A bit of a switch, where I take a quick look at books I've been reading. I'm reading all of the time ... I just don't get around to posting about it. Right now, I'm reading five books:
Russell A. Carleton, The New Ballgame: The Not-So-Hidden Forces Shaping Modern Baseball
Philip K. Dick, The Penultimate Truth
Maureen Ryan, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood
Ben Terris, The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind
David Thomson, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies
I suppose I should wait until I finish them before I write about them. The main inspiration for this post is the realization that I am always reading multiple books. I don't know if this is good or bad, or if it's the best way to read any particular book. I imagine that the Kindle has inspired this kind of multi-tasking ... I don't have to keep five books near me on the shelf, they are all as near as my Kindle or phone. It ends up being a bit like listening to music on shuffle play. I could mention why I am reading these books. Carleton and Terris were recommended (I have read a previous book by Carleton). I tend to read most of David Thomson's books. I've been looking forward to the Mo Ryan ever since she announced it, and it is indeed great (I'm about halfway done). I've read most of Philip K. Dick over the years ... I'm re-reading this one because I read it had predicted the AI writing that is in the news all the time these days.
I was actually reading six books, but I finished one, Pageboy: A Memoir by Elliot Page. It's honest and well-written. I probably read it mostly because I am a fan of the actor, but the book is illuminating, and I'm glad Page let me into their world.
I just ordered up two more books, although I won't put them into shuffle play just yet:
Julie DiCaro, Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America
Nick Greene, How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius: What Game Designers, Economists, Ballet Choreographers, and Theoretical Astrophysicists Reveal About the Greatest Game on Earth
As you can see, there's not much reason for this post, but there you are.
I tried to watch this last month, as the final film in my 2022-2023 Letterboxd Challenge. I didn't give it a proper review at the time:
I'm afraid I can't do the film justice ... it has a confusing structure and I was on the verge of falling asleep (which is on me, not Elio Petri). So I'll have to give it an incomplete and hope to watch it again sometime when I am awake.
This will be brief. I made it through this time without getting too sleepy. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, beating out Tristana, which I much preferred. The structure is still confusing. I'm not prepared to take that confusion totally on myself ... I may not have noticed when I was falling asleep, but Petri knew his film was confusing when he made it. I will accept that I don't always appreciate confusion in movies, and that, at least, is on me. Wikipedia tells me that most of the ending scenes are part of a dream sequence, which is news to me. I guess this is a Your Mileage May Vary movie. I'll finish by quoting Kael:
Elio Petri's indirect way of telling a story - which gradually takes the form of a paranoid fantasy - makes the viewer apprehensive. His purpose is ostensibly political, but sometimes he becomes so sophisticated and nasty and perverse that you don't trust his purposes.... The queasy, tense atmosphere derives not from the horror of the proposition itself but from the kinkiness of the details, such as Ennio Morricone's jangly music when the cop slits the throat of his mistress (Florinda Bolkan). The film is extremely dislikable. Petri is a highly skilled director but he doesn't use suspense pleasurably; he doesn't resolve the tensions, and so you're left in a rather foul mood.
The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.
While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."
One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
I rewatched Block Party a couple of days ago.
As is often the case with sequels to successful films, with Extraction 2 you get more of the same, emphasis on more. Writing about these movies is easy ... you can just be lazy, cut-and-paste what you said about the original, make a couple of adjustments, and you're done. Hey, I imagine in some ways that's how the sequels get made in the first place: cut-and-paste what worked, make a couple of adjustments, and you're done. So, here's what I said about Extraction:
It's a loud movie filled with a gazillion rounds of ammunition from a variety of guns. There are also grenades that make a lot of noise, car crashes that make a lot of noise, explosions that make a lot of noise, and for variety, there is the occasional blood letting by knife. Sam Hargrave doesn't seem interested in any deep meanings ... he's an award-winning stunt coordinator directing his first movie. He is competent, but the movie cranks up to another level when Hargrave can focus on stunts.
A lot of technical skill is on display during the stunt fests. It looks very efficient and relatively seamless. The selling point is a "oner", an 11 1/2-minute single-take action scene. It works not only as "look what we can do", but also as an effective action sequence.... Extraction does what it sets out to do, and occasionally adds some panache.
The movie comes to a halt whenever the action does the same. There are the usual attempts to make us care about the characters, none of which worked on me.
All of the above describes Extraction 2. Of course, there's that emphasis on more ... this time, the "oner" is 21 minutes long. The sequel is seven minutes longer than the original. If the first film hinted at a sequel, now that the sequel is here (and both films have been very successful for Netflix), it's more evident that a franchise is on the way (Extraction 3 is already being worked on). Chris Hemsworth is just as good here as he was in the first one, as is Golshifteh Farahani. My wife thought this was a bit better than the first one. I didn't notice. (My wife, on the other hand, gets better every day.)
Within Our Gates is of crucial importance in film history, as it is the oldest available film directed by an African-American director. It was Oscar Micheaux's second feature (the first is lost). Within Our Gates was reconstructed in 1993 from a single print discovered in Spain. The reconstruction included taking the intertitles, which had been translated for the print from English to Spanish, and translating them back into English, using an approximation of Micheaux's style of writing.
Micheaux is a colossal figure in the history of African-American cinema, and Within Our Gates should be seen by anyone interested in film history and/or the history of African-Americans. Having said this, Micheaux was working with a poverty-scale budget, and the movie feels pretty raw by today's standards. Lead actress Evelyn Preer is fine and the story, about racism in the North and South in 1920 and featuring lynchings, was timely. But the entire project has a stagy feel to it, no doubt at least in part because of budgetary limitations.
The version I saw had a new musical score composed by DJ Spooky.
We moved into our current house in 1987. I was 34 years old. There was a huge tree in our front yard. It had been there a long time. A friend who grew up on the block said he and his friends used to play basketball using that tree ... it was never quite clear how this worked.
One morning last week, 7:00 AM, a crew showed up at our house and starting trimming the tree. Except it turned out their mission was not to trim the tree. Their mission was to remove the tree, which was sick. By the end of the day, there was no more tree.
In 2003, Joan Didion's husband of almost 40 years died. At the age of 70, she wrote about her reaction to his death in The Year of Magical Thinking. In that book, she wrote:
We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
In the last paragraph of On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote, "Nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old." Kerouac was 47 when he died.
Bruce Springsteen was in his 20s when he wrote "Backstreets":
Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go seeTrying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be And after all this time, to find we're just like all the rest Stranded in the park and forced to confess To hiding on the backstreets
He recorded "I'll See You in My Dreams" when he was 70.
Randy Newman wrote "Old Man" when he was in his 20s.
Won't be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don't need anybody
Nobody needs you
Don't cry, old man, don't cry
Newman is still alive and is 79.
When Luis Buñuel was 70, he made Tristana. This is how I described the plot:
Fernando Rey’s Don Lope lives in a world that is crumbling … he believes in the old codes of honor because they have always benefited people like him, to the point that he thinks the codes are natural. When he takes in Catherine Deneuve’s Tristana, it’s not exactly clear what their familial relationship is, or even if there is one. But when Tristana is orphaned, Don Lope takes her in and treats her as his daughter and his wife simultaneously. In both cases, he attempts to exercise control over Tristana’s life. She escapes and falls for an artist played by Franco Nero … some years later, she returns with a tumor on her leg. Don Lope takes her in once again, the leg is amputated, and they get married in the church, so they are not sinners. But the power relationship has changed … Lope is an old man, Tristana has come into her own (she looks more like Catherine Deneuve as the film progresses).
Cyndi Lauper is the famous person whose birthday is closest to my own. I am two days older than her. She turns 70 on Thursday. Here she is on stage a couple of months ago:
You Will Die at Twenty is a rare feature from Sudan, made under tense conditions. The first feature for director Amjad Abu Alala, based on a short story, the film was made in Sudan during the Sudanese Revolution. Since there was no real film industry in Sudan, Abu Alala had to rely on outside resources (it's hard to pin down, but at least five production companies and eight producers were involved).
Which would be interesting trivia but nothing more, if the film wasn't good. And it's much more than good, the story of a mother who is told by an elder that her newborn baby, Muzamil, will die at 20. Whether we in the audience believe this premonition is irrelevant ... most of the village thinks it's true, and as we watch Muzamil grow, we see the burden this brings upon him and his mother. Those burdens are real, even if we find them misguided. Abu Alala doesn't choose a side. He respects the religious beliefs of the villagers but also shows us the impossible restraints those beliefs impose on Muzamil. The end of the movie is gently ambiguous.
Islam Mubarak is quietly powerful as the mother, while Moatasem Rashed and Mustafa Shehata shine as the young Muzamil and the teenager he becomes. The film is gorgeous to look at (Sébastien Goepfert is the cinematographer). Nothing we see on the screen reflects the difficult conditions under which is was made, and it most definitely does not look like a debut feature.