Title: Men in Black Release Date: July 2, 1997 Director: Barry Sonnenfeld Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions Summary/Review:
Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more. The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it). The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth. The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together. This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).
I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.
Title: Ace in the Hole Release Date: June 14, 1951 Director: Billy Wilder Production Company: Paramount Pictures Summary/Review:
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), an arrogant and cynical reporter who has lost jobs at various big city newspapers, bullies his way into a job at an Albuquerque newspaper. His plan is to get “one big story” to launch him back into the big time. A year later, while on assignment, he stops for gas at a desert trading post and learns that the owner is trapped in a cave where he was looking for Native American artifacts. Tatum enters the cave to befriend and photograph the trapped Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). Outside the cave, Tatum takes control of the rescue operation manipulating everyone to maximize his “human interest” story.
Ace in the Hole is a not-at-all subtle satire of sensational news media and the general public who laps it up. It’s acidly funny and horrifying at the same time. Douglas puts in a particularly good performance shifting from self-aggrandizing and commanding to playing kind and sympathetic when talking with Leo. Jan Sterling plays Leo’s wife Loraine who wants nothing more than to leave Leo and New Mexico for good, but uses the literal carnival that grows around the trading post to profit. Ray Teal is the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer who allows Tatum exclusive access to Leo in return for positive news coverage for his re-election campaign. Tatum also acts as kind of a negative mentor for Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the young and idealistic newspaper photographer who gets sucked into Tatum’s plot.
Like all Billy Wilder films, Ace in the Hole is magnificently scripted with sparkling dialogue. It is also beautifully filmed and tightly edited, so there’s a lot of story in a short movie. Since I started investing a lot of time into watching classic film that past couple of years, I’ve been impressed by Wilder’s films, so I’m glad to add another one, even if Ace in the Hole isn’t quite as magnificent as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, or The Apartment.
Album: Get Up Sequences Part One Artist: The Go! Team Release Date: July 2, 2021 Label: Memphis Industries Favorite Tracks:
“Let the Seasons Work”
“Tame the Great Plains”
“World Remember Me Now”
Thoughts: The Go! Team haven’t been as good as they used to be for a while. Or perhaps, the remarkable sameness of their music is an indication that they are as good as they used to be, they just haven’t changed while the listeners have. Anyhow, The Go! Team is always fun to listen to as they cobble together from various sources, the weirder the better. I think I like this album better overall than its predecessor SEMICIRCLE. Rating: ***
Title: Letter from an Unknown Woman Release Date: April 28, 1948 Director: Max Ophüls Production Company: Rampart Productions Summary/Review:
Set in fin de siècle Vienna, this film begins with a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), receiving a letter from a unknown woman (clever, eh?). Oh, but he should know here because she is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who has loved him for years. Lisa’s voice reads the letter which doubles as the film’s narration going back to when she was a teenager and Stefan moved into a neighboring apartment. She falls for his music and then helplessly in love with him and keeps that flame going even when her mother remarries and they move to Linz.
Years later, Lisa finally meets Stefan and they have a romantic night that results in her pregnancy. Stefan disappears and Lisa eventually marries another man who agrees to raise her son. When Lisa and Stefan finally meet again, he doesn’t remember her at all. Oh, it is all so tragic.
There are things I like about this movie. It’s beautiful filmed with the flowing camera movement that Max Ophüls would go on to use so well in Madame de… The set design is also excellent. I really like the Vienna apartments that are all wound together and the use of snow on the ground is impressive. And I always like Fontaine as she is excellent at playing characters who are uncertain and anxious, yet determined (and also rather foolish in their selection of romantic interests). But overall this movie is heavily melodramatic and rather boring. I guess this story of unrequited love is just not for me.
Title: The Color of Pomegranates Release Date: 1969 Director: Sergei Parajanov Production Company: Armenfilm Summary/Review: This art film made in Soviet Armenia tells the story of a poet named Sayat-Nova. This is not your typical biopic. The effort is made to tell the story of a poet through visual poetry rather than conventional narrative. The film has very little dialogue and is structured as a series of tableaus. The camera is pointed straight on at people posing and holding or manipulating objects. A lot of these objects have symbolic significance although I don’t have the knowledge of what they mean. It’s almost as if one is watching a series of memes from a culture you know nothing about. Nevertheless, the film has a lot of striking imagery. It also has a lot of horses with a strange canter, chickens, and sheep. So many sheep. I know the counterculture is not likely to have made inroads in Soviet Armenia in 1969 but this movie does feel awfully trippy.
Rating: I have no rational basis on which to rate this as a film
Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Release Date: June 22, 1988 Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director) Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners Summary/Review:
I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts. When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed. I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.
Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done. I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways. The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.
This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art). There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part. And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.
I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger. Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate. I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.
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: Love Album: Forever Changes Year: 1967 Label: Elektra 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?: No Favorite Tracks:
“Alone Again Or”
Thoughts: This is one of those bands I thought I knew absolutely nothing about. But the opening track – “Alone Again Or” – seems extremely familiar. According to Wikipedia, it was used in a key scene in the tv series Russian Doll, but I expect I’ve heard it elsewhere. It oddly sounds like something by an indie band from 20 years ago than from 1967. Other tracks on the album have that baroque pop and psychedelic feel more common to the era. In fact, the album could be the cast recording of a late 60s Broadway musical from an alternate universe.
Artist: Notorious B.I.G Album: Life After Death Year: 1997 Label: Bad Boy 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:
“Ten Crack Commandments”
Thoughts: In 2004, I visited England with my friend Anthony. On our last night in London, we decided to just board the next bus that came by and see where it went. On the upper deck, a group of young men were blasting music from a boom box. A group of young women sat in the front row dancing in front of the window. Anthony, being the more talkative of the two of us, struck up a conversation with the double-decker DJs. When they learned that we were American they insisted on playing Biggie Smalls in our honor. No matter our country’s flaws, I always appreciate that American music is loved around the world. Granted my experience as an American is very different from that of Christopher Wallace. The album captures a world where worldly possessions and pleasures must be enjoyed while you can and where rap beefs turn deadly. The guests artists on this album are also an all-star team of 90s hip hop.
Artist: Otis Redding Album: Otis Blue Year: 1965 Label: Volt 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:
“Ole Man Trouble”
“A Change Is Gonna Come”
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”
“Rock Me Baby”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
Thoughts: Otis Blue has so many great songs on it that it could be mistaken for a greatest hits collection. Otis Redding originals like “Respect” (later to become Aretha Franklin’s signature tune) and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” are mixed with covers of “A Change Is Gonna Come” and two other Sam Cooke songs, The Temptations’ “My Girl,” and a version of “Satisfaction” that Keith Richards found to be an improvement on his own. Through Otis Redding’s skills as an interpreter of songs, Otis Blue is basically a compendium of mid-60s soul music.
Artist: Rod Stewart Album: Every Picture Tells a Story Year: 1971 Label: Mercury 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:
“Every Picture Tells a Story”
“Tomorrow is a Long Time”
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”
Thoughts: When I was a kid, one of the signs of summer was a new hit song from Rod Stewart. From the late 70s to mid-80s, Stewart followed the trends from disco to New Wave to overproduced r&b, and those songs always seemed to be playing on the radio as we drove to the pool or the amusement park. Anyhow, this album is from much earlier in Stewart’s career and contain the type of songs that I didn’t hear until listening to classic rock radio in the late 80s. Ever the chameleon, the early version of Stewart performs bluesy roots rock. Having never been all too impressed by Rod Stewart, I’m surprised that I like this album a lot more than I expected.
Artist: Public Enemy Album: Fear of a Black Planet Year: 1990 Label: Def Jam/Columbia 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:
“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”
“911 Is A Joke”
“Welcome To The Terrordome”
“Fear Of A Black Planet”
“Fight the Power”
Thoughts: I received a copy of this tape for Christmas in 1990. In the summer of that year I first heard and been awed by the “wall of sound” behind “Welcome to the Terrordome” which I still think of one of the greatest works of production and rap performance. Then there’s “911 Is A Joke” which anticipated a widespread Defund the Police movement by only a few decades. The album closes with the ultimate anthem, “Fight the Power,” from the 1989’s Do the Right Thing.
Note: while I typically try to share a song from the album, this remake of “Welcome to the Terrordome” accompanied by electric guitars is too awesome not to post.
Artist: Kendrick Lamar Album: DAMN Year: 2017 Label: TDE 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?: I feel I ought to, even though I didn’t love it Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: You will no doubt not be surprised that like most hip hop artists from the last 30 years, I have not listened to Kendrick Lamar before. I liked the concept behind this album where Lamar reflects on his desires to do good and bad, his relationship with God, his success, sex, and his fears all in the shadow of Trump’s election to President. The single word titles work well as jumping off points. And the tracks have some great beats!
Artist: Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists Album: The Harder They Come: Original Soundtrack Year: 1972 Label: Mango 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 Can Get It If You Really Want” – Jimmy Cliff
“Rivers of Babylon” – The Melodians
“The Harder They Come” – Jimmy Cliff
“007 (Shanty Town)” – Desmond Dekker
“Pressure Drop” – Toots & the Maytals
“Sitting in Limbo” – Jimmy Cliff
Thoughts: Was there really a time when reggae was unknown in the United States? I guess this soundtrack album made it hard to ignore. While I’d never before listened to this album end to end, the songs it contains are so iconic that I’d heard them all many times before. Half of the tracks are some of the best work of Jimmy Cliff while “various artists” including the legendary Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker fill out the rest of the album.
Artist: Nirvana Album: In Utero Year: 1993 Label: Geffen 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 never disliked Nirvana but I also wasn’t a big fan during the band’s short but brilliant career, despite the fact that it coincided with my college years. Still, listening to this music now it’s hard not to hear the soundtrack of my generation. And yet these songs also have a timeless quality to them, not unlike a lot of the Beatles’ best work. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate Kurt Cobain and Nirvana a lot more than I did at the time.
Artist: Simon and Garfunkel Album: Bridge Over Troubled Water Year: 1970 Label: Columbia 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:
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
Thoughts: Simon & Garfunkel went out with a bang, their final studio album packed with hits. This includes the title track which has become something of a standard of popular music. There’s quite a variety of styles on this album too, with “El Condor Pasa” and “Cecelia” showing the beginnings of Paul Simon’s “World Beat” fusion. Then there is “The Only Living Boy in New York” which is among my favorite songs of all time.
Artist: Sonic Youth Album: Daydream Nation Year: 1988 Label: Enigma 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:
“Teen Age Riot”
Thoughts: Sonic Youth is a band that was discussed among the DJs at my college radio station and the other cool kids, but they’re yet another band that I didn’t get around to listening to at the time. It’s a shame because this is music that I’d like to have memories of instead of coming to it later in life.
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: Les Visiteurs Release Date: 27 January 1993 Director: Jean-Marie Poiré Production Company: Gaumont Summary/Review:
I watched the hit French comedy The Visitors back in the 1990s and remember it being a funny, Monty Python-style comedy. It surprised me that the French could be so crude. The story involves a 12th-century knight, Godefroy de Montmirail (Jean Reno) and his servant Jacquouille la Fripouille (Christian Clavier) who through the machinations of a wizard are to travel through time to right a mistake. They are accidentally sent to late-20th century France instead, where they meet Godefroy’s descendant Béatrice (Valérie Lemercier) and learn that Jacquouille’s descendant Jacques-Henri Jacquard (also Clavier) now runs the Montmirail castle as a hotel. Chaos ensues as Godefroy looks for a way to return to his time, while Jacquouille begins to like the opportunities for a peasant in post-Revolutionary France.
This movie is not the laugh riot I remember. If anything, it seems to lack ambition for telling a bigger story and taking advantage of the culture clash and fish-out-of-water elements for comedy. Instead there are a lot of gags involving people hitting other people and breaking things, which gets old fast. I don’t know why I liked it so much all those years ago, but it still does have certain charm. Reno is great at never breaking from his serious character despite all the madness around him. Meanwhile Clavier is like Rowan Atkinson in his ability to be funny by doing things that are very dumb. It’s a mystery why this movie became such a global hit, but despite all its flaws I still have a soft spot for The Visitors.
Author: Rutger Bregman Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History Narrator: Thomas Judd Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020) Summary/Review:
The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions. Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness. Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies. It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.
Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese. After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.
After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results. Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.
This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.
Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”