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Happy 242nd July 4, 2018

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RareFlags_IAS_00111This year’s patriotic plug was recommended by my godfather. It’s an honest, plain-spoken, patriotic description of the horrors and madness of the Pacific war. There’s not much in the way of battle strategy analysis – the grunts didn’t hear any. It’s just a squared away account.

Gene Sledge wasn’t a Virginian, but an upper middle class Alabama boy. His story from this book makes up a big part of the HBO series “The Pacific,” which is well worth a watch.

This year’s flag is the “Trumbull pattern.” It might have flown at Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

Happy Fourth. Throw another hot dog on the grill for me. As usual, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

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Best of 2017: Movies March 9, 2018

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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

So, my brother in law crushed me in the family Oscar pool, but that’s not what matters, for this post at least. For the record, he went a very, very good 20 of 24 while I got 15 right because I thought the Academy would distribute the love for Lady Bird and Get Out, in a sort of @metoo backlash a la last year’s @oscarssowhite backlash, at the same time the anti-Three Billboards crew would split votes. Shows what happens when you overthink things. Regardless, I nailed the big six, as did William.

But this post is not about my Oscar picks, but about what new movies I saw that I really thought were the best. It was a pretty good year, as I rated 6 films 3.5 stars out of 5. Last year, I gave out my first 4-star rating in ages, and 5 3.5 stars. One of this year’s faves was directed and written by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of my 4-star “Hell or High Water” in 2016, so my expectations for his future (Sicario 2 as writer/director, he wrote the first one) are high.

But first, as usual, a few comments on industry trends.

  • Per Box Office Mojo, the top 10 U.S. box office hits in 2017 were super heroes, mostly sequels, with two other franchises (Star Wars and Despicable Me), a Stephen King, and a Disney live-actor re-make of a cartoon classic. And Pixar didn’t crack the top 10, though Coco was number 13. Yes, America, we moviegoers are all teenagers or younger.
  • Star Wars Whatever (I’ve lost count) and Beauty and the Beast each sold an astounding $500 million plus in U.S. tickets. Star Wars did over $600 million. Disney rules. Encouragingly, Wonder Woman was number 3, Fast & Furious 8 was number 12, and Black Panther will probably crush 2018 and most every other super-franchise, so at least the franchise business is diversifying.
  • I saw 7 and liked 5 of the top ten, for what it’s worth. I like blockbusters as well as niche genre flicks, subtitled movies both classy and crass, and Films for Grown-Ups pretty much equally.
  • Disney seems unstoppable, but Warners is getting a little of its groove back.

My favorite movies of the year, in the order that I saw them, were:

  • Wind River. Very good “reservation noir” with near-tragic themes of grief and survival. Utah stands in beautifully for Wyoming, there’s a Cave/Ellis score, and solid performances all around. Sheridan wrote and directed.
  • Good Time. Likely destined for midnight-cult status, Good Time is a tense sensory overload: jittery closeups, hallucinatory neon cinematography, throbbing electronic score. Pattinson is terrific, and comparisons with After Hours are not out of line.
  • Three Billboards etc. etc. The script is messy – some gags are cheap, one character’s redemption is unearned – but it gives a solid cast a chance to shine with sharp dialogue, deep characterizations, and murky morals. The result: McDormand and Rockwell are spectacular, and Harrelson and Hedges very fine. Very good score from Burwell, as usual. To the backlashers: it’s not about real midwesterners, it’s about the Amuhrican culture of revenge.
  • Lady Bird. Gee, I wonder if this one’s autobiographical. Kidding aside, this is a wise and touching film; Ronan is compellingly believable (channeling writer/director Gerwig without aping her adork-able schtick), and Metcalf as mom is indeed “warm and scary.”
  • I, Tonya. American tabloid tragedy, laced with black humor, and even a couple of good sports movie scenes. Robbie and Janey are very good, indeed. “I worked for Hard Copy, a sleazy program that real journalists looked down on…and became.”
  • Phantom Thread. Kubrick would approve. Gorgeous formalist cinematography, art design, and score. All three leads are terrific.

To get to a top 10 list, the best of my 3-star ratings were:

  • Wonder Woman or Logan or Thor. Wonder Woman delivered, finally, a truly heroic superhero. Logan made critics recall Unforgiven (4.5 stars – I saw it again on the big screen for its 25th anniversary) but was start enough to only name-drop Shane, yet was still pretty emotional for Marvel. In Thor Ragnarok a little too much improv went a long way.
  • Call Me by Your Name. If you see one languid, sensuous, Italian gay romance this year, make it this one. Chalamet smolders, I’m still making up my mind about Hammer, and, of course, Stuhlbarg gets the great, life-affirming speech. It’s all a little adolescent, but as I’ve said about a prior Guadagnino film, man, those Italians know how to live. Even the non-Italian academics, apparently.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Slam-bang action and unexpected character depth. Sure, it has an extraneous third plot and Star Wars-genuine crappy dialog, but the spectacle is there. And if it’s a new theme that you don’t have to be a blue blood to tap the Force, I’m in.
  • Our Time Will Come. Chinese neorealist mother-daughter version of those existential French resistance movies. Humor and pathos.

The Shape of Water nailed the fairy tale but fumbled the parable. I thought Get Out was wildly overrated though it delivered a few nervous chuckles. Ditto the latest Planet of the Apes which took itself far too seriously (c’mon, Apocalypse Now quotes?) as a blockbuster with half a brain. Mother! should be up for worst movie of the year – I guess once you’ve done “Noah as Superhero,” there’s nowhere to go but back to The Beginning.

 

Best of 2017: Music January 9, 2018

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Photo credit:  flickr user Ryan Atkins

Friends who like hip hop more than I might disagree, but 2017 wasn’t a very good year for new music. At least not to my alt-rock, Americana, post-punk, ’50s jazz tastes. I’m not sure I can even hit a Top 10 list, so, in no particular order, my favorite new releases of the year were:

  • Cherry Glazerr “Apocalipstick” – catchy, snotty. “We wear our underpants three days in a row.”
  • The National “Sleep Well Beast” – the usual, mostly quiet, despair.
  • St. Vincent “Masseduction” – twisted take on pop.
  • Waxahatchee “Out in the Storm” – rocking a little harder and with a little more polish.
  • Lorde “Melodrama” – now she’s a big star, minimal sophomore slumping.
  • Spoon “Hot Thoughts” – their familiar sound, with just a hint of electronica.
  • Queens of the Stone Age “Villains” – some glam, some Zep, and a little funk from Mark Ronson.
  • Willie Nelson “God’s Problem Child” – the rest of the album is a little limp, but the title track is the best song of the year.
  • Steve Earle & the Dukes “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” – old fashioned country.
  • John Mellencamp “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” – see above, with more fiddles.

My usual collection of angry and/or fierce women and still-sounds-like-the-’80s bands, plus a whole lot of country/Americana this year. Randomly(?), I’ve got four artists from 2013 repeating this time. I was disappointed by Japandroids and Kendrick Lamar, as well as by the the alterna-supergroups Filthy Friends and Prophets of Rage.

I only bought about a dozen albums, half or less my recent rate. Yes, I’m using streaming (Spotify and Amazon) more. But I still like to throw as much money the artists’ way as possible, and I download rather than stream to my phone. Hey, I still have an iPod. My younger brother’s the one that buys vinyl, though.

Read Mark Mulligan for what real, modern digital aficionados do. I may be aging out of that psychographic.

Happy 241st July 4, 2017

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YS160116 - Bennington Flag-MFor this year’s patriotic plug, I’ll endorse a book I’m just 100 pages into, but that clearly captures a big part of America. Even though they’re ex-Texas Rangers with nary a Virginian in sight, they’re pretty darn lovable. Would Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne have done a better job than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones? Tough call.

I get contradictory history on the Bennington flag shown above. I like the story where it was flown for inspirational purposes in the War of 1812. You know, the one we lost. That’s what you get for trying to conquer Canada.

Happy Fourth. Throw another burger on the grill for me. As usual, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

Best of 2016: Movies February 19, 2017

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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

It was a good year.

I gave out my first 4-star Rotten Tomatoes score in years, and saw five 3.5-star movies and ten 3-stars. That compares with three 3.5’s and 14 3’s in 2015. Per Box Office Mojo, U.S. theater ticket sales were up a couple of percentage points from a big 2015, and the spoils were more evenly distributed.

Before we get to my favorites, I’ll talk a little about the box office stats.

  • You can’t be a successful studio without big hits, and big hits come from franchise properties. Three movies broke $400 million in sales: Finding Dory, Captain America 3, and Star Wars spinoff 1. (Rogue One will go way over $500M, as it continues into 2017.)
  • I saw about half of the top 20, but few made my “Best of” list. Superhero movies were a mixed bag, even as they propped up the box office as usual. They comprised four of the top 10, though Warner Bros./DC’s offerings look like shaky franchises at best. Fourteen of the top 20 were superheroes, cartoon franchises, and/or sequels or remakes. Lord, help us.
  • Disney crushed it. It soaked up over a quarter of domestic sales, due to its Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel acquisitions, with a little help from its own animation studio.
  • I hold out hope for scrappy little guys making movies for grownups, as Hidden Figures (Fox) and La La Land (Lionsgate) cracked the top 20. But that market is increasingly looking like it will be hybrid limited release/simultaneous direct to on-demand Internet delivery. Amazon just might be doing better than Netflix on that front. Keep your eye on what happens with A24, that’s cranking out good films that make money.

I enjoy blockbusters and genre flicks as much as art films. This year, I’m pretty amazed how many of my favorites got nominated for Oscars. I haven’t seen Lion or Hidden Figures, even though the latter takes place at Langley Research Center, where my dad worked for 30+ years. Yay, NASA! I expect the actual Academy Awards outcome will be a mix of La La Land sweep and #oscarsowhite reversals.

The best movie of the year was:

  • Hell or High Water. Sad, funny, tense, twisted valentine to West Texas. Very, very good cast, terrific script, and killer soundtrack and score. Reminded me of the best of the Coen siblings.

The movies I gave three and a half stars were, in rough order of preference:

  • Manchester-by-the-Sea. You can’t go home again. Stunningly good cast.
  • La La Land. Charmingly un-ironic, yet self-aware. Bravura opening and closing scenes. Will win many awards and will deserve the ones for art direction and Emma Stone.
  • Hacksaw Ridge. Old-school corny and cliche’d….and then they hit Okinawa. Mel does violence and faith and heroism well; is he redeemable?
  • Train to Busan. Zombies on a Train FTW. Everything World War Z wasn’t: exquisite tension, likable heroes, hissable villains, good stunts, minimal CGI.
  • Shin Godzilla. Believe it or not, the rubber suit style approach can still shock and awe. Make no mistake, this is not goofy Godzilla, but an often chilling Gojira with some political satire around the edges.

I’m having a hard time narrowing the list to a top ten, so let’s make it a baker’s dozen. The best of the 3-star movies:

  • The Witch. Who knew the Salem witchhunters got it right? Moments of real horror – not terror or suspense, but actual horror. It’s a little dull in between, but it sticks to its vision almost to a fault.
  • A Bigger Splash. Sexy, sensuous, sensual – and I’m just talking about the scenery and SWINTON’s couture. I’m becoming a big fan of director Guadagnino, even if he lets Fiennes steal most of the scenes.
  • Weiner. “Because I lied to them, I have a funny name, and the media don’t do nuance.” Well, two out of three. I’m baffled why it wasn’t nominated for best documentary.
  • Moonlight. This small – in a good way – movie gracefully turns stereotypes on their ear. Superb cast.
  • The Accountant. A pleasant surprise. Its nutty mood swings and plot-twist reveals make it feel fresh compared with most recent thrillers.
  • Silence. Eloquent. Thoughtful. Marty’s Jesuit teachers should be proud.
  • April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde Truque). The steampunkery animation is gorgeous and witty. The story loses control in the third act, or it might have been a classic. Inspired me to buy some Tardi collections.
  • Captain America: Civil War. “Underoos!” And the Cap movies always have the best Marvel fight scenes.

You might think I’d have loved Arrival. Well I did love the first half – real, thoughtful science fiction, with interesting stuff on linguistics and non-action-heroes. But the resolution, which I won’t spoil, kind of wrecked it for me. Fences was well-acted, but stagey – in a bad way – though it reminded me of O’Neill, who wrote about the same themes 50 years earlier.

Best of 2016: Music December 23, 2016

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Photo credit:  flickr user Ryan Atkins

Just like last year, I’m doing this barely in time for stocking stuffers. Following are my 10 favorite new releases from 2016:

  • Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool” – this is a low-flying panic attack.
  • Parquet Courts “Human Performance” – slacker punks take a step forward in song-writing depth. And guitar solos!
  • David Bowie “Blackstar” – sad, wise, haunting, experimental. Way to make an exit by one of the all-time greats.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree” – absolutely wrenching.
  • Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” – outlaw country meets orchestra, hot horns section, and “In Bloom,” and somehow it all makes weird sense.
  • Angel Olsen “My Woman” – folky singer-songwriter rocks harder, does a little pop, still goes deep.
  • Paul Simon “Stranger to Stranger” – whoulda thunk? Still catchy after all these years.
  • Iggy Pop “Post Pop Depression” – still snarling after all these years.
  • P.J. Harvey “The Hope Six Demolition Project” – just as angry as Iggy.
  • A Tribe Called Quest “We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” – thou shalt not say “old school.”

Possibly, the gloom and sadness and anger of this list matched my mood for the year.

It didn’t quite make the Top 10, but honorable mention goes Car Seat Headrest’s “Teens of Denial,” hooky indie rock that’s way more rock than mope, even if its lyrics aren’t quite as clever as Pitchfork thinks. And the Stones showed they could still play the blues on “Blue & Lonesome,” but we knew that already. Metallica showed they could still be metal on “Hardwired…to Self-Destruct” where maybe we weren’t so sure.

Not being modern, I still buy albums – 28 this year, 8 from the back catalog, very similar to last year. I like that Amazon will sell me a CD with instant download often for the same price – physical and cloud backup. Some of this behavior is because I want to pay artists better than Spotify does, and some of it’s because I listen to downloads on my phone and an old iPod, rather than streaming my data plan away.

I’m what we used to call back in the Jupiter Research days a “digital music aficionado” (digital user, high spender), so I love the streaming services to experiment and dive deep. But I also agree with Mark Mulligan that $10 per month isn’t a mainstream consumer product, regardless of whether it screws artists worse than their labels used to.

Happy 240th July 4, 2016

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This year’s patriotic plug.  The U.S. Army learns how to fight, and Eisenhower – even though he’s not a Virginian – learns how to lead. And that flag is a shout-out to the home state of my niece’s alma mater, who just won the College World Series. Go, Chants!

Happy Fourth. Throw another hot dog on the grill for me. As usual, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

 

Best of 2015: Movies February 24, 2016

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Regular readers know I like to preface my list of faves with some box office stats, courtesy of the indispensable Box Office Mojo. A casual observer might think Hollywood had a good year in the U.S., with ticket sales a record, and up 7% from 2014. But two colossal hits, the Star Wars and Jurassic Park reboots, did not represent a tide that lifted leakier boats.

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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

While their success hammers home the message that hits rule – does anyone mis-interpret the long tail phenomenon any more? – as my colleague Paul Sweeting writes, movies outside of the Top Five performed relatively poorly. Click through on his analysis; it’s worth a read. Studios can’t rely on the inertia of their old release and marketing tactics.

Meanwhile, in 2015:

  • Star Wars, practically a remake rather than just a re-start, collected nearly $1 billion in domestic box office, making it the biggest hit ever in current dollars. Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars did better by other accounting. The $650 million that the dinos raked in was way, way better than recent years’ top-performers, which were lucky to crack $300 million. The disappointing Avengers 2 was the only pure superhero Top 10 flick, and wonder of wonders, an original property, The Martian, made it onto that list. Too bad it’s not particularly sequel-friendly.
  • Disney’s acquisitiveness paid off: it scored with Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar. Universal was a more surprising star via the fairly risky Jurassic move and the demographics-friendly continued success of the Fast ‘n Furious franchise, as well as those still-kicking Minions. There were just under 30 $100+ movies this year, which is about par for recent history. What really matters is how much one spends to make and market ’em.

I saw – and enjoyed – about half of the Top 20 movies last year. But only The Martian made my “best of” list. What else did? Proving I’m not a complete snob, but also not much of a reflector of popularity if a fair-to-middling predictor of Oscar-nom worthiness, last year I saw three 3.5-star movies. That was half as many as 2014. Here’s my take from my Rotten Tomato/Flixster reviews, Best Picture nominations in bold:

  • Spotlight. Shamelessly hits all the newsroom cliches and features some mannered performances – I’m looking at you Ruffalo and Keaton – but the riveting script builds to a big, emotional payoff. Makes the case why we’d better save a few #$%@ newspapers.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh yeah, Miller still has it. Totally metal.
  • Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – This TV-funded documentary makes creative and enlightening use of rich archival material, and should be seen on a big screen with the volume turned up. God, I miss troubled-genius rockstars.

To round out my Top 10, these are my favorite  3-star movies:

  • The Big Short – So close. Righteous anger and daring approach just falls short of satirically nailing the greedy b@stards properly.
  • The Martian – Science heroes FTW! Go, NASA!
  • Creed – It’s probably a bad idea to do a feel-good boxing movie in 2015, but what the hey, this is a really good one. Sly is amazing – touchingly so – and Jordan should be a huge movie star based on charisma alone. And then there’s the shadow boxing with YouTube scene and the the mid-movie single-take fight scene….
  • Jauja – Remember I have a very high tolerance for slow-moving, so naturalistic they’re surreal, trippy head movies that take place on the Edge of the Great Unknown, where Civilization Loses its Way.
  • Steve Jobs – In Hollywood, genius @ssholes get happy endings. Sorkin’s three-act structure is daring but not completely successful: it’s stagey and a bit static, and Fassbender is the slightly too-cold center of a stellar cast. Way better than Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs at least has a theory of why he was who he was.
  • Sicario – Until the script loses its cojones and the third act turns it into just another revenge thriller, this is a tense, visually stunning, action flick that also has something serious to say about the ambiguity and futility of the War on Drugs. The slightly over-the-top score heightens the sense of dread, Del Toro and Brolin are solid, but Blunt is underwritten and wasted.
  • Mr. Holmes – Yes, the pace is stately, but Sir Ian adds a marvelous interpretation to the Canon. True fans will be forgiven for getting a little weepy.

I did like Pixar’s Inside Out, that deftly blends gags and themes for grownups and for kids. But its animation is fairly uninspired, except for one art-gag that will be waaaayyy over the heads of the target audience. The Revenant was a cold, Epic Folly without any real meaning that certainly was no Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, let alone Apocalypse Now. Bridge of Spies was classy but suspense-free. I haven’t seen Brooklyn or Room yet.

I’m still working on my Oscars hypotheses, but I don’t think they’ll give it to Iñárritu two years in a row.

 

 

Best of 2015: Music December 23, 2015

Posted by David Card in Media, Uncategorized.
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Slipping in this post in case you need stocking stuffers.

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Photo credit: flickr user Ryan Atkins 

Here they are, my 10 favorite new releases of 2015:

  • Sleater-Kinney “No Cities to Love” – like they never went away. Still ferocious
  • Titus Andronicus “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” – we all need a 2-disc punkish concept album about manic depression sometimes. And it’s got the best punk song in years (Dimed Out)
  • Courtney Barnett “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” – remember how fresh Liz Phair’s first album sounded? It’s kinda like that
  • The Decemberists “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” – though I’m not sold on the horns, the whole thing is maddeningly catchy
  • Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly” – justifiably on everybody’s Best of 2015 lists, I love its jazziness
  • Alabama Shakes “Sound + Color” – soulful ear-worms
  • Blur “The Magic Whip” – does this qualify as my usual “geezers who’ve still go it” nomination?
  • Dead Weather “Dodge and Burn” – swampy. The best thing Jack White’s done in years, though it’s really Alison Mossheart’s band now
  • The Libertines “Anthems for Doomed Youth” – see Blur, above. Plus they’ve finally added some polished songwriting around the very British english-major lyrics
  • Grimes “Art Angels” – just one of the weirdest, most eclectic pop albums you’ll hear

Honorable mention to Wilco’s surprisingly rockin’ freebie “Star Wars”, and two more double albums – what? in the age of streaming? – Tenement’s garage-y something or other “Predatory Headlights” and Killing Joke’s ponderous but pounding “Pylon.” Kamasi Washington’s, gulp, 3-disc jazz album, “The Epic” is absolutely worth a listen, but not to my 50s jazz/bop tastes.

I bought 29 albums this year, about 6 or 7 of which were back catalog. That seems to be my pace these days. I still buy downloads, because that’s what I load on my phone. I stream on-demand for discovery, variety, and try-before-you-buy. That’s probably not mainstream behavior, but neither is streaming at $10+ per month. See Mark Mulligan for actual data-backed analysis.

Happy 239th July 4, 2015

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This year’s patriotic plug. Though its star is one of those anarchist New Englanders, rather than a more reasoned and rational Virginian, big chunks of the miniseries were filmed in Williamsburg.

Happy Fourth. Throw another burger on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good). And I think I’ll keep adding the extra pickles.