Then Playing — Richard Jewell; Men in Black: International; Terminator: Dark Fate

richard jewell

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood, 2019). Another entry in Clint Eastwood’s late career run of pedantic, politically confused prestige dramas, Richard Jewell follows the title security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) during the grueling stretch after his discovery of a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta, led to him becoming the prime suspect — the scapegoat, really — in the crime. Scripted by Billy Ray, the film alternates between measured considerations of the media-fueled rush to judgment and cheap embellishments obviously meant to juice the narrative. The film was rightly castigated for its depiction of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), but the most commonly cited offense (sleeping with an FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm) might actually be the least of the filmmakers’ sins in the dramatization. As played by Wilde, the journalist is such as rampaging fiend that she might as well have snakes for hair. And then her sympathies abruptly flip, solely because it’s time for the film’s third act to get underway. This chunk of the story is a major flaw that completely undermines the film’s valuable points about distortions of truth, perpetrated by law enforcement officially and parroted by an acquiescent media, to suit a clamor for instant tidiness in matters of public justice. But Eastwood’s not a filmmaker suited to the nuance of this sort of moral dilemma. He merely sets pots to boiling and moves on, thoroughly disinterested in any answers posited to the questions he raised.


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Men in Black: International (F. Gary Gray, 2019). It’s getting more and more difficult to remember than the original Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and released in 1997, was a charming, engaging movie, merging comedy, buddy cop action, and science fiction playfulness in an utterly novel way. Except for one delightfully oddball Michael Stuhlbarg performance, the sequels are largely woeful, and the recent attempt to revive the whole endeavor, with a couple Ragnarok compatriots on board, is yet worse. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are astoundingly charmless as the latest mildly mismatched partners in policing otherworldly expatriates. In their defense, making any sort of positive impression in the midst of this much dim, unimaginative clamor would be a challenge that could fell the most effortlessly charismatic movie stars. F. Gary Gray directs like he’s sorry he got out of bed in the morning.


t dark fate

Terminator: Dark Fate (Tim Miller, 2019). As if constructed to decisively prove that not every successful movie should be stretched into endless installments, Terminator: Dark Fate borrows the rhythms of its most satisfying predecessors — particularly Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which jockeys with The Abyss for the distinction of being the best film directed by James Cameron — and makes them into a fading echo. The plot involves time travelers from the future dispatched to muck around in the present, various implausible robotics, and hefty vehicles and weaponry pushed to their limits. There’s sacrifice and trite wartime melodrama, and it all feels completely hollowed out by the straining machinery of franchise preservation. There are a scattered moments of wit — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s well-worn robot expounding on learned considerations in the field of interior design comes to mind — and Mackenzie Davis remains a real star awaiting the right vehicle, but most of the film is flatly forgettable.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty-Seven

top 50 10s 47

#47 — The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)

When powdered wigs, heavy dresses, and ornate waistcoats are hauled to set, the resulting movie is likely to be stiffened by affected refinement. Adhering to patterns set by countless period dramas before, action is rendered with rectitude and restraint, whatever course the drama takes. It is one of the rules of cinema that draws on cinematic antecedents rather than a proper consideration of the probable truths of the time. Human nature hasn’t shifted all that much in the last few centuries, so all the callous opportunism and unseemly pettiness of the modern age must have been present way back when. If anything, the lack of impulse-checking shame that comes from external scrutiny must have prompted more vulgar manifestations of base behavior to ooze to the surface.

Luckily, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t one for refinement. Or at least his version of it emerges in the lovely precision of visuals rather than the depiction of whatever milieu his camera is trained upon. The Favourite tells a true story — or at least a story populated by real life people and informed by the times and events they grappled with — set during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as the ruler of England. Ill and petulant, Anne is mostly detached from her duties, relying heavily on the influence of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), a confidante and intimate friends. Their relationship is roiled by the entrance of Abigail (Emma Stone), a servant girl with a cunning for upward mobility. Lady Sarah and Abigail engage in seething battles of one-upwomanship as Queen Anne bumbles and beams in the criss-crossing waves of their calculated affection.

All this palace intrigue is treated with feverish intensity by Lanthimos, who occasionally uses a fisheye lens to give a warped, trippy look to the massive rooms of the cruel elite. He also favors the bleakly funny, taking the screenplay (co-credited to Deborah Davis
Tony McNamara) and heightening its sharpness, especially in the barbed interplay between figures openly plotting their schemes for better positioning in the eyes of the monarch. Enacted with savage assurance by a luminous cast (which also includes Nicholas Hoult, a paragon of prickly, preening imperiousness as an oppositional parliamentarian), the verbal exchanges on screen drip with shimmering acid.

Ribald and ruthless, The Favourite is a delightful example of Lanthimos’s determined rejection of staid storytelling. It’s a moldy truism that drama is driven by conflict. Lanthimos is a creator who persistently offers the reminder that conflict is sure to leave a lot of wreckage behind.

The New Releases Shelf — Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart

black lips

Thinking about the history of the Black Lips, it was probably always just a matter of time before the band flicked their hair grease onto some corn pone. Specialists in raucous, retro rock ‘n’ roll as raw as fingertips ravaged by a long night of assaulting steel strings, the band out of Atlanta turns to a different sort of musical excavation on their new album, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart. They delve into an old school country music sound on the album, swirling in twang and drawl to their usual brand of especially oily garage rock. If Elvis Presley had run with his county influence instead of his R&B influence and the subsequent evolution of pop had proceeded accordingly, this new Black Lips material would have been the sound of proper rebellion, circa 1968.

The material on Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart calls to mind all sorts of infinite-universe comparisons. “Gentleman” is the kind of thing Kris Kristofferson would have kicked out if he operated with a crude sense of humor (“This ol’ middle finger/ Has grown fat and tired from flicking the bird”), and “Get It On Time” is the sound of a Bob Dylan who never stopped making music in that West Saugerties, the Band eternally behind him like cursed figures in a fairy tale. And the Kinks-like “Angola Rodeo” is proof that the Black Lips are only going to stray so far from their base instincts, no matter what experimental mandate they’ve adopted.

Enjoyable as the album often is, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart sometimes comes across as a little too much of a pose, recalling the theme park honky-tonk hollowness that often infested the output of preceding practitioners of this sort of sound, such as Southern Culture on the Skids or the Reverend Horton Heat. The tighter the Black Lips get, the more the tracks take on a tinge of fabrication, which is basically the opposite of their more rock-oriented records. The album burbles irresistibly when looseness is the prevailing vibe, as on “Dishonest Men,” which couples nineteen-fifties sci-fi sounds with a little surf rock ease, and “Live Fast Die Slow,” a boozy singalong built to be the last number slipped in before closing time. In a world that does indeed feel like it’s falling part, it’s the rattletrap version of the Black Lips aesthetic that feels most right and true.

The Art of the Sell — Ethics Training with Kim Wexler

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Now that Better Call Saul has an officially announced endpoint, it’s the appropriate time to start campaigning for a new spinoff called The Kim Wexler Chronicles, right?

Given the thrust of this feature, I should tap out a few words enthusing over the cleverness of this promotional video, but I’ll instead use my digital bandwidth to note that it’s completely ludicrous that Rhea Seehorn has never earned an Emmy nomination for her performance on this series.


College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #560 to #557

queen the game

560. Queen, The Game (1980)

Producer Reinhold Mack told Queen it was time to use a musical tool they’d resisted to that point. Across seven prior studio albums, the flashy, British rock band made bigger and bigger sounds, always noting they did so without disposing themselves of the some of the emerging technology that made creating overlapping tones easier. Queen was arguably ready to employ the instrument anyway (surely it must have been strange for them to watch from the sidelines the explosion of disco music, which shared a lot of DNA with their hook-laden, theatrical rock), but Mack was the collaborator who helped smack away the last of the resistance. The resulting LP, The Game, became the band’s biggest-selling studio album in the U.S. and yielded two chart-topping singles: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The chewy hit singles aside, The Game is a messy endeavor, finding Queen bopping back and forth between middling ideas that seem barely coaxed to completion. The lushly overdone album opener “Play the Game” is so squarely in Queen’s bailiwick that it’s hard to criticize it. On the other hand, the maudlin, florid divorce song “Save Me” reasonably invites scorn, and “Need Your Loving Tonight” shows the reasonable belief that singer Freddie Mercury could make just about any words work doesn’t mean it’s forgivable to infest the world with lyrics such as “Come on baby let’s get together/ I’ll love you, baby, I’ll love you forever.” The absolute nadir, though — and I’d argue of the very worst rock songs of all time — is the well-meaning but disastrous “Don’t Try Suicide,” on which Queen sounds like a delusional jazz combo giving this nutty rock ‘n’ roll thing a try while Mercury croons out brutal inanities (“Don’t try suicide/ You’re just gonna hate it/ Don’t try suicide/ Nobody gives a damn”).

Although The Game represented a major success for Queen, the band was largely unable to capitalize on it moving forward, at least in the U.S. Around six months after the album’s release, new Queen music arrived in the form of the soundtrack to the garish bomb Flash Gordon. A few more modest hits followed, but Queen’s slide from vital rock band to warmly tolerated legacy act was underway following The Game.


no nukes

559. Various Artists, No Nukes: The MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future (1979)

Musicians United for Safe Energy, known as MUSE, formed in the late nineteen-seventies when a group of lefty musicians — namely Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and John Hall — joined with activist Harvey Wasserman following the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Not long after the group formed their pact, they announced a series of benefit concerts, with proceeds largely going to organizations that funded efforts around the growth of the solar power industry. The shows were captured for a concert film and a three-record set.

As if often the case with such altruistic ventures, the motivating sentiment is more laudable than the finished product. In the case of the No Nukes album set, the Doobie Brothers infestation that spread across the multiple sides is certainly a main culprit when it comes to the album’s almost intolerable soft rock inner being. It’s bad enough that the album’s grand finale closer is a big hollow jam on “Takin’ It to the Streets,” but the group crops up elsewhere, decisively demonstrating their ability to laden any song with burdensome uncoolness. I don’t know that I would have previously gone out of my way to tout Nicolette Larson’s hit with the Neil Young-penned “Lotta Love,” but the Doobies slathering their tepidness all her live version here sure makes the case the original. Nor everything can be be laid at their feet, though. It’s not their overly mellow backing of John Hall’s Hall “Power” that creates the painfully didactic lyrics (“Won’t you do this for me?/ Take all your atomic, poison power away”).

There are reasonably appealing tracks to be found on No Nukes, including the stark cool and pointed fury of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers slowing, surely grinding through a cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” There’s little doubt that the main appeal of the album was the presence of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the first officially release live recording by the outfit that already had a reputation as unparalleled stage performers. The album includes the “Detroit Medley” that had been a staple of the Boss’s live shows for a few years by that point, as well as the whole group pitching in on Jackson Browne’s rendering of “Stay,” and song he’d taken into the Top 40 a couple years earlier.

Springsteen’s reticence for issuing live music faded a few years earlier, beginning with a chart-topping box set in the mid–nineteen-eighties and extending across a slew of official releases. One of the most recent was in fact a complete set of songs from the No Nukes shows.


lone justice

558. Lone Justice, Lone Justice (1985)

Lone Justice arrived with a big batch of burgeoning rock legend stories. A surging presence on the Los Angeles scene, the group so commanded the room when they opened for Love singer Arthur Lee, in the midst of mounting an attempted comeback, that Lee reportedly walked off the stage after a couple songs. Dolly Parton extolled Lone Justice’s lead singer, Maria McKee, and Linda Ronstadt personally intervened to help get the band signed to Geffen Records. With Jimmy Iovine onboard to produce the band’s debut, anticipation was high. While it didn’t exactly turn into an unstoppable hit, Lone Justice more than delivers in quality. There’s little doubt as to why those many admirers were effusive in their praise.

The album — and, in a way, the band — explodes into being with “East of Eden,” a firm, forceful rocker with a hand-jive rhythm. Lone Justice’s heavy country music influence shows up all over the record, in the heartbreak twang of “Don’t Toss Us Away,” the hoedown charge of “Working Late,” and the steady thump of “Soap, Soup and Salvation,” a showstopper worth of the Opry. Unlike some other rock acts that look to songs of the South, Lone Justice never seems to be dabbling, swiping authenticity from a genre known for beer watered down by tears. Through a lovely alchemy, the Angelenos make the hybrid genre playfulness deeply authentic.

Inevitably, the album is most memorable as a showcase for McKee. The band is strong; McKee is a powerhouse. Her tuneful shout fully enlivens “Ways to Be Wicked,” a track co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, taking the the intoxicating rebellion and confident seduction that was long the most compelling undercurrents of rock ‘n’ roll and channel and channeling it all into her vocals, making a for a practically perfect three and a half minutes. “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” is similarly dizzying in its effectiveness, the kind of song that makes a hundred bar bands give up because they’ll never touch its ease in capturing and conveying the lifeblood of tried-and-true rock music.

By some assessments, the enormous amount of hype surrounding Lone Justice (which also included a spot as opening act on U2’s tour in support of The Unforgettable Fire tour) created an almost impossible situation. When they didn’t charge to the top of the charts, it was considered a devastating disappoint. Before working on a second album, there were major personnel shifts and some rethinking of their sound. Their next album would bear similarities, but it was really made by a different band with different goals.


green gas

557. Green on Red, Gas Food Lodging (1985)

Green on Red made their major label debut with the EP No Free Lunch, and a few months later it was time to take a bigger, bolder step forward. Gas Food Lodging takes the tilt toward country rock of the prior release and turns it into a whirligig of happy invention. Album opener “That’s What Dreams” is rock with a fine twang and grandly forlorn lyrics (“It seems no one has any faith any more” is the opening line, and it doesn’t get all that much cheerier from there). While clinging to their well-established bona fides earned amongst the retro-rockers of Los Angeles’s Paisley Underground scene, Green on Red advances a sound that owes a lot of the earnestness of the heartland.

They also play with the rigor of an act that’s put in their time in beer-soaked venues. The fine “Black River” even offers the lonely lament of a gigging musician (“Every morning, I drive the same old car/ And every night I play a different bar / Jackson, Mississippi, now it’s San Antone / Memories fade through hazy days”). Over and over again, Green on Red proves they have the flinty fury to rouse any crowd, whether with the crunchy guitar riffs of “Fading Away” or the bold and bluesy “16 Ways.” Both mirroring the tough-minded rock of the Meat Puppets and anticipating the languid guitar workouts of Built to Spill, “Sea of Cortez” is fantastically sludgy, the kind of track that invites the listener to get lost in it. Gas Food Lodging is plainly formidable.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — Translations Are Sacred edition


Bong Joon Ho Interpreter Sharon Choi Relives Historic ‘Parasite’ Awards Season in Her Own Words by Sharon Choi

Of the many pleasures of this Oscar season that concluded with a wonderful, history outcome, one of the most satisfying was the way director Bong Joon-ho remained resolutely himself all the way through the process, including an aversion to polishing up his English so he could speak for himself on various awards show stages. On the many, many occasions he claimed a trophy, Sharon Choi was standing besides him, ready to translate his words. In the aftermath of the Oscars, Choi writes about her experience with Bong and the film, and it’s a lovely capper to discover that she is not a professional interpreter, but instead a devoted film student enlisted for this dizzying adventure. For Variety, Choi shares her story, filling it with delightful details and evocative sensations.


deer hill road

Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build by Conor Dougherty

For The New York Times, Conor Dougherty writes about a dispute over development in California, a place that is in desperate need of more housing. Reluctant as I am to root for budding real estate magnates, there’s a strong case to be made for the entrepreneurs who are trying to fill up vacant spaces with new dwellings. Dougherty also details the disheartening opposition to the growth, with existing residents operating with a untoward close-the-door-behind-us attitude that is further evidence that civic mindedness has been all but eradicated in the current culture.


there there

There There (2018) by Tommy Orange

This thrilling novel approaches perfection. Employing a booming population of characters (there are so many that a Cast of Characters section opens the book, and it is a welcome reference), Tommy Orange examines the array of experiences for modern Native Americans, tracing their struggles and small triumphs with care. Even as the narrative moves rapidly towards its conclusion of interlocking fates, Orange disavows showiness in favor of clarity and an unyielding sense of storytelling purpose. He makes his statement not through barbed political commentary, but by simply telling the stories of people who are too often bypassed when the spotlight of modern American literature is swinging around, looking for a place to stop.

This Week’s Model — Waxahatchee, “Lilacs”


I could type out a million words about the new Waxahatchee single, offering babbling descriptions of every favorite moment: the easy, melodic stroll of the intro, her delivery of the lyric “marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time,” the burst of shiny pop beauty when the chorus kicks in the first time, the piercing delicacy of “I need you to love, too,” and that only gets me to the halfway point of the track. No matter how much of the dictionary I dump onto the digital page, I’m not going to be able to capture the tingle of immediate adoration that came over me when I first heard it, nor the strengthening certainty with each subsequent listen that Katie Crutchfield is currently making her best music yet. Given what she’s delivered previously, that’s really saying something.

The new Waxahatchee album, Saint Cloud, is scheduled for release on March 27, 2020. It’s time for me to get in touch with my favorite record store proprietor.