Movie Review: Roma (2018)


Title: Roma
Release Date: 21 November 2018
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Espectáculos Fílmicos El Coyúl | Pimienta Films | Participant Media | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

Among contemporary directors, Alfonso Cuarón is the one most likely to make a completely different type of movie on each outing. Roma is a film inspired by Cuarón’s childhood memories and in that sense is a lot like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Fellini’s Amarcord, especially in its use of well-choreographed crowd scenes of family and community activity.

Set in 1970-71, the film is set in the home of a prosperous family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.  The main character is the family’s live-in maid/nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman of indigenous ancestry. Cleo becomes pregnant early in the film but is abandoned by her lover Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  Meanwhile, the mother of the family, Sofía (Marina de Tavira) must deal with holding the family together when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. These twin stories are impressionistically set against family drama, celebratory gatherings, and the political violence of Luis Echeverría’s presidency.  The most significant scene of the latter involves the Corpus Christi Massacre, when government-trained paramilitaries murdered 120 student protestors, occuring while Cleo is shopping for a crib and then going into labor.

Filmed in crisp black & white, Roma is a visually-stunning movie that immerses the audience in early 1970s Mexico.  Like Yasujirō Ozu, Cuarón frequently employs mid- and long-range shots where the camera does not move while characters move in and out of frame.  He also constructs some impressive tracking shots that make you think “how did they do that?”  And yet, despite Aparicio’s fine performance, I feel like Cleo is always at a distance and we never get to know her very well.  Thus I don’t feel the strong emotions in the film’s climax that many other viewers did.  Centering the story on women, and particularly an indigenous woman, instead of a child proxy for Cuaron is admirable, but it also never quite connects for me.

I think this is a beautiful and admirable film, but I also can understand the criticisms that it whitewashes the inequality between Cleo and the family and that the technical brilliance overshadows the human heart.  Still, this one would be worth seeing again on a big screen if I ever get the chance.

Rating: ****

Album of the Week: Spirituals by Santigold


Album:  Spirituals
ArtistSantigold
Release Date: September 9, 2022
Label:  Little Jerk Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • High Priestess
  • No Paradise
  • Ain’t Ready
  • Fall First

Thoughts: Genre-defying Santigold’s new release reimagines the African American folk tradition with synths, electric guitar, and her own ethereal vocals.  Like many recent releases, the music grew out of the pandemic and addresses the feelings of grief, loneliness, and rage of our times.  It’s a short album, 10 tracks in just over 30 minutes, but it packs a punch.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Album of the Week:  2022

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Song of the Week: “Right to Riot” by Hagop Tchaparian


Hagop Tchaparian – “Right to Riot”

British-Armenian producer Hagop Tchaparian creates a sonically-dense collage from field recordings of traditional folk musicians in Armenia and the Mediterranean region undergirded by heavy techno grooves.

 

Song of the Week 2022

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Movie Review: Babe (1995)


TitleBabe
Release Date: August 4, 1995
Director: Chris Noonan
Production Company: Kennedy Miller Productions
Summary/Review:

There must be kinder dispositions in far-off gentler lands.

For a gentle barnyard comedy about a piglet who learns to herd sheep, Babe goes to some dark places and can be quite subversive.  The movie begins in a factory farm and make no bones about pigs be raised without sunshine and separated from their mothers at a young age.  This is a family film, nonetheless, but one that doesn’t condescend to children or avoid situations and words that they may not initially understand. I was surprised that Babe was written and produced by George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max series, but upon this rewatch I realize that there’s a tenderness at the heart of the darkness of Babe that’s not all that different from Mad Max: Fury Road, despite Babe’s more idyllic setting.

Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh and played by 46 different piglets and an animatronic created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) is the runt of the litter at a factory farm randomly chosen for a “Guess the Weight” contest at an agricultural fair.  Babe ends up on the farm of Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) presumably to be fattened for Christmas dinner.  But Babe forms a bond with the sheepdog Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) who becomes his surrogate mother after her own puppies are adopted away.  As a result, Babe becomes a sheep-herding pig, and one who does his job with kindness rather than asserting authority. This talent is soon recognized by the quirky Farmer Hoggett.  Hijinks ensue.

The movie is beautifully filmed, soaking in the lush Australian landscape (albeit people have American accents and drive on the right side of the road, so this could be anywhere).  Credit must be given to Magda Szubanski as Arthur’s wife Esme Hoggett and Russi Taylor as Duchess, “the bad cat bearing a grudge,” for being the MVPs of dialogue deliver in limited screen time.  And if you can watch Cromwell’s delivery of the line “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” without weeping, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.

This is a classic movie that just seems to get better each time I watch it.

Rating: *****

Favorite Albums of All Time: 70-61


Having listened to every album on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I’m making my own list.  This list will be only 250 albums, although I had to make some tough cuts.  The list includes a mix of works of musical genius with the pure nostalgia of some albums I’ve loved throughout my life.  As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these albums and what your favorite albums are. I will continue the countdown every other Wednesday throughout 2022.

250-241 200-191 150-141 100-91
240-231 190-181 140-131 90-81
230-221 180-171 130-121 80-71
220-211 170-161 120-111
210-201 160-151 110-101

70

Artist: Various
Title: Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Year: 2015
Favorite Tracks:

  • Alexander Hamilton
  • My Shot
  • The Story of Tonight
  • Right Hand Man
  • Helpless
  • Wait For It
  • Guns & Ships
  • Dear Theodosia
  • Cabinet Battle #1
  • The Room Where It Happened
  • One Last Time
  • It’s Quiet Uptown

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2015

Thoughts: I never thought too highly of Alexander Hamilton the person (I’m a bit of an Aaron Burr buff) but I was transfixed by this musical that combines Broadway musical traditions with hip hop with American history.  I especially like how Hamilton’s story is adapted to that of the immigrant striver relating the story to modern day Black and Latin American people who don’t often get to see people who look like themselves in American history.

Bonus Sounds: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights was adapted into an excellent movie with a great soundtrack.


69

Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Title: Mermaid Avenue
Year:  1998
Favorite Tracks:

  • Walt Whitman’s Niece
  • California Stars
  • Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Christ for President
  • I Guess I Planted
  • The Unwelcome Guest

The First Time I Heard This Album …: Late 90s

Thoughts:  Billy Bragg is a folk/punk musicians and leftist activist from England whose music I like but I still need to listen to more of.  Wilco are a band from Chicago beloved by NPR hipsters whose music never interested me much.  But when they came together to put lyrics written by Woody Guthrie to music, it was magic.

Bonus Sounds:  The next step is to listen to actual recordings by Woody Guthrie.  Smithsonian Folkways has you covered.

Speaking of Folkways…


68

Artist: Various
Title: Anthology of American Folk Music
Year: 1952
Favorite Tracks:

  • “The House Carpenter” (1930) – Clarence Ashley
  • “The Butcher’s Boy” (1928) – Buell Kazee
  • “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” (1928) – Chubby Parker
  • “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” (1930) – The Carter Family
  • “White House Blues” (1926) – Charlie Poole w/ North Carolina Ramblers
  • “Frankie” (1928) – Mississippi John Hurt
  • “When That Great Ship Went Down” (1927) – William and Versey Smith
  • Mississippi Boweavil Blues” (1929) – Charlie Patton (under the pseudonym “The Masked Marvel”)
  • “Sail Away Lady” (1926) – Uncle Bunt Stephens
  • “Wake Up Jacob” (1929) – Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers
  • “Indian War Whoop” (1928) – Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers
  • “Saut Crapaud” (1929) – Columbus Fruge
  • “Moonshiner’s Dance Part One” (1927) – Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra
  • “John the Revelator” (1930) – Blind Willie Johnson
  • “Bob Lee Junior Blues” (1927) – The Memphis Jug Band
  • “Poor Boy Blues” (1929) – Ramblin’ Thomas
  • “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (1928) – Blind Lemon Jefferson
  • “Way Down the Old Plank Road” (1926) – Uncle Dave Macon
  • “Fishing Blues” (1928) Henry Thomas
  • “Black Jack David” — Carter Family
  • “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” (1929) — Blind Alfred Reed

The First Time I Heard This Album …: When I first got an iPod, around 2005 or so, I listened to a history of Folkways Records which prompted me to get this collection

Thoughts:

Experimental filmmaker Harry Smith pulled together this anthology in 1952 with selections from his collection of old 78 rpm records and it ended up becoming a major influence of the Folk Revival of the 50s and 60s.  Smith’s temerity in calling it “Anthology” instead of “An Anthology” and subsequent popularity skewed the real history of American folk music.  Nevertheless, as a compilation of recorded music enjoyed by ordinary Americans from 1927 to 1932, it is an excellent time capsule.  Selections include folk songs with roots in England, Scotland, and Ireland still enjoyed by rural Americans, Black American folk music (including blues and gospel), and old time music from a time when country and bluegrass are emerging.

The Internet Archive has the entire collection available to stream, including a fourth collection of folk songs chosen by Harry Smith that didn’t get a release until 2000.

Bonus Sounds:

There’s a 112 songs here, you want more?


67

Artist: Fugazi
Title: 13 Songs
Year: 1990
Favorite Tracks:

  • Waiting Room
  • Bulldog Front
  • Bad Mouth
  • Burning
  • Give Me The Cure
  • Burning Too
  • Promises

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 1991, because everyone in my Freshman dorm seemed to have this album

Thoughts: Speaking of leftist activism in music, the Washington, D.C. post-hardcore band took the DIY ethos to the limits making their shows as accessible as possible to all their fans.  Their debut album (actually a compilation of tracks from previously released EPs) was highly influential on the sound of the burgeoning alternative rock explosion.

Bonus Sounds:

Ian MacKaye of Fugazi maintains an archive of live performance recordings available for fans to download.


66

Artist: Cry Cry Cry
Title: Cry Cry Cry
Year: 1998
Favorite Tracks:

  • Fall On Me
  • Cold Missouri Waters
  • The Kid
  • Shades of Gray
  • By Way of Sorrow

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 1998

Thoughts: Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams united to form a folk supergroup, recording this one album of cover songs.  They also had a very successful tour and I managed to see them twice on that tour including their end of tour performance at Somerville Theatre on New Year’s Day in 2000.

Bonus Sounds: Richard Shindell’s album Courier appeared earlier in this list, but my favorite Dar Williams’ albums are Mortal City (1996) and End of the  Summer (1997), and favorite Lucy Kaplansky album is Ten Year Night (1999).

Coincidentally, Cry Cry Cry was named after a song by …


65

Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: At Folsom Prison
Year: 1968
Favorite Tracks:

  • Folsom Prison Blues
  • I Still Miss Someone
  • 25 Minutes To Go
  • The Long Black Veil
  • Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart
  • Jackson
  • Green, Green Grass of Home”

The First Time I Heard This Album …: early 2000s

Thoughts: I came to this late  due to a general disinterest in country music, not knowing that Johnny Cash is really good country.  Not only was Cash a good musician, he was a good person when it came to following Christ’s teaching of visiting people in prison.  This album recorded in a prison contains songs about prison, by prisoners, and most importantly, to entertain prisoners. The enthusiastic response of the audience of imprisoned men complements the perfect performances of these songs by Cash along with June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three. You can feel the disappointment when the prisoners are dismissed at the end.

Bonus Sounds: Johnny Cash had a late career resurgence with the American Recordings series which included interpretations of songs by decidedly non-country artists such as Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”


64

Artist: The Beat
TitleI Just Can’t Stop It 
Year:1980
Favorite Tracks:

  • Mirror in the Bathroom
  • Twist & Crawl
  • The Tears of a Clown
  • Ranking Full Stop
  • Big Shot

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 1990s

Thoughts: Known as The English Beat in the USA, the band emerged from the  UK two-tone ska scene with a debut album that mixed ska with New Wave.  It was a new sound for a new decade and remains one of the best albums of the 80s.

Bonus Sounds:


63

Artist: Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins
Title: Rabbit Fur Coat
Year: 2005
Favorite Tracks:

  • Rise Up With Fists!!
  • The Charging Sky
  • You Are What You Love
  • Rabbit Fur Coat
  • Handle With Care
  • Born Secular

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2005

Thoughts: A debut album for Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley of sorts collaborating with Chandra and Leigh Watson, also making their debut.  The pop/alt-country sound with a gospel tinge contains impressive harmonies and thoughtful lyrics.

Bonus Sounds: Jenny Lewis has continued to release great music including 2014’s “Just One of the Guys.


62

Artist: Janelle Monáe
Title:The ArchAndroid
Year: 2010
Favorite Tracks:

  • Locked Inside
  • Cold War
  • Tightrope
  • Come Alive (War of the Roses)
  • 57821

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2012

Thoughts:  Monáe’s first full-length album continues her on-going science fiction dystopia about a messiasiac android. Musically, it’s a tour de force jumping among genres from song to song and even within songs. Funk, soul, new wave, afrobeat, psychedelia, and even punk rock are in the mix.

Bonus Sounds: There’s more Janelle Monáe to come in this list, but until then you can also read my Music Discovery on her work from 2016 or read her recently-released sci-fi story collection The Memory Librarian.


61

Artist: Adele
Title:21 
Year: 2011
Favorite Tracks:

  • Rolling in the Deep
  • Rumour Has It
  • Set Fire To The Rain
  • I’ll Be Waiting
  • Someone Like You

The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2011

Thoughts: The first time I heard “Rolling in the Deep” it blew me away and I’ve been following Adele ever since (along with most of the rest of the world).  The weary wisdom of Adele’s voice belies her youthful age at the time it was recorded.

Bonus Sounds: Adele is still pretty young even though she’s now a veteran artists continuing to release great works like last year’s 30.

Movie Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)


Title: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Release Date: February 1944
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

During the Second World War, the town of Morgan’s Creek becomes home to several military bases.  Local teenager Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) finds it to be her patriotic duty to attend dances for the servicemen before they leave to go overseas.  One night Trudy loses her memory after a head injury and when she comes to she realizes that she’s married one of the soldiers (and become pregnant!) but can’t remember who it is.  Trudy’s nebbish and 4-F childhood friend Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) has always been in love with her and agrees to marry her, but Trudy is fearful of being charged with bigamy.

The old-fashioned moral values and gender essentialism are laid on thick in this film, but it took me a while to realize that the excess is in fact a satire of those social mores.  In fact, many of the complex plot points are simply due to having to dance around the Hays code.  Because this movie is both subversive and utterly bonkers, I wanted to like it more than I did.  But the repeated gags of Norval and then Trudy stuttering and the repeated pratfalls were more irritating than funny.  Diana Lynn is hilarious as Trudy’s wisecracking younger sister while William Demarest plays their cranky father, Constable Lockenlocker.

This is the third Preston Sturges film I’ve watched and I do want to watch more!  The long tracking shots of characters walking through the streets are quite impressive.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***

Summary/Review:

I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.

 

*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

Recommended Books:

Movie Review: Office Space (1999)


Title: Office Space
Release Date: February 19, 1999
Director:Mike Judge
Production Company: Judgemental Films
Summary/Review:

The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.

Office Space is a workplace comedy that satirizes the soul-sucking aspects of office jobs from the constant micromanaging to toxically positive co-workers to the least talented people (re: connected white men) failing up.  Rewatching this now in 2022 amid the media moral panic about so-called “quiet quitting,” this movie feels even more relevant than it did in the late 90s.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a depressed programmer at a tech company who decides to liberate himself by no longer working, with comic results.  He ultimately enacts a revenge plot on the company with his friends/co-workers Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman).  In a side plot, he begins dating Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who works an equally soul-sucking job as a waitress for a cheezy restaurant franchise. Gary Cole has a memorable role as Peter’s slimy, passive-aggressive boss Lumbergh, while Stephen Root plays the meek Milton who is the butt of many jokes.

The movie’s reputation is built on its first half, maybe 2/3’s but falls flat toward the end (really everything after they destroy the printer).  And there’s a lot of homophobic language which is off-putting even if its accurate for a tech workplace.  But other than that there are good reasons why this movie remains relatable, and memeable, over two decades later.

Rating: ***1/2

Album of the Week: Natural Brown Prom Queen by Sudan Archives


Album: Natural Brown Prom Queen
Artist: Sudan Archives
Release Date: September 9, 2022
Label: Stones Throw Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • Home Maker
  • Selfish Soul
  • ChevyS10
  • Yellow Brick Road

Thoughts: I’m naturally inclined to review anything by an artist with “archives” in their name (there are a surprising number of them).  Sudan Archives is actually the stage name for Los Angeles-based American violinist, singer, and songwriter Brittney Denise Parks. Incorporating dance music loops, R&B, hip hop, and Western African rhythms among other things, this album is full of energetic and creative tracks. Parks revealed her goals for the album to The Guardian: ““My stage name is kind of academic and on Athena, I created this thoughtful persona centred on divine Black femininity. Now I want to show my looseness, too. I’m a deep, insightful person, but I’m also fucking silly.”  I think she succeeds.
Rating: ***1/2

 

Album of the Week:  2022

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Song of the Week: “Quien te llamo?” by mediopicky


mediopicky – “Quien te llamo?”

Dominican-based artist mediopicky (stage name for Pablo Alcántara) mixes tropical beats, hip hop samples, and heavy metal riffs on this totally original dance track..

 

Song of the Week 2022

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