Title: Synecdoche, New York Release Date: October 24, 2008 Director: Charlie Kaufman Production Company: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment | Likely Story | Projective Testing Service | Russia Inc. Summary/Review:
When you watch a Charlie Kaufman film, you know things are going to get weird. This was the first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote after writing the screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life begins to crumble after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him taking their young daughter. Not only does Caden suffer various physical ailments but he becomes obsessed with staging a large-scale dramatic work inside a massive warehouse.
Caden isn’t a very appealing person but seems to attract the attention of a lot of attractive younger women (male writer’s fantasy?) Hazel (Samantha Morton) is a woman who works and the theater and lives in a burning house who is attracted to Caden and becomes kind of a lifelong companion. But Caden actually marries the actress Claire (Michelle Williams). Then he hooks up with Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel. Finally, Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) takes over playing Caden and directing the play.
If that sounds confusing, the whole play becomes a simulacrum of Caden’s life with the actors and real life figures commenting on and interacting with the actors. And yes, then they need to get actors to play the actors. I get what Kaufman is doing here, reflecting on the meaning of life and mortality, but the film can get tedious and disturbing. Then again life – and death – can be tedious and disturbing. Roger Ebert recommended watching this movie multiple times. Maybe I’ll return to this film, but I find on my first viewing of Synecdoche, New Yorkthat I veer between finding it profound and finding it pretentious.
Title: The Great Train Robbery Release Date: December 1903 Director: Edwin S. Porter Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit. And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly. And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera! Rating: ***1/2
Title:The Immigrant Release Date: June 18, 1917 Director: Charles Chaplin Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired poor, huddled masses immigrating to America. There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal. In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance). Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter. There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience. Rating: ***1/2
Title: There It Is Release Date: 1928 Director: Harold L. Muller Production Company: Educational Pictures Summary/Review: Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era. This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags. Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard. In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug. So many weird things happen in 19 minutes. The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise. MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes. This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python. Rating: ***
Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge Release Date: October 27, 1912 Director: Władysław Starewicz Production Company: Khanzhonkov Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you! All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects. An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all. So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years! This one is delightfully weird. Rating: ****
Title: New York 1911 Release Date: 1911 Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911. Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan. As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar. Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable. The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars. Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver. This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time. Rating: ****
Author: Ben Goldfarb Title: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter Narrator: Will Damron Publication Info: Chelsea Green Publishing (2018) Summary/Review:
Beavers are important! That is the message that you will get repeatedly while reading this book, although author Ben Goldfarb does not skimp on providing detailed evidence behind his thesis. What we learn from reading this book is that the beaver’s most identifiable trait, building dams on rivers and streams, has a profound effect on the landscape. When beavers were hunted for their pelts in colonial times it lead to the loss of beaver-facilitated habitats for numerous fauna and flora.
Daming also helps in preserving groundwater and preventing flooding and runoff as some farmers and ranchers have learned where managed beaver populations have been reintroduced. Unfortunately, the benefits on the macro level can be damaging on the micro level, causing local flooding and damage despite being better for the region overall. This contributes to the beaver being seen as a nuisance animals and extermination policies of many local governments. Goldfarb documents the efforts of ecologists and scientists to convince people to learn to live with beavers.
It’s a very interesting and fact-filled book and definitely gave me new respect for the beaver!
Title: Once Upon a Time In Queens Release Date: September 14, 2021 Director: Nick Davis Production Company: ESPN | ITV Studios America | Kimmelot | MLB Productions Summary/Review:
This ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the 1986 New York Mets is one that I will have trouble reviewing objectively as it pushes all of my nostalgic buttons. I tend to be a nostalgic person to begin with but this film hit me more emotionally than I ever expected. It’s not just that it’s about my favorite baseball team’s best season ever but that it so richly captures the time and the place of New York City in the 1980s, which I experienced vicariously as a child of the suburbs. And it’s not even that it was the “good old days,” as this film demonstrates it was a time of unrepentant greed, unrestrained substance abuse, toxic masculinity, and racial tensions, all of which were exemplified by the Mets. And yet, there is something about the community that came together around these deeply flawed men who did amazing things on the ballfield. Living in the past quarter-century of a Yankees-worshiping society, it’s hard to believe how much the Mets were beloved and unifying.
The four-part documentary goes deep into the roots of the Mets, a team that was a replacement for New York and Brooklyn losing the Giants and Dodgers that somehow won a miraculous World Series in 1969, and then trading away their franchise pitcher Tom Seaver in 1977. The first part focuses on how the team gained a new owner in 1980 and with a new general manager put together the pieces of a winning team that would have very exciting second-place finishes in 1984 and 1985 before dominating baseball in 1986. The other three parts focus on the season itself with a good amount of film footage both on and off the field, some of it that I’d never seen before.
As you’d expect from a documentary, there are a lot of talking head interviews, and many but not all of the Mets’ players are represented. Some of the best observations come from Kevin Mitchell, who was a rookie in 1986 and played only one season with the Mets, and Bob Ojeda, who was in his first season with the team and thus has something of an outsider’s perspective on the team’s perspective. Manager Davy Johnson is also very insightful. The heart of the film, though, is dedicated to the stars of the team: Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden. All of them came from troubled family backgrounds and all of them suffered from addictions. I was impressed by how candid and introspective each of these men are in their interviews. The other big star of the team, Gary Carter, died in 2012, otherwise he would’ve been a prominent subject as well. Instead archival footage and interviews with his wife have to suffice. At the other end of the spectrum, Lenny Dykstra appears to be inebriated and still full of himself. But he does provide some of the documentary’s best laugh lines.
As documentaries go, there’s nothing groundbreaking in its filmmaking, but it’s extremely well-edited. I also loved the soundtrack which ranges from Tom Waits to the Beasties Boys to the Mets’ own rally songs (yes, they recorded two that season). Writers like Greg Prince and Jeff Pearlman offer expert opinion and context while a wide variety of fans including Chuck D, Cyndi Lauper, George R.R. Martin, and various people who recorded “where was I” videos of their experiences during the legendary Game 6 of the World Series. I didn’t feel that it was necessary to keep cutting in scenes from the movie Fear Strikes Out for the Keith Hernandez story. I also think the epilogue overstates things about the Mets’ “collapse” after 1986. While they didn’t make it to another World Series, the Mets remained a very good team through the 1990 season. It was harder to start a dynasty in the 1980s, and had the three-division structure of MLB been adopted a decade earlier, the Mets would’ve finished in first place 7 years in a row. Despite it being a 4-hour movie, Once Upon a Time in Queens went by quickly and left me wanting more. If you like sports’ documentaries it is definitely worth your time.
Album: Twin Plagues Artist: Wednesday Release Date: August 13, 2021 Label: Orindal Records Favorite Tracks:
“They Burned Down Dairy Queen”
“How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do”
“Ghost of a Dog”
Thoughts” The Asheville, North Carolina quintet has a 90s sound without feeling retro. Vocalist Karly Hartzman sings introspective lyrics with a bit of a twang over crunching guitars. It’s kind of like The Nields crossed with My Bloody Valentine. All the tracks are lo-tempo, but there’s enough variation in the music and emotion in the vocals that it never gets tedious. Rating: ***
Title: To Kill a Mockingbird Release Date: December 25, 1962 Director: Robert Mulligan Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan Summary/Review:
I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it. Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed. At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies). I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.
If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham). Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood. In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief. Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall). Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.
The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true. But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge. In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.
I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel. Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character. I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.
As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem. His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening. Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob. But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”
I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book. But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.
Title: Pierrot Le Fou Release Date: 5 November 1965 Director: Jean-Luc Godard Production Company: Films Georges de Beauregard Summary/Review:
I struggle with these French New Wave films, especially Godard’s, so I’m a bit relieved that this is that last one on my list. Although I think I may have been more receptive to Pierrot Le Fouhad I been more in the mood for a weird, experimental film. The movie is about a man named Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, who just recently passed away) who leaves his wife and family and boring middle-class life in Paris to run away with his old girlfriend Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina).
She insists on calling him Pierrot, which he hates. They go on a crime spree across France and are chased by both the police and gangsters from a right-wing paramilitary organization opposed to Algerian independence. Pierrot le Fou was clearly an influence on Bonnie and Clyde. The movie is more of a montage than a linear plot, linking various vignettes together. Some are comedy, some are eccentric, some are violent, and a couple are even musicals.
There’s a lot of overlapping narration from Ferdinand and Marianne, and references to philosophy and literature. I’m probably missing layers of significance but it all feels very pretentious.
A year ago, 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: Bob Marley and The Wailers Album: Catch A Fire Year: 1973 Label: Island 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?: Favorite Tracks:
“Stop That Train”
“Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby)”
“Stir It Up”
“No More Trouble”
Thoughts: Kind of amazing when you have an album that has banger after banger and realize that it’s not a compilation album. In fact, Catch a Fire is just the first of a stretch of albums where Bob Marley and Co. will churn out great song after great song.
Artist: Black Sabbath Album: Paranoid Year: 1970 Label: Vertigo 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:
“War Pigs/Luke’s Fire”
Thoughts: I grew up in the 80s when Heavy Metal was a dominant force in music and one that was considered rebellious, dangerous, and scary. Then in the 90s it got reclassified as “hair band music” and played on VH-1 which previously had only played light rock. Listening to this album I tried to put my mind in 1970 and imagine what hearing this type of music would’ve sounded like to people at the time. Probably dangerous and scary, but also evocative of the Vietnam War Era malaise. Musically it sounds more like contemporaries Led Zeppelin than 80s Heavy Metal, but the seeds are there.
Artist: Madonna Album: The Immaculate Collection Year: 1990 Label: Sire 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:
“Into the Groove”
“Live to Tell”
“Like A Prayer”
Thoughts: I’ve grumbled about Rolling Stone including compilation albums in this list but it seems especially egregious for a groundbreaking female artist who dominated pop music over three decades. Madonna charted 9 number one albums, and her debut album was the only one not to make it to Top 5 (it was #8), so you think that there would be plentiful albums to choose from. Anyhow this album collects all the 80s hits that made Madonna a star, if that’s your thing.
Artist: Adele Album: 21 Year: 2011 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:
“Rolling in the Deep”
“Rumor Has It”
“Set Fire to the Rain”
“I’ll Be Waiting”
“Someone Like You”
Thoughts: I remember first hearing “Rolling in the Deep” and being wowed by the powerful voice channeling Aretha Franklin coming out a young English woman. Soon enough, Adele was everywhere and her songs were filling the airwaves (which was a good thing). The album is called 21, but Adele seems to sing from experience beyond her years. Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this album is 10 years old already.
Artist: Funkadelic Album: Maggot Brain Year: 1971 Label: Westbound 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:
“Can You Get to That”
Thoughts: This is a brilliant, amazing album and it’s shameful that I never heard it until 5 years ago, nor does it have more widespread exposure. It feels like a whole lot of music made it the past 50 years owes its origins to the music on this album. Previously discussed in my P-Funk Music Discovery.
Artist: U2 Album: The Joshua Tree Year: 1987 Label: Island 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?: Favorite Tracks:
“Where the Streets Have No Name”
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
“With or Without You”
“Red Hill Mining Town”
“One Tree Hill”
Thoughts: I was never a U2 superfan but I’ve usually liked their music well enough. U2 began to become known in the U.S. in the mid-80s, and among the Irish-American community there was a special pride and curiosity about a rock band from Dublin. My Dad, of course, disliked his copy of War someone gave him because it sounding nothing like Irish trad. The Joshua Tree launched U2 into the level of super-stardom in the U.S. I remember that the album and “With or Without You” were released in March 1987, and thus a lot of the promotion was tied to St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, U2 drew their influence for this album from a mythical America so it’s not St. Patrick’s Day content, at least by the standards of someone like my Dad.
Artist: The Fugees Album: The Score Year: 1996 Label: Columbia 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:
“How Many Mics”
Thoughts: Memory is a weird thing. I was certain that I remembered The Fugees cover of “Killing Me Softly” coming out when I was in college. In reality, it came out 5 years after I graduated college. At any rate, as you can imagine, I’ve not paid much attention to The Fugees before now. For one thing, I never knew that the members of the band are Haitian-American. As for the tunes, they are melodic with a smooth flow, clever samples, and great beats. I think I like it!
Artist: Joni Mitchell Album: Hejira Year: 1976 Label: Asylum 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?: Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts: I’m just gonna put it out there: I don’t get Joni Mitchell.
Artist: Hank Williams Album: 40 Greatest Hits Year: 1978 Label: Polydor 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 So Lonesome I Could Cry”
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)”
“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle”
“I’m Sorry For You My Friend”
“Your Cheatin’ Heart”
“I Won’t Be Home No More”
“I Saw the Light”
Thoughts: When I hear the name “Hank Williams,” I think of the “Are You Ready For Some Football” guy. But that’s Hank Williams, Jr. who was a very young child when his father died. When I comes to country music, I favor old-timey sounds to more contemporary country which is fused with rock or pop balladry. Hank Williams, Sr.’ s music sounds like it should be coming out of a crackly radio in an old car or diner (as it did in The Last Picture Show).
Artist: Portishead Album: Dummy Year: 1994 Label: Go! Beat 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?: Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: Probably a perfect album. Portishead combines a lot of things that were going on at the time in the 90s – hip-hop rhythms, creative samples, and ambience galore. The music could be described as “chill-out” if only the tension were not constantly be ratcheting up. The alluring vocals of Beth Gibbons carry the songs into an effervescent place.
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: Fruitvale Station Release Date: July 12, 2013 Director: Ryan Coogler Production Company: Significant Productions Summary/Review:
We “Say Their Names” but sometimes that’s all we know about Black people killed by police and vigilantes. Ryan Coogler’s debut film as director and writer tells the story of the man behind one of those names, Oscar Grant III, who was shot by police in a Oakland metro station just after ringing in the New Year in 2009, and died later that morning. Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as someone dealing with the complex mess of everyday life in the 24 hours leading to his shooting. Melonie Diaz portrays his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer adds a lot of emotional heft as his mother Wanda. Ariana Neal steals scenes as Oscar and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter Tatiana. This movie feels very real to me. While it’s not filmed in a vérité or neo-realist style, I don’t feel like I’m watching Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer as actors playing people, but real people. This movie was released before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began but it captures the meaning of the phrase in its depiction of one precious, human life of a Black man that was taken away.