the irishman (martin scorsese, 2019)

Much attention has been paid to Scorsese's use of CGI to allow his elderly stars to play younger versions of themselves, and he gets credit for using this not as a stunt but in an attempt to make a better movie. Matt Zoller Seitz argues that the CGI isn't particularly convincing, "but if you decide it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter." The icon status of the main actors does matter, and the movie is better with De Niro et al as themselves than it would be with less iconic actors playing in the flashback scenes.

Scorsese is returning to the gangsters he has obsessed about throughout his career, which makes The Irishman a bit retrograde. But the tone is autumnal, which separates it from something like Mean Streets (still his best film). Scorsese is looking back, just like Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) does throughout the film.

Just by casting stars from his earlier movies, Scorsese invites us to make comparisons. And those comparisons remind us how far we have all come ... at least, we're all older. It's not clear if Scorsese's attitude towards his characters has changed as much as CGI makes the actors change.

The cast does wonders. Robert De Niro doesn't suck, which is always a possibility in his later years. Al Pacino modulates his usual bluster ... it comes out when appropriate, not constantly. Joe Pesci is the biggest surprise. The man known for over-the-top tantrums plays it low-key here. He convinces us of his power, even as he refuses to over-emote. Meanwhile, Anna Paquin is amazing as Sheeran's daughter. She purposely doesn't have many lines ... Scorsese counted on her to be able to express her thoughts and emotions on her face, and the result is a condemnation of her father that is more powerful than words. The complaints that she doesn't have enough lines are misguided. (The general complaints about the superfluous nature of the women characters, on the other hand, are sadly on target.)

By the end of their lives, these characters can barely move for being so old. They are stripped of the glamour that filmmakers like Scorsese have always given them. In that sense, Scorsese is growing older, too. And with the realization that Paquin's daughter is right, that Frank Sheeran is ultimately an empty vessel with no real positive attributes, Scorsese reaches a point he doesn't often go after. The last half hour or so of The Irishman can even be read as Scorsese's admission, at long last, that his and our fascination with this milieu is based on an attraction to a false iconography. The script is based on a book by Charles Brandt whose veracity has been challenged. Even as he is dying, it seems, Frank is trying to take credit for things he did and didn't do, thinking that those things bring him glory.

Finally, editor Thelma Schoonmaker deserves special attention. She just turned 80, so she fits right in with this production. I love one of her most famous quotes, when asked how a nice lady like her could work on all those violent Scorsese movies. "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them."

Top 7 Scorsese Movies

are we having fun yet? happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

Today, this blog turns 18. Man, that number is both delightful and bizarre. Back in 2002, it was on Blogger. I apparently moved to TypePad because Blogger's site was always down in those days. (I think I moved in late 2003.)

Here is an excerpt from what I wrote on Online Life's 14th birthday:

This blog began 14 years ago today.

Who the hell does anything for fourteen years?

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

Here is the #1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart for January 6, 2002:


Some things last forever. I don't know if I'd say that about this blog, but it would seem that Nickelback will never die. Here is a Saturday Night Live skit from 2018 (!):

parasite (charles band, 1982)

After a two-week break, we return to "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 16 is called "The Future Was Then Week":

To quote the late, great Phillip J. Fry, "time makes fools of us all." And never is that more the case for this set of movies we got here. At once considered futuristic, these films now lie in the odd limbo of being both in the future (from the time of its release) AND the past (as of now). Take a look and see where these filmmakers were spot-on about the future, and where they way, way off.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film set in the "future". My Films with Past Futures list might help.

An awful piece of junk, although I need to cut it a little slack. It was made in 3D, and I was watching it in 2D on my TV. At times, I could see what they were trying to do, not just with the usual stuff jumping at us from the screen, but also by the use of space in ways that likely looked pretty good in 3D. Also, the version on Amazon was reframed from the original 2.35:1, and you could tell. In other words, nothing about how I watched the movie did it any favors.

But still, it sucked, an odd melange of Alien and Road Warrior, which came out not too long before Parasite. There was little attempt to create a world ... just a parasitic being invading people's bodies. It was a post-apocalyptic story, but that fact was rarely mentioned.

Some recognizable names participated. It was the second feature for Demi Moore. It was the third feature directed by Charles Band, who has a bit of a cult following. The cast included Cherie Currie from The Runaways, cheapie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for the scene of a topless woman, and musical legend Vivian Blaine from Guys and Dolls. Best of all was future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston creating the effects for the parasites.

Finally, a trivia note: on a "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts" segment on James Corden's show last October, Demi Moore said this was the worst movie she'd ever been in.

film fatales #71: 35 shots of rum (claire denis, 2009)

Claire Denis (White Material) co-wrote and directed this film about four people who live in the same apartment building in Paris. I wouldn't say that Denis tells a story ... it's not that nothing happens, it's that she is interested in other things. As I wrote about White Material, "She doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole ... Denis isn't as concerned with 'what happens' in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character ... It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in."

The same could be said for 35 Shots of Rum, which is a bit of an homage to Ozu's Late Spring, in that both concern a father and his young daughter trying to manage their lives together as the woman reaches the age when she could be striking out on her own. Denis takes her time. The relationships of the four people gradually become more clear (besides the father and daughter, there is a middle-aged women who once had an affair with the father and still carries a torch for him, and a young man with an eye on the daughter), but much of the emotional impact advances in subtle ways. They live relatively quiet lives, and what we see is mostly matter of fact. Much of what we learn about the people comes in quiet scenes that are sidelines to what was "really" supposed to happen. In a longish set piece, the four set out together for a concert. They never make it, but they do all end up in a restaurant, where little is said but small glances tell us a lot.

The father and his old flame dance together. The young people talk. Another couple starts to dance. The father switches to dance with his daughter. The young man cuts in. He kisses the daughter ... her reaction is uncertain. The father sees the kiss. He then dances with the restaurant owner as the old flame watches. Finally, they are all on a train back home ... all but the father, who we realize has stayed behind with the owner. None of this is blatant. Denis makes good use of The Commodores' "Nightshift":

The underplaying by the entire cast is perfect for what Denis is doing here. If you think nothing happens in the above scene, then 35 Shots of Rum is probably not for you. If you find the interactions fascinating, though, you will love this movie. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

music friday: fillmore west, january 3, 1969

The Fillmore West, 51 years ago today. Opening was Spirit, who had just released their second album, which included this, their greatest hit:

Blood, Sweat & Tears were also touring behind their second album, but they might as well have been a new group with a debut record. After their classic Child Is Father to the Man, Al Kooper and two others left the group. The most important replacement was singer David Clayton-Thomas, who wrote "Spinning Wheel" among others. Some of us lost interest after Kooper left, but with Clayton-Thomas, BS&T became one of the biggest hit makers around.

The Grateful Dead also had two albums out, the most recent of which, Anthem of the Sun, was more psychedelic than their debut. (Their third album, Aoxomoxoa, took this several steps further.) A couple of weeks after this gig, they appeared on Hugh Hefner's TV series Playboy After Dark. We'll let Bill Kreutzmann tell the story:

creative nourishment

My daughter has begun a new enterprise that is fascinating to me, for its combination of modern-day smarts and an almost 60s approach to the land. It's called Creative Nourishment. As she says on the website, "As a design guide, I am here to support you in defining your ideal landscape and creating a step-by-step action plan towards your long-terms goals. I look forward to Co-Creating and guiding you towards your vision of how you spend time in your space! I use a Permaculture design framework as well as Rescape California principles to create a balance between beauty and function."

In many ways, this project has been a long time coming ... she has worked with Permaculture forever. Check it out!

Creative nourishment

geezer cinema/film fatales #70: little women (greta gerwig, 2019)

Greta Gerwig's followup to Lady Bird shows that Gerwig hasn't lost her touch when it comes to critics. They loved Lady Bird, and now they love Little Women. (Little Women has a Metacritic score of 91/100, while Lady Bird's was 94.) Those scores are well-deserved ... Gerwig directs with a confidence that belies the fact that she is relatively new to directing.

Lady Bird was strongly autobiographical, and part of what Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay) does with Little Women is turn a well-known, classic story into a backdoor version of autobiography. Jo, the central character, a writer, is played by Saoirse Ronan, who was also the lead in the earlier movie, and in this version of the story, Jo's attempt to make art out of the lives of her and her sisters results in a novel, Little Women, written by Jo. To a certain extent, Gerwig sidesteps Louisa May Alcott.

Ronan is excellent, as are all of the actors playing sisters: Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. The grown ups are played by a fine who's who of venerable actors: Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep is even tolerable as Aunt March. And Gerwig does a beautiful job of showing the closeness of the sisters without being too sappy.

What is missing in all of these performances, though, is the quirkiness that Gerwig brings to her own acting. (Richard Brody brings up a lot of these points in his piece, "The Compromises of Greta Gerwig’s 'Little Women'".) Both Lady Bird and Little Women are intelligent and stylish films, but neither shows the goofy freedom of Gerwig in my favorite scene of hers, from Frances Ha:

As a director, Gerwig hints at this freedom, and these movies are both quite good as is. But if Gerwig ever writes/directs an entire movie like that dance in Frances Ha, it will be magnificent. It might look something like this:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

movies 2019

The Letterboxd website makes it easy to compile lists like this, which I have done by hand in the past.

For instance, there is this list: "Movies I've watched in 2019".

And this list, "2019 ranked", movies from 2019 I've seen this year.

I saw 8 movies in 2019 that I gave my highest, 10-out-of-10 rating. Here they are, in alphabetical order, with links to the reviews on the blog:

I tend to hold off on giving a 10/10 to new movies ... guess I think they need to marinate for awhile. But I gave a 9/10 to one 2019 movie, and 8/10 to six more:

Lastly, here is the ongoing project my wife and I began when she retired. We see a movie a week, taking turns picking (she picked first, so you can figure out for yourself who chose what ... her first pick was John Wick 3, mine was Booksmart). We're up to 22 movies:

Geezer Cinema

quatermass and the pit (roy ward baker, 1967)

A Hammer film from the mid-60s that has always fascinated me. I know little about Quatermass, who first turned up on TV on the BBC in the 50s and has since featured on television, radio, and movies. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth) is the only one that grabbed my attention.

Much of the film is low-key, and might surprise those who associate Hammer with blood and sex and vampires. The budget was low, the special effects pretty simple by today's standards. But the central idea is so imaginative that many have dismissed it as nonsense. Long ago, Martians came to Earth and affected human evolution. This is a problem, because Martians ... well, let's just say the devil is involved. Kubrick never dared go so far in 2001.

In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus compared the film to seeing the Sex Pistols in concert in 1978:

By the twentieth century, some people are coded for destruction; some carry only a few broken alien messages. Some respond to the Martian image; some do not. For those who do, the ancient codes become language, and memories of the original Martian genocide course to the surface. For those who do not respond, language dissolves. Humanity is split into two species; there is anarchy in London. Men and women surge through the streets smashing all those they recognize as alien: all who carry less of the Martian essence than they do. The Martian image turns red. Hobbes’s state of nature was “the war of all against all”; this is it, and it is lurid beyond belief.

Marcus notes how unsettling the end of the film is. Unsettling, because while the credits roll, the movie continues, as two dazed characters try to figure out what has happened and what is to come. It's as if the movie never ends.

The poor quality of this clip somehow adds to the effect:

tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part three

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows you may have watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (they have all finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

The Leftovers (7). I wrote a long post after the series finale, and it's best I just direct you to that, because it was a good one: "The Leftovers Series Finale".

The Americans (5). Another time where I wrote something that works here, so I'll cut and paste.

The Americans had its series finale ... it isn't on anymore. Except, of course, hardly anyone watches TV when it's "on", so The Americans sits out there, waiting to be discovered by bingers. On its face, it's a story about cold war Russian undercover spies. But more than anything, it's about family. 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.

It also makes great use of music. Every show nowadays has a montage set to music. Usually the music is crap, and the montage is a cliche. The Americans does it right.

Mad Men (2). Finally, a show everyone watched. Or at least talked about. Is it a better show than The Americans, or The Leftovers? At this level, comparisons are pointless. It will take you longer to binge ... there are 28 episodes of The Leftovers, 75 of The Americans, 92 of Mad Men. Mad Men is the one show of these three most likely to appear on college syllabi in the future, the most likely to be talked about when the history of television of the early 21st century comes up. I probably preferred The Leftovers, I think my wife preferred The Americans, both of us loved all three. Watch 'em all, then you decide.