Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich, 1974)

This one is simple to suss out. Check out that mouthy poster below. It doesn't lie. Everything except the 45-minute football game is a mess, tonally, structurally, narratively. The first half drags out the exposition and still leaves many fundamental questions unanswered. This includes dreary attempts at humor and a shoddily written warden character that the normally perfect Eddie Albert can do little to salvage. The game, by contrast, is tight, pure excitement. Any film that gets me to bite my nails over the outcome of a football game has got to be performing some kind of miracle. So that's a strong B indeed. But no crowd-pleasing sports flick needs to run 123 minutes. Trim that first half and we'd have a fabulous genre pic. 

Grade: B 


Monday, June 06, 2022

Deception (Arnaud Desplechin, 2021); Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, 2022); Company (Third Broadway Revival, 2021)

Deception (Arnaud Desplechin, 2021)

Deception is one of the most egregious violations of the Show Don't Tell rule in cinema history. On one hand, Desplechin had no choice but to tell tell tell since the 1990 Philip Roth novel on which the film is based is all dialogue. But on the other, perhaps that was an indication that no one should attempt to film the thing because Deception is a disaster. The French excel at cinema featuring little more than characters talking for the entire running time, e.g., select titles from Rohmer, Eustache, Garrel, etc. But the talk either points to a world outside the local concerns of the story at hand or epitomizes an exquisite waste of time. Deception dotes on Philip (Denis Podalydès) aka Philip Roth. Or the Philip Roth that comes through conversation, i.e., maybe not the real Philip Roth. For who could know the real Philip Roth including the (real?) Philip Roth himself? Isn't all self-fashioning mere deception? The film stays at this level of Philosophy 101 throughout as Philip's King Kong ego pulls all the women in his life (few of whom have names, e.g., Léa Seydoux plays "The English Lover") into his orbit. What any of this has to do with Desplechin remains a mystery. Even worse, sometimes Desplechin will show and tell for double the dreariness as when Philip's wife tells Philip that she's seen a revealing notebook of his and then we see her seeing the revealing notebook. In ventilating this airless novel, Desplechin suffocates it all the more. Nadir: the mock trial in which feminists accuse Philip of misogyny. 

Grade: C

Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, 2022)

It's no Crash. But I loved it, of course. I need to see it with closed captioning, though, since I missed a lot of the sotto voce lines - what did Kristen Stewart (a great performance, appropriately unnatural in its perpetual weepiness) whisper to Viggo Mortensen at his first performance with Léa Seydoux? Also, much of the crime aspect of the film escaped me. For now, I read the final shot as hopeful. Or, more precisely, the only hope we have to survive the destructive path of capitalism is to rearrange our bodies to use destruction as our fuel. 

Grade: A-minus

Company (Third Broadway Revival, 2021)

This revival has Katrina Lenk playing a woman, Bobbie, in the role Dean Jones originated in 1970 as a man, Bobby. The gender reversals do nothing to diminish the majesty of some of Sondheim's greatest music and lyrics, their Bacharachian swells, their dizzying repetitions, their absurdly long notes. The finest moments in musicals are ensemble numbers anyway precisely because they subsume a character's particularity. Company's money shot comes early in the opening title (and best) number. The cast is crammed into Bobbie's apartment, waiting to surprise her on her 35th birthday. But in this production, the apartment moves to the front of the stage for the final chorus at which point our audience burst into helpless applause. The sole purpose of this narratively unnecessary movement is to bring us closer into the company. And for a brief moment, there were no protagonists and antagonists, no performers and audience, just orgasmic oneness. No other art form better offers that illusion.

Still, like so many musicals, Company is too damn long - 2 hours and 40 minutes including intermission in this iteration. I felt my attention flagging in the second act despite the presence of several classic numbers. Not being a ballad guy, I suggest cutting "Someone Is Waiting" and "Marry Me a Little," Bobbie/Bobby's solo numbers from the first act. Bobbie/Bobby is the least interesting character in the show, presumably by design. Things happen to and around her/him. So retaining only "Being Alive" for the finale would lend the song extra force and bring to the fore its complexities, holding marriage as exhilarating and marriage as stifling in tension with one another.

Grade: A-minus 

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Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Monthly Top Ten: May 2022

1. Chunky. Now I know why various internet dorks were ripping on me for preferring to read comic books on pdf. I had been unzipping my cbz/cbr files and scratching my head about what to do with the resulting jpgs, often opting to turn them into pdfs. So Chunky, an app for reading comic books on cbz/cbr, has been a revelation. It's reacquainted me with old favorites like Julie Doucet's eternal Dirty Plotte (can you imagine what Muratova or Żuławski could have accomplished in adapting her work?!?) and introduced me to some new favorites such as...

2. Yuichi Yokoyama: Iceland (Retrofit, 2017). Retrofit calls Yokoyama "the creator of neo manga" which here means a slice of indigestible avant-garderie. At 92 pages, the story is no such thing, a sci-fi-I-guess concatenation of disconnected narrative beats. Gawky close-ups and jagged lines flatten the space into one long scream. It seems like a found thing, a energy pulse from the future awaiting a consumption that may never come. 

3. Blutch: Peplum (New York Review Comics, 2016). In his helpful introduction to this reissue of the 1998 Cornélius French original, Edward Gauvin likens Peplum to a remix of Fellini's Satyricon, itself a remix of Petronius' Satyricon. Blutch (né Christian Hincker) follows a group of bandits as they drag a cumbersome frozen woman around the Roman Empire. Tony Shakespearean dialogue (including a straight-forward retelling of the murder of Julius Caesar near the beginning) clashes with coarse outbursts ("Will you shut up?!"). The picaresque narrative throws up a never-ending supply of barely explained dangers. In a sense, Peplum is all clash, with characters, all of whom seem either dead or on the brink of dying, fucking and fighting one another in splotchy environs. An extremely disturbing epilogue does nothing to tie up loose ends. The authorial voice mimics an infant's inability to transition between tones, laughing or bawling within a moment's notice. But a fever-ridden infant. And one with a working knowledge of Roman culture.

4. The Big Gay Comic Book: Volumes 1 and  2 (Bluewater, 2014). Quite the opposite of the two titles above, The Big Gay Comic Book recalls the infamous Rock 'N' Roll Comics from the late 1980s/early 1990s - cheesy pre-Wikipedia biographies of popular musical icons. Here Madonna, Tom Daley, Kathy Griffin, Anderson Cooper, RuPaul, Keith Haring, Lady Gaga, etc. get the same treatment. Poking through the cheese are some bizarre moments as when Robbie Williams breaks the fourth wall in the Kylie Minogue entry or when the Cher title begins with what one presumes to be a stalker claiming intimate knowledge of Cher only to be revealed at the end as Chaz Bono (!). 

5. Vanessa Bayer and Jane Treacy’s Must Haves (QVC, 2022). Do watch Showtime's choking-on-your-tongue hilarious I Love That For You, a half-hour comedy about Joanna Gold (Vanessa Bayer), a woman who fakes a cancer diagnosis and becomes a star on a home shopping network. After you've downed a few episodes, there's a mind-bendingly meta treat for you streaming on QVC. In order to promote the show she co-created, Bayer occupied QVC for an hour with longtime host Treacy selling clothes and jewelry including a herringbone bracelet with a lobster clasp which plays a key role on I Love That For You. You find yourself laughing at nothing in particular, just the crazy fact that this exists. The most disorienting instance of the contradictory pleasures of capitalism since the Oil of Olay musical The Road to Glow.

6. Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977). The incomparable Gena Rowlands (92 in a few days!) stars as Myrtle Gordon, an actress who changes the play in which she's starring because she sees no hope in the fiftysomething main character, a situation that may reflect her own life as a feted professional of a certain age. As a portrait of the difficulty women experience in controlling their own destinies, Opening Night is peerless. And even on a strictly narrative level, where Cassavetes is supposedly deficient, the film keeps you on the edge as you fear opening night may never happen. But Cassavetes clearly didn't know what to do with Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell, 47 years out from her film debut, one year away from her role in Grease, and two years away from her Christmas 1979 death), the playwright whose words Gordon changes. One presumes this is because as an even older woman, Goode has accepted her lot and internalized whatever disappointments have come her way. But that is a truth worth telling too, one we glean in fits and starts from previous rehearsals of her play, and her apparent acceptance of Gordon's changes at the very end of the film feels false. Then again, applying standards of realism to Cassavetes is always a fool's game, no matter how raw his films come across. Instead, it'd prove more fruitful to put Opening Night in conversation with two subsequent films, (the first awful, the other one of the finest films of this century), it may have influenced - Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich [who shows up in a brief cameo at the end of Opening Night], 1992) and Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, 2000).

7. A Night in Heaven (John G. Avildsen, 1983). A good movie is lurking somewhere within this Joan Tewkesbury-penned mess about a community college professor (Lesley Ann Warren) who discovers a student (Christopher Atkins, angelic) she flunked in Public Speaking is a stripper. But it was clearly mangled on the way to theatres. At times, it feels like you're watching the sui generis omnibus train wreck Night Train to Terror (Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, 1985). Several scenes lead into narrative dead ends. Basic story information is either needlessly elaborated or given little air. One crucial conversation plays out in a master shot as if no coverage was available or the editor neglected to use any of it. Still, like the "Special Fan Edition" of Empire Records (Allan Moyle, 1995), the phantom good movie within would be less fascinating than the tattered corpse before us here. At the very least, it's an excellent teaching tool to convey the difficulty of telling even the simplest story with cinema. 

 8. Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986). Criminally boring. Upped a notch for not just the too-short volleyball scene but for Maverick deciding that jeans would be appropriate attire for beach sports. D-minus. Just for the record. 

 9. U.S. Marines Pride Month tweet. Hi, gay! Happy Pride Month! Astonishingly tone-deaf in the wake of the murders in Uvalde (and Buffalo and...), the U.S. Marines have color coded six bullets to resemble the rainbow flag for this most gay of months. Someone somewhere must be proud, probably Adorno in his Super Egotistical way. 

10. The criticism of Kieran Press-Reynolds. You couldn't ask for a better tour guide through what we'll (and he'll) call internet music - the fly-by sounds you hear on TikTok, Roblox, YouTube, Soundcloud, the like. Hyper, long-winded, pockmarked with links, chuffed to create new genres, his essays replicate the amped-up one moment, luded-out the next tenor of the Euphoria generation. His newest piece is on Swedish collective Drain Gang and their de facto pope Bladee whose music "has become constitutional for a rising swarm of offbeat internet artists shooting off in a plethora of directions and shaping the future of music, even if some washed purists whine that it all sounds like liquid ass." You don't want to be one of those people, now do you? So read up. Here's hoping he avoids the path of his daddy Simon who lost his pioneering spirit once he turned 40 and/or had a baby. 

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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992)/Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)


It's probably a measure of how out of touch I am with post-classical/1960 Hollywood but I see no appreciable difference between the first four titles in the Alien franchise. (Prometheus, Ridley Scott's 2012 attempt to regain control over the series, was a new agey mess, if memory serves.) Critics professed to be bored by Alien 3; indeed, this prison planet variation is my least favorite of the four. But it still held me from the start all the way to the disorienting climax in which the prisoners and a pregnant Ripley (the ever-reliable Sigourney Weaver) try to trap the alien in a molding shaft, the equal of any scene in Aliens for blood-pressure-raising thrills.

Alien Resurrection is the delightful oddball of the franchise, the baroque entry if we use Henri Focillon's theory of genre development. Ripley is now a clone with some alien acid-blood coursing through her and she stands at a snarky distance from the mayhem. There's not much at narrative stake for her anymore so her energy is implosive and ironic, drifting through the story as if she were there to critique it. Winona Ryder is on board as Call, a robot or, as Wiki has it, "an improved version of a human created by synthetics." Together, the two form a post-feminist bond against the aliens who prove themselves to be excellent swimmers in this installment. In fact, Alien Resurrection seems designed expressly to be taught alongside Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto." Call even tells Ripley that she's not a being but, rather, a construct. It's a grad seminar happening right before us and the theorietical applications are freeing. 

Alien 3: A-minus

Alien Resurrection: A-minus 

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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963); Billie (Don Weis, 1965)

Screening Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963) and Billie (Don Weis, 1965) in the same week was arbitrary. So I want to avoid making any grand pronouncements on The Sixties or Hollywood or any other capitalization. Nevertheless, it is difficult to resist pontificating on how these films reflect the sexual revolution(s) and/or an industry in (perpetual) transition.

It took me many days to get through Tom Jones, so tiring were its attempts to come across as au courant. Richardson seems exhausted trying to juice the travelogue longueurs of Oscar filmmaking with the nouvelle vague arsenal: irises, fast motion, cutesy asides to the camera, a silent sequence, more wipes than a toilet paper roll, argh! The film sputters along like a car on its last legs. Jazzy editing breaks down into long takes of the British countryside only to rev back into more jazz editing until you're fed up and take the train instead.

And by "train," I mean something not just brisker but also brasher. In addition to contending with European art cinema siphoning off some American audiences, Hollywood (or, to be precise in the case of Tom Jones, British productions with Hollywood distribution) also had to compete with the increased permissibility concerning sex on film. The Immoral Mr. Teas (Russ Meyer, 1959) became one of the most profitable films ever released and put the great era of sexploitation into overdrive. Adapting Henry Fielding's novel in this environment was a canny move because it promises chesty sights but cocoons the bawdiness in prestige. (Never one to miss out on exploiting a trend, Meyer himself tried his hand at a tony adaptation a year later with Fanny Hill). So the most enduring legacy of Tom Jones is how it prevented many pearls from being clutched or monocles from being dropped. 

On one level, Billie is very much a film of its time. Hollywood had long since made whatever peace they were going to make with television. Filmed during a break in the production of The Patty Duke Show, Billie was an attempt to build off the momentum of Duke's career. But on another level, it feels ahead of its time in terms of sexual politics, a film ripe for lesbian and trans reevaluation. That's largely because it was released just on the cusp of LGBT topicality so that the queerness is of a classical suggestibility, all the easier to pour our own queerness in and out of it. 

Duke plays the titular heroine, a high school tomboy who sings, "I should have been a boy/But here I am a girl." The central conceit is a delicious queering of sports by turning track and field into a musical. Billie is able to outrun all the boys on the team because she hears a rock beat in her head which sends her sailing. The coach not only wedges her onto the team but forces them to learn her dance moves although this latter scene is narratively baffling (albeit still glorious) since she's teaching only the male and female cheerleaders her moves and they're all far better than her (two of the dancers are Robert Banas of West Side Story and "The Nitty Gritty" fame and Broadway legend Donna McKechnie). As one might imagine, the gender play causes a lot of confusion occasioning a bunch of a sweaty boys to sing "A Girl is a Girl is a Girl" in the locker room as if to convince themselves of this formerly self-evident truth. Of course, Billie must adhere to her "proper" gender norms by film's end. But until then, it's a delightful romp that begs to be on a double feature with another hardcore lesbian classic - Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953).

Tom Jones: D

Billie: A-minus

Not the similarity in the posters. 

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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Exile on Main St. turns 50!

The very first thing I ever did on the internet was search for lyrics - Wu-Tang Clan, to be precise, and like damn near every such adventure to this day, it did little to deepen my understanding or appreciation of the music. So despite Exile on Main St. occupying various positions (4-6) on my all-time top-10 list over the last thirty-plus years, I've never bothered to google the lyrics. In honor of its fiftieth birthday today, however, I played the Stones' best album while following along on Genius to figure out what one Michael Philip Jagger was on about. Granted, as a largely crowdsourced site with some of the most risible annotations since Cliff Notes, Genius is hardly infallible. And given that the band has never performed a good third of these songs live, it's likely that the only people on the planet who know the lyrics for certain are Rolling Stones Inc.'s lawyers. But reading them at last did indeed justify my love. 

One measure of how accessing lyrics has never been central to the Exile experience lies in the idiotic grin I sported when greeting its first two tracks. Precise wording wasn't going to make "Rocks Off" rock any harder and, as the punkiest blurt in their discography, "Rip This Joint" was always the most immediate track on this notoriously difficult-to-navigate album. But even after that one-two knockout, I still wasn't getting much from the words. The Slim Harpo cover "Shake Your Hips" represents Exile's dynamic-free strain. Along with "Turd on the Run," "I Just Want to See His Face," and, right, "Rip This Joint," "Shake Your Hips" is about maintenance not jouissance (e.g., the "what a beautiful buzz" money shot of "Loving Cup"), of a piece with such later milestones of buzz-brained constancy as The Feelies' Crazy Rhythms, Parquet Courts' "Sunbathing Animal," and acres of narcotic disco. "Casino Boogie" exemplifies the other strain, the one in which potential filler is rescued by the toughest song structures of their career - get-up-and-go codas, verses that slam out of druggy middle eights, Bobby Keys and Jim Price's horns reinforcing rhythmic shapes. Both strains instantiate the horizontal pull through the diseased thicket of the mix, combining to render the album's theme easy to hear rather than read - I get knocked down but I get up again, which is why Greil Marcus is only half correct when he opines in Mystery Train that “[t]he whole record was a breakdown, one long night of fear.” 

But it wasn't until side two that the lyrics began to amplify the theme: the "Sweet Black Angel" who keeps on pushing, the "just as long as the guitar plays" refrain of "Torn and Frayed," even taking just one drink from that "Loving Cup" before falling down drunk. He hasn't fallen down yet, though, available to shed his grace on thee for the penultimate track. As Lester Bangs put it, "Shine a Light" is “a visit to one or every one of the friends you finally know is not gonna pull through.” This is the one song where there may be no coming back from a breakdown. You're covered with so many flies they can't be brushed off. He talks about about angels, even thinks he can hear one sigh for you which might be a lie. But the gesture brings you solace. And hey - if you do pull through, there's always "Soul Survivor," Exile's greatest song which, as the album's last track, it must be. The woozy guitars introduce the song as if waking from a coma. But the music gets up once again. And it keeps getting up. After the last “gonna be the death of me,” the band stops for a moment and launches back into the track for the most kinetic moment in recording history, rocking out until the song fades out, as it must. You're never gonna keep 'em down. 

This is music of gargantuan charity. With the lyrics splayed out before me, I now hear Exile as a quite pop-like achievement - earnest, maybe even a bit corny, adjectives one rarely associates with the Stones. It epitomizes a line of Simon Frith's from Sound Effects I never tire of quoting: “The pop song banalities people pick up on are, in general, not illuminating but encouraging” (38). For Bangs' generation, a generation more than any other who expected their I's to resonate as we's, Exile encouraged the 1960s counterculture to keep on keepin' on in the midst of Nixon, Vietnam, and the inexorable force of capital. But it need not be wedded to that particular moment. In his lifelong crusade against solipsism, Bangs heard Exile as “an intense yearning to merge,” a yearning that will exist long after the early-1970s bummer party, as my fiend Whit Strub calls it, has been swept into the dustbins of history.

Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. (Rolling Stones, 1972): A+

Bangs' quotes taken from “I Only Get My Rocks Off When I’m Dreaming: So You Say You Missed the Stones Too? Cheer Up, We’re a Majority!” written for the January 1973 issue of Creem but anthologized in Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste

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Monday, May 02, 2022

Monthly Top Ten: April 2022

1. Tokyo Vice, "The Test"(Season 1, Episode 1, directed by Michael Mann) (HBO Max). This right here is why auteurism remains a vibrant force. The first episode was Mann's long-awaited return to directing and his trademark fluorescent-baked fractals ignited the living room. Why, oh why, was he not then tasked to direct the remaining episodes which are upholstered in designer ennui and point-and-shoot visuals?

2. Curtains. Lou Reed was right. I hate the sun. And the outdoors. I don't even want windows because that means people can look in on my saggy shapes. So it's curtains chez moi, thick, dark gray ones to maintain my Mac-cured skin tone. I view them as part of a continuum with two pinnacles of Western civilization that place curtains at their center: The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955) and the curtain lady at Quality Curtain Outlet.

3. Adrian Bliss (@adrianbliss on Instagram and TikTok). Where America's anti-intellectuals want to burn books, Brit Bliss dryly and hilariously asks questions of our master narratives such as where exactly did Noah unload all the animals from the ark, how did the Hansel and Gretel witch get someone to build her a house of gingerbread and sweets, and was there a lobster in the manger when Jesus was born?

4. Louis Theroux: "My Money Don’t Jiggle, Jiggle, It Folds (Duke & Jones Extended Version)". I honestly thought this was some John Cooper Clarke or Sleaford Mods type. But no, it's Theroux, matter-of-factly recalling a rap he made up. Duke & Jones (?) slapped a beat under it and voilà - a TikTok sensation. I love the new radio!

5. Calvin Harris: "Feels feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean" sped up. More TikTok radio! Many times now I've fallen in love with a song there only to discover that its BPMs have been tweaked. The original "Feels" is limp cod reggae. But the sped-up version feels like summertime.

6. NSFW! HotMovies.com. A porn VOD site to which I am eternally grateful because I found a copy of the ultra rare Take My Head (Robert Findlay, 1971) for sale as a digital file there! Terrible film. But check out the site for all your classic (and not-so-classic) porn needs.

7. Irina Ivanova, "Florida is the least affordable place to live in the U.S." CBS News, May 2, 2022. Helping a family member move to southwest Florida a few years ago, I kept hearing from people in neighboring towns that they moved to the area for cheaper living. So I'm stunned to learn how pricey living has gotten down there. "Miami's typical rent takes up a whopping 60% of a household's typical income. That figure is 45% in Tampa and 37% in Orlando. (Housing policy experts consider rents affordable at no more than 30% of pre-tax income.)" Yikes!

8. Jimmy McDonough, The Ghastly One: The 42nd Street Netherworld of Director Andy Milligan (FAB Press, 2022). The paperback edition of the glorious coffee table book on Milligan, the Fassbinder of 42nd Street, comes out in June. Preorder it now at the link above. I am proud to say that I had a hand in the canonization of this incredible director.

9. Loverboy: Get Lucky (Columbia, 1981). Odd-ass album. They were definitely trying to please Everyone. "It's Your Life" could pass for Talking Heads until the synth-prog middle eight. Trick your resident Stones fan into thinking that "Emotional" is a lost Jagger-Richards b-side. And my iTunes copy identifies some songs as "arena rock" and others as "dance-rock." Even odder, I somehow thought they went kaput after this. But freakin' "Working for the Weekend" went to only #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 AND THEN they scored their biggest hits with such seizable-at-customs items as "Lovin' Every Minute of It" (their biggest hit at #9), "This Could Be the Night" (#10), and "Heaven in Your Eyes" (#12). They were giving Diane Warren some serious competish at the jump of her career. How did this happen??

10. Loverboy: Loverboy (Columbia, 1980). Not sure why Chuck Eddy left this out of Stairway to Hell: The 500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe.* They rock most ersatzly, Xgau called them "pop metal," and they even had one foot in Hell, as per "Teenage Overdose"! It proceeds harmlessly enough until, like an idiot, you read the lyrics. The opener, "The Kid Is Hot Tonite," is bad enough. It rips on upcoming new wavers who are more concerned with image than career longevity. So defensive from the jump! Then, egads, I'm usually quick to give sexism a pass. But these loverboys write about little else beyond the perfidy of woman. In "Prissy Prissy" Mike Reno joins "twenty others" watching a gal who's "had too much abuse" and "running around being loose" (isn't that what Mikey wanted on "Turn Me Loose"?). He tells a "Little Girl" she's too little to fall in love but then wonders, "How can I make you love me?" And "D.O.A." is the pop-rock-metal-new-wave "Wild World." But the latter contains a genuinely great lyric that I assume warms the hearts of Canadians all over the diaspora: "You'll never find her in the U.S.A/All they got down here is liberty." Did Bruce Springsteen ever say it better? 

*The debut was included in the Afterthoughts section as one of several albums he wish he included in the book

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