It's late in the game, but I finally had to change things around on Music Friday, because I had a list of 10 songs from that year and I realized I didn't know a single one of them off the top of my head. So I went to Last.fm and had it sort my listening for the year 2016.
One song got played more than any other, so call this Steven's Top Song of 2016. It actually comes from around 1965:
And, just to pretend to being current, here is a Spotify playlist for the 2016 songs I initially intended to include (the first song was supposed to be "Formation" by Beyoncé, but it wasn't on Spotify):
The title is a bit ironic, given that the two main characters, a married couple in their 40s played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, have what passes for their private lives exposed to seemingly everyone they know. The couple, Richard and Rachel, are artsy professionals (Richard once ran a theater group before owning an artisan pickle company, Rachel is an author) who have been thinking about having kids for quite a while. Their efforts are what turn their private lives into public ones ... seemingly everyone they know has advice on what to do next, plus the process of trying to have a kid gets pretty invasive at times. Denis O'Hare has a nice supporting role as a gynecologist who spends much of his time looking inside Rachel, and along the way we learn, as everyone else already knows, that Richard only has one testicle.
Some of the stops on the road to parenthood are touching, some are funny, some are both. None of them work, until they finally decide to have an egg donor, and with that, I've probably already said too much. I'll leave the various twists to you, although Private Life is not a movie that relies on plot shifts to keep our attention.
What makes Private Life work is the "natural" presentation of the characters and their lives. Sure, we always know that Hahn and Giamatti are acting, but they slip so easily into their roles that we forget they are not real. Jenkins both wrote and directed Private Life, and so she gets the lion's share of the credit for the believable nature of her actors and their situation. It's not a screwball comedy, it's a low-key comedy (I refuse to call it a dramedy, but that's what it is) expertly pulled off by everyone involved. I appreciated the way Private Life is "real" but not bitter or spiteful ... these people have their issues, but they get along without devouring each other. I'm all for that devouring kind of movie, but I was glad this wasn't one of those. And the film ends on a perfect note of anticipation.
Private Life is too long, but one sympathizes with Jenkins' desire to get the details on the screen. Jenkins and Hahn are outside shots at Oscar nominations, if that's what you like to hear about. I doubt the movie is demonstrative enough to get that kind of awards attention, but it plays well for an evening with Netflix, and I mean that as a compliment.
Yesterday marked the 102nd birthday of Kirk Douglas, so I looked around for one of his movies I hadn't seen, and came up with this documentary about people who are 9o years old or more. Seemed appropriate, given the birthday.
Carl Reiner is the driving force, at least on the screen ... Danny Gold gets directing and co-writing credits, with Michael Mayhew also getting a writing credit, but the idea for the movie is stated by Reiner, who wondered why so many of his friends were not just 90 and older, but 90 and active and involved. So he set out to talk to them. Naturally, his friends are from show business, folks like Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke and Betty White and Stan Lee and Tony Bennett. To expand the horizons, we meet people like Ida Keeling, who ran a 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays at age 100, and Tao Porchon-Lynch, holder of the Guinness World Record for the world's oldest yoga instructor, at 93. (She's now 100.)
The entire thing sounds like a setup for lots of syrupy talk about the wonders of old age, or, if not that, the horrors of old age. If You're Not in the Obit takes neither approach. Instead, we see people who have reached 90 or more and are still committed to the same things that have driven their lives for decades. Reiner was working in television in 1950. A writer on countless shows, Reiner has written (at least) half-a-dozen books since he turned 90. He is big on Twitter at the age of 96. He writes ... that's what he does, and that's what he still does. Tony Bennett has won two Grammys in his 90s. He sings because that's what he does (in his case, he also paints). There's Iris Apfel, who I admit I had never heard of. Wikipedia calls her "an American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon." The film makes clear that she is still those things ... that's what she still does.
Most of these people have their health (and it is pointed out more than once that genes matters in these affairs), and most of them don't need to wonder where their next meal is coming from. At one point, Reiner goes to visit Kirk Douglas precisely because he has had health problems, most notably a stroke when he was 80. He fought to regain the ability to speak, and as we see in the film, he's still talking 20 years later. Yes, his speech is limited, but the brain is still clicking. He is still quite evidently Kirk Douglas. You could say that's what he does, what he has always done: be Kirk Douglas.
If You're Not in the Obit is invigorating, not because it offers platitudes about how to remain vital in your 90s (eat your vegetables, exercise, etc.), but because it shows us why these people want to take on life at an advanced age. They aren't 90 because they ate vegetables, although I'm sure they all have good diets. They are 90 and beyond because they are doing what they love doing. You don't need platitudes when you can just show these people doing what they do.
This is not a list of all the shows I watched this year. But I wrote about them, so they had some impact on me. I'll have another post or two about the current state of TV, but in the meantime.
A+ (the best show on TV):
The Americans. "The Americans sits out there, waiting to be discovered by bingers. The family on The Americans is on the wrong side of history, and we know that (it takes place during the Reagan years, and the spies, as true believers, don't know that they are going to lose). We care about them ... they are the center of the show. They are the 'bad guys', yet we root for them. And they do despicable things in the name of Mother Russia. It is one of the handful of best TV series of all time. You should watch it."
A (never missed them, in real time):
Atlanta. "It seems to be about a young black man in Atlanta, trying to make his way, his cousin who deals weed and raps, and their odd friend. It is that, but it is also simultaneously a comedy and a gripping drama. Calling it a 'dramedy' would insult what Donald Glover is doing. Atlanta oftens feels quite real, but it slides effortlessly into the surreal. One episode was so unique, I actually did get around to writing about it: 'Teddy Perkins'."
Killing Eve. "Jodie Comer is remarkable. She doesn't fall back on easy representations of a psychopath ... she reminds me of Sydney Greenstreet's Gutman describing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: 'By Gad, sir, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.' Comer has made Villanelle into the most fascinating character on TV. (Meanwhile, Sandra Oh is killing it as Eve.)"
A- (Flawed, but favorites, esp. The 100 and Sense8):
The 100. "Rothenberg has solved the problem of a series running too long by effectively rebooting it, not by making the show again in 20 years, but by drastically changing things now so that nothing can be the same. And yet ... I remain wary when something good happens. I fear that these oh-so-human characters will repeat past mistakes. I'll need to see it before I believe it. I can't wait for Season Six."
The Deuce. "The Deuce is a largely downbeat show ... I was going to say depressing, but I'm not sure that's the right word, so choose whichever you prefer. The best characters on The Deuce (and by 'best' I mean the most finely drawn, not just 'good guys') aspire to a better place in the world. The reason the show is depressing is that it is rare anyone actually gets to that better place. Part of this comes from our knowledge of where things are headed historically. The first season began in 1971, the second in 1977, and the third will be sometime in the 80s."
GLOW. I wrote about this show after Season One. Didn't get around to writing about Season Two, but it was better in almost every way. You should be watching this show.
Humans. "I like it at least as much as ever, perhaps more. The longer the show runs, the deeper its take on humans and machines and society gets, the more I can accept that it is its own show. Humans is not mundane, and if it deals in standard concepts, it does well with them."
Outlander. "Claire's perspective is foregrounded. Just to speak of sex (there is a lot of it in Outlander), Jamie is as much the eye candy as is Claire, and the love scenes between the two are not just highly erotic, but equal in a way you don't often see today. It doesn't hurt that stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have an incredible chemistry. Both are perfectly cast for their characters, but it's as a couple that they truly shine."
Sense8. Returned from the dead for a series finale after the show had been cancelled. It was a love letter to the show's fans. I honestly can't remember how the byzantine plot resolved itself, if it ever did, but then, the plot was the least impressive thing about Sense8, which really was a show you couldn't describe, you just had to watch it. I'm not sure if any show of recent vintage extracted more overwhelming emotions from me as Sense8. I wish I'd never seen it, so I could binge it for the first time.
Vida. "Vida doesn't just pay lip-service to diversity. It's about two Mexican-American sisters in East LA. It's about class and about gentrification. It's about gender, it's about grief ... it is all of these things and more, but they are all in service to the story, rather than the other way around."
Honorable Mention (I watched 'em, I liked 'em):
Counterpart. "J.K. Simmons is the best reason to watch. It's surprising that I like it ... honestly, I'm not sure how much I like it, because the plot (involving parallel worlds) is hard for me to follow, and my patience with such things is weakening." (This was written before the Season 2 premiere, which I am looking forward to.)
Homecoming. Based on a podcast, with an excellent star performance from Julia Roberts in her debut as a TV regular. But the person whose presence was most felt was Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot, who directed every episode.
The Looming Tower. "It stuck closely enough to the facts to feel real, it was fairly clear in presenting the byzantine plot, and it mostly avoided kissing the ass of the FBI or CIA. If it sounds good to you, you'll probably like it ... it delivers. I wouldn't say it was great, though."
Shameless. "Season 9 has too much Frank, as have too many recent seasons. Meanwhile, it seems like the writers no longer know what to do with Fiona. I don't blame Rossum for announcing she is leaving the show. I'm still sticking with it, at least until Rossum is gone, but it's a pale shadow of what it used to be."
Can't Go Without Listing Them (I watched them, I liked them, if not quite as much as what appears above):
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Altered Carbon Electric Dreams Sharp Objects Timeless
Not much to say about this movie. The best thing is that it was easy for my wife and I to agree on when choosing something to watch. My wife has made a dress or two, of course. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis star, with Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving in support. Winner of many awards in Australia, where it was filmed. Jocelyn Moorhouse had produced films like Muriel's Wedding and directed movies like How to Make an American Quilt.
Yet there isn't a whole lot to The Dressmaker. The most positive review on Metafilter (Kimberly Jones in the Austin Chronicle) gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, and concludes "its treats are modest but genuine." Winslet is solid, Weaving is fun, and Judy Davis steals every scene she is in. Some of the tidbits in the IMDB trivia section are fun ... Moorhouse described it as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine", and who wouldn't want to watch that? (We also learn that "Shooting of the film was interrupted several times as wild emus interrupted the scenes.") After seeing The Dressmaker, I'm left with the feeling that it is a good movie to watch with a group where no one will hate it. And given the number of bad movies that my wife and I could have chosen, I suppose I'm thankful we ended up with The Dressmaker.
For a better Kate Winslet movie, try Heavenly Creatures.
Sleater-Kinney, "No Cities to Love". From one of the two concerts I attended in 2015. Both were Sleater-Kinney concerts. I can't overstate how much it meant to me when they returned from their "hiatus". I could have made this list the ten songs from No Cities to Love and it would accurately reflect what I listened to that year.
Vince Staples, "Norf Norf". OK, this is an actual music video.
Hey, guess what? I'm not done with Sleater-Kinney. Here's the official video for "No Cities to Love". You can watch it twice if you want, just to make sure you identify all the guest stars (which include Captain Marvel and someone who went to high school with my daughter):
There is an obvious way to describe First Reformed, obvious enough that I suspect it's already been used many times. I think I saw it first from Mick LaSalle ... heck, I'll just quote him: "If you know Ingmar Bergman, it has a story something like 'Winter Light,' at least in the beginning, and then some things happen, and the film becomes like Bergman as imagined by the guy who wrote 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' and who wrote and directed 'Hard Core.'" It's the Taxi Driver idea I'm talking about ... imagine Travis Bickle as a Protestant minister.
Winter Light is a movie about a pastor having an existential crisis. First Reformed is a movie about a minister having an existential crisis. Writer-director Paul Schrader was raised in a strict religious household ... it is said he never saw a movie until he was 17. He began working as a film critic in the early-70s, then moved to writing for the screen, eventually adding director to his resume. Given his background and his subsequent filmography, it is no surprise that First Reformed addresses a man questioning his faith. What is canny is the way the film sneaks into another mode, so gradually that you don't realize it right away.
Ethan Hawke is the minister, Reverend Toller. Hawke was active in his church as a teen, but I'm not sure I'd project that into his character here. He is effective as an actor, although his character is something less than effective. Even as he is asked for help, we know via voice overs that he doesn't think he is doing any good, nor does he think he's being honest. When he is confronted with the crises in his own small parish, he is just as likely to identify with the person's suffering as to provide any useful help. Hawke plays this quietly, which allows the despair to show through his face.
At one point in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle says, "I'm God's lonely man." Reverend Toller feels the same, but his relationship to God is different than is Travis'. You might say God is the Reverend's employer, and Toller isn't sure any longer what he is supposed to do in his job. He is fighting the black pit that surrounds the death of his son in Afghanistan, and is ready for one more push to send him into Travis Land. But again, you aren't really aware of this at first. I'm reminded of the first time I saw Taxi Driver. I was in a bad place personally, and I identified with Travis so much that I didn't realize how disturbed he was until late in the film, when he shaves his hair into a mohawk. I saw it a few days later, and it was clear to me from the start that this man had serious problems, much more serious than my own. But that first time, the reality of his life wasn't immediately apparent to me. The same thing happens in First Reformed. If I watched it again, I'd see the signs of Reverend Toller's dilemma, but the first time through, if anything I identified with him.
There is other fine acting in the film besides Hawke's, although his character dominates the movie. Cedric the Entertainer, going by his real name of Cedric Kyles, gives little hint of the humor in his standup work ... he makes a believable pastor. Michael Gaston is creepy, as he so often is. Amanda Seyfried didn't make much of an impression on me, which may have been the way the character was written. And Michael Ettinger, unknown to me, stands out in a small but significant role that features one long scene with Hawke that is the core of the movie.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention one "supernatural" scene that is believably beautiful. You'll know it when you see it.
This may be the best film Paul Schrader has ever directed, which isn't common for a director in his 70s. It stands on its own, but if you haven't seen it, you'll want to watch Taxi Driver as well. Even Winter Light.
God's lonely man. Like Travis, Reverend Toller keeps a diary. As did Arthur Bremer.
HAIM, "Oh Well". A band identified with a middle-of-the-road rock of bands like Fleetwood Mac play much harder in concert, which may partly explain why the Mac cover they choose is Peter Green's wailer (with a tip of the cap to Danny Kirwin's solo).
D'Angelo, "The Charade". D'Angelo's first album in 14 years.
In 2002, Randy Newman finally won an Oscar for Best Original Song, after being nominated without winning more than a dozen times.
This blog was in its early days, and I was desperate for material, so I live-blogged the Oscars, and at one point, I wrote, "Not sure what it means, but Randy Newman was the first person where I thought, 'hey, that's one of us up there!' This was rather silly ... by that point, even Bruce Springsteen had won an Oscar. And there was a far more noteworthy example at that Oscars of people getting to see themselves ... Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the Best Actor awards, with Berry being the first African-American to win Best Actress. Berry made history. But I can't deny my instant reaction to Randy Newman's win.
Barbara Lee has been my representative in the House for 20 years. She does us proud. A campaign motto of hers, "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me", couldn't be more true. You might say that in Congress, she is both Halle Berry and Randy Newman.
She just lost her bid to become the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. The Intercept suggested she lost because of her association with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that she was punished for being on the side of the woman who unseated a man popular with centrist Democrats. I'm not sure about that. But neither am I surprised that the woman who Speaks for Me was unsuccessful in this case. I never expect the Democratic Party to make me feel good.
I was checking out Ocasio-Cortez' Instagram account, which is a delight. And I realized that the fact she uses Instagram the way many people do, as a way to present the "human" side of herself while also making policy statements, is one way she is of her generation. Instagram is more popular with the young than with geezers like me. Ocasio-Cortez' use of Instagram is just one item among many that tell us she isn't your father's Congresswoman. So far, I love her, but she speaks for a different demographic than mine. And that's a good thing.
So when she posted a brief Instagram video from a meeting of some sort for progressive Democrats, it warmed my heart that sitting right next to Ocasio-Cortez was ... Barbara Lee.
Thinking about Nicolas Roeg, I decided to watch two more of his films, one an old favorite, the other a movie I admit I'd never heard of.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976). This was the fourth movie Roeg directed, and as such, it was a must-watch on its release, since the first three, Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now, were all big favorites of mine. I still love all of those movies, and when it came out, I loved The Man Who Fell to Earth as well. But over time I realized that I wanted to love it, but that it ultimately fell short. We went to see a re-release with a friend, and it felt very long. It was long compared to what I'd seen before, since the original U.S. release had been cut by 20 minutes. I can no longer imagine what that butchered version was like, and the one we have now is the real thing, all 139 minutes of it. It has a distinct style, which is no surprise; it looks gorgeous, which is no surprise. But the plot never excites. The setup is intriguing ... an alien from outer space comes to Earth looking for water for his dying planet. But the rest is fairly ludicrous, which reflects poorly on what seemed appealing at the beginning. There are some good performances ... Rip Torn, as always, Candy Clark doing what she can, David Bowie accepting that he was perfectly cast and going with it. And the critique of capitalism, which peeks out once in awhile, is welcome if by-the-numbers. I was quite taken with the literally alienated hero when I was 23, and I can still recall that feeling today. But the movie is too long, with plenty of memorable moments but not enough to make the film as successful as the Roeg films that preceded it.
Glastonbury Fayre (Peter Neal and Nicolas Roeg, 1972). This was new to me. It's a documentary of the second Glastonbury event from 1971 that eventually became the Glastonbury Festival we all know and love. It's haphazard in a rather charming way ... it's no Woodstock, as a festival or as a movie. It wouldn't be a Roeg move without full nudity, although in this case it isn't famous actors doffing their duds but rather numerous fair-goers. 1971 seems like a long time after the Summer of Love, but in the movie, it's as if the hippie dream never died. Roeg made this between Walkabout and Don't Look Now, or somewhat simultaneously ... it's hard to be sure. Traffic and Melanie are probably the best-known performers for American audiences, although there are also performances by acts more popular in the U.K. ... Arthur Brown, Family, Fairport Convention, Terry Reid, and others. No one turns in a great performance ... there are no revelations here. But it works as a time capsule. One last note: this may be the last movie I watch on FilmStruck, which is shutting down tomorrow. They had a Nicolas Roeg festival at the end, which is where I found this movie.
And here is what Glastonbury music videos look like today: