homer against Dennis Eckersley.

The narrative is driven by the show's alt-history, and it spans a long period (the season that just ended finished in 2003). But what makes For All Mankind more than just another sci-fi show is the characters, how they are written and how they are portrayed by an excellent cast. A few of the characters are real people, especially people from the space program: Deke Slayton, Wernher von Braun, Gene Kranz. Some of the astronauts have parts that amount to cameos ... people like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn are portrayed by actors. And the show effectively uses archive footage (and what appears to be some excellent voice mimics) to work the likes of Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and even John Lennon into the mix. The main characters are played by a lot of "that guys" you will recognize, people like Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, and Wrenn Schmidt. Everyone does a stellar job ... it took me almost three seasons to realize this, I just accepted the actors as their characters, and it took watching Dorman in Patriot for me to understand these folks were acting.

For All Mankind isn't perfect, although a lot of the problems come from overambition. Just the fact that they have gone forward almost 35 years in three seasons leads to some unfortunate messes ... the aging makeup on the actors isn't always believable, and too many characters are left without the slow, contextual buildup that would help us understand their actions. But ultimately, the worst part about the Season 3 finale is that I have to wait a year to watch Season 4. The perils of binging.

music friday: the last waltz (martin scorsese, 1978)

By Thanksgiving of 1976, we had seen The Band, they being one of my wife's favorite bands (and mine, as well). We had seen Eric Clapton. We had seen Neil Young as part of CSNY. We had seen Bob Dylan. I had seen Paul Butterfield before I'd met my wife-to-be. And in later years, we saw Van Morrison, and Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. We were, in short, the perfect audience for The Band's concert swan song, called The Last Waltz, held at Winterland in San Francisco on that Thanksgiving in 1976. We had been to Winterland before, and would go many times after, until it closed at the end of 1978 (we saw Bruce Springsteen there twice in the last month of its existence).

But we didn't attend The Last Waltz. We felt we couldn't afford it. The tickets, you see, were $25 each. (They included a turkey dinner.)

So we didn't attend. Certainly a reason to kick ourselves in the butts down the road. Honestly, though, it might be best experienced through Scorsese's film. It's true, not all of the songs made it into the film ... Dylan sang two other songs, for instance, and many of the other acts did additional songs not in the movie (Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison). On the other hand, there were jam sessions that Scorsese thankfully removed.

There was a lot of after-the-fact controversy about The Last Waltz, both the concert and the film. Some of the guests made sense ... The Band played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career, and Bob Dylan after that. Four of the five members were Canadians, which probably accounts in part for the number of Canadians on the bill (Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and maybe others?). Some were clear influences on The Band ... they wanted to emphasize the importance of their blues roots, so Muddy Waters is there, along with people like Clapton and Butterfield. Neil Diamond seems like an outsider, until you remember that Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for Diamond (the song he sings here was co-written by Robertson). Dylan reported tried at the last minute to keep from having his segment filmed (the compromise was that not of all of his songs made the cut). There is a serious lack of women performers ... only Joni Mitchell, plus a fine studio version of "The Weight" with the Staples Singers.

As for The Band, Levon Helm was pissed until the day he died at Scorsese and Robertson for making Robertson seem more important than he was. And the group wasn't necessarily in agreement that they needed to quit playing concerts.

Anyway, Scorsese's movie removes most complaints. All of the band seem intent on expanding the myth of their existence, and some of the stories they tell are fun, even if they are tall tales. But, as Christgau said when reviewing the subsequent album, "The movie improves when you can't see it--Robbie Robertson and friends don't play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk)." I could have used another Muddy Waters song and a little less of the Legend of The Band. But, in fairness, that would be a different movie. Ultimately, The Last Waltz is probably my favorite concert movie of all time.

As for The Band, I'd say they are both over and under-rated. Overrated, in that their peak wasn't quite long enough. Underrated, in that their peak was immense, and not just musically. Those first two albums were a part of the culture of the times as much as any Beatles album. Sure, the third album was a fall-off, and it went mostly downhill from there, but I give them bonus credits for those two albums.

Here they are with their two early band leaders, along with a good version of "The Shape I'm In":

And here the two highlights from the guests:

geezer cinema: thor: love and thunder (taika waititi, 2022)

I've seen a lot of Marvel movies, mostly because my wife likes them. This was, in fact, the ninth Marvel movie we have seen in our Geezer Cinema series, and she picked eight (I picked Black Widow). Also, while I've seen Thor in a few Avengers movies, this was the first "Thor" movie I've seen (there are now four). I wasn't really coming cold to Love and Thunder ... well, I didn't have the Marvel Cinematic Universe context, but I'm familiar with Chris Hemsworth's take on the character, and there was a nice "Previously On" segment at the beginning to catch people like me up.

I liked Thor: Love and Thunder. I wouldn't say I loved it, but the humor (and there was a lot of it) was right up my alley, at least while I was watching it. Hemsworth alone cracks me up with his line readings as Thor ... they are some of my favorite parts of the Avengers movies he is in. There were a lot of good names in the cast, although most of them end up largely as cameos (Guardians of the Galaxy fans will like seeing those characters, but they disappear quickly, and Kat Dennings is only on screen long enough to set her fans' hearts aflutter and then she, too, is gone). The leads (besides Hemsworth, there's Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Tessa Thompson) are enjoyable. Special effects were OK, but I really don't care, which may be why I like most Marvel movies without loving them.

If I'm being honest, my favorite Marvel-related moment at the theater was this:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]