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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy

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Movie reviews: Bubble and Stories We Tell

Back in the true art house realm here with Bubble, a documentary-like drama, and Stories We Tell, a partly dramatized documentary.

Bubble poster*** Bubble (January 2006) – Rental

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Martha and Kyle are coworkers at a doll factory whose relationship is disrupted by a new arrival at the factory, Rose.

She says: Except for the big-name director, movies don’t get much smaller than this. (I would never even have heard of this one if not for Roger Ebert highlighting it recently.) Its stars are not actors, but locals. The story was plotted, but the dialogue was not scripted. Its a mere 73 minutes long.

These people lead very simple lives, yet its weirdly fascinating, as we just don’t see people like this in movies. They look and talk like real people. They aren’t dramatically poor (not homeless, not starving), but basically have no money, no real prospects. Their job of assembling dolls makes for some really odd images, of doll parts molded, assembled, decorated.

Martha and Kyle have a comfortable, non-romantic relationship. Rose disrupts that, creating a strange triangle. A murder occurs. Who and how that happens is the central mystery of the film.

He says: This one moves at the pace of real life… I don’t really know what to make of it.

Stories We Tell*** Stories We Tell (November 2012) – Theatre

Documentary by Sarah Polley. She explores the family secret that the man who raised her is not her biological father.

She says: Though it lags a bit toward the end, there are a surprising number of twists in this documentary about Sarah Polley’s decision to explore the truth about her parentage. She does this by interviewing everyone in her family, along with family friends, while interspersing old family footage along with dramatic re-creations of certain key events (and it was occasionally difficult to tell which was what).

It’s not all that unusual, apparently, that men end up raising children they think are their own, but aren’t. But it really struck how differently an artistic family and circle such as the Polley’s react to this, with everyone almost tripping over themselves to be the ones who get to own the narrative. And hence, Stories We Tell becomes Polley’s framework.

A bit pretentious, I guess, but as I said, mostly engaging.

He says: Well, there were parts when I was pretty bored. But it could have been worse. I’m still not totally sure what was acting and what were actual inteviews, though.

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Movie reviews: Your Sister’s Sister; Inside Job

We saw the first at the early show at The Princess, then saw the other on DVD at home.

*** Your Sister’s Sister (June 2012) – Theatre
Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemary Dewitt. When Iris offers friend Tom the family cabin, both she and he expect he’ll be there alone. Instead he encounters Iris’s sister Hannah, and they hit it off.

She says: This is a small movie: small cast, short time frame, moderate drama. But the three principals play well off each other, and I got caught up in their story. Tom is mourning the loss of his brother; Hannah has ended a seven-year-old relationship. They get to drinking, and then they get into each other. Which makes it awkward all around when Iris shows up and confesses to Hannah that she’s in love with Tom (despite having previously dated Tom’s brother George).

He says: You know what I thought of that one.

She says: That not enough happened?

He says: You got it!

She says: I’ll never understand how you’re the people person in this relationship, and yet you don’t like movies about real people with realistic problems,

***1/2 Inside Job (October 2010) – Rental
Documentary about the global economic crisis of 2008. Narrated by Matt Damon.

She says: Rather timely viewing in light of the recent decision to not lay any charges against the Goldman Sachs executives. And after seeing this, you’ll be infuriated about that.

Because the global economic crisis of 2008, which caused (and continues to cause) so much pain to so many people, was no accident. It was caused by very rich people very knowingly playing dangerous games with everyone’s money. And then insuring themselves against the catastrophic losses that they knew were inevitable.

The movie does a very good job at explaining these complex financial transactions in a way that makes sense. And it shows the degree to which those responsible are ingrained in political culture (Republican and Democrat alike—doesn’t matter; Obama does not look good in this one), such that still nothing is being done, really, to stop them from doing this sort of thing again.

He says: I can’t watch this. I’m getting too angry.

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Can you see the real me?

I’m a latecomer to The Who’s QuadropheniaTommy  was the first Who album I got, and that was decades ago (on LP); Quadrophenia may have been the last, and that was a couple years ago (on CD).

Quadrophenia album cover

I resisted that one, I think, because I just didn’t find the concept that appealing. The story of drug-addicted, “quadrophenic”, disillusioned mod Jimmy just seemed so British, so male, so 1960s–I couldn’t relate.

When I finally got the album, I liked the songs well enough right off, but really couldn’t put “the story” together until I also saw the 1996 Quadrophenia Live DVD. During that concert, a Jimmy narrator (on a big screen) provides a narrative thread through the songs—even though it’s not exactly the same one intended by the original album—that sufficiently put it together for me.

But that’s when I started to realize, with repeated listening, that the “story” didn’t really matter. Because the songs just sounded so great, you didn’t need to worry about plot.

The Quadrophenia songs work as standalones–much more so than most of the Tommy ones do. They also have a universality that you might not expect of “rock opera” songs. Who doesn’t want to be seen for who they are (“The Real Me”)? Who hasn’t had to do a crappy job (“The Dirty Jobs”)? Who hasn’t felt the wish to just slide away from a bad situation, even if it’s into oblivion (“Drowned”)? Who doesn’t want to feel awash in love (“Love Reign O’er Me”)?

You don’t have to be British, or male, or a baby boomer to get it. You just have to be human.

So it’s with that background that I went to see the new Who documentary about the making of Quadrophenia, subtitled Can You See the Real Me?, at the Galaxy theatre last week.

Given previous, it should come as no surprise that the parts I found least compelling were the fuller explanations of Jimmy’s story, and what the mods were all about. Though that wasn’t all a loss, since it’s always good to learn things, and that I did. Story-wise, I hadn’t realized that “The Punk and the Godfather” was about Jimmy going to see The Who themselves in concert, and being disillusioned that they’re now big rock stars, worlds apart from him. (Because that’s something they changed in the 1996 concert version.)

As for the mods, the point that their tidy hair and neat suits made them look like smart, respectable young men at work, when it was really a form of covert rebellion (though they did need those jobs to afford the suits) was an interesting point.

Though Pete Townshend the story-teller is the dominant figure in this documentary, I did like that some commenters view the album more as I do, as fairly universal: “I thought it was about me” says Manager Bill Curbishley, and he doesn’t mean that’s because he was a mentally ill mod, and not so much needing a plot: “Pete always has these great concepts, but the problem is he always wants to wrap a complicated story around it”, says Roger Daltrey.

What I liked best was the exploration of the music, the songs; all the archival concert footage included (nothing like seeing the young and beautiful Roger Daltrey on the big screen); and the look at the band dynamics at the time.

Those dynamics were some ugly, Unfortunately, we are somewhat stymied in exploring them by having only two band members remaining, and apparently not having a lot of footage of what Moon and Entwistle thought of Quadrophenia. Both men are featured, but they of course don’t necessarily get asked what we’d now like to know. For example, Pete says at the outset that John, as a songwriter, was unhappy that the band had become all about Pete’s songs. So how did John feel about Quadrophenia, to which he didn’t contribute a single track? No idea.

Tommy was quite a collaborative effort by the band, at least for The Who. Entwistle contributed two songs, Moon came up with the holiday camp idea (and a writing credit), Daltrey suggested that he embody the Tommy role, thus finally truly becoming the voice of the band. But Quadrophenia was all Pete, all demo’ed and done and presented to the band. “The rest of them must have felt a bit like session musicians,” is one opinion expressed in the documentary.

Yet, Pete did use the four very different band members as the both representative of Jimmy’s four split personalities, and as the four musical motifs that echo through the album, which Pete says is the more important aspect. Moon the lunatic, Pete the hypocrite (interesting, and I’m not sure how that leads to a “Love Reign O’er Me” theme), Roger as “bad” (the album liner notes say “tough guy”, but Pete’s original notes say “bad”) and John as “romantic”, those two intersecting as “sex”. (I don’t think Pete meant that in a gay way.)

Who concert image

Of course, it’s only Mr. Bad who’s still around to say what he thought of all this, and it’s interesting that there still seems to be so much tension between the two on this (given they’re about to tour it together, and all). Pete comments on how the rest of the band liked to drink for a couple hours before getting to work, which the non-alcoholic Roger hated as a waste of time.

Then there’s this. “Pete may have produced this album”, says Roger, steely-eyed, “but he did not produce my vocals. I wouldn’t have it.” And Pete suggests that’s because Roger could not take criticism. “You had to be very careful what you said to him. You really did.” Little wonder that during the first rehearsal for this album’s tour, Pete hit Roger with his guitar, and Roger responded by knocking him out cold with one punch.

Yet there’s no denying the deep admiration Pete expresses for Roger’s vocal work on the album, particularly, of course, on “Love Reign O’er Me”, a song that literally gave me goosebumps every time it was played on the wonderful theatre sound system during this documentary—the album version, a live version from that time, and the 96 live version.

Looking at Moon’s vocal work on “Bell Boy”, Pete comments on how Keith could never sing anything straight; it was always as a character. And that he did find it hard for his Ace Face character to come off comic. But of course, again, no way to know what Moon thought of this, though he clearly enjoyed singing the song in concert.

Bell Boy mike handoff

Those two songs get special focus during the documentary, as do some others, like “The Real Me”, “Cut My Hair”, “5:15” (partly Beatle-inspired, that one), and “Drowned”. But I was disappointed that “Doctor Jimmy” didn’t get that treatment. It just seems there would be so much to say about that one… How the complex musical arrangement of song that itself suggests a split personality (it’s my favorite Who song to play on the piano, but it’s not easy!), the shocking lyrics (“Who is she? I’ll rape it!”), even its importance to that darn storyline, as this moment of craziness then leads Jimmy out to that rock and possible redemption. But nada about “Doctor Jimmy” here.

Much as I enjoyed the concert footage, the documentary also covers how that tour was something of a disaster. It was booked a mere two weeks after the album was done, leaving the exhausted band no time to really prepare a stage show, and forcing them to play songs that the audience just didn’t know yet.

Pete said at the outset that his goal had been to write something that would replace Tommy as a concert vehicle. In that, Quadrophenia failed. (And maybe that’s why Pete feels this is the one he just has to take on the road again. Needs another do-over.)

The doc was only about an hour long, the theatre viewing filled out by showing some of the songs from the 1996 Quadrophenia Live DVD. This leads me to wonder if some footage is being held back for the eventual DVD release. Maybe I’ll get that “Doctor Jimmy” analysis after all?

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Queen documentary

Queen: Days of Our Lives“In 1971, four college students got together to form a rock band.”

Queen: Days of Our Lives is a relatively recently released documentary about the band. The core of it is a two-part band history that played on the BBC. The Blu-Ray adds about 90 minutes of bonus material.

There have been many Queen biographies before this one, a number sanctioned by the band. The special thing about this one is that Brian and Roger provided a lot of new interview material for it.

As someone who has seen a lot of those earlier documentaries, not to mention read a number of books about the band, I didn’t learn too many new facts. But I definitely still enjoyed the structure of the documentary. It was well-edited, moving briskly along from milestone to milestone. Aspects of the band’s story that have really been covered to death by now—the early success in Japan, Bohemian Rhapsody, Live Aid—are of course here again, but not especially dwelled upon, as how much new is there to say?

Instead, the insights are more personal. For example, Brian discusses how his father, understandly, was just flabbergasted that his son chose rock music over completing his PhD in physics. And it wasn’t until well unto his career that a huge show at Madison Square Garden really brought home to his Dad that Brian wasn’t wasting his life or his education. Brian still tears up at the memory.

John DeaconJohn Deacon, generally considered the least interesting member of the band, casts a surprisingly large shadow over the production. There is, for example, a fair amount of attention given to “Another One Bites the Dust”, which he wrote. One fact I hadn’t know that came out is that it, and not BoRhap, is Queen’s best-selling song. And one of the extras amusingly relates how, in later years, John kept a full bar behind some of the stage equipment, and would nip back there for drinks when his bass playing was not required. (Which reminds me of another rather humorous anecdote from this, of the very rare occasion where Fred was really too inebriated to perform the first part of the show, and the rest of the band struggled to cover. Of course, Freddie brought it home in the end.)

Of course, the fact that John is alive and yet did not provide any new insights for this project is hard to ignore. Naturally, Mr. Deacon has every right to retire, and doesn’t owe the fans any more than the 20+ years he already gave to a band that, this documentary reveals, he was surprised to find become such a big success. Still, it would have been nice to hear from him. And it is a bit sad to hear Brian comment that “We’ve lost John, too.”

Also clear from this project? “Queen were never cool,” as Roger said. And as a fan from the time, I can tell you, this is true. Except for a fairly short time in the late 70s, Queen fandom was something I tried to keep quiet. Because it was not cool to be into them.

The 1970s were a battle between disco and punk, and Queen were… Queen. The 80s brought Brit pop, but except for a little ill-received (though I liked it) foray into funk sounds, Queen still kept sounding like… Queen. Ultimately, this has made them endure. But at the time, they were about as respected as Nickleback as is now.

Never cool. Just really popular.

Well put-together though the documentary was, I also enjoyed the extras. Some were extensions of was seen in the film, some were additional interviews that didn’t make the cut at all. The only thing I found a bit superfluous were the seven music videos, supposedly “all new”. But many are so close to the original videos, it took me a while to realize they were different cuts (often with more “backstage” views of what was going on).

I live you with a video one of the most delightful extras from the disk: Scrabble Wars.

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Movie review: Religulous

***½ Religulous (September 2008) – Rental
Documentary featuring Bill Maher, exploring religious belief.

She says: Better than I expected. Maher travels the world, visiting some well-known religious sites (the Vatican, Jerusalem) and some less well-known (Holy Land Experience in Floria, a fledgling Creation museum), speaking to all manner of religious people. Yes, he is rude sometimes; he’s Bill Maher. But the only thing that I made me uncomfortable was his associating between Muslims and terrorism. And he does seem to approach the subject with a sincere desire to understand why people believe. I learned some things, the most surprising being the many similarities between the stories of ancient Egyptian god Horus and that of Jesus. And it was hard not to agree with his final conclusions.

He says: Nice to see a documentary that I can agree with.


Movie review: Three movies I liked more than Jean did

Not that it’s that unusual for me to like movies more than Jean, given that:

  1. He gets bored more easily than I do.
  2. Frankly, I usually pick the movies we see.

On the other hand, none of these were exactly “chick flicks”…

*** Waltz with Bashir (May 2008) – Rental
Animated documentary. An Israli man tries to recall the details of his participation in the massacre of Palestanians that occurred during the first Lebanon war.

She says: I’m not sure what this indicates, but I didn’t realize that this was a documentary. I thought all the interviews and such were just a clever way of framing the movie. But, I knew it was based on a real incident, one I knew nothing about. I found this an interesting way to learn about it, with the animated style creating some distance in the disturbing events.
He says: It was all right, but didn’t quite hold my interest.

**½ Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (June 2011) – Theatre
Documentary about Conan O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour.

She says: I’m not a huge fan (I almost never watch his show), but I did get interested in the drama surrounding O’Brien’s removal from The Tonight Show, and did enjoy seeing the preparations and behind-the-scenes look at his tour.
He says: Oh my God that seemed long. [It’s a 90-minute movie.]

*** The Hurt Locker (June 2009) – Rental
Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie. Follows the end of a tour of duty for a group of American bomb dismantlers in Iraq.

She says: It was powerful, tension-filled, and therefore gripping, though not altogether enjoyable, given the subject matter. We saw it in Blu-Ray, and the sound and cinematography were excellent. As was the acting.
He says: OK, I wasn’t bored. But it was kind of depressing, and I didn’t understand anyone’s motivations.

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Movie review: Good Hair, Central Station

These two movies have nothing in common, except for having seen both recently…

*** Good Hair (October 2009) – Rental
Documentary. Inspired by his daughters, Chris Rock explores the world of black women’s hair.

She says: As a white girl, I had no idea what black women went through to achieve the look of shiny, full, straight(ish) hair. The expense! The time! The pain! It was really interesting. (Though if expecting big laughs because it’s Chris Rock, you’ll probably be disappointed.).
He says: They spend how much on hair weaves? That’s ridiculous. I’m going to bed.

*** Central Station (November 1998) – Rental
Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira. A middle-age woman who writes (but doesn’t necessarily mail) letters for the illiterate becomes the reluctant custodian of young boy after his mother dies. Subtitled.

She says: It’s a moving story of how this fairly unpleasant older woman is transformed by her relationship with the boy who is left with no one after his mother dies. Great acting, nice cinematography, and enough twists of fortune to keep your attention. (And not really a depressing movie, though you might expect that.)
He says: I was able to get through it, but it was bit too slow and character-driven for me.