Classic Movie Review: The Wind (1928)


TitleThe Wind
Release Date:November 23, 1928
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Silent film star Lillian Gish made starred in her last silent film as a young woman named Letty Mason, who travels west to live with a cousin who is like a brother, Beverly (Edward Earle).  All is not well in Sweetwater, Texas, though, as two ranchers want marry Letty, the creepy cattle buyer Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) pursues her relentlessly, and Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) is jealous of her.  Worst of all, the relentless wind torments poor Letty.

This movie is a straight-up melodrama to the point where I expected Gish to grab her heart and proclaim “I can’t pay the rent!” Having seen some other late-era silent films, I also don’t think the movie is particularly technically innovative, either. Mostly it’s a movie made on powerful wind machines and Gish flailing around like she’s on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The best sequence is toward the end when in a fever dream Letty deals with the worst wind storm yet and the threat of sexual assault.  But it’s too little, too late in a movie that’s largely Hollywood hokum.

An interesting side note, much later in life, director Victor Sjöström starred in Wild Strawberries.

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 26


AirSpace :: Nicotine Stain

How flight attendants lead the fight against public smoking and raising awareness of the danger of second-hand smoke

Consider This :: Optimism About Case Rates, Vaccines, And Future Of The Pandemic

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Judas and the Black Messiah

This podcast series ties into the new film about Fred Hampton and explores the Black Panther leader’s life with interviews with people who knew him, as well as behind the scenes of making the movie.

99% Invisible : The Batman and the Bridge Builder

The story of how the design of a bridge in Austin, Texas lead to it becoming a center of bat conservation (featuring bat scientist Merlin Tuttle).

Throughline :: Remembering Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the March on Washington

The life of Bayard Rustin, a pioneering activist of nonviolence in the American Civil Rights and labor movements.

Up First :: Christian Nationalism & Disinformation

How white evangelical churches perpetuate the ideology that led to the Capitol Insurrection.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Music Discoveries: Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time 440-431


Last September, Rolling Stone magazine released their most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which includes a greater variety of artists and genres than previous lists. Looking through the list, there were many albums I’d never listened to before and a few I’d never even heard of. In fact, counting it up, I found that I’d only listened to 140 of the albums, although I’d heard songs from many more. So I’ve decided my project for 2021 is to listen to 10 albums each week and write up some thoughts about each one.

Previous Posts:

Artist: Loretta Lynn
Album: Coal Miner’s Daughter
Year: 1971
Label: Decca
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
  • “What Makes Me Tick”

Thoughts: Since my mother was a coal miner’s daughter, and I am the grandson/great-grandson of a coal miner (or at least a coal cracker), the title track has always resonated, even if my own family experience is very different.  The rest of the album are almost entirely songs about cheating, or being cheated on, but Lynn’s voice makes them all sound lovely.


Artist: James Brown
Album: Sex Machine
Year: 1970
Label: King
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Sex Machine”
  • “I Got The Feelin'”
  • “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose (Undubbed Mix)”
  • “Please, Please, Please”
  • “Mother Popcorn”

Thoughts: The title track of this album as long been a favorite of mine.  Turns out that this is a different, slower version of “Sex Machine” than I’m familiar with.  The album consists of a portion that Brown recorded with one backing band (including Bootsy and Catfish Collins) that he had produced with sound effects that make it sound like it was recorded in front of a live audience.  The other portion of the album is an actual concert performance with a different band from James Brown’s hometown of August, GA in 1969.  Both performances are blistering and blend together well.


Artist: Blur
Album: Parklife
Year: 1994
Label: Food
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?:
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Girls and Boys”
  • “Parklife”

Thoughts: Back in the 90s, I somehow got it into my head that Blur was another generic grunge band and didn’t give them much attention. This impression was probably due to the ubiquity of “Song 2” – admittedly great rally music in a hockey arena – but not representative of their work.  Instead, Blur are a pop band with with clever story songs in the tradition of The Kinks.  Despite learning this, I still hadn’t gotten around to giving Blur a fair listen (much like I haven’t done with The Kinks). It makes me question my poor decision-making skills in the 1990s regarding what I did and did not listen to. The only song I was familiar with is “Girls and Boys,” which I hated back in the 90s, but now I think it really slaps.


Artist: Primal Scream
Album: Screamadelica
Year: 1991
Label: Sire
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?:
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Slip Inside This House”
  • “Don’t Fight It, Feel It”
  • “Come Together”
  • “Loaded”

Thoughts: Scottish band Primal Scream kind of sound like if by the 90s the Rolling Stones had evolved to sound like an alt-rock band that took a great interest in the acid house scene.  Primal Scream were, of course, an alt-rock band that took a great interest in the acid house scene, and this album creates an undefinable mish-mash of 90s rock, funk, disco, psychedelia, and Madchester bands.  I’ve written about the song “Loaded” before on this blog, and I was familiar with some of the other songs, but overall listening to this album all the way through for the first time is a revelation I waited 30 years too long to have.


Artist: 2Pac
AlbumAll Eyez on Me
Year: Death Row
Label: 1996
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes, a little
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Heartz of Men”
  • “Life Goes On”
  • “Only God Can Judge Me”

Thoughts: As I’ve noted previously in this column, I did not pay much attention to rap and hip hop in the 1990s.  Nevertheless, I remember feeling sad when I learned about the murder of Tupac Shakur. From what little I knew about Shakur, he struck me as a talented and thoughtful young man who died way too young. Despite, 90s rap being in my blind spot, I was still surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of the tracks on this album. I didn’t enjoy listening to the songs with lyrics about “bitches” and “hos” and the celebration “thug life” and the n-world sprinkled liberally about. Nevertheless, I could still see the genius and conscience of Tupac Shakur shine throw on a number of tracks.


Artist: Pet Shop Boys
AlbumActually
Year: 1987
Label: EMI Manhattan
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
  • “It’s a Sin”

Thoughts: The Pet Shop Boys are an odd duck, a duo who made music unlike anything else at their time. You got a pair of men who look and sound bored all the time, singing wry satire about the failures of the Thatcher/Reagan era, over danceable synthpop.  And all those pieces work together.

Somehow, I was never aware until now that Dusty Springfield is the guest artist on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” Did I know who Dusty Springfield was when I was 13? I do know that as a Catholic school boy the imagery of “It’s a Sin” made me laugh, and also made me feel guilty about polishing off a carton of Breyer’s mint chocolate chip.


Artist: Pavement
Album: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Year: 1994
Label: Matador
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks: none

Thoughts: Prior to now, the only Pavement album I’d listened to before is Slanted & Enchanted,  which I liked well enough but wouldn’t consider it a favorite. This album strikes as me as sound like very generic 90s rock.  While Pavement is not a post-grunge band, I would consider their work on this album adjacent to a mid-to-late 90s genre I call “boring rock.” That is to say, it’s not bad, it’s just not very interesting.


Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Album: Sound of Silver
Year: 2007
Label: DFA/Capitol
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Get Innocuous!”
  • “North American Scum”
  • “Us V Them”
  • “Watch the Tapes”

Thoughts:  I’ve always liked LCD Soundsytem although I don’t think I’ve listened to a full album before. The album branches out beyond the definitive electronic music sounds LCD Soundsystem to punk, indie rock, and even a bit of folk. I also love the humor of the lyrics such as the title track “Sound of silver talk to me /Makes you want to feel like a teenager / Until you remember the feelings of / A real life emotional teenager / Then you think again.” Although maybe that’s not funny enough to be repeated the entire song.


Artist: Usher
AlbumConfessions
Year: 2004
Label: Arista
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Not intentionally
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Yeah!”

Thoughts: So, after years of hearing the song in the ether I finally found out that THAT song, which is “Yeah! (feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris),” is by Usher. It’s nice to put 2 and 2 together at last.  The rest of this album is down- and mid-tempo contemporary R&B with Usher crooning over the beats.  Too mellow for my tastes.


Artist: Los Lobos
AlbumHow Will the Wolf Survive?
Year: 1984
Label: Slash/Warner Bros.
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: Yes
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Don’t Worry Baby”
  • “A Matter of Time”
  • “Corrido #1”
  • “Will the Wolf Survive?”

Thoughts:  This is an album I’ve listened to before and liked but didn’t love.  Listening again I found myself enjoying the blues rock and tejano sounds mixed into a solid collection of 1980s rock & roll.  Los Lobos, a Mexican-American band from Los Angeles, made a big splash in Reagan’s America, which is as an impressive an accomplishment as this delightful album.


 

Running List of Albums I’d Listen to Again

  • 500. Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • 498. Suicide, Suicide
  • 497. Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
  • 494. The Ronettes, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes
  • 489. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector from Phil Spector and Various Artists, Back to Mono (1958-1969)
  • 487. Black Flag, Damaged
  • 485, Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  • 483, Muddy Waters, The Anthology
  • 482, The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
  • 481, Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister
  • 478, The Kinks, Something Else by the Kinks
  • 477, Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight
  • 469, Manu Chao, Clandestino
  • 465, King Sunny Adé, The Best of the Classic Years
  • 464, The Isley Brothers, 3 + 3
  • 462, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin
  • 459, Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day
  • 457, Sinéad O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
  • 456, Al Green, Greatest Hits
  • 455, Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley
  • 453, Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine
  • 452, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Anthology
  • 451, Roberta Flack, First Take
  • 448, Otis Redding, Dictionary of Soul
  • 446, Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidanada
  • 444, Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
  • 443, David Bowie, Scary Monsters
  • 440, Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter
  • 439, James Brown, Sex Machine
  • 438, Blur, Parklife
  • 437, Primal Scream, Screamadelica
  • 435, Pet Shop Boys, Actually
  • 433, LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
  • 431, Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive?

Classic Movie Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)


Title: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Release Date: December 29, 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
Production Company:  Werner Herzog Filmproduktion | Hessischer Rundfunk
Summary/Review:

This the first narrative film by Herzog that I’ve watched, and it is as bleak as his reputation.  It tells the story of Spanish conquistadors in 1560 traveling through the Andes in search of the legendary city of El Dorado.  Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the second in command of a scouting party sent down a river on four rafts.  Kinski portrays Aguirre not only as ambitious but so literally drunk on power that he staggers when he walks.

The movie features some startling shots, including the introduction when hundreds of soldiers, enslaved indigenous people, and two women (carried in sedan chairs) process in a long line on a muddy mountain trail.  It was filmed on location and must’ve required dozens of extras but it’s an impressive scene and serves also to introduce all the main characters.

The sight of armored Spanish soldiers bearing swords and guns against the wilderness is a great satire, because nothing is going to protect them from nature.  Of course the indigenous people are also a threat, but its more likely that the Spaniards will enslave them or kill them for unknowing acts of blasphemy.  Ultimately, though, the greatest threat to the party is one another as power and greed turns them against each other.

It’s a grim film, but an honest depiction of colonialism, exploitation, and in humanity.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: The Fellowship of the Ring
Publication Info: George Allen & Unwin, 1954
Summary/Review:

I read this book aloud (along with my wife) to my daughter for the first time.  It’s still a classic, imaginative adventure that I remember.  Although there are some slow and boring parts when reading to a 9-year-old.  You begin to notice how tedious the lists of names and places and the songs and poems are when you’re reading aloud.  Nevertheless, we had a good time reading it and are looking for to the more action-oriented The Two Towers next.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)


Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Release Date: May 25, 1966
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Cinema Ventures
Summary/Review:

It’s a movie about the life of donkey, this should be sweet and light!  Or not.  Au Hasard Balthazar needs content warnings not just for animal cruelty but for the repeated abuse and sexual assault of a woman.  That woman is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), one of the children in a rural village in the Pyrenees who baptizes the young donkey Balthazar in the opening scene.

Years pass by and as Balthazar is passed from cruel owner to cruel owner, the teenaged Marie is the main human protagonist and one of the few people who are kind and affectionate to the donkey. Unfortunately for Marie, she’s only able to find escape from her constricted life in an abusive relationship with the film’s main antagonist, the smug and evil criminal Gérard (François Lafarge).

While I don’t believe that movies need a “Hollywood ending,” I also don’t understand why so many “great films” have to be unbearably bleak.  There is no humor or humanity anywhere in this film.  Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review of this movie, and I totally agree that Balthazar’s story is designed to elicit empathy.  I don’t agree with how Breeson handles the human actors who’s dialogue often sounds stilted and as if they’re reciting philosophical treatise.  The way Breeson constructs Marie’s story is basically torture porn (not surprisingly 65-year-old Breeson was sexually pursuing  the 18-year-old Wiazemsky behind-the-scenes) and borderline misogynistic.

Maybe this isn’t a “bad movie” by definition, but it makes me feel bad and I don’t like it.

Rating: **

Album Review: Three Little Words by Dominique Fils-Aime


Album: Three Little Words
Artist: Dominique Fils-Aime
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Label: Ensoul Records
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: Dominique Fils-Aimé, a vocalist from Quebec, explores the sounds of soul music with hints of jazz on her third album.  The songs draw on influences from Do-Wop and classic Motown to more recent performers like Amy Winehouse.  Lyrically the songs celebrate Black history and music and the ongoing struggle for liberation. Everything seems to be arranged and produced to perfection.  Really the only flaw to the album is that it ends with an unnecessary cover of “Stand By Me.” If you like beautiful vocals and souljazz arrangements, this album is for you.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Good Woman by The Staves


AlbumGood Woman
Artist: The Staves
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Label: Atlantic
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Good Woman”
  • “Nothing’s Gonna Happen”
  • “Trying”

Thoughts:

The English folk trio of sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor provide beautiful, close harmonies on this set of tunes.  But the sweetness of the songs does not prevent them from singing lyrics of defiance

Rating: ***

Album Review: Tell Me I’m Bad by Editrix


 

AlbumTell Me I’m Bad
Artist: Editrix
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Label: Exploding in Sound Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Tell Me I’m Bad”
  • “Chelsea”
  • “She Wants to Go and Party”

Thoughts: The Western Massachusetts trio Editrix combines sweet singsong vocals over shredding guitar. Both the vocals and guitar are provided by Wendy Eisenberg, while Steve Cameron plays bass and Josh Daniel plays drums.  The great punk/indie rock melodies support lyrics that are often political but also humorous.  I found a great piece online that breaks down each song, something I’d love to see more of: https://www.talkhouse.com/a-guide-to-editrixs-tell-me-im-bad/

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****