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Washtenaw Flaneurade
31 January 2008
Xylophones and Rabbits
Now Playing: Robyn Hitchcock--"Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl"

There Will Be Blood (2007): I liked Boogie Nights. I didn't like Magnolia to the extent that I had no interest in seeing Paul Anderson's next, Punch-Drunk Love. As for There Will Be Blood, I'd actually read the novel on which it's based, Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1927)--a lively account of one man's rise in the California oil industry of the early twentieth century. As the novel was so good, I was more than a little curious to see how There Will Be Blood turned out, and I now forgive Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia. Good Lord. Daniel Plainview (Daniel  Day-Lewis), a geological surveyor turned oil prospector, strikes it rich as an oilman in 1902 and develops a burning need to expand his empire among various southern Califnroia homesteaders. One such, nascent preacher Eli Sunday (the marvelously creepy Paul Dano), sees Plainview's greed as a means to jumpstart his own evangelical domain, and Plainview finds himself confronted with an unexpectedly growing family, namely his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and his long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor). Various streams of greed and rapacity flow together to create a hypnotically compelling drama that actually seems short at two and a half hours (as long running times are a particular pet peeve of mine, that's saying something). I was riveted throughout, thanks to the performances, the photography, and especially the music (mixing Brahms' stirring, outdoorsy Violin Concerto with austerely menacing chamber-pop courtesy of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood), one of the most memorable scores I've heard this decade. It reminded me, of all things, of Visconti's The Leopard (1963), in that it seems like a prefect match of style and substance. The loveliness of the southern California landscape (much of the oil well scenes, apparently, were filmed in Texas) provides the perfect backdrop to the elemental struggles that, despite the possible present-day meanings (e.g. the conflict between evangelicals and big business in modern American conservatism, the dangers to American and world society inherent in the oil industry), remain at the film's center--greed and a debilitating obsession with family. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as he starts to doubt the loyalty of his own "kin" (they aren't sufficiently "part of him") and amasses wealth and property for no apparent good reason. He's a "hero" who proves the bankruptcy of his own grandeur--by film's end, he's rich and powerful, but doesn't seem to have much to show for it. It's all hollow majesty. The whole thing's unforgettably conveyed in the most memorable scene: an oil derrick suffers a gas explosion and burns in the night, watched by Plainview, who resembles nothing less than an overgrown Nibelung, oil-stained and bathed in the fiery glow from the flameburst in the middle of a dire California night. Another plus that struck me is how the "historical" aspect was softpedaled. Lesser directors would have tried to "immerse" the audience in the 1910s (when the bulk of the movie takes place) with spoiling dollops of period detail, but that doesn't happen a whole lot here--for instance, Plainview and H.W. share a meal in a restaurant that, were it not for the clothes, could easily exist today, with all interior shots and no constant takes of masses of extras in period clothes swaming about outside with Model Ts buzzing back and forth. It's good to see the viewer trusted to remember that the movie technically takes place in the past. The movie's visual austerity lends it strength. I haven't decided yet whether the wobbly climax can be counted an instance of directorial indulgence or not, but the rest of the movie's so damn good that I may decide not. Magnificent, and the best movie of 2007 (like I've seen that many).

Juggernaut (1974): One of my favorite directors, Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, The Knack and How To Get It, How I Won The War, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Robin and Marian, etc.) takes on the 70s disaster movie. Time Out has a fantastic review that first got me interested in seeing the thing, and I really enjoyed the shit out of it. The ocean liner Britannic sets sail from Britain to the U.S. with a genuinely empathic gaggle of people on board: the world-weary captain (Omar Sharif), a relentlessly upbeat recreation officer (Roy Kinnear), a plucky mid-Atlantic divorcee and adulteress (Shirley Knight), a steward of Pakistani derivation with amusingly (and intentionally) shifting accents (Roshan Seth, in one of his earliest roles), an American mayor (Clifton James, best known as "Sgt. Pepper" in the first two Roger Moore Bond movies but also a respected character actor and frequent player in John Sayles flicks like Eight Men Out and Lone Star, a harassed mother of two (Caroline Mortimer), and sundry others, even Gareth "Blake" Thomas as a truculent Liverpudlian mechanic. This ain't the Pacific Princess. The weather's all dingy and grimy and things constantly go wrong in that great early-seventies-British way that I can't get enough of--among other things, the gyros won't work, ensuring that the ship rolls back and forth, causing mass seasickness. As if that weren't enough, Porter, a shipping company executive (the inhumanly ubiquitous Ian Holm), gets a call from a shadowy character named "Juggernaut," who's unsportingly placed seven bombs aboard ship, their defusing dependent on his being paid half a million pounds. A (probably inebriated) bomb squad gets called in, led by Fallon (Richard Harris) and Braddock (David Hemmings)--I make the first observation not as a mockery of the late stars' well-known offscreen lifestyle; it's implied that these guys seriously knock it back. Parachuted near the ship, most of them make it in, and from then on it's a battle of wits in order to defuse the bombs (joined by Anthony Hopkins as a detective trying to find the bomber before they explode) and confound the mysterious Juggernaut. I loved pretty much every minute. Having seen a few disaster movies in my time, I was carried away by the unusual directorial vision. Lester obviously cares about his characters enough not to turn them into caricatures or saints, and the effect is marvelous. The witty script at times seems like it's packed full of bitchy zingers, and the action really makes one wonder who'll survive. As for the acting, I really think some of these people give career-highlight performances.  Sharif never head a terribly iconic or convincing role after Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago (not to say he wasn't good in anything--check him out in the mid-80s NBC miniseries Peter the Great or 1967's offbeat Wehrmacht murder mystery--!!!--Night of the Generals), and he's excellent as the man who has to share his ship and career with a mad bomber, a bomb squad, and 1,200 easily-irritated passengers. Kinnear's Kinnear, but his role has a little more depth to it than in stuff like Help!, the Musketeers movies, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Knight has some particularly good moments, and I should probably see more of her work--she apparently plays someone on Desperate Housewives these days. The supporting cast on land is just as good and really kind of spoils the viewer (among them Cyril Cusack, Ken Colley, Freddie Jones, and Julian Glover), but the big story here is Harris. The man's obviously a terrific actor, but I can't think of any one else of his caliber (even Michael Caine) who's made so many god-awful flicks (Orca, Tarzan the Ape Man, etc.). I even liked Michael Gambon better as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. In Juggernaut, his heroic yet mildly alcoholic and probably self-loathing Fallon manages to barely carry the movie (his performance makes the film's climax that much more nailbiting), and with that cast, it's really saying something.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 30 January 2008 5:00 PM EST
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27 January 2008
Spock, There's A Tribble In My Pants
Now Playing: The Move--"Beautiful Daughter"

Fluffy is leaving the cafe. There have been many, many times over the past four years when I've fantasized just such a scenario, although they usually involved her deciding to chuck in the whole thing and go run a salsa camp or the federal chintz lobby. Her reasons were murky, but any will do, really (I believe she'll be joining the "distribution" side of the "industry," like Sysco or Van Eerden). I might have had mixed feelings about it at one point (I do have mixed feelings about outlasting her). She taught me a fair amount of what I now know about cooking and seemed a good boss at first, but too, too many days of being treated like I was in preschool have really leached away the sympathy, as had her increasing shiftiness and forgotten promises vis-a-vis the staff. We've known about this for a month or so, but were sworn to semi-secrecy due to the effect the revelation might have on business. I wondered about this, whether she thought the offices of downtown Ann Arbor would be swept by a rash of suicides at the possible interruption of pastry sales, but respected (for the most part) her wishes. Now that it's really happening, I feel slightly giddy.

I still don't plan to stay there very much longer, but my own departure will, I hope, have little to do with the actual work environment. I was afraid my work would keep getting more and more miserable (my best friend there was dropped from the schedule and now no longer works there, a common weasel tactic among modern bosses to avoid unemployment paperwork after firing their workers) until Fluffy would decide to try and get rid of me (a similar situation, I suspect, led to my axing a decade ago at Barnes and Noble in Baton Rouge). I wanted to quit first, and still might, but this takes a lot of potentially unpleasant pressure off me. Our new manager seems a pleasant enough fellow (while he apparently had a lot to do with my friend's "leaving," I suspect Fluffy was rather more to blame) and his administrative style has already been rather encouraging (although (a)there's nowhere to go but up and (b) there have been an inevitable number of minor cockups, the blame for many of which can belaid at the door of the cutesy hipster-magnet coffeeshop down the street which we sell quiches and sandwiches), so at this point I'm cautiously optimistic. I still need to switch jobs at some point this year, but at least I might be able to leave on a high note now.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:09 PM EST
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22 January 2008
Stop Pissing About And Get Me Buckland!!!
Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Cityscape Skybaby"

The Vulture's Eye (2004): "You godless cocksuckers!" This makes two ill-conceived Dracula knockoffs made for a shoestring budget on live-action video that I've seen in the past year. I tried to make it through The Vulture's Eye once, failed, and then steeled myself and tried again. It's ridiculous, but it's an improvement in some ways on Die Hard Dracula. It's still awful, though, so I should probably concentrate on that aspect of the prodcuction. The basic plot of Dracula gets airlifted to modern-day Purcellville, Virginia (right in Loudoun County up near the Shenandoah--one of my favorite professors was from that neck of the woods), with most of the characters retaining their names, except for Jonathan Harker, who's now Quincy Morris; Transylvania, which is now Sierra Leone; and Dracula, who's now "Count Klaus Vogel." Mina's still British, for some reason, and Van Helsing dresses like Colonel Sanders and slobbers all over dinner tables. Renfield's married, presentable, and doesn't like people talking shit about the Pope (or, as he calls him, "His Holiness"). Why? you ask. It's okay; I don't really care, either. Count Vogel insinuates himself into the lives of what appear to be the faded Tidewater gentry (particularly in a hilariously overripe dinner party scene), unless his prey can unite to stop him, etc. etc. The dialogue is wretched (see above), there's a terribly weird treatment of Catholics and Catholicism, and an avalanche of pointless slo-mo "artsy" shots (although some of the editing towards the end does get rather decent, and the countryside's awful purty). The acting isn't quite as bad as I'd feared but still highly variable. The guy who plays Jack is an especial hoot in this regard. Speaking like he's presenting an ESL video in one scene while talking about Van Helsing, he has little trouble getting terribly animated later at the dinner party when he's supposed to be drunk, a sea-change in his vivacity that led me to believe he'd actually been drinking. The best part of the movie is probably Brooke Paller--sort of a zaftig Melisa Gilbert--as Lucy Westenra, who comes close at times to being truly affecting (maybe it was the fact that she was the only remotely interesting character). One area--the only area--in which I think The Vulture's Eye is actually laudable is the whole body image thing; good for them to cast an actress who isn't thin as a rail in the "sexy" part. There's one genuinely funny joke. There are also some really nasty mixes of sex and gore, with breasts covered in blood and similar shots. They don't belong to the actresses, though--I stuck through the end credits and was privileged to learn that they were in all likelihood the property of "The Butt-a-lator" (I've forgotten her name; wouldn't you?) and "Sister Helen Margarette." I never thought it would be necessary to advertise anything "as "better than Die Hard Dracula," but it looks like that day has finally come. Huzza.

The movie on the other side of the disk (it's one of those), Vampire Stakes, has a scene where someone says "let's go kick some vampire butt." Why don't people try? Why don't they fucking try???

 Wild Caribbean Black Bean Chili

4 cups dried black beans

Pick over and rinse; combine beans in large pot with water to cover by two inches. Bring to boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer , partially covered, until almost tender, about 1 hour.

1/4 cup vegetable oil, 4 medium onions, finely diced

Heat oil in same large pot over medium heat (having removed beans) until hot. Add onions and cook, stirring occassionally, until just starting to urn brown (8-10 mins.).

1/4 cup minced garlic, 1-2 tbsp minced habanero peppers or 6-8 minced jalapeno peppers

Cook, stirring, for 1 min.

1/4 cup chili powder, 1/4 cup cumin, 2 tbsp sugar, 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp pepper, 3 tsp orange zest, 1 1/2 cups orange juice, 2 tsp grated lime zest, 3/4 cup fresh lime juice, 28 oz. crushed tomatoes, 6 cups water

Add, stir together well, and bring to simmer. Stir in reserved black beans, return to simmer, and cover, reducing the heat to low. Cook, partially covered, add more water as needed, until beans are al dente (1 1/2-2 hrs.). Suggested garnishes: sour cream and cilantro.

I had some friends over this weekend to watch movies for the first time ever (and I've been living there over three years), so I was terribly excited. Too excited, as it turned out, to remember to eat, but not too excited to screw up the recipe. I thought it turned out pretty good. I had to make a few adjustments--I couldn't find any habaneros (apparently the hottest chili known) but didn't want to use jalapenos (too boring) and so compromised with serranos, using about 4 of those. Instead of crushed tomatoes, I chopped up some fresh ones and pureed them, and I decided to add 1 tbsp of cilantro to the whole thing.

 I also made some catfish jambalaya, which turned out more like catfish risotto but was still delicious. Though briefly tempted to watch The Vulture's Eye (other people, not me), we instead watched this, which, as always, was awesome.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 22 January 2008 2:26 PM EST
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18 January 2008
An Angel Does Not Make Love, An Angel Is Love
Now Playing: Thee Headcoatees--"Run For Your Life"

A new year and my blog's a desert. It's not that nothing's been going on, but I haven't really been impelled to write anything. Suffice it to say, one could do a lot worse than to watch James Whale's scary, sexy, funny old-dark-house masterpiece The Old Dark House (1932), Ken Loach's right-on revisionist take of the Irish War of 1918-23 (which I aways saw as a combined war of independence and civil war), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006; the DVD has a terrific documentary on Loach's work, much of which I love, such as 1991's Riff Raff, 1993's Raining Stones, and 1996's Land and Freedom), and Richard Lester's forgotten, actually-genuinely-good disaster-movie classic Juggernaut (1974). Maybe I'll elaborate one day.

I also still love Charlie Pierce (although if anyone listens to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, his laugh can be seriously annoying).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:29 PM EST
Updated: 18 January 2008 2:36 PM EST
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31 December 2007
The Kind Of Company To Make You Scream
Now Playing: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien--"Time Is Too Expensive"

"You do not have to be standing in metaphysical outer space to recognize that sending your valet off on a fifteen-mile walk through bandit-infested woods in the dead of winter to buy you a small bar of Turkish delight should yield precedence to letting him linger by his father's deathbed."

--Terry Eagleton, After Theory (2003).

2007, bitch-goddess.

The previous year turned out one of the most eventful (and frankly schizophrenic) I've spent in a long time. In the grand scheme of things, nothing very much changed. The country continues to decline, Bush continues his disastrous crawl through history and takes us with him (and much, much worse before it's all through, no doubt), the climate continues to worsen, Michigan's economy gets worse, and the state legislature is incompetent beyond description. And that's just the politics. As for my personal life, there was, I should say, a lot of good. I realized anew that I have some really wonderful friends, was part of two superb birthday celebrations, visited Chicago and Michigan's Upper Peninsula for the first time, got a second job, and found myself in a genuine romantic situation for the first time in nearly a decade. Then there's the bad to consider. My grandfather died, I had to quit the second job, and the romantic situation barely lasted a week.

On top of all that, it seems that a good number of my friends are probably leaving town next year, which, though depressing (the departure of one in particular will be especially hard to bear), is probably what they need to do, and makes me think of why the hell I've been here that long. There's this sense that my world's going through some sort of tectonic shift, and that some spell's beginning to dissipate. I first moved here with the intention of going to library school, before discovering how much I enjoyed cooking, and realizing how much more useful those skills might prove in the kind of genuinely post-industrial world we'll probably face over the next few decades. I've been at the same job now for over four years, by far the longest I've ever been anywhere. Ever since realizing my boss' failings, I've looked in fits and starts for another job, something I fervently hate doing. Every now and then I'd get a really cool co-worker or set of co-workers who would make my job genuinely fun and make me happy (or happier) to be there. Things changed even more in the spring of '05, when the Madison House shows began and I met so many of the friends I cherish today. The fact that I had a widespread social life outside of work--something that hadn't really happened on a large scale since high school--meant a psychic safety valve of sorts. Whether or not that will be the case in future is, in many ways, beside the point. I've been at the job--and in Ann Arbor--too long and I need to leave.

So that's the general plan, anyway. There are the usual resolutions--get in better shape, write more, volunteer more, eat better, but that's up top, and rightly so, I think. Come to think of it, I hope everyone has a happy New Year, too.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 29 December 2007 5:19 PM EST
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27 December 2007
Elves Ate My Garbage
Now Playing: The Polyphonic Spree--"Light To Follow"

La Commune (2000): What better way to spend Christmas Eve than by watching a six-hour docudrama about the brief life and brutal suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune? I'd first heard about Peter Watkins' mammoth "act of resistance" in the Metro Times (of all places) a few years ago--apparently it was playing at the Detroit Film Theater. My curiosity grew after I learned about Watkins' own filmmaking exploits. His 1965 film The War Game was banned by the BBC and the British government for its (by all accounts) bloodcurdlingly realistic portrayal of a nuclear attack on the London area and the government's inevitable inability to do anything about it. Since then, he's been the outsider filmmaker par excellence, spectacularly turning his attention to the Commune. The defeat of the Second French Empire during the Franco-Prussian War left a caretaker republican government without any legitimacy, certainly in Paris, where the working class had sent its people into the army only to have them apparently sold out by a bourgeois government solely interested in covering its ass and making peace with the new German Empire (itself declared that year just outside of town in Versailles). The city councils and the largely working-class National Guard organized their own authority as the "Commune," in which Paris effectively seceded from the rest of France. After a short period of vivacity, in which a socialist system was established throughout the city, the government, having signed its treaty with the Germans, sent in regular troops to quell the Commune. While nearly a thousand hostages were killed by the Communards in response to the government's initial atrocities during the "reconquest," the government proved far more bloody, killing around 30,000 people (many not even Communards) in the horrific Semaine Sanglante, or "Bloody Week." This, at any rate, is a general, vaguely left-wing version of the history (with which I find little wrong). For those who visit Paris today, the famous Sacre-Coeur cathedral can be seen as the succeeding Third Republic's attempt to exorcise the memory of the Communards.

They were partially successful. The Commune itself is a fascinating phenomenon, forming a link between the popular outbursts (in France) of 1789, 1830, and 1848, and the more centralized and authoritarian revolutions of the 20th century. I've read a couple of English histories of the period, Alastair Horne's The Fall of Paris and Rupert Christiansen's Paris Babylon (both far too long ago; I'll certainly need to revisit them now), and would be very interested in finding a French one in translation. Interestingly, though, the Commune (at least according to the accompanying documentary on Watkins, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins) labors under the burden of historical amnesia in France, perhaps even more so than the spectre of Vichy collaboration during the Second World War. I suspect the reason for this to be that the Third Republic, the constitutional government that rose out of the ashes of the Second Empire and Commune, is largely the government that France has today, even with the existence of the Fourth Republic (founded after Liberation in 1944-45) and the Fifth Republic (current; founded after the political division in 1958 concerning the war in Algeria). Doubtless the powers that be don't want citizens looking too closely. The film and its methods drive home the point with irresistible force.

Watkins found only one French TV network to fund La Commune, Arte, and the latter aired the film late at night on a Friday, when (again, according to The Universal Clock), hardly anyone would be watching. It was a huge pity, as La Commune is definitely one of the most interesting films I've ever seen (and engrossing, too, even at six hours). Watkins had 200 non-professional actors and a large warehouse in which to film, and the result is arguably more urgent and realistic than many historical movies which invest in "historical advisers" up the wazoo and end up with something like Braveheart. The democratic ethos Watkins sees in the Commune extends to the script, much of which was written by the performers themselves, all of whom were encouraged to develop their own characters and backstories. The result is a convincing cross-section of Parisian society circa 1871, with the actors just as divided in their loyalties as their characters. The action frequently runs into extended debates, which begin over what to do with the Commune and turn into what to do about present day French (and global industrial) society. The film kept reminding me that it was filmed in 1999, the same year of the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO and the year that anti-globalization sentiment became front-page news, two years before the media claimed "everything changed." Watching it eight years later drove home the point that a lot hasn't, both since 1871 and 1999. Watkins lays a lot of the blame on the media, and reinforces his conviction by introducing two media analyses of the Commune into the movie, one representing the Thiers government, "National TV Versailles", and the other, "Commune TV," created by the Communards themselves after they seize filming equipment. This could have been a cheesy public-television stunt, but it adds context, especially as, despite Watkins' obvious partiality to the Commune, Commune TV is shown partially ignoring their leaders' gradual abandonment of the democratic process under the growing pressure of government attacks. Even the increasing stridency of the information title cards (beginning with valuable information on French history and society c. 1871 and 1999 and ending with slogans that would look good in somebody's zine) fail to diminish the movie's emotional and informative power (it's even genuinely funny at times). It all comes to a head in the Semaine Sanglante (originally broadcast on Arte at three in the morning), half an hour or so of grueling, utterly compelling cinema. In the end, that's what La Commune's all about. The history may be partisan, but it's obviously and necessarily so, given the circumstances, and the artistic quality and thought-provoking nature of the film are undeniable. Bravo, Peter Watkins.

Some other reviews (one rather skeptical of Watkins' work):$3431

Scrooge (1970): The 1951 A Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring the incomparable Alastair Sim, is rightly regarded as the greatest of all versions of Dickens' classic, but after watching Ronald Neame's musical version, with songs by Leslie Bricusse, I think it's well on its way to becoming my own personal favorite. Part of it's down to the set design (nominated for an Oscar, if I remember rightly), a more convincing recreation of Victorian London than most movies have managed, part of it down to the catchy music (Scrooge even sings a song called "I Hate People," and I think Bricusse also wrote a few Bond theme songs), and part down to the fantastic supporting cast, the best being Alec Guinness' droll Jacob Marley, Kenneth More's tetchy Ghost of Christmas Present (he wasn't bad in Sink The Bismarck! either, but I still don't get Father Brown) and above all the late, great Anton Rodgers as the non-canon Tom Jenkins, the wiseass, penurious soup cook (yay!). The selling point of Scrooge, though, is the casting of Albert Finney as the title character. Watching it at first and thinking it's only ten years after Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (and seven years after Tom Jones, three after Two For The Road, etc.) is enough to blow my mind while watching him as the crotchety old miser. Usually an older actor such as Sim or George C. Scott (in the 1984 CBS version) gets Scrooge while a younger (respectively, George Cole and Mark "Turlough" Strickson) winds up as... the younger. Finney proves yet again what a good (and come to think of it, taken for granted) actor he is, convincingly portraying all the ages of Scrooge and (vitally) taking full physical part in all the singing and dancing (it sure doesn't sound like anyone was dubbed--I'm still stunned that Anton Rodgers had it in him). The result is an entertaining, moving, surprisingly low-key rendition of the Christmas classic, with Scrooge's visit from the Ghost of Christmas future turned into a minor gem of black comedy. They really ought to show this every once in a while around this time of year. 

Hello Dolly! (1969): Every few years or so, Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor puts on a movie at the Michigan Theater on the 25th of December so the congregation and anyone else at loose ends that day'll have something to do, apparently (seriously, that's the reason given). I went to their showing of The Sound of Music some years before (the singalong kind) and it was great fun. I'd already had a rather busy couple of days (went to St. Andrew's the night before for carols, only to find out that the time was wrong--that or they were overproselytizing) and I was right in the middle of a pre-midnight Communion, for half of which I hung around), and decided to go see this, as I'm a huge fan of Babs' early screen work (her music's crap, though, isn't it?) and also of early Michael Crawford (I could only watch two episodes of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, though--my brain just didn't have the energy), and there'd be kosher hot dogs. The occasion itself was enjoyable enough; I even ran into a fellow Planned Parenthood volunteer (who apparently does something important at the temple, I believe). As for the movie... Watching this after the gritty realism of La Commune and even Scrooge, I suppose it was working with a handicap, but there's also that Doctor Doolittle the-Cleopatra-of-musicals reputation, as it apparently took several years to make any money. This, unsurprisingly, was the result of the stultifyingly overdone set design. Wondering how many thousands of dollars they could have saved and still had an entertaining musical rather got in the way of it being all that good, and the story itself's a little lightweight. Fortunately, Babs is terrific (and gorgeous), with a few songs I don't remember from the actual musical giving her character some depth and warmth, Louis Armstrong shows up (with everyone applauding as he did so) and Crawford convincingly manages an American accent all the way through (most, anyway--it's mildly unsettling to think of him in Richard Lester classics like The Knack--And How To Get It and How I Won The War and then in this). The rest of the cast is okay but unremarkable, Walter Matthau glowering like Christopher Lee (although Lee wasn't responsible for maybe the single worst "celebrity" cameo in cinema history--watch Earthquake and you'll find out what I'm talking about). It's especially odd to think of the differing talents going into Hello Dolly!--Gene Kelly directing, Alexander "Star Trek" Courage helping on the music, and Ernest Lehman (!!) writing. It was okay, but not one of my favorites.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 27 December 2007 11:23 AM EST
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22 December 2007
Now Playing: The Go! Team--"Do It Right"

In the midst of perhaps the busiest social day I've had in several years (one show, two parties, and two other parties I had to decline), it's probably a good idea to extend holiday wishes (Christmas, Chanukah, Eid, Kwanzaa, Solstice--Samhain? Beltain? never could remember--and if there are Hindu or Buddhist variants--I should know this, dammit) to all and hope everyone has a pleasant week... next week. Not good at this, really, so I'll sign off and prepare for more fun and a well-deserved period of hibernation. "A heart attack never stopped Old Big Bear!"*

 *Who I wound up missing at Mittenfest, but whatever.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:46 PM EST
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18 December 2007
They Show Us Magic
Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Slow Life"

American Sasquach (2004): Shortly after the millennium, when I still lived in Akron, my friend Matthew Keller and I were having a discussion about Britpop, and he mentioned the music of the Welsh rock group Super Furry Animals, a band I'd never heard before. Listening to their first album, Fuzzy Logic (1996), I slowly became completely engrossed in their music in both Akron and Ann Arbor to the point where I can now call them my favorite living band. Sleater-Kinney broke up, Wilco aren't that good anymore, but the SFA keep putting out excellent music even after almost (!) a decade, thanks to lead singer Gruff Rhys, guitarist Huw Bunford, bassist Guto Pryce, drummer Dafydd Ieuan, and keyboardist Cian Ciaran. Their music's a little hard to explain, usually described by critics as neo-psychedelic-electronic (with dashes of hiphop) or something like that, which comes close, but doesn't do justice to just how hard they can rock. Stephen Thomas Erlewine has a good summary of their career and reviews of their albums--along with Fuzzy Logic, Radiator (1997), Guerrilla (1999), the all-in-Welsh mwng (2000), Rings Around The World (2002), Phantom Power (2004), Love Kraft (2005), and the upcoming Hey Venus! (2007), which I'm sure I'll love hearing in a couple of weeks. All told, their music started out really hard and eclectic and then relaxed into this sort of sunny, neo-hippie haze which never took itself seriously enough to mock (a relief for me, as you can probably imagine). They never lost the eclecticism, either. With Hey, Venus!, from what I hear, they seem to have returned to their hard-rocking roots with nary a stumble; I can't wait to hear it for myself. As much as I love the band, Rhys' stuff, both with his previous band Ffa Coffi Pawb (also featuring one of the original members of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci--their collection of singles from 1986-1992, Am Byth, is a delicious listen) and in his solo career (the all-in-Welsh Yr Atal Genhedlaeth from 2004, and 2006's bilingual Candylion) is nearly as good.

Even with all that, I never had a sense of the band as individuals as I did with my other official favorites--the Kinks obviously spun around the squabbling Davies siblings, and Sleater-Kinney around the on-again, off-again tension between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and... yeah, Wilco's been downgraded ("Sky Blue Sky" can bite me). I never read anything about SFA other than reviews of their albums, and despite their headliner status in the UK, it was always about the music for me. It's probably just as well, as I might have been frightened away by the delightful but intense fanbase pictured in American Sasquach. A charmingly chaotic documentary of their various American tours (which seem to stretch from about 2000 to 2004; they do a now-inevitably-eerie interview at a studio in the World Trade Center) made by Dylan Jones, Sasquach shows both the band on tour and the character and extent of their following in the United States, a pleasantly unsettling experience for me, as I hardly know anyone else who listens to their music. To see all these people grooving to songs I love (even a couple, like "Ice Hockey Hair," that I never heard until a couple of days ago) on a pretty much daily basis was a revelation, both numbing and exhilarating. With all the imagination that goes into their songs and album art, the latter courtesy of Pete Fowler and Mark Jones, it was little surprise that their stage shows were such staggering yet nimble multimedia affairs, and the guys themselves seem like a refreshingly pleasant bunch (who apparently smoke truckloads of weed--and, hey, if it bears such fruit, more power to 'em). My own favorite moment was probably when Rhys and a female fan launch into an impromptu acoustic and vocal performance of the luminous "Hello Sunshine" that's just meltingly beautiful (Rhys sounds like Orpheus must have with a head cold). Best of all, Sasquach comes as the extra to the DVD of the band's singles collection Songbook, running from their pre-Fuzzy Logic stuff to Phantom Power. I stopped watching videos a long time ago (even in situations when I had cable, MTV's increasing intellectual and musical poverty made that certain), and so I probably missed a few artistic innovations. Even so, the fuckers are astonishing, some like Svankmajer shorts with really awesome music). Pride of place go to "Hello Sunshine" and the hilarious "Golden Retriever" from Phantom Power, and the unnerving "Do or Die" and tender "Fire In My Heart" from Guerrilla (the latter video making the lyrics into a gentle joke that manages to be even more touching than the original song). There have been few depressing moments in my life recently that haven't been alleviated somehow by their wonderful music (although this November they shared credit with Father Ted and Black Books co-creator Graham Linehan). Is it genius or magic? At this point I don't really care which; I just hope they keep playing forever or just long enough so I can hear them live.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 17 December 2007 6:23 PM EST
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13 December 2007
Extroverted Suicides
Now Playing: Thin Lizzy--"Whiskey in the Jar"

God, that song's so fucking cool.

 Mutual Appreciation (2005):

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Ummm... I have eyeshadow."

By all rights, Mutual Appreciation should have annoyed the living crap out of me. Focusing on three hyper-articulate young people living in New York City (Brooklyn, from the credits), it tells the story of Alan (Vincent Rice), a musician trying to make it big there after relocating from Boston, and the effect his decisions have on his friend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski, who also wrote and directed) and the latter's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Filmed in grainy black-and-white with a presumably handheld camera (it certainly looked like it), Mutual Appreciation had "twee indie nightmare" spraypainted all over its smug wine-and-latte-stained mush. On the back of the DVD case, Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly declares that "Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation." Turns out, though, that he probably is, and Thoth help us all. Fortunately for me, against all odds, I rather enjoyed it. Mutual Appreciation is one of those movies, like Miranda July's Me And You And Everyone We Know of the same year, that just manage to stop death-defyingly short of some artistic precipice leading directly to talky, "quirky" hipster cinematic hell (in the liner notes, Bujalski fantasizes in the form of kids' book drawings about July turning into a waffle at a film festival--because he likes her, I hasten to add). Those are actually the only two I can remember, but hopefully there are others out there, so that I don't have to continually console myself with flicks that predate me. Alan moves to Brooklyn, has a few abortive romantic encounters with DJ Sara (Seung-Min Lee), comes between Lawrence and Ellie in a number of ways, plays his songs, and acts not quite enough like a chode to be aggressively unsympathetic (although in a couple of scenes, he actually looks like an aroused koala, which I thought awesome). For my money, the central joke of the movie is that Alan's stuff (apparently written by Rice), despite the strained quasi-English accent, is actually very good--it would have been so easy to make him a delusional hack. Rice himself is one of the founding members of Boston band Bishop Allen, some of whose songs feature in the movie, apparently, and who I should definitely investigate. The leads are terrific (Bujalski and Clift, despite their characters' problems, make a lovely and realistically endearing couple), and Bujalski nails urban (or "rural," for that matter) hipster dialogue with squirm-inducing accuracy. It never gets irritating, though, only one catchphrase managing to make my skin crawl, and that for relatively unrelated reasons. Bujalski himself will be someone to watch in future (I'll make it my business to catch his 2003 picture Funny Ha Ha, also including himself and Rice), particularly since he had the stroke of genius (I'm guessing it was his decision, anyway) to put the cast and crew's parents on the DVD commentary instead of, say, himself and one of the lead actors or the cinematographer. That way, instead of getting all this snarky, self-referential stuff about songs and music and performance pieces and pop culture, you actually hear people unfamiliar with the world shown trying to make sense of it, particularly in the context of their own experiences as teenagers or young adults. Like the movie itself, it could have been a cheap exercise in cutesy "ironic" mockery ("heh, they just didn't get it"), but it happily doesn't turn out that way. Some, of course, did say they just didn't understand. Some said they just didn't like the movie itself (as I was almost one of these, I had a great deal of sympathy, if not agreement--and dear God, how often do you hear that on a DVD commentary?). Some understandably fawn all over their kids (you can tell how proud they are, even if they don't "get" it). Others (it somehow helps that you usually don't know which parents these are--only a couple identify themselves for certain) make a fair number of extremely incisive comments about the nature of the relationships, the characters, the structure of the movie, Alan's hair, and even technical matters like sound and cinematography (one minor actor's father had the same issues I did with the occasional and--if intended--pointless lack of focus in certain shots). It was a real trip watching the movie bare and then with commentary, for once genuinely like watching two different flicks. Mutual Appreciation is one to investigate, and one I can safely say for people of all ages.

Nashville (1975): One of the great American classics, and one I've shockingly avoided throughout my checkered career as a cineaste (Do the Right Thing and Raging Bull were two other--until recently--inexplicable exceptions, all the more inexplicable as I believe Lee and Scorsese to be exactly as good as advertised). My problem is that I find Altman incredibly overated. M.A.S.H. (1970) is probably the centerpiece in my conviction, and Short Cuts (1993), though handicapped at any rate by its swollen length, ran hot and cold (mostly cold). Cookie's Fortune (1998)--okay, Cookie's Fortune??? I have The Long Goodbye (1973) at home on VHS, and still haven't watched it due to a lingering dread. Fortunately, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was fantastic (if draining), 3 Women (1977) was one of the most genuinely hallucinatory movies I've ever seen, and I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tanner '88 (1988), a mockumentary cooked up by Altman and Doonesbury writer Garry Trudeau covering a minor congressman's campaign for President--the sequel, Tanner on Tanner (2004), again featuring Cynthia Nixon as Tanner's daughter, wasn't quite as good but still well worth a look. All these eventually convinced me to give Nashville a try. Considered by most (if I'm not mistaken) as Altman's masterpiece, Nashville looks at a wide array of characters taking part in the events leading up to a fateful political rally--this being Nashville, many involving the country-western music world of the period. It's hard to summarize the plot and the characters except with that sentence. The cast list is daunting--Keith Carradine (who won an Oscar for his song "I'm Easy"), Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Keenan Wynn (really some of his best work, but I still found myself suddenly wanting to watch Shack Out on 101), Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Elliott Gould and Julie Christie in minor roles as themselves, and a couple of my personal favorites, Barbara Harris and frequent Altman performer, Tanner star Michael Murphy (again playing a mildly shady political type). Even more interesting were people I didn't know that well--Robert Doqui, Gwen Welles, and especially country singer and occasional Bob Dylan muse Ronee Blakely as a fragile, unstable... country singer who gets caught up in the film's climax. Besides painting an exhaustive portrait of mid-postwar life (Chaplin is funny as a goofy BBC radio journalist trying to make sense of the "real America"), Altman has a number of things to say on the nature of politics and celebrity and what happens when those worlds collide--certainly nothing new, even thirty years ago. For once, I think a movie described as "essential" actually is.

Jason X (2002): Why? you ask. A determination to prove my willingness to watch anything? Something to tell my grandnieces and nephews? I remmber hearing that it would be made, way back when, with a combination of awe and stupefaction (now, when I heard about Saw IV, I was just depressed). I remember well the inimitably derisive tone of my grad school colleague Sean when it was mentioned one day in an Akron bar--"isn't that the one where he's in space?" He is, indeed, and let me tell you, Jason X makes Leprechaun IV: In Space look like Silent Running. Right, so in or around 2000 (the date changes at several points throughout the "plot"), Camp Crystal Lake has been turned into a research facility exclusively devoted to finding out why Jason keeps coming back to life. He manages to escape, slaughters a couple of security guards and the greedy government suit who wants to profit from Jason's regenerative abilities (the latter a cameo of some note in the world of horror--and general--cinema, and, though not one of my favorites, I've always respected him and he really should have known better), delivers a critical wound to Rowan, a gutsy scientist (Lexa Doig, and if that character name's a Wicker Man reference, that just makes it worse), and then accidentally freezes himself and Rowan in the same cryogenic chamber for four centuries (give or take; the movie certainly does). By that point, Earth's been irretrievably poisoned, everyone lives in various interstellar colonies (I imagine; there seems to be little interest in humanity's living situation except to provide plot points), and a scantily-clad-as-the-situation-will-even-remotely-plausibly-permit student archeological expedition unearths Jason and Rowan, with fairly predictable results. Jason X manages to rip off Aliens, Alien: Resurrection, and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock with brio that might be commendable if the movie weren't so stupid (there were a few other sources of "homage," but I lost track). As some of you know, I've got a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing, but Jason X just gets dumber and more obnoxious as it goes along; every time you think it can't plumb yet another depth, it proves you wrong and (probably) laughs at you. I surely doesn't help that I'm not a big splatter fan; excessive gore, more often than not, is just a way to avoid having to work for your chills (unless you're Dario Argento and you're making Suspiria). On these shores, I don't think a lot of directors got the message, particularly the Friday the 13th series' Sean S. Cunningham (who merely produces Jason X--I'll be nice and omit the director's name). Two things make it even worse. The cast is unexpectedly likable in a weird way (the acting varied, but Doig is pretty decent in her role, which made me feel especially bad for her), most unusual for slasher flicks, and it sucks to think of them probably having such a good time only to produce this taintscrape. The script, too, comes well enough after, say, Scream to try and be "ironic" and "witty" in certain passages, which might have worked if the drumrolls weren't so heavy-handed, and some of the funny bits so loathsome, and, dare I say, if the movie weren't about Jason being unfrozen four hundred years later on a fucking spaceship. It's even sadder when you consider that Joss Whedon was making Firefly that year. The best thing I can say about Jason X is to crib the marvelous Leonard Maltin summation of 1986's Iron Eagle, with Lou Gossett, Jr. and Jason Gedrick: "Not boring, just stupid." 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:54 PM EST
Updated: 13 December 2007 9:32 AM EST
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8 December 2007
Finding Myself In Sunny Morocco
Now Playing: The GZA--"Animal Planet"

I haven't dreamed vividly in some time, to my utter dismay, and thankfully reversed the trend last night with two of them (I guess leftover jambalaya, a bottle of cheap cabernet and The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Volume 2 are all you really need).

First, the new Todd Haynes Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (which I still have to see) had become an all-time record-breaking moneymaker for the Michigan Theater. There was a gut-churning array of I'm Not There cash-in events and activities throughout the streets of Ann Arbor--rides, games, taffy pulls, the whole enchilada. Someone I knew who used to work at the Michigan came into the restaurant and--quite accidentally--grabbed someone's sandwich off the counter, thinking it hers. Fluffy somehow sensed that I knew her and told me to follow her, adding "she's the one who looks like Bob Dylan!" I should add that quite a vast percentage of Ann Arbor's population, maybe thinking it would make the place seem more like an actual city, had taken the movie's lead and swanned about dressed as the Zimm himself in one of his many poses over the years. The lady in question, of course, was trying to look like Cate Blanchett in the movie. I eventually found her, and as we hadn't seen each other in a while (in real life, she knows a rather unusual secret about me) we got to chatting and leafing through Bob Dylan pamphlets and coloring books. Before I knew it, a good two hours had passed, and I hurried back to Chateau Fluffy, where my boss was fuming. "Well? Did you find her? What's your decision?"

I woke up at that point, but thoroughly enjoyed it.

After falling back to sleep, I found myself thrown what seemed to be a couple of weeks in the future, as Starling Electric were going to play the first phase of Mittenfest at the Blind Pig. People came over to my house--which resembled no house I've ever lived in, but I could tell that the place rapidly shifted back and forth between Ann Arbor and Baton Rouge. It eventually seemed to settle on Baton Rouge, as we started watching the BCS championship between LSU and Ohio State (itself a month in the future, and even that could have meant Ann Arbor because of the whole Les Miles thing and Ohio State's involvement). An ex-fling showed up with some new guy (the latter alternately nice and rude to me, which I found consciously hilarious). It was an interesting assembly. I passed out, "woke up" four hours later, and realized that the show had already started. Rather inconvenient, that, as my house not only turned into a shack across the river (definitely Louisiana, this), but also found itself the center of a crystal meth operation gone wrong, with squat, shadowy figures in three-piece suits waving guns and chasing varied quarry in trucker hats. A little freaked by the gunfire, I crawled away on all fours so as to avoid detection and found myself in a secret country club somewhere to the northwest of Port Allen, with a still, shimmering lake surrounded by Renaissance statuary and Inca stonework. All of a sudden I was being driven through the place by a rather attractive anthropologist who I could swear I've met in real life. I asked if she could let me out (stupid! stupid!), as I really wanted to get to the show. She dropped me off in New Roads, which looked nothing like the real thing. It was now a charming interwar city of the kind that reminded me of what Sinclair Lewis' Zenith (in Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry) must have looked like. Running into an old high school friend, whose name I horribly mangled into that of film director Stephen Sommers, the criminal hack who gave us Van Helsing, I decided to visit a podiatrist, who I found immmediately suspicious due to the curious hat she wore. Hearing her giggle behind doors at the money she would make off me, I determined to make my escape and wondered when the hell New Roads had gotten so cool and attractive (noticing as I did the "NOW HIRING COOKS" signs in many restaurant windows). Finding that the bus for Baton Rouge (!) left in another hour, I decided to explore the downtown area by car (so many of my dreams have me driving) before I was offered a helicopter lift by a passing chopper pilot. "Sure," I said, and he took me for a spin before dropping me back at the bus station, where--really hungry by this point--I noshed down on a "Cajun" vending machine feast of smoked salmon and dill sauce (like they serve at Ann Arbor's Central European restaurant Amadeus). A guy asked me, "don't they have those at Common Grill?" I paused and looked at him. "Which Common Grill?" I asked. "The one in Chelsea," he told me. Chelsea, Michigan. Baton Rouge and Ann Arbor had become inextricably linked. Parts of "downtown New Roads" resembled parts of downtown Chicago, so I'm wondering if there's some sort of psychic triangulation going on. I sadly woke up before I could finally make it to Mittenfest (as I'm sure it was still going strong by that point).

I love it when places get mixed up in that way. There are two recurring places in my dreams--one some kind of Mediterranean port, and another in Latin America, both of which have featured frequently in my dreams (which is really all I used my journal for at one point). This one'll take some figurin', though, I don't doubt.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:09 AM EST
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