Title: The French Connection Release Date: October 7, 1971 Director: William Friedkin Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions Summary/Review:
In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes. 15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it. But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman). In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.
Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension. There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle. All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him. I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.
The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs. Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child. It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background. Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it. By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.
I think I need to pare down the podcasts I subscribe to, because I don’t have a time to listen to all of them much less write about them. If you’re a podcast creator and churning out multiple episodes per week and making them longer than ever, do me a favor and ease up!
On this podcast we go on a paddling journey along some of the Commonwealth’s hidden and historical waterways. As an added bonus, the host calls out Panorama of the Mountains and the fact that I listen to way too many podcasts.
Despite being a vegetarian much of my life, I’ve long had respect for hunters. People who hunt tend to be conservationists and have reverence for animals that people who just buy their meat packaged at the store don’t have. This podcast deals with the complicated intersection of hunters and conservation of some of the earth’s most endangered species.
This season of Slow Burn deals with the decisions made leading to the U.S.-lead invasion of Iraq. This episode is informative and infuriating as it deals with the elected members of each party who put politics ahead of intelligence in justifying the call for war.
An examination of chord progressions that make up many of the most famous songs in popular music. Also, did you know that the ubiquitous Pachelbel’s Canon was virtually unknown until just over 50 years ago?
Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021
Author: Rick Riordan Title:The Sea of Monsters: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2 Narrator: Jesse Bernstein Publication Info: [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2006. Previously Read by the Same Author: The Lightning Thief Summary/Review:
The second book of ancient Greek mythology adapted as American teenager adventure and drama is just as it’s fun as its predecessor. In this book, Percy and his friends have to travel to the Sea of Monsters (now in the Bermuda Triangle) to rescue Grover and find the Golden Fleece. Adventures include dodgeball with cannibal giants, a ship full of dead Confederates, escaping Circe with the help of Blackbeard’s pirates, and Grover trying to escape marrying the cyclops Polyphemus. This book also introduces the dim but brave and kind Tyson, one of my favorite characters in the series.
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.
Artist: Wire Album: Pink Flag Year: 1977 Label: Harvest Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: No Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: In the heady days of the early 90s Alternative Rock explosion, I remember seeing the band name Wire while DJ’ing at my college radio station. I didn’t know until now that they were a band that stretched all the way back to the 1970s Punk explosion. Either way, I haven’t listened to Wire up until now, and I missed out. For a UK band they sound more like an American punk band of the 70s than, say, the Sex Pistols or The Clash, and for an album released in 1977 it still wouldn’t sound out of place in the early 90s. I guess that’s why it’s classified as “Influential.”
Artist: Joy Division Album: Closer Year: 1980 Label: Factory 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:
“A Means to an End”
“Heart and Soul”
Thoughts: In the band’s short career, Joy Division released two albums. Joy Division also has two albums on the Rolling Stone 500. I’m not sure if any other band has achieved the feat of having all their albums on the list, but I’m happy for Joy Division, whose members often weren’t happy. This album was released two months after band leader Ian Curtis died by suicide after struggling with epilepsy and depression. It’s a brilliant album despite coming through such suffering.
Artist: Brian Eno Album: Here Come the Warm Jets Year: 1974 Label: Island Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Only from listening to Another Green World three weeks ago Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“Needles in the Camel’s Eye”
“On Some Faraway Beach”
“Here Come the Warm Jets”
Thoughts: As I noted in a previous entry, I was only familiar with Brian Eno’s work as a producer before listening to Another Green World, the first of two Eno albums on the RS 500. This album redefines “music from 1974” for me and in a good way. At the base it’s Bowie-esque glam rock, but there’s a whole lot of weird stuff layered on top from Beatles-esque harmonies to atmospheric drones.
Artist: Sam Cooke Album: Portrait of a Legend Year: 2003 Label: ABKCO 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:
“You Send Me”
“What a Wonderful World”
“Bring it on Home to Me”
“Twistin’ the Night Away”
“Having a Party”
“A Change is Gonna Come”
“Jesus Gave Me Water’
Thoughts: Sam Cooke has been one of my favorite singers since childhood when I heard his music on the oldies stations my parents listened to in the car. We also had The Best of Sam Cooke, a smaller compilation album from 1962, at home and as a teenager I copied the LP onto tape and listened to it a lot. Cooke’s voice sounds good even with record crackles and tape hiss. Also as a teenager, I learned about “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song not on on that compilation, from a Rolling Stone list of greatest songs of all time. Having recently watched One Night in Miami…, this is the perfect time to listen to this excellent compendium of Cooke’s career.
Artist: Al Green Album: I’m Still in Love With You Year: 1972 Label: Hi 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:
“I’m Still In Love With You”
“I’m Glad You’re Mine”
“Love and Happiness”
“One of These Good Old Days”
Thoughts: What a treat it is to listen to two of the greatest soul music vocalists sequentially like this. To borrow a song title, this album is “Simply Beautiful.”
Artist: Kiss Album: Alive Year: 1975 Label: Casablanca 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: Not a one. Thoughts: The good trend couldn’t last. I remember Kiss as a presence in my early childhood, mostly because their makeup and leather & studs get-up grabbed attention. As a kid, I found Kiss alternately scary and funny. But honestly, before today I couldn’t tell you if I ever heard an actual Kiss song. It’s definitely a case of a band where image precedes everything else. It sounds pretty much as expected though, extremely campy hard-rock/proto-Metal with lots of guitar solos. Basically the music that people who grew up to become MAGAs listened to when they weren’t chanting “Disco Sucks!”
Artist: Bill Withers Album: Just As I Am Year: 1971 Label: Sussex 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:
“Ain’t No Sunshine”
Thoughts: Aah…back to the more sonically pleasant sounds of 70s soul. The RS500 list contains two Withers’ albums that feel like greatest hits compilations without being greatest hits compilations. This album has a folk-music feel with many story songs about everyday people. It also includes my all-time favorite Withers’ track “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Artist: ABBA Album: The Definitive Collection Year: 2001 Label: Universal Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: All too well Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Favorite Tracks:
“Take a Chance on Me”
“The Winner Takes It All”
Thoughts: There are two sides to the 70s bombastic, over-the-top, theatrical era of music. One side is Kiss, the other is ABBA. ABBA is kind of silly, but I have a grudging respect for them. Their songs certainly have staying power, spawning a Broadway musical and two movie spinoffs that people seem to love. And it’s irresistible to sing along with their best work.
Artist: Neil Young Album: Tonight’s the Night Year: 1975 Label: Reprise 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:
“Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown”
Thoughts: Based on the album title and cover photo, I feared this was Neil Young’s tribute album to Rod Stewart. Thankfully that is not the case, although the truth is much darker. This album is Young’s outpouring of grief over the death of two friends.
Artist: New York Dolls Album: New York Dolls Year: 1973 Label: Mercury 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:
Thoughts: I once saw David Johansen past within a few feet of me on Coney Island’s Boardwalk. That’s my main connection with the New York Dolls, one of the earliest bands credited with creating punk rock. Can’t argue with this album’s enshrinement as a rock & roll classic and a relic of the sleazy 70s.
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?
430. Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True
429. The Four Tops, Reach Out
428. Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising
427. Al Green, Call Me
426. Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams
425. Paul Simon, Paul Simon
424. Beck, Odelay
423. Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One
Title: One Night in Miami… Release Date: December 25, 2020 Director: Regina King Production Company: ABKCO | Snoot Entertainment | Germano Studios | Hit Factory | Capital Studios Summary/Review:
On February 25, 1964, four of the most famous Black American of the 1960s met in Miami following a heavyweight title bout: Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who had just won the heavyweight title and would later be known as Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The meeting really occurred, and this film depicts what they might have talked about.
Each of the characters is struggling with something. Malcolm X is planning to leave the Nation of Islam and start his organization (and hoping to bring Cassius with him), Clay is planning to publicly announce his conversion to Islam but also doesn’t seem ready to put drinking and philandering behind him, Cooke is still smarting over bombing in front of an all-white audience at the Copacabana, and Brown is considering leaving the NFL to star in movies. The main conflict of the film is between Malcolm X and Cooke, over whether Cooke is pandering to white audiences (Malcom’s view) or establishing economic independence for Black artists (Cooke’s view).
The movie is great in showing these four men who are larger than life in their public personas having moments of intimacy and vulnerability. There’s also some great humor. Who knew that Malcolm X’s idea of a party involved eating vanilla ice cream? All four of the actors are phenomenal in their roles and should’ve shared a Best Actor award.
The film is based on a play of the same name by Kemp Powers, and Regina King’s direction of the film retains a lot of theatricality which I think works to the films advantage. Kemp also plays around with the timeline in the script and in his screenplay adaptation, so it can be a bit frustrating if you know history to hear the characters referring to things that hadn’t happened yet and ignoring things that did. But it’s important to understand that Kemp is using these real life characters in a fictionalized account to depict different aspects of being Black in America.
Title: Aliens Release Date: July 18, 1986 Director: James Cameron Production Company: Brandywine Productions Summary/Review:
In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood. Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste? Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.
As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs. Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.
Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen. It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film. It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.
It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure. Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film. Bad things happen. And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs. Game over, man!
Title: Alien Release Date: May 25, 1979 Director: Ridley Scott Production Company: Brandywine Productions Summary/Review:
At its heart, Alien is a very simple story. The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet. They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way). The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one. Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.
The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control. In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story. The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.
The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors. In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy. Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff. Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film. And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened. Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.
When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien. I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens. I may have only watched it twice before. I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece. It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.
Title: Summerland Release Date: July 31, 2020 Director: Jessica Swale Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films Summary/Review:
Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology. She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch. To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her. Hijinks ensue.
This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty). But this movie has a few twists. Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond. Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.
There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie. Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.
Title: Star Trek: Discovery Release Date: 2021 Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman Season: 1 Episodes: 15 Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios Summary/Review: As a long time fan of the Star Trek original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all their spinoff films, I’ve been eager to watch this newest Star Trek universe series. My feelings after viewing the first season are mixed. The show veers away from the Gene Roddenberry rules into darker territory than previous series, but it also has a tendency toward ludicrous plot twists over effective storytelling. Keeping in line with 21st-century television, Discovery is a serialized program as opposed to the mostly stand-alone episodic approach of its predecessors.
Unlike other Star Trek shows which centered on the captain, the main character of this show is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, who was great in The Walking Dead), a science specialist on the U.S.S. Enterprise. She is a human who was orphaned in a Klingon attack as a child and raised as the ward of the Vulcan Sarek (James Frain), essentially making her Spock’s adopted sister. As the series begins, she is a first officer being groomed to be a captain, but convinced that the Federation must make a preemptive attack on the Klingon Empire, she attempts a mutiny and is busted down to the lowest levels.
The first half of the season deals with Burnhams attempted mutiny, the start of the Federation-Klingon War, and Burnham’s recruitment to the Discovery by the eccentric military captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs of Lucius Malfoy fame but with an American accent). The early episodes are hit and miss but I think do a good job of establishing Burnham and her regrets and hopes for redemption while also introducing the rest of the characters. It also shows some developments of an experimental technology on the Discovery, the spore drive. Basically it uses a galaxy-wide mycelial network (yes, space fungi!) to jump to different places in space. It sounds weird, but then again, so were dilithium crystals.
The second half of the season is set primarily in the Mirror Universe, a plot device going back to the original series of an alternate universe where everyone has evil duplicates. Unfortunately this half of the season is pretty much mediocre as the creators indulge their desire to make the show “gritty and dark.” There’s a definite influence of the 2000s Battlestar Galactica without that show’s gravitas. The second half of the season also has multiple characters being revealed as not who they were, but not in very effective ways. It feels like the twists were thought up first and then the stories were filled in later. Thankfully, the final episode builds on the hope on optimism that is the corner of Star Trek storytelling and gives me hope for future seasons.
The show is set ten years before the beginning of the original series making Discovery essentially a prequel. There’s wisdom in this as it appears the creators wanted to tell a war story and why not have the Klingons as antagonists rather than creating a new villain, albeit I don’t think they ultimately used the Klingons to their best storytelling potential. Despite the earlier time period, the crew of Discovery have access to more advanced technology than in earlier shows. I’m mostly fine with this, because the 1960s Star Trek did their best to show future technology with the special effects available at the time, so there’s no reason the 2010s show shouldn’t do the same. Ultimately, though, they are going to have to explain why the spore drive doesn’t replace the warp drive by the time of The Next Generation.
The best part of the show so far is its characters. In addition Martin-Green, the show’s main cast includes:
Doug Jones (creature specialist of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Waterfame) as Saru, who is of a rare species known as Kelpien, serves as the first officer, and is the conscience of the ship. He’s my favorite character thus far.
Mary Wiseman plays Sylvia Tilly, Burnham’s roommate who is nerdy and socially awkward, but nonetheless highly-skilled and ambitious. She’s my second favorite character.
Shazad Latif plays Ash Tyler, who is rescued from a Klingon jail by Captain Lorca, appointed security chief, and becomes a romantic interest of sorts for Burnham.
Anthony Rapp plays the sometimes crotchety/sometimes goofy chief engineer Paul Stamets who develops and maintains the spore drive.
Wilson Cruz plays Hugh Culber, the ship’s medical officer, and Stamets’ husband, and is the more sensible of the couple.
Michelle Yeoh has a recurring role as starship Captain Philippa Geourgiu who is Burnham’s mentor.
Due to the aforementioned twists, it appears that several of the characters will not be appearing in future seasons, although none of their endings are written in stone. I’ll find out soon.