Saturday, February 22, 2020

Almost Famous

I went into Almost Famous expecting to hate it, because I hate being manipulated, and I think of Cameron Crowe as an extremely manipulative director. It’s true that Almost Famous is manipulative, and that everyone in it, no matter how damaged or debauched, is also lucid and pithy. The dialogue reads like a senior yearbook, nostalgic for itself. Often it winks to the year 2000 and I hate this kind of shit: “If you think Mick Jagger will be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you are sadly mistaken.” Like every Oughts romcom, it is misogynist and twee. But because it’s from the POV of 15 year old rock journalist William Miller, based on Cameron Crowe himself, I’m gonna stop screaming. What happened to him was pretty huge and when you’re fifteen everything feels huge already, so I can’t blame Almost Famous for being stupid and sentimental, you know what, it’s fine, we all were. 



I am maybe the only person to watch Almost Famous for the first time in the year 2020 so I’m going to brief: Precocious misfit William Miller writes for an underground newspaper, gets noticed first by Lester Bangs and then by Rolling Stone, goes on assignment touring with the fictional “Stillwater,” falls in love with effervescent gaping hole and groupie Penny Lane, sees his heroes misbehave and eventually comes home to his very worried mother. The strength of any one scene relies on the actors in it: unsurprisingly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs and Frances McDormand as William’s mom are very good. Jimmy Fallon is really bad. Between last night and this morning, I have forgotten everyone in "Stillwater," especially Jason Lee. Kate Hudson’s midriff does most of the hard work in this movie; she plays exactly the kind of manic pixie dream girl that would eventually be Cameron Crowe’s biggest legacy, a skinny and Seussian dodo bird with the uncomplicated appeal of anything easily penetrated. Fairuza Balk, one of my favorite big-toothed goth hotties, also plays a groupie, but she gets to be funny and weird and has at least one good scene where she talks to Frances McDormand on the phone and assures her that William is still a virgin. Penny Lane’s spiel about not being a groupie, but a “Band-Aid” (“We are here because of the music, we inspire the music”) is kinda way worse, imho, and disempowering and unself-aware and the opposite of what we know about women like Pamela DeBarres, who were smart and slutty and fine with it. But I promised I’d stop screaming about this and I will. 



Cameron Crowe’s character works because he reflects back anyone who might be watching: if you were ever a fan, if you were ever the youngest person in the room, if you were ever a music writer, professionally or personally, if you ever had a mom, whatever. It’s a music movie that focuses on a non-musician, of course it’s got a lotta mileage. I have outgrown my extreme Lester Bangs fandom, at one point I was married to his review of Astral Weeks, but I still hold him in high regard as someone who worked hard to write about what he loved. It’s easy to be mean but embarrassing to be a fan, and hard to write in earnest about the spiritual potential of rock music. I don’t know that Almost Famous is 100% sincere, but it tries. Lester Bangs gets a lot of good lines, like when he diagnoses the imminent death of rock n roll: “Because they’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb…And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.” Sure I could parse out our obsession with “realness” but I’ll stop at “industry of cool." Like everyone on Planet Earth I have a real fondness for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who could play a sad sack without holding you hostage to his depression, who brought intelligence and tenderness to even the dumbest characters he played.  My favorite scene comes at the end, when William calls Lester and they commiserate about both being losers, Lester Bangs being played as the kind of guy who would always answer his phone.


How does Almost Famous score on Bangs' scale of realness? Is it critical of the machine or part of it? We both know the answer but I'm gonna let this one slide. I’ve become a lot more forgiving when I can imagine a book/movie/whatever being meaningful at one point in my life but not forever. Most of the media I consumed between ages of eight and twenty-eight is kind of unbelievably sexist or worse in retrospect, and if I wanted to open up a museum of shit I don't like and why it’d be ten thousand miles long. I can imagine Almost Famous rocked someone’s world once and that’s fine by me. Anything that points you towards a way to think about the things you love. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise is Brian DePalma’s 1974 freak-out rock opera, a mash-up of Phantom of the Opera, Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Faustus. It’s bigger than other, early DePalma movies but, like Sisters, like Carrie, thrives in the shadows and loves to use that voyeur POV. It looks, too, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came out a year later in 1975: both movies take place in goth dreamspaces with few exterior shots and share a super-saturated palette of blood reds and flesh tones, matte blacks and white gloves. I can’t comment further because the overlap of middle-aged men and teenaged girls in garters at the midnight showings always gave me an allergic reaction to Rocky Horror Picture Show, same with rockabilly. The presence of Paul Williams (“Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “The Bathing Suit that Grandma Otter Wore”) gives Phantom of the Paradise an edge over Rocky Horror Picture Show, IMHO, casting this tiny M.O.R. mastermind as the villainous “Swan” and asking him to write your rock opera is unprecedented. Berserk, even. He either can’t or doesn’t react, and glides in and out of scenes like a chess piece. This is probably the truest characterization of a psychopath but I like to think Paul Williams just has nicer things on his mind: flowers in bloom, ducks circling a pond. If you peeked inside that big brain of his I bet you’d see a frog on a lilypad smiling back. 



The movie opens with a narration by Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, introducing Swan and his label Death Records before segueing into a performance by Death label darlings the Juicy Fruits, a revival group and boy band (man band?) singing their hit "Goodbye Eddie." As their set ends and the crowd thins, pianist Winsow Leach storms the stage to play a piece from his rock cantata, looking like Warren Zevon but exuding real Randy Newman energy. It's not the obvious choice but I mean it’s 1974, Jimi Hendrix is DEAD, Jim Morrison is DEAD, John Lennon just wrote IMAGINE, what is rock n roll anyway? No one knows. After a series of disasters that include internment at Sing Sing prison and prison-mandated tooth removal, Winslow Leach finds himself disfigured by a record press, his vocal cords fried. It’s a very heavy metal deformity for a Disney-ass songwriter, but Swan doesn’t realize the stage appeal of Leach, a.k.a., “The Phantom” and instead imprisons him in a sick synth dungeon, an octagonal Mother-esque lab where he writes hits for the woman he loves, Phoenix. But Swan gives his songs to glam buffoon BEEF, relegating Phoenix to backup singer and of course, the Phantom plans his revenge. He breaks out of his synth prison and does what a phantom does best: look, lurk, sabotage, etc. 



To describe the plot further would be redundant. The much-loved “opera creep” narrative needs no elaboration nor improvement. DePalma’s upgrade to “rock creep” gives the viewer little to think about but lots to look at and it’s enough to make Phantom of the Paradise campy and fun. If you think about design, if you are deliberate about design, the chaotic decision-making that led to Paradise’s Godspell-level insanity will delight you. It argues against the tyranny of cohesion and still looks really, really good. For instance, everyone wears shirts and sweatshirts with these faint, maybe marker outlines of rock stars (???) that are illegible onscreen so why? Why bother? Because it’s a mood. However unhinged it may be, Paradise 
creates a believable bizarro world in which rock pianists and aging doowop septets battle for chart supremacy. The music is good. Confidence carries Paradise through its most improbable plot points at record speed. In one scene, Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper of Suspiria, auditions for Swan, bobbing around the stage in bootcut jeans and a kimono like somebody’s mom before crazy dancing off-stage. She kills it because she owns it, which is true of any personal style. The moral of Phantom of the Paradise is be yourself. 



Writing this blog I realize I don’t like psychedelic movies very much, but using a Gothic novel as your source gives you a great plot and room to go nuts.
 I'd love to see Rebecca made by any freak but Tim Burton, ditto for Wuthering Heights. As always, thanks for reading my blog! I’m gonna try to update more often. I used to only write this blog at work so I could say I was a paid blogger but now I'm writing at home, editing at work, so I’m promoting myself to paid editor. Thanks again and take it easy. :-)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Linda! Linda! Linda!




Linda! Linda! Linda! Is a 2005 Japanese movie about an all-girl band that forms from the fallout of another all-girl band and dedicates itself to playing a gig three days a way. It starts right after the singer and guitarist quit, forcing remaining members Kei, Kyoko and Nozomi to reassemble as a covers band, playing the best of Japanese punk band the Blue Hearts and recruiting the first girl they see, Korean exchange student and shy weirdo Son, as replacement vocalist. With her limited Japanese she promises to do her best. I try not to pick favorites but Son rocks. She brings a nervous but gently demented Su Tissue vibe to their band, now called “Paranmaum” (Korean for Blue Hearts). It would be one thing if her character was hiding an enormous vocal talent, as in Little Voice or jeez, Elf, but it’s much more endearing that she’s not: she’s just trying her best. And it turns out her best is good enough! This is a movie about wanting something really badly and that something is modest but true, a nice movie for the New Year. 


Linda! Linda! Linda! takes place over three days, from the day that “Paranmaum” decide to play their school’s upcoming concert to the day of performance. It captures the way time moves when you’re a teenager and so little of it is your own, how you share space and attempt privacy, how you invent hours of the day and improvise zones to call your own. Kei plays guitar in the family room with headphones on, Kyoko drums on books because she doesn’t have drums, Son buys one drink so she can be alone in the karaoke bar for hours. It moves slowly-- the first time I watched it, sick with something, I fell asleep-- but is true to 
the odd rhythm of a seventy-two hour day, the way time dilates when you’re working hard on something you love, the way the school day drags and the pauses in between. It’s quiet, with a minimal soundtrack by James Iha and the psychologically ultimate sound of chicks tuning guitars. 
Linda! Linda! Linda! is a great dramatization of sucking at something until you don’t anymore and the private joy that brings. It’s maybe the only rock-n-roll movie that’s about practice, correct me if I’m wrong. Most biopics omit this part of a musician’s life, the greasy, weird and lonely years spent getting good, why, I don’t know, I’d love to watch Buddy Holly fuck up. I’m trying to think of another unglamorous, practice-intensive music movie and only coming up with 8 Mile. “Terrible,” Kei says after their first practice, and everyone laughs because you know what, it’s fine. Practice is another great thing to think about in the New Year, I struggle to cope with learning curves because I want to be the best. But practice can be fun, and jamming is free! 


If anything, Linda! Linda! Linda! reminded me of a Swedish movie I saw as a teenager, Show Me Love, which felt real to me at the time, realer than the spate of shitty high school movies like She’s All That and Can’t Hardly Wait that made me think life was a contest I had already lost by having Joan Crawford’s face and Bart Simpson’s body. Linda! Linda! Linda! feels real, down to its minor characters and low-boil interpersonal drama, its anti-climactic romances and rocking five (seven?) minute finale. Even the dream sequences are understated and natural, 
gilded with a super subtle magic, the fantasy not of being worshiped but appreciated: wow. Picture a sheet cake and make a wish.  
I hope everyone reading this gets everything they want in the New Year. If you lapsed on your resolutions, who cares? Make new ones. Thanks to Jacob for the recommendation and as always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Velvet Goldmine

I was scared to watch Velvet Goldmine as an adult because it made me so horny as a kid. Revisiting my tween years gives me body horrors, like my crotch itches, my clothes don’t fit, can’t shit, etc. Nothing bad happened besides the diminishment of my critical faculties, Velvet Goldmine was too formative for me and I can’t tell if it’s good or if it’s just weird. It’s ideal for twelve year olds and the soundtrack slaps, a well curated soundtrack can be a great gateway drug if your parents don’t rock n roll. Shoutout the Forrest Gump OST, the Trainspotting OST, my cassette copy of “Blockbuster Hollywood Soundtracks 1993” and Whitney Houston. 



Velvet Goldmine is an early-ish movie by Todd Haynes, whose movies don’t always look alike but do share a manic commitment to detail. He made Safe, one of my favorite movies and more recently, Carol. He cast Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in his bizarro biopic I’m Not There and makes interesting decisions as well as effective, meticulous period pieces. Velvet Goldmine is hit or miss, starting with the music: the soundtrack mixes a lot of Brian Eno and Roxy Music songs with lesser, purely functional music made to flesh out its fictive universe, also it appears David Bowie didn’t give the rights to any of his songs, so a lot of the music made by “Brian Slade” seems weak, as Bowie-esque stuff tends to be. There are a few glam rock bands in town, I won’t name names but they’re bad.  It’s hard to recreate that shiver of eccentricity that makes glam good and a lot of the lyrics to Velvet Goldmine’s original music (“See hear m’lady/ She cries like a baby/ In a stroller”) only go to show you can’t write a David Bowie song twice. Dang if Todd Haynes didn’t try though. The clothes, the hair, all of the set pieces, being neither punk nor hippie, seem ad hoc and original. Everything Christian Bale wears looks like his mum shrunk it in the wash. It has the eager and experimental energy of a student production and a human touch that’s wanting in most period pieces. The dialogue is mixed so low it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, actors only enunciate to explain art for art’s sake and exchange Oscar Wilde quips out of context. It's a little annoying. But switched-on tween me went down every rabbit hole Velvet Goldmine opened up and started reading NME at Barnes & Noble and copying & laminating (we had a laminator) pictures out of magazines until my room was a shiny museum of who’s-who in rock and French symbolist poetry. That kind of connection to a movie is more important than the crunch of a tomatometer.



Velvet Goldmine has a nutsoid plot, which is secondary to all the fucking and cigarette smoking, but here it is: Christian Bale plays Arthur Stuart, an investigative journalist, revisiting his own closeted adolescence as he attempts to uncover what happened to Brian Slade, aforementioned Bowie-esque rock star, who got shot (?) and died (???) but most likely disappeared. Ewan McGregor plays Curt Wilde, a Kurt Cobain lookalike with an Iggy Pop aura, for whom Brian Slade falls so hard that he spirals out of control. Supposedly his Ziggy Stardust-esque alter-ego Maxwell Demon consumes him and so Brian Slade stages his own assassination (?????), only to come back years later as a Gary Glitter looking, fully Americanized rocker named Tommy Stone. Also there’s a magic jewel inherited from Oscar Wilde, at least two UFO, and multiple narrators with Middle Earth inflection. Truly bonkers. I think this would have been a better movie if it had stuck closer to Christian Bale’s subplot which expresses, very well, the ecstasy and embarrassment of fandom, adolescence, geez, glam rock in general. But I don’t know that a movie about a depressed wanker would have blown my mind back then. It seems half the fun of Velvet Goldmine is the fun of the production: oiling nipples, glittering one's penis, jamming on some weird space themed incidental music. And you know me, I love to see people having fun. As always, thanks for reading my blog.

Dreamgirls

I watched Dreamgirls on my return flight home and I thought it was great. Dreamgirls is the story of the “Dreamettes,” loosely and superficially based on the Supremes, starring Jennifer Hudson as Effie, Beyonce as Deena, and Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell. It’s crazy to remember a time when Beyonce was not an autocratic nation-state and would allow herself to be groped by Austin Powers in Goldmember, let alone play second banana (bottom banana?) to anyone, but she’s convincing in Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls relies on the audience’s agreement that Jennifer Hudson’s Effie has a better voice but Beyonce’s Deena is more conventionally attractive, an agreement to which I will refer in this review but for the record, I’m not comparing the two. Dreamgirls also makes an implicit distinction between what’s good and what’s popular but these are plot points, not hard truths, I personally love love love girl groups at their gooiest and, as a Supremes superfan, had to stop myself from taking offense and remind myself it’s a freaking movie. Dreamgirls is a movie about the simplification and objectification of women’s talent that sometimes, for the sake of expediency, simplifies and objectifies its source material. It happens! 



Dreamgirls was the breakout role for American Idol alum, Jennifer Hudson, who had a catastrophic family tragedy at the same time her career was gaining a lot of momentum. She took time to grieve and I assume that's one reason she didn't stay super famous (although she does star in CATS, which I am seeing in theaters.) JHud is proof that talent is not proportionate to fame and that’s the lesson of Dreamgirls, too, in which she has the bigger voice but she's not Beyonce, and so the star machine munches her up and spits her out. Dreamgirls is the rare movie where the delirious, decades-spinning montage happens without our girl. Poor Effie! After an emotional split from the Dreamettes and from her manager/boyfriend Curtis, we see her waiting in line at the welfare office, struggling as a single mother & otherwise slumming it. It’s bleak. Dreamgirls deals with the kind of accelerated and exaggerated fame I find fucked up and awful. It’s true that it’s “just a movie” but true, too, that people are out there just dying to get fucked up, that’s exactly the promise of a show like American Idol. Celebrity seems like a human Hadron collider. Personal and creative fulfillment must be near impossible if you're famous. I hope Jennifer Hudson feels seen, but I'm straight up worried about Beyonce.
She can’t even leave her house to get candy from the 7-11, you know? She can’t do shit. For people trying to get famous, the cruel logic of Dreamgirls may prove true: you’re either talented or hot, it sucks to be either, it sucks to be a woman, and the opposite of fame is abjection. Either that or you start a band like the Pizza Underground and just go with it.



Anyway Dreamgirls is still lots of fun. The production is incredible, there’s a lot of original and unexpected humor. It overflows with talent and co-stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy, who, for all the bad jokes he’s made, electrifies every scene he’s in. My first reaction to Eddie Murphy remains my strongest impression of him: how does he do it? How does he make it look so easy? Dreamgirls is uniquely cynical and also one of the only movies I’ve seen to address the reality of black artists being denied opportunities and ripped off over and over. There’s a scene in which a Four Freshmen-esque band play the Dreamettes’ big hit to a few sleepy slow dancing couples, another scene in which the band hears their song on the radio but have to pull a U-turn to stay within listening radius of the only black radio station. It’s adapted from a musical which accounts for some of its unevenness: big, beautifully staged scenes happen in an instant, oversized Broadway numbers happen out of nowhere. This might have been more effective in a movie theater than on a plane. Dreamgirls is long-- nearly 3 hours-- with two acts and no intermission, but it’s never boring. I had to look and see if it did it had an intermission and accidentally read a review in which Beyonce talks about “channeling” Diana Ross, real quick no she doesn’t, Diana Ross has such range and such soul but “Deena” is deliberately played down as a lucky thottie of middling talent. If you want to talk about girl groups let me know, I like to sit in my room and listen to the Chiffons and Ronettes like a teenager. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Saturday, November 9, 2019

That Thing You Do!

Joining the “mile high” club today by blogging about a movie I watched on a plane, the 1996 rock and roll comedy, That Thing You Do! It is, like its director, Tom Hanks, fine, neutered fun. It’s a PG-rated, family-friendly romp about four guys playing the same song over and over. It’s maybe the only movie about a one-hit wonder band, (“The Wonders”), which seems like an opportunity to do something novel, but the brevity of their stardom doesn’t affect the predictability of its course. That’s fine. I like music movies and this is definitely a music movie! 

https://www.slashfilm.com/wp/wp-content/images/thatthingyoudo-wonders-galaxyofstars.jpg
 

A few times a year I force friends to watch the TAMI show, this 1964 concert film with a mostly dynamite lineup: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles! James Brown! the Supremes! Lesley Gore! Marvin Gaye! But you have to keep the remote at hand because there are also a few duds, like B.B. and the Dakotas (who?) and Gerry and the Pacemakers. That Thing You Do! imagines the rise and fall of one of these milquetoast not-mop-top groups but doesn’t do the characterization necessary to be, itself, anything other than room temperature mayonnaise. There’s the funny one, the wimpy one, the hot one, and the Tom Hanks one. The “Tom Hanks one” troubled me, not least of all because Tom Hanks plays their manager, and because Tom-Hanks-as-manager is obsessed, OBSESSED with Tom-Hanks-as-drummer, “Shades" (far left). Shades is the avatar for Tom Hanks' unfulfilled desire to play drums in a band and not be Forrest Gump anymore, making That Thing You Do! maybe haunted and very masturbatory.

https://www.filmindependent.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ThatThingYouDo.jpg 

This is some real Stephen King shit: a honky, revisionist fiction wherein the guy least likely to get the girl gets the girl, and soda pop, and five-and-dime, and blah blah blah.  In the first half of the movie, Shades is dating Charlize Theron, who the viewer understands as a “bad girlfriend” because she doesn’t want to listen to her boyfriend talk about his band. But maybe it’s because his band sucks? Also he never asks her about her day? We see her curling her hair in a lace pajama set in a pink and lace room. This, too, lets us know she is a bad girlfriend, a princess and possibly a phony. “Is it always this smoky?” she asks of the shithole bar where her boyfriend’s shitty band is going to play their one shitty song, like man, can you believe this chick? Lucky for her she leaves Shades for her hot dentist, which sounds kinky and fun to me. You go girl!

https://brickabrack.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/picture-5.png

Liv Tyler plays Faye and Faye, unfortunately, is a soft, squishy idiot with no hobbies or friends except her stupid lead singer boyfriend, Jimmy, and his stupid fucking band. She doesn't curl her hair or yap on the phone and seems oblivious to her improbable good looks, she's just like jellied cunt from the wet dream factory where Tom Hanks works, and we're supposed to believe that after she breaks up with Jimmy, still raging with adrenaline and hurt, she decides she should have been dating Shades the whole time. Yeah right! As if! Did hanging out with MADONNA and ROSIE O'DONNELL on the set of A League of Their Own not teach Tom Hanks a fuckin thing? Chicks want what they want! Also chicks live in the now! Why is it that the life of a woman seems, like a river, long and varied and full of meanders, while the life of so many men seems like a moat?

https://cdn1.thr.com/sites/default/files/2016/10/tom_hanks_that_thing_you_do_-_h_-_1996.jpg

Anyway this is a great movie for me and my friends when we were 11 and 12 years old and some of us could see R-rated movies and some (Katie Kelly) could not, also a good movie for friendzoned boomers. I try not to generalize about men and women but I hope we can agree Tom Hanks kinda sucks. A fun thing I did while watching this movie is imagine what "that thing you do" is, so every time they sing the song you can pretend it's about squirting, or snowballing, whatever turns you on, ha ha. As always thanks for reading my blog. :)

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in it

Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai translates into “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in it,” longhand for “Purple Rain” in a language (Tamajeq) that has no word for purple. “Rain,” as it will henceforth and occasionally be referred, is an adaptation of Purple Rain starring Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, who played here a little while ago and inspired this viewing and reviewing. The show rocked, by the way, it put me in a real zone, the movie I liked but lacks the same energy, which is as it should be, the vibe should always be wilder live. Rain is a battle of the bands movie in which the hero rides a motorcycle and wears shiny purple and fuckin shreds on guitar but its most compelling parallel to Purple Rain is its intense regionalism, what it's like to live and jam in a place. Both are movies in which Minneapolis/Agadez, respectively, form themselves around their stars and exist only for them to rock, their waters Lourdes water for beautiful women, every sand basin a place to shred and reflect. This movie gives a good impression of a place, if a romantic impression, and has a beautiful palette and texture. It's filmed with love and care. It would be a wasted effort to expect any exact parallels; Rain is more meditative, more scenic, more of a mood. It looks and feels more like a French New Wave film. Anyway you know what happens but there’s still fun to be had, hot chicks, bad dads, and Morris Day types talking shit.



The only thing I don’t like about this movie are the fingerprints on it. The idea for a Nigerian remake of Purple Rain comes from the founder of the Sahel Sounds label, who had toyed with the idea for a while before he found a star in Mdou Moctar, realized his dream and made this movie. I'm not gonna name him in case he has a Google Alert set up for himself. In interviews he talks about and has clearly thought through issues of appropriation but, I’m sorry, this guy still seems like a boner. How to parse a quote like this, which acknowledges the obvious but still reeks of Messianic overconfidence:

“A Tuareg musician in a village somewhere doesn't really have the ability to say, 'This is who I am,' so they're sort of entrusting me to say that. I'm very careful and I try to present things in a way that isn't demeaning or exoticizing to the person on the record."
Maybe he's right. I mean I don't work closely with Tuareg musicians. My anxiety about Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It is separate from my enjoyment of the movie and of Mdou Moctar’s music, that’s part of a larger anxiety about world music labels based in the United States and trends in “hidden gems” and “lost gems” from South America and Africa and East Asia. It would be both cynical and wrong to assume that any collaboration between Americans and non-Americans must be exploitative, and I'd be remiss not to mention I love this trend, love spiritual jazz and palm wine guitar, etc. Surely the ability to share music, to excavate, restore, and make available all kinds of music must be one of the best things about the 21st century. Sahel Sounds seem cool and accountable w/r/t accreditation and money. But JFC, this guy’s description of himself as “gentleman explorer and rogue ethno-musicologist” makes me want to barf and kill myself at the same time. Maybe it’s the narcissism of small differences. Maybe I’m just jealous. I love obscurities and oddities but am discomfited by men whose reputations rely on their exquisite and rarefied taste, least of all because you can’t do this work without a lot of money. Maybe I’d like Harry Smith less if I could Google all the stupid shit he’d ever said.



Anyway I don’t have a solution. Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red In It is a beautiful movie complicated by my distrust of cool guys with mysterious amounts of money. It would be a shame if this had not been made and shared and enjoyed. I believe that art and music should be for everybody, I just wish we could truly democratize the production and distribution of it and have nobody in charge. That's a bigger problem and not this guy's to fix, but 
that’s my lil soapbox. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Last Days

Part of the reason I started this blog was because I used to love watching movies, up until the advent of streaming, when I bought a punitively too-tiny TV to discourage me and my roommates from watching anything. I lost my interest in watching weird movies; I hated watching on a laptop. For the last few years, the only thing I can stand to watch over and over is the X-Files, which is both the balm in gilead and a reliable narcotic that puts me to sleep in about fifteen minutes. (Should I make a tape that compiles the best and quietest of Mulder & Scully’s disagreements, or would it make me too wet?) To remedy this, I bought a big screen TV on Craigslist, a DVD player at Best Buy, a new couch, and resumed checking out DVDs from the library, my preferred way to browse and watch; usually I rent two copies because one might skip. I can interlibrary loan movies, which means I can again watch all kinds of far-out stuff in a comfortable way, with a bowl of grapes, a glass of water, whatever. I’ve been getting better at sitting through longer and older and odder movies, which I missed. It seems like such a waste of my renewed attention span that I should have spent 96 minutes on Gus Van Sant's Last Days, which felt like three hours, and which is challenging (i.e. boring) for all the wrong reasons. Rachel mentioned that Kim Gordon makes a cameo and there’s a gratuitous anal sex scene, which, not being a big fan of Sonic Youth, left me little to anticipate but a gratuitous anal sex scene, which never materialized.



Why was this movie made? I don’t know. Surely not for love of Nirvana. It’s inspired by Kurt Cobain’s last few days alive, although the Kurt look-a-like in this movie goes by Blake. For fear of getting sued, Gus Van Sant used none of Nirvana’s music but instead, commissioned a few Nirvana-esque riffs that don’t show up until halfway through this movie. Like other movies I’ve reviewed here, this turned out to not really be a music movie. No one dances, for instance. Instead it silently and dispassionately follows a damaged man as he pees in a river, tumbles down the hill near his rotting castle, coexists with a few freeloaders squatting in his place and answers the door in a dress. It’s definitely not an attempt to expand on what we know about Kurt Cobain, or someone like him, anyway a typical biopic would be in bad taste. So it’s no offense to Kurt Cobain, or someone like him, that he spends the movie in a falling-down fugue, but I mean, what’s to like? What’s to even watch? The actor playing Kurt wears his hair in his face most of the time, letting the audience project their fantasy of Kurt Cobain onto a slow-moving Muppet and maybe, in that way, feel something. But I’m being generous. Last Days 
is boring, badly acted, conspicuous in its improvisation. The only good actors are two Jehovah’s witnesses; Kim Gordon is an even worse actress than she is visual artist. My best guess??? Gus Van Sant made this movie because he loves squalor and Last Days lets him improvise funny things that might happen in a flophouse, just one grown cineaste playing with his raggedy dolls. But I don’t know. He seems like a director who, following the success of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, decided to do whatever he wanted, with little to no regard for his audience. I have mixed feelings about this approach. I respect it but I'd rather watch anything else, ya know? Like I'd rather watch something challenging and good, and failing that, idk, Girls' Trip





Like I said, this movie is boring, but it gave me lots of time to sit & think about the composition of shots. There were a few nice ones, including a drive with Ricky Jay where trees wash over the windshield. But I wanted Blake to die so I could go to bed; that's the kind of cognitive dissonance that happens when a movie inspired by Kurt Cobain avoids any real resemblance for fear of legal repercussions. It's a big who-cares. A total snoozefest. A lot of people get mad when I say I don’t like Sonic Youth and I say well then, make me a fuckin tape, change my mind, no one’s taken me up on it but I am OPEN-MINDED as long as you are willing. Kim Gordon seems cool. RIP Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994. "Corporate magazines still suck." As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Star is Born (1954)

This week I watched the 1954 version of A Star is Born, starring Judy Garland (nee Frances Ethel Gumm) as Vicki Lester (nee Esther Blodgett) and James Mason as Norman Maine. Norman Maine’s credentials are never quite established but whatever they were, they’re at risk of being upstaged by his drunken misbehavior. We first meet him when he crashes a nice dance performance by Esther and friends and of course she has to improvise a routine to make his interruption seem fun and funny to the audience. You don’t have to know the plot of A Star is Born to know then that she will spend the rest of the movie cleaning up after him. But my first reaction (“here comes trouble”) softened, both because I think James Mason is hot and also because A Star is Born, for being a huge overproduced musical about Hollywood, is also a very tender movie about loving someone who can't love themselves.



A Star is Born has been remade four times, but whereas most remakes are inevitably and unfavorably compared to their original, A Star is Born is more like a jazz standard. It is remade and received in good faith. Why? I don’t know. I can’t think of any other movie made more than twice that is not also a franchise. Dracula? Maybe if more movies were public domain we could riff on them without consequence, and relieve some of the enormous pressure, both creative and political, of a Ghostbusters remake, a Lion King remake, whatever. Abolish copyright already and give the Purge franchise to the punks. There’s a lot I could say (and wrote down but edited out) about what’s “wrong” with Hollywood and the recent, apparent dearth of good ideas there, but the short answer is money, the long answer is a non-answer, anyway I liked Hustlers so I’m still having fun. 


The Star is Born movies make me super sad, for a few reasons: 1. Because they show the constant gaslighting talented women endure, first from the men that reject them and then from the men that support them, 2. Because relationships with people who see the spark in you are so much different than any other relationship, and their dissolution so much harder and 3. Because they're pretty true to life movies about alcoholism that treat alcoholism as a disease and not a selfish whim. I went on a real emotional roller coaster watching this about some unrelated stuff (why isn’t my mom proud of me?) and took a break between DVDs just to sit and cry. A Star is Born is long and tonally uneven, itself a kind of emotional rollercoaster. Maybe it’s the tonic of Judy Garland’s voice, which oscillates between control and abandon, nuance and freefall. Maybe it’s the very real emotion Judy Garland brings to a scene where she breaks down talking about her husband’s alcoholism, sobbing, “What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” Or maybe it’s the kind of meta experience of seeing an actress in her prime rehearsing both the thrill of making it and the trauma of losing it. My mind wandered, not because I was bored, but because I was moved. Also it’s three hours long, which is pushing it. 

 

A Star is Born is both a music movie and a movie about movies, maybe my second favorite kind of movie. I’m nuts about sets and pre-digital special effects, not to mention lurid celebrity drama and goth Hollywood aesthetics, I love the ambient misery of Los Angeles & try go once a year. Anyway it’s no Day of the Locust, but A Star is Born satisfies. I want to read a lot more about Judy Garland. It’s hard to imagine Judy Garland now, what kinda songs she’d sing, would she be in a band? She’s kind of trapped in the amber of Hollywood’s golden age, but that’s the allure of this movie and her celebrity. She’s 32 in this, which, in 1954, is like being 32 in dog years so what, 224 years old? Anyway she looks great. Also she’s only 4’11. Those are my fun facts for now, onto the unfun ones, if I get sad thinking about Judy Garland I can always remember Liza Minelli. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :)

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

HEAD

I was dreading watching any more “weird” movies after Lisztomania, but I liked watching the Monkees’ Head. It’s not good but it gave me a lot to think about. Head sees the Monkees pivot from prefab pop stardom to countercultural whatevers, it’s not convincing but it is entertaining. A lot of Head exists to assert that yes, the Monkees fuck and yeah, they do drugs too. This might have been breaking news in 1968 but it seems very eighth grade now. I mean everyone’s high and anybody can get fucked.

monkees head


Head has no real plot. It opens with Mickey Dolenz jumping off a bridge, then some kind of pleasant swishy underwater footage, then he’s being kissed by a mermaid, then, back on land everyone’s getting kissed?? Then the screen becomes a montage of smaller screens, like TVs, maaaaan, as the Head theme song plays:

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

You say we're manufactured.
To that we all agree.
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
in never being free!


This is the thesis of Head, and most of its imagery, including exploding mannequins and slipshod film and TV sets, relates to artifice, contrivance, the thin scrim between reality & everything else. But it’s very superficial, and maybe too convenient to critique the society of spectacle after you’ve made your money there. The Monkees’ admission of their own gimmick isn’t a gamble and, by 1968, they didn’t have much to lose. It’s hard to know for whom this movie was made: surely not their teeny bopper fanbase, who trended younger than Beatles fans and likely didn’t catch up to the revolution until after it was over. Nor could it make converts out of true heads, even with Jack Nicholson on board and cameos by him, Dennis Hopper, Frank Zappa and Sonny Liston. It’s still a Monkees movie. It attempts a radical rebrand but fails. It’s just not smart enough. It chafes. It is like Britney tonguing Madonna, or Miley getting matching tattoos with that idiot in the bubble from the Flaming Lips, whose name I do not deign to Google. It is Harry Styles when he talks about taking mushrooms, or Justin Bieber when he drives drunk. It’s that time in a young star’s life that is totally unrelatable to you and me, when all the money and power you got just for being a good looking teenager suddenly seems like not enough, and the fight for relevance becomes personal, professional, existential. I wouldn’t know what that’s like. 



Head attempts some flimsy anti-war commentary, although is a war montage even commentary? Or it is just a montage? Twice we see the execution of a Viet Cong op at close range and twice it feels lazy and opportunistic. I don’t see Mike Nesmith lighting himself on fire in protest of Vietnam, I just see a bunch of guys aging out of their teeny bopper thing and into some half-assed revolutionary aesthetic. I don’t think it’s the most useful criticism of a 50 year old movie to call it “dated,” I grew up on lots of sexist movies that I still like, but the kind of casual misogyny and race-blindness of this movie points to the Monkees' totally unradical posturing. I mean, are you surprised? When I was a kid I was so obsessed with 60s counterculture, and in many ways still am, except that I am grateful every day I was not alive back then, to have some hippie dude hold me by the neck and tell me what to do, or to have to wash dishes with one kid at either tit. The older I get that looks like such a bad scene and I am glad I was born in the 80s, even if I didn’t get to go to Monterey Pop. Lots of women I know are amateur Manson scholars, myself included, and I think it’s because, as a girl, you understand the appeal of living in a fuck bus but as a woman, you’re just like honey, you have got to get off that ranch and rinse your pussy. Every woman in this movie exists to get fucked in all holes and if you don’t wanna watch ululating Arabs or African head hunters, skip Head. I promise it will not blow your mind.

The Monkees̢۪ only feature film was successful, surreal professional suicide

This is neither here nor there, but I relistened to Karina Longworth’s podcast about Manson in Hollywood after seeing the Quentin Tarantino movie. Her series on Manson is so fabulous, informative and (mostly) fun, and points to an interesting problem wherein the counterculture becomes the establishment. Head might be a movie in which the establishment attempts to become the counterculture, which, if I were some fuckin hot slit wet nurse back then, would probably grate my nerves even more than my stupid husband and kids. Head is fun to watch and think about, but also kind of tedious. It is full of gags but not very funny, and I can't stand an unfunny stoner comedy. At the 75% mark I started wishing it would just end already, and made a prayer something like “If this movie doesn’t end soon maybe I can just die watching it?” I’m happy to report I’m still here. As always, thanks for reading my blog.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What's Love Got to Do With It

What’s Love Got to Do With It is great. For a straightforward biopic, ie, one that begins and the beginning and follows an artist’s career through crisis and comeback without any auteur flourishes or metafictional transfer, it’s among the very best. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne really kill it. I love Tina Turner but this made me love her more. Early in the movie Ike Turner tells her she sings like a man, these aren’t the words I’d use but yeah, she’s boss. She’s got serious BDE. She’s hot, obviously, but her sexuality is incidental to her good looks, like if Beyonce can purge every unflattering photo of herself from public record, Tina Turner live is a zoetrope of unflattering angles, upskirts, grimaces, bulging groin muscles and guess what, it’s still hot. She’s never precious, never demure, she looks great busting out of a Bob Mackie dress or like, doing the chicken in a chainmail slip. Angela Bassett brings a lot of innate strength and sexuality to her performance, not to mention she is RIPPED and clearly spent hours lifting weights and listening to “The Best” like “yes, yes… c’est moi!” 



But I’m getting ahead of myself! So Ike and Tina meet at Club Royale in St. Louis, where Ike and his band the Kings of Rhythm play every night and pass around the mic looking to see which one of his screaming fangirls has what it takes. You’re like “Pick Tina! Pick Tina” then you’re like “No wait maybe don’t!” It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Tina Turner (nee Anna Mae Bullock) got famous without Ike, but at least on this planet, their destinies were linked. Ike makes Tina a star but really, Tina’s the fuckin powerhouse here, so who makes whom? Content warning, if you don’t know anything about their relationship, Ike was a terrible abuser, and this plays out in some scary scenes. Without trying to redeem him, Laurence Fishburne shows how one man can change, and when we first meet Ike he is so fuckin suave & charming, who could blame you for wanting Tina to take the stage, fall in love, and do the thing that would both make and break her? It’s part of the tension of this movie. You feel for Tina. You feel two ways at once when Ike breaks her out of the hospital to elope. And when she can’t leave him, you don’t wonder why. It’s obvious what’s at stake: not just her career, but her kids, her survival, her name, and her ability to go on stage without some hired goon stalking her from the back of the theater.



 

Can we talk about Laurence Fishburne? Peewee’s Playhouse alum and MORPHEUS? Get you a man that can do both, and Laurence Fishburne can do it all, wow, so cool. He usually plays supporting roles but watching him I thought about how supporting actors, second bananas, bad guys & beta males are actually the thing that makes Hollywood even if leading men command the big bucks. He was nominated for Best Actor but did not win, I don’t know why I keep bringing up the Oscars because I think it’s the dumbest dog and pony show, but I just hope Laurence Fishburne feels appreciated. I appreciate him anyway. Probably it doesn’t feel great to play Ike Turner but he does it well. Hell, he should have won an Oscar for best and most hairdos. His hair goes from pompadour to short afro to Beatles-cut to big afro to short and tight, it’s very effective. Beatles-cut era Ike scared me most. All the velvet and suede in the world could not soften Ike Turner, just look at him, yikes!



I took a break from this review to run an errand and tuned into Magic 107.3, right at the point in "Drunk in Love" when Jay-Z raps:

Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In '97 I bite, I'm Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don't play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!"

This confirmed for me my destiny as a movie blogger but also made me think. “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” refers to a fight between Ike and Tina, that’s dramatized in What’s Love Got to Do With It, that I’m sure is a dumb off-handed rap that ignores or mischaracterizes Ike Turner’s abuse, but also made me think about how both men were eclipsed by their way more powerful wives and neither took it very well. I mean Jay-Z’s not an abuser but I’m sure he has an inferiority complex and all this came out at couple's therapy. A lot of things destabilize Ike, but none quite like Tina's success. Just wait until Phil Spector shows up and wants to record Tina Turner. Next thing you know, there she is in front of that wall of sound and Ike is playing what, ninth guitar? The violence escalates and his total control makes it harder and harder for her to leave. One day she ends up at the hospital and comes home to discover that Ike has installed a mural of two people fucking in an ocean wave, which is, of course, some shit he would do. She gets into Buddhism (did not know this) and eventually works up the confidence to walk away. In the movie, she leaves with nothing but her stage name, Tina Turner. “I worked too hard for this name,” she says. It's a complicated kind of emancipation that acknowledges 18 years of hard work but also routine abuse and erasure. In real life she kept her clothes and two cars as well, but she might as well have started with nothing. Again, I liked Tina Turner before but this movie made my heart swell, I wanted to go back in time and comfort her, support her, give her a place to crash, a little gong to help her clear her mind, whatever. Tina I’m here for you!


What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993)

What’s Love Got to Do With It has lots to love besides Angela Bassett & Laurence Fishburne. There’s a few different scenes of Ike & Tina cutting records first in their shotgun house in St. Louis, later in Phil Spector’s studio, then in Ike and Tina’s swank L.A. home, with its in-house waterfall and 360 couches. Lots of cool performances by both Tina and the Ikettes; I flip for backup singers, I wanted to be one of Ray Charles' "Uh-huh girls" so bad as a kid. Angela Bassett lip syncs so well that I thought she might have done her own vocals, but she didn’t, it’s just a flawless, dynamite performance that also did not win an Oscar. Please Bey hive please don't come for me, I'm comparing apples and oranges, I love Beyonce but her despotic control over her public image makes a biopic like this impossible in our lifetimes. Strength is vulnerability and vice versa. Kudos to Tina Turner for telling her story in her biography "I, Tina", which I just realized probably inspired the title I, Tonya? Weird. I've never been in an abusive relationship but real trigger warnings for anyone who has. Of course if you're in a bad situation please find a friend and confide in someone who can help you make a plan to leave. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :)