Prince of the City, Sidney Lumet (1981)

Lumet is a hero, of course, if (at 167 minutes) a little insistent. What we have here is a set of tropes that have become extremely familiar: the bad cop decides to inform on the other bad cops, but doesn’t really become good, quite. Good performances all around, but nothing extraordinary.

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Ketchup

These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé (1984)

Wrapping up “journalist as hero/antihero” week. Joffé’s achievement here is easy to underestimate; there are so many ways this could have turned into a disaster, and he avoids them all. The journalist is a hero, and we get that, but he’s also a dangerously narcissistic asshole, and we get that too. His colleague Dith Pran is also a complex character, both ambitious and naive, and his character here is also fully three-dimensional. On top of all that, we get here a very detailed and comprehensive history lesson without ever feeling like we’re in a classroom — also a remarkable achievement. Real questions about journalistic ethics, taken seriously, plus a lively and accurate dramatization of one of the 20th century’s most despicable crimes. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.

Salvador, Oliver Stone (1986)

What an annoying movie. I’m glad Stone wanted to draw attention to the crimes committed by the (American-enabled) Salvadoran right wing death squads, but the James Woods character is so irritating, and Stone is so concerned with his redemption or lack thereof, that the historical quickly sinks beneath the mire of the personal. A pity.

Ketchup

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995). Limpid prose kept me reading all 9000 pages, but there’s not much there there.

Youth in Revolt, Miguel Arteta (2009).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright (2010).
Cleverish enough, I guess. I like this Michael Cera fine, but why can’t the protagonist in these things ever be a girl?

Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham (2005). Cunningham’s a lovely writer sentence by sentence. The concept seemed too high-concept for me at first, but I grew into it and wound up enjoying this a great deal.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (2010). One of the last great showbiz workaholics.

The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988). If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you should.

Style Wars, Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant (1983). Terrific, fascinating documentary about the rise of graffiti and hip hop culture. Amazing to see NYC in the early 80’s and realize how much time has gone by. Provided me with at least one long-sought source for a sample I’d wondered about: “You only specialize in one thing, you can’t call yourself the all-out king.”

Foul Play, Colin Higgins (1978). Second only to Seems Like Old Times on my list of Hawn/Chase childhood favorites. One of those 70’s flicks that’s simultaneously total fluff and highly clever.

The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2004). There was no reason not to like this, but for some reason I couldn’t engage with it.

Spies of the Balkans, Alan Furst (2010)
The Arms Maker of Berlin, Dan Fesperman (2009)
WWII espionage fiction: My annual holiday indulgence. A return to form for Furst, who seemed to me to be phoning it in the last few times. I blame Fesperman for not being Furst, but that’s of course unfair.

The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (2010). This isn’t perfect, but it’s very good, and it gives me a lot of hope. A reasonably serious and insightful story about a family of two moms and two kids going through a crisis of confidence, written and directed by an out Lesbian. Some might say that the achievement of the movie is that it doesn’t even matter that the parents are gay, that it’s just a story about a family crisis. That’s only about half true. The parents’ Lesbianism is integral to the story, but it doesn’t determine the story. To me, this seems like a tremendous achievement; the piece neither claims special status for the couple nor asserts that this couple is just like any other. The view of human sexuality on offer here is also refreshing. It ain’t Foucault, but it’s way more sophisticated than the permanent adolescence Hollywood usually peddles in the bedroom.

Analog Africa

These people have released five CDs, of which I own the most recent four, each of which is absolutely exquisite. You have never heard such sublimely funky grooves in your life. The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou makes James Brown sound like Lawrence Welk.

The first CD is labeled “#3,” because Analog Africa’s first two releases came in the form of mp3 mixes. Both are available for free download on their blog, and also through the Paris DJs podcast.

Paris DJs is where I discovered Analog Africa, and it is itself an incredible resource. Their weekly free podcast features all sorts of never-made-it-off-vinyl-onto-disc deliciousness from all over the world. There are nearly 200 mixes to download, and they’re all free!

Here’s a direct link to the second Analog Africa mix: http://analogafrica.cybsys.net/mp3/AnalogAfricaSelectionVol.2.mp3

Missing, Costa Gavras (1982)

Costa Gavras is my hero. I yammer all the time about the ethics, pitfalls, complexities, etc. of addressing real injustice through imaginative art; this guy just steps up and does it. He makes me feel ashamed for my mincing, but he also inspires me.

This one is probably his second-best, after Z. The relationship between Spacek and Lemmon begins in deepest antipathy and slowly, subtly, turns into the strongest love imaginable; they each perform beautifully.

Meanwhile, the political analysis underway is both exacting and fully accessible, which seems to me miraculous.

The film makes me nostalgic for the days when the American government found it necessary to lie to its citizens. Now they just say, “Well of course we’re torturing people, holding people in detention without charge, and supporting corrupt and inhuman dictators. What the heck did you think?”