Friday, July 29, 2011

Holidays and Politics

I have been on vacation - thus the blog silence, after a run where I almost got back to a regular posting routine. (Mostly gimmick posts, I admit - Friday Random Music posts, Sunday screen shots, that sort of thing - but still, content!) I have been to a strange and mysterious foreign land where the temperature never gets above 30 (at least not where I was - it might have gone higher in the plains), where they give change in $2 coins, where they eat poisonous concoctions like rappie pie. As well as more conventional pies...

It was, I'm happy to say, very nearly off the grid - what news I saw on TV was all local, Maritimes stuff, and that mostly weather related (how to stay cool when the temperature hits 32! sort of thing.) That and Anne Murray... Even so, I couldn't completely avoid the news back in the USA - mostly bad news, daily idiocies related to the debt ceiling... I managed to get on the internet and got to follow the whole sorry mess. I don't have anything profound to add to it - I might as well link to Krugman (like every blog I read) - the joys of balance... I did notice, on the road, the tendency by the TV news to seek out people who would bewail the "partisanship" in Washington for their vox populi bits - spreading the blame around evenly. Christ. We all know, the GOP is doing this deliberately, creating a false crisis over the debt limit business, figuring they can force the politics right - though they don't seem to be satisfied with that. I suspect they are playing a longer game - deliberately trying to crash the economy, and blame it on Obama - figuring the president gets blamed for everything anyway, and they will reap the benefits. They may have a point - I keep seeing these bits on facebook:
Dear Mr. President, I heard you say you will not guarantee SS checks if the debt ceiling isn't raised. Why does it always has to do with SS, Medicare, & our Soldiers pay? Why not stop your pay, your staff, or Congress and the Senate? Lets hold the paychecks of all house & senate members, then see how fast they resolve the debt ceiling crisis ! If you agree repost this & keep it going across the whole USA

I dunno where that started, though now it seems ubiquitous... it's pretty friggin' sad. From the implication that the president is creating this crisis (oh sure, it's got congress in there too - see what Krugman said about "balance"...) - even the implication that the president controls spending... to the magic thinking in all the variations on the "let's cut congress's salaries and balance the budget" spam going around... to the fact that even my tea party loving friends are posting it - shit - I thought they wanted to kill social security and medicare! they voted for the Republicans - what did they think they were voting for?

I'm not hopeful about any of this. I don't see any good coming of any of the possible results. If the dems cave - that's bad. (And, of course, once Obama and Reid agree to cut social security and medicare, the GOP will blame them for cutting Social Security and medicare. Everybody knows this, but somehow, the dems don't seem to notice.) If there is not a deal - the GOP will blame Obama for any bad fallout. If Obama does anything more aggressive to get around the problem (I like Matthew Yglesias' trillion dollar coin idea!), they will howl about tyranny and usurpation of congressional powers (powers they deliberately failed to exercise) - until they win the White House, then they will embrace and extend them. (There's probably a larger story here, of the ultimate triumph of the executive branch, of the legislature's complete abandonment of its responsibilities. I fear this - and with the increasing willingness by Congress to simply refuse to govern, beyond the structural deadlock - executive government is a real possibility. That is too depressing to go on about....)

Right. Meanwhile, since almost any result of this vote will be less government spending, with unemployment still pushing 10% and the economy starting to tank again, we are likely to see the economy crash again... Amazing.

I think I might go back to the Great White North...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summertime Movie Viewing Report

The last couple weeks have been a good example of the kinds of films I seem to be driven to lately. Mid-level Hollywood comedies, (I've never been so desperate to pay money for something like Transformers, or the Hangover, for that matter) and amiable documentaries, that maybe belong on TV. This is not exactly a bad thing - the films are generally edifying in some way - but they do seem like a lot of filler. There aren't enough movie movies to see. When one comes along - a revival of The Leopard, say - what bliss!

Anyway - what have I seen lately? Well - start with Pianomania -a fascinating and lovely look at the backstage of concert music, through the eyes of a high end piano tuner, Stefan Knupfer. We see him working with a variety iof musicians - Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, etc. - we see him working with Steinway to buy a new piano (for the Vienna Concert House), and overseeing the sale of another piano. Much of the film is devoted to a recording session with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Aimard is recording Bach, and wants to use different kinds of sounds from his piano - tuned like a harpsichord, a clavichord, an organ, etc. - he and Knupfer work on that for a year. It's quite a fascinating film, showing the details of piano tuning, the manipulation of sound - and quite entertaining. Knupfer is a witty, amiable fellow - "I think I'll have a very sportive day" he says, in the midst of running up and down stairs between Aimard and his piano, and the room where the recording engineers are set up. What's best about it, though, is probably that it shows something I know nothing about, and teaches me something about it.

That's also true of Buck - a nice doc about Buck Brannaman, a horse trainer and trick roper and cowboy, who runs clinics on training horses - he had a hard childhood, which has somehow left him almost saintly seeming, and utterly devoted to training horses gently - and people too... It's a nice story, and Buck and his family and other associates are nice people to spend a couple hours with though there isn't much more to the film. Except, again, showing me something I don't know anything about, and leaving me knowing more about it - not a bad thing...

Page One:Inside the New York Times - In a way, I'm not sure this is all that much different from previous two - it is, as subtitled, a year inside the New York Times, specifically the media desk (editor Bruce Headlam, reporters Tim Arango, Brian Stetler, and most of all, reporter and columnist, David Carr.) It is, basically, a fly on the wall type film, put together after the fact - it's not quite pure hagiography (of the institution, let's say) - but close, and certainly, one imagines the Times was able to exercise a good deal of control over what ended up in the film. Though like the films above - it shows us the day to day workings of a big newspaper (the big newspaper, at least in the US) - and that too is inherently fascinating stuff. But as a film - maybe just a nice look at something....

But it feels like more than that. A lot of it, I have to admit, is just that there is something so exhilarating about newsroom films - I am a sucker for that stuff. Hecht and Hawks and Capra - and this is right in that tradition. I get twinges watching these guys working the phones, typing away on their laptops, pitching stories, walking the halls looking for that last paragraph, waiting for the lawyers to call back - even just the simple stuff, watching how fast and easy they type - great stuff. It's a great genre, because newspapers are a great setting, and this is a ,ore than worthy entry in the tradition. But I suppose, there is more than that - there is, after all, the Big Question, whatever that is - here, it takes the form - will the New York Times survive? - and spreads out from there. Whither journalism? Whither print? Whither the web? Etc. And how will these changes change society? the body politic? etc. etc.

I don’t know. The issues raised are, undeniably, vital questions, and they are given something of an airing here. And their importance gives the film heft - though in the end I'm left a bit unsatisfied. I don't know if that is the film's problem, or if it's broader - I am not sure I have ever been all that happy with the debates I've seen over these issues (the whole Whither Media stuff). It's hard to say why - here, a lot of my dissatisfaction seems to come from the way the discussions always seem to get sidetracked, bogged down, or how single issues come to take over for the whole range of issues. As an example here - there is a panel where Markos Moulitsas and David Carr get into a discussion about the place of the Mainstream Media - which Kos turns into a discussion of Judith Miller and Jayson Blair, and the failures of the New York Times, a position Carr routs mainly by pointing to the rest of the paper. But really - both seem to be evasions - Kos of the general value of the paper (and other papers), Carr of the fact that the authority he claims relies completely on not fucking up like that.

Now - I have opinions on the subject. In fact, I think the problem for print newspapers (and not necessarily just print) is driven by two things - 1) the big one is the advertising crisis - I mentioned this last year, days where I could not find a classified section in my local paper. (At least not in print.) That trumps everything else, since the daily paper lives on its ads. (Monthly publications, books, I think, will find ways to continue to make money through sales - I don't think daily papers can do that enough to survive.) 2) The digitization of information - and the web - which makes bits easy and cheap to exchange. ("Free" - or - free as far as the information goes - the cost revolves around the connections and servers - you get on the web and then do what you do, and it doesn't much matter what....) This changes the economy - it's one thing to charge for objects - something else to charge for information that can be reproduced for almost nothing. I can hold these opinions, and a variety of opinions based on them (that you can't control the flow of information enough to charge for it like you could for a piece of paper, things like that) - but... I hold other opinions too - that nothing on the web except web-based newspapers can do what newspapers can do. That without all the things newspapers have - the departments and bureaus, reporters and editors, people doing the legwork, the cold calling, grinding through the archives, interpreting the data - you cannot provide the real service newspapers provide. And this opinion collides with the ramifications of the first 2 - because I don't know how newspapers can survive in their current form with the current models of revenue. I don't think you can afford to put out a daily edition on the revenues you can get from ads, now - and I don't think (the Times' attempts to the contrary) you will be able to maintain much headway charging for online content. It's too easy for the information to get out of the paywall. And maybe more importantly - even if the Times and a couple others survive - having one or two or a dozen great papers in the whole country is not much better than having none. Someone will have to work something out. And - someone will work something out. That is not "optimism" it's just a fact - news and information will circulate in the future. But I don't know how, who will pay for it, what it will look like, what kinds of (valuable) things will be lost (or gained) - or who will be ruined getting to that point. We are kind of stuck in limbo for a while. There was someone in the movie, testifying before Congress, who said, we are early in the process - John Kerry took the opportunity to pontificate about the people who have lost their jobs - but she was simply right. Things have not worked themselves out in the least yet - the process is just starting....

Okay - crap - that went on longer than I expected. Well - what of the fiction?

Well - there's Bad Teacher - Cameron Diaz as a bad teacher, who plans to quit to marry a rich kid - when his mother intervenes, she's got to go back to work, and does so, with all the enthusiasm we might expect. She shows films every day in class; she smokes pot in the parking lot; she steals money from the class car wash to fund her breast enhancement surgery. She's surrounded by loons - Lucy Punch as Amy Squirrel, the probably mad do gooder neighbor; Jason Segal as a randy gym teacher; Justin Timberlake as a rich goofy christian (not stated, but the "pro-choice" joke, and a dry-humping scene make it clear enough); John Michael Higgins as a dolphin obsessed principal; Phyllis Smith as a nice old lady who's up for anything... All this rolls along amusingly enough - the jokes are good, the performers on their game, the story manages not to turn sappy - or gratuitously nasty - I mean, of course people sort of change, and things sort of get better for people, that's what stories do, they change people... to do this without lapsing into life lessons (beyond obvious stuff like don't be a[ny more of a] dick [than you have to be]) is a small triumph, and I'd say it gets there.

Larry Crowne, on the other hand - not so much. It's a likable enough film, I guess, but not a very good one. I have to blame Glenn Kenny and Sam Adams for this one - Kenny kind of liked it; Sam Adams - abetted, I think, by the Most Interesting Man in the World - played a great role the day before in making me miss an 11 AM screening of the African Queen - The Larry Crowne Affair turned out to be a bit more convenient... So what do we have? Tom Hanks is a master criminal laid off from his job at Goldman Sachs and is pursued by Faye Dunaway, or Julia Roberts, as Elizabeth Warren - no, wait, no, that's wishful thinking... Larry Crowne is laid off from UMart because he lacks a college education. He goes to community college, where he has classes with Julia Roberts (another Bad Teacher, though she already has a lousy husband, so isn't looking for another) and George Takai (being very strange). Also in the latter class is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (in the person of Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who rides a scooter (like Crowne) and so orchestrates his midlife crisis makeover. The potential for age inappropriate sex does not materialize, and Hanks and Roberts pair up in the end. He gets A's in his class, but the MPDG drops out (and Crowne doesn't repay her generosity to him by telling her to see Bridesmaids for a lesson on what happens when you start a quirky new retail store in the middle of a fucking recession. Jesus lady! get the degree, so at least in 10 years you can get temp work for an outsourcing firm!) Where was I?

The truth is - there's an interesting story lurking in the shadows here. The MPDG who revivifies poor middle aged Tom Hanks - and Tom Hanks who revivifies mopey Julia Roberts. The little side step - where someone wakes him up and he wakes up someone else - is a cool twist. And some of it is played with some wit and grace. Just not enough. Or really anything beyond the actors pouring on the charm and treating it all like a lark. There's a good idea there - but it's just an idea. Even the idea that Hanks saves Roberts - the film tells us that she saved him (that is, he says that to her), but - we've seen the film - seen her class, which is atrocious, we know she's mailing it in, but his enthusiasm, and his ability to engage his classmates, wakes her up. It would have been nice to have the filmmakers notice this - they might have gotten around to writing a decent film if they had... Instead - it plays like a very sketchy first draft.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Friday Ulster Genius Edition

Since I've had Suspect Device running through my head lately - let's let Genius do it's thing...

1. Modern Lovers - Roadrunner
2. Devo - Mongoloid
3. Public Image Ltd. - Public Image
4. The Pogues - a Pair of Brown Eyes
5. Television - Marquee Moon
6. Gang of Four - Damaged Goods
7. Replacements - Bastards of the Young
8. Echo & the Bunnymen - The Cutter
9. My Bloody Valentine - Only Shallow
10. Jesus and Mary Chain - Some Candy Talking

sounds good... for your viewing pleasures - Still Little Fingers Live, in 1978:

And - this seems quite different, but I'm glad it came up. Here's Echo & The Bunnymen live, with strings:

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sunday With the Duke and Friends

Just keeping it simple this time around, Howard Hawks and the Duke on a Fourth of July Weekend...

Saturday, July 02, 2011

2011 Halftime Report

We have accomplished half a year - what kind of year has it been for films? Looking at my lists - 10 deep, it seems pretty good. But it's felt awfully thin, at times. There have been stretches where there seem to be lots of good films out - but also weeks at a time when there is next to nothing that seems worth the trouble. I have resorted to Hollywood comedies (Bridesmaids; Bad Teacher - both quite enjoyable, don't get me wrong), to ho hum documentaries, the sort of thing they'd show on TV if the non-fiction TV channels didn't suck so bad (Blank City; Pianomania, etc.) - enjoyable and informative, but.... I suppose a lot of this is me - though I don't seem to lack for enthusiasm when there is good stuff out.... so - maybe.

Anyway - here are a couple lists for the first half of the year. First - 10 best films released this year:

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives
2. Certified Copy
3. Quattro Volte
4. Poetry
5. 13 Assassins
6. Dogtooth
7. Meek's Cutoff
8. Strange Case of Angelica
9. Jane Eyre
10. Rango

And - best films made in 2011 (from what is still a pretty short list...):

1. Meek's Cutoff
2. Jane Eyre
3. Rango
4. Cedar Rapids
5. Bridesmaids
6. Bad Teacher
7. Win WIn
8. Midnight in Paris
9. Rubber
10. Tree of Life

And, since it takes a while for a year's films to turn up - here's a look back at 2010 - a pretty good haul of which have come out this year (with positions on original list marked):

1. Carlos (long Version) - #1 at the end of the year
2. Uncle Boonmee - seen in 2011
3. Certified Copy - ditto
4. Quattro Volte - ditto
5. Poetry - ditto
6. Exit through the Gift Shop - 2
7. True Grit - 4
8. The Social Network - 3
9. Oki's Movie - seen in 2011
10. 13 Assassins - ditto

Friday, July 01, 2011

Canadian Music Day

In honor of Canada day - today's top 10 is devoted to Canadian rock! Something like - 5 favorite songs, with 1 per band, something like that...

1. Neil Young - Like a Hurricane
2. Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire
3. Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown
4. The Band - Up on Cripple Creek
5. Tragically Hip - Courage
6. Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
7. Rush - Tom Sawyer
8. Arcade Fire - Month of May
9. BTO - You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
10. New Pornographers - Mutiny I Promised You

Video? Maybe a couple who have been overlooked above.... for instance - I did not know that Terry Jacks was Canadian!

And no tribute to our neighbor tot he north would be complete without their tribute to the USA:

And a band featuring long form music, I can't really fit on a list of great songs - Godspeed You! Black Emperor: