The political history of Thanksgiving, focusing on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s controversial declaration of the date of celebration, and reasons why we need to divorce the holiday from the myth of Pilgrims and Indians.
Album: American Head Artist: Flaming Lips Release Date: September 11, 2020 Label: Warner Favorite Tracks:
Dinosaurs on the Mountain
Mother Please Don’t Be Sad
Assasins of Youth
The Flaming Lips enter their fifth decade as recording artists with this trippy new album. This seems weird to me even though I first heard the band in the 1990s, and began listening to them avidly with their legendary releases of the 2000s. The album is a loose concept album drawn from band leader Wayne Coyne’s childhood in Oklahoma City. Musically, the Flaming Lips aren’t breaking new ground and the lyrics are full of gratuitous drug references. But the melodies are gorgeous in this collection of mostly ballads awash in rich instrumentation. Kacey Musgraves provides counterpoint vocals on a few tracks.
Title: Goodfellas Release Date: September 19, 1990 Director: Martin Scorsese Production Company: Warner Bros. Summary/Review:
Well, I’ve finally found a Martin Scorcese “greatest film of all time” that I actually like. Based loosely on a true story, Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a half-Irish/half-Sicilian kid drawn into a life of organized crime. The movie is similar to Trainspotting (which was probably inspired by Goodfellas) in that it starts by glamorizing the criminal life but slowly reveals the seedy underside and becomes an object lesson against that life.
Scorcese regular Joe Pesci plays the psychotic loose cannon Tommy DeVito and another Scorcese regular Robert De Niro plays the seemingly level-headed but ultimately more dangerous Jimmy Conway. Lorraine Bracco does a good job portraying Henry’s Jewish wife Karen who is drawn in by the allure of the gangster life. I think what sets this movie apart for me is that Pesci and De Niro aren’t playing the same characters they always seem to play, there’s a lot of nuance in their performances, while Liotta and Bracco don’t fit into the typical stereotypes of gangster films at all.
The movie veers between comedy and horrific violence, but avoids becoming a deeply unsettling paean to the myths of masculinity and violence like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The final sequence is a vigorously-paced collection of cuts showing Henry Hill’s increasing paranoia and coke-fueled energy set to a full playlist of Scorcese’s favorite classic rock hits. If The Godfather depicts the elite of organized crime and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the story of the lowest rungs of gangsterism, then Goodfellas slides in as the story of the mobster middle-class. Doubly so since Hill, and Conway, can never attain the highest ranks because they aren’t fully Sicilian.
While Goodfellas isn’t something that will make my greatest films of all time, it definitely joins the list of Scorcese films I actually enjoyed, along with The Last Waltz and The Departed.
Way back in 2009 I published a series of posts counting down my 100 Favorite Books of All Time. I figure the list is way overdue for an update. This time I won’t be counting it down, just one big list in alphabetical order. Some of the books are classic works of literature and others just have a personal connection or influenced me in some way. But I love every one of them.
I’m going to start a tradition of revising this list every year on my birthday (yes, today I turn 47), so keep an eye out every November 18th to see how this list changes.
Note: Books that are new to the 2020 list are marked in bold. Series of books are counted as one.
Album: Shore Artist: Fleet Foxes Release Date: September 22, 2020 Label: Anti Favorite Tracks:
Can I Believe You
A Long Way Past the Past
I think this is what they call “headphone music” because the rich instrumentation and lush harmonies of Fleet Foxes become readily when pressed up against one’s ears. There’s a definite warmth to the album which according to the band’s frontman, Robin Pecknold “celebrate “life in the face of death.” And so I can say “it speaks to our time of COVID” for about the 100th time in this blog. But if good art is one of the few worthwhile things that the pandemic brings us, then I will accept that.
Blitzen Trapper has always sounded a bit like a throwback band, but on this album they explore a folk rock/alt country sound reminiscent of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Doubly so because the album draws inspiration from the Tibetan Book of the Dead which was also popular during the psychedelic era. Nevertheless, whatever deep metaphysical thoughts are in the lyrics, the tunes are warm and breezy and a pleasure to listen to.
Title: The Party Release Date: April 4, 1968 Director: Blake Edwards Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation Summary/Review:
The French magazine Cahiers du Cinema greatest films of all-time list includes a lot of selections I’ve never heard of. The Party is a strange inclusion since it is an American film with a English lead actor in Peter Sellers, but gets no attention from the American AFI or British Sight & Sound lists.
Turns out, The Party is racist as fuck. Sellers wears brownface to portray a bumbling Indian actor, Hrundi V. Bakshi, accidentally invited to a Hollywood cocktail party where he inadvertently causes chaos. Aside from the racial stereotyping, the movie is just cringe comedy of the worst kind. I gave it 30 minutes before I gave up but I don’t expect it gets any better.
Author: Pam Jenoff Title: The Lost Girls of Paris Narrator: Elizabeth Knowelden, Henrietta Meire, and Candace Thaxton Publication Info: Harlequin Audio (2019) Summary/Review:
This novel is set during the final years of World War II and immediately after the war, and tells a story inspired by the true-life experiences of women serving as agent’s in Britain’s Special Operations Executive. The novel alternates perspectives among three different protagonists. Marie is a young woman recruited as an agent who is sent to work undercover in France not long before the D-Day invasions and has to overcome her inexperience and frequent changes of circumstance. Eleanor is the severe leader of the women’s division in France, but her strictness is due to her desire to keep her agents safe both from the enemy and from the government leaders who have no faith in woman doing espionage.
The final protagonist is Grace, a young widowed American who finds a suitcase in Grand Central Terminal and impulsively takes a dozen photographs of women who prove to be SOE agents. Grace’s growing obsession with trying to find out who the women are and return the photos where they belong doesn’t make much sense and is a drag on the book. Marie’s story is the most thrilling as she’s actively working in France carrying out missions she wasn’t trained for and hoping to avoid capture. But Eleanor’s story turns out to be the most profound as it deals with betrayal and personal tragedy.
The book has a better premise than execution, but it was nevertheless an entertaining read.
Title: Do the Right Thing Release Date: July 21, 1989 Director: Spike Lee Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks Summary/Review:
Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.
The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.
Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.
The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.
For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.
I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!
This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.