AFI #68: Unforgiven

I enjoy a good western, and Unforgiven is a good western. But in my opinion it’s not a great western, which is why I remember not loving it when it first came out in 1992 and also being very disappointed when it won the Oscar for best picture. Looking back at the list of nominees that year it’s clear now why I was upset — Unforgiven beat out two films I loved that year in The Crying Game and Scent of a Woman (hoo ha!).

But I’m actually quite glad I watched it again today. Maybe 20 years have given me some perspective. When the film came out a lot of reviewers lauded it for being the first realistic western, meaning it showed the ugly side of violence rather than glorifying it. Clint Eastwood made a hell of a living playing glorified cowboys and outlaws, so there is a sort of poetic justice here in him portraying the dark side of violence. His character, Will Munny, is not a hero. In fact, I’d argue he’s an anti-hero even though he avenged a brutalized woman. He didn’t do it for justice, rather he did it for money pure and simple. He also ran off on this ill-advised adventure leaving his young children home alone to fend for themselves — with no guarantee he’d ever return alive. That is no hero. The title I think could speak not to the fate of the cowboys who cut up a whore in a brothel, but rather to Munny who should be unforgiven for leaving his kids alone and putting himself at risk.

Unforgiven is dark, and unlike the traditional western you don’t feel a sense of justice at the end — you feel like the events of the film were a waste of energy and lives. Lots of people get killed, including some innocent bystanders and several lawmen. It portrays a west that is also unforgiving and hard, which is probably pretty realistic…at least more realistic than the classic western towns of films like High Noon and pretty much any John Wayne film. I guess that sets the film apart, but it doesn’t make it great and even though I liked it I wouldn’t call it great and I wouldn’t put it in the top 100 of all time.

One highlight was certainly Gene Hackman’s portrayal of sheriff Little Bill. Hackman won an Oscar for the role, and he was devilishly good. Eastwood was nominated for best actor but rightfully lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman though my vote would have gone to Robert Downey Jr. for Chaplin or Denzel Washington for Malcolm X. All in all a great year for film!

Unforgiven also marked the beginning of Eastwood’s dark and introspective directing career. For me these past 20 years have been filled with ups and downs for Clint. I hated Million Dollar Baby and Bridges of Madison County, but loved what I’d call some of the best films of the past 20 years — Mystic River, Gran Torino, Changling and Letters From Iwo Jima to name a few. He is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of our time.

Next on the AFI list: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

AFI #69: Tootsie

One way to tell if some of the films on the AFI list hold up is if Connor enjoys them. A film that translates well across generations surely must be a worthy film. Given that, 1982’s  Tootsie definitely belongs on the AFI list.

Tootsie is a funny film that doesn’t rely on the silliness of Dustin Hoffman in drag to get laughs but rather provides its laughs through the brilliant writing of Larry Gelbart and others. Sure, Hoffman is not exactly an attractive woman, and there are a few moments of physical humor thrown in because it’s always funny when a man tries to walk in heels, but the dialogue makes this film so amazing. Here’s an example of my favorite rant by out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey:

Michael Dorsey: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?
George Fields: No, no, that’s too limited… nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either. I can’t even set you up for a commercial. You played a *tomato* for 30 seconds – they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn’t sit down.
Michael Dorsey: Of course. It was illogical.
George Fields: YOU WERE A TOMATO. A tomato doesn’t have logic. A tomato can’t move.
Michael Dorsey: That’s what I said. So if he can’t move, how’s he gonna sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber… I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.

A juicy, sexy beefsteak tomato! And some of the best lines are left to Michael’s playwright roommate Jeff, played deadpan by Bill Murray. Teri Garr is classic, and Charles Durning is great as Jessica Lange’s smitten dad. And Dabney Coleman is perfect as the chauvinistic soap director. Jessica Lange was just ok, but somehow she managed to get an Academy Award for best supporting actress. You gotta feel for Dustin Hoffman being nominated against Ben Kingsley for Gandhi — he never had a chance. Gandhi also rightfully beat Tootsie for best picture.

I can’t provide praise for Tootsie though without saying something about director Sydney Pollack, who not only directed the film but acted in it as well, stealing some scenes as agent George Fields. Pollack was a great director who along with Tootsie is well known for directing Absence of Malice, Out of Africa, The Way We Were, The Firm and many more. Pollack liked to act as well and over his career he had some memorable roles, none better than George Fields. He made some cameos in Entourage, The Sopranos, Michael Clayton, Husbands and Wives, and many more. The guy was a Renaissance man and we lost him too young.

Next Up: Unforgiven

AFI #70: A Clockwork Orange

I think A Clockwork Orange is a film for young people. I remember really liking this film when I first saw it, which was probably when I was in high school. What could be more interesting to a high school student than a film about a bunch of young thugs getting high and performing a little ultra-violence? The thing is though, watching it now as a 45-year-old man it simply doesn’t hold up. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s so camp that it ‘s just not very good at all.

Stanley Kubrick directed some winners, including The Shining, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, but he also directed some duds (2001 A Space Odyssey is totally overrated). I won’t say A Clockwork Orange is a dud, but it’s not as good as I remember thinking it was. There are some highlights: certainly Malcolm McDowell’s performance is tremendous and the juxtaposition of violence with classical music is thought-provoking. Kubrick’s direction is unique — there are some very strangely shot scenes including a fast-motion menage a trois and that eery scene of Alex with his eyes propped open being forced to watch violent scenes in an effort to desensitize him to it. It definitely has a late 60s style that is common to the period (feels like Barbarella a bit). I don’t know…it sort of left me feeling…in the words of my 14-year-old…meh!

If you saw it when you were younger and haven’t seen it since you’re probably thinking I’m nuts and that it’s a classic. But I promise if you see it again you won’t think so…

Next Up: Tootsie

Len’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

As the end of 2011 approaches it’s time for everyone to publish their “Best Of” lists for everything from films to books to music. For the past few years I have posted my lists on Facebook, but now that I have this blog it makes more sense to post them here and share via Facebook. But if you’d like to look back at previous lists head over to Facebook and you can find them via my timeline.

Without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2011:

Honorable Mentions

  • Superheavy by Superheavy — Ordinarily I’m not a big fan of so-called “supergroups” but this album tears it up and got major airplay in my car this fall. This genre-bending record features Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Dave Stewart, A. R. Rahman, and Damian Marley. It’s R&B meets reggae meets rock and it’s great from top to bottom. Dave Stewart is really the brains behind this collaboration and that shouldn’t surprise anyone given his body of work. Jagger gives the band a rock and roll edge, and Joss Stone is her usual soulful goddess. Throw in Rahman (the Indian guy known for the for the Slumdog Millionaire music) and Damien “son of Bob” Marley and you have one of the most intriguing combinations ever recorded. Miracle Worker was the big hit this summer but I loved the whole album. Have I mentioned that I’m in love with Joss Stone?
  • The Goat Rodeo Sessions by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile — I saw these guys on The Colbert Report and was truly blown away. What would happen if you took four of the world’s best classical musicians and put them together to record a classical/bluegrass album? A Goat Rodeo apparently, which is their term for a chaotic situation. It’s friggin amazing. Take a listen to Attaboy and you’ll get the idea.

Top 10

10.  Sky Full of Holes by Fountains of Wayne — I suspect this album isn’t going to make too many “best of” lists for 2011 but FOW is one of my favorite bands and even though this isn’t one of their best efforts it’s still Fountains of Wayne and that means I like it. Sky Full of Holes is not as upbeat as the band’s last few releases, but the slower songs are still full of the story-like lyrics and biting wit that defines these guys. It’s a solid listen with a few gems. Richie and Ruben is definitely one of the highlights.

9.  Different Gear, Still Speeding by Beady Eye — Yes, it’s pretty much Oasis without Noel Gallagher but it’s Oasis nevertheless! If you are an Oasis fan (and you bloody well should be) then you’ll really love Beady Eye. This record begins where (What’s the Story) Morning Glory left off and delivers on the Oasis sound. Love it. Check out The Roller for your Oasis fix.

8.  The Awakening by James Morrison — This record sneaked up on me this year and provides some proof that Spotify is great for introducing people to new music. I’ve liked Morrison’s voice for years now but never listened to an entire record — but Spotify changes the game so I was able to hear the whole album. It’s wonderful and has inspired me to go back and listen to his older records. Take a listen to I Won’t Let You Go for a sample of his unique sound. Sure, he looks like Chris Martin but he sounds like Seal!

7.  Yes & Also Yes by Mike Doughty — This guy has been making great music since the 9os but I only discovered him a few years ago when a neighbor dragged me down to Tucson to see a live show. He has been in heavy rotation for me ever since and his new album is classic Doughty. The former lead singer of Soul Coughing keeps on rockitty rolling and his voice is one of a kind. My favorite tune on the new record is Na Na Nothing…enjoy this great song and amazing video!

6.  Ukulele Songs by Eddie Vedder — This is one of the most beautiful records in years and the combination of ukulele music and Vedder’s tremendous voice makes me want to run away to Maui for good. The ukulele is awesome and Vedder plays it like a true fan, but let’s be honest — the voice is the star of this record just like every Vedder/Pearl Jam record ever made. If you liked the Into the Wild soundtrack he did from a few years ago you’ll love this. Longing to Belong is my favorite song on this moody and gorgeous album.

5.  Codes & Keys by Death Cab for Cutie — I love DCFC and Codes & Keys is a great album. These guys keep getting better and better and I can’t get enough of their sound. Check out this amazing video for Home is a Fire directed by artist Shepard Fairey.

4.  Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay — I’m still a huge Coldplay fan and consider them one of my all-time favorite bands…so there! I’m still spending a lot of time with Mylo Xyloto to fully take in all the nuances and beauty but I have to say it’s another very strong recording from the band. Like all of Coldplay’s albums the more I listen the more I like. The hit songs are always solid, but some of the lesser known songs also rock…for example Charlie Brown which I love. I was looking forward to this release all year and it does not disappoint.

3.  21 by Adele — By now there is no denying that Adele is a superstar. 21 has taken the world by storm and tops many a “best of” list for 2011. It deserves all of the accolades and it will likely add to Adele’s Grammy count. She’s such an unassuming superstar, especially when you compare her to the likes of the other artists at the top of the charts like Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. She has an incredible voice, and for such a young woman she writes songs like she’s seen it all. I surprised a lot of my friends by listing 19 as my favorite album of 2008 and 21 came close to topping my list this year. I loved 21 top to bottom from the very first listen and apparently most of the world agrees — the girl can sing. My favorite song from 21 is Set Fire to the Rain but every song is special.

2.  El Camino by The Black Keys — It has only been out for a few weeks but it’s already wearing out my iPhone and testing the speakers in my new car. El Camino is everything you want in a rock and roll album and I’m thinking I already like it more than last year’s Brothers. It’s upbeat from start to finish and the Keys’ play their instruments like each performance is the last they’ll ever have. There’s not much you can say about this besides turn it up! Here’s a clip from SNL last week of the Keys doing Gold on the Ceiling.

1.  The King is Dead by The Decemberists — I have to admit it was a tough call this year because I liked so many albums equally, but if I’m being honest the album that I enjoyed the most this year was this one. I think it all starts with Colin Meloy’s voice and then you add in all the unique and interesting musical sounds from the band and this record just delivers. I’m not sure where you stick them in terms of genre because there’s elements of folk, rock, country, baroque, you name it. All I know is that I love it. The more I listen to The King is Dead the more I hear early REM, which is not too shabby of a comparison. I absolutely loved 2009’s The Hazards of Love which was sort of a folk-rock opera, but The King is Dead delivers the same sound plus a handful of really great memorable pop songs like Down by the River, This is Why We Fight and my favorite…Calamity Song.

AFI #71: Saving Private Ryan

I remember not liking Saving Private Ryan when it came out in 1998 and after watching it again today I remember why I didn’t like it — it’s depressing as hell. To me the plot sort of seems like it’s violence for violence’s sake. And it’s really graphic violence. What was the point of losing nearly an entire platoon to save the life of one guy? I get that Private Ryan lost three brothers, but since when is one life worth more than another?

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good war movie. I can think of several off the top of my head that were way better than Saving Private Ryan, including The Deer Hunter, Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker just to name a few. This film just doesn’t do it for me. I like so many of the actors in the film, from Tom Hanks to Adam Goldberg to Giovanni Ribisi…but (Spoiler Alert) they all fucking die. Are they heroes, or was this just a fool’s mission?

I will say this much — the first 30 minutes are intense as hell and some of the best war action ever filmed. I don’t know if it was realistic since I didn’t hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, but it sure felt real. And if it really was like that, holy crap! Spielberg probably earned his Best Director Oscar in those first 30 minutes alone. Talk about blood and guts. This film is not for the feint of heart.

Next Up: A Clockwork Orange

‘Grammys’ Best Days are Behind Them

The 2011 Grammy Award nominations came out today and boy has this contest jumped the shark. There are so many things wrong with the Grammy’s that it’s hard to know where to start. But for argument’s sake I’ll start with the ridiculous list of nominees for Album of the year:

  • 21 – Adele
  • Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
  • Born This Way – Lady Gaga
  • Doo-Wops and Hooligans – Bruno Mars
  • Loud – Rihanna

How can you lump these five albums into one category and pick a winner? Based on what? Best R&B album it’d be Rihanna. Best Rock album, Foos. Best pop album, Adele. Popular music has become so cross-genre that these awards don’t make sense. Here are a bunch of additional nominees that make no sense:

Bon Iver for best new artist? Been around since 2007.

The Black Keys for Best Pop Duo/Group? Pop? Really?

Foo Fighters are nominated in Best Rock and Best Hard Rock categories. What’s the difference? Not much if the Academy can’t even decide where they belong.

Coldplay gets nominated for Best Pop and Best Rock song. Huh?

Wilco gets nominated in the Best Rock Album category but not Best Alternative Album or Folk or Americana? What the heck is “Alternative” anyway?

The Civil Wars get nominated for Best Country Duo song for Barton Hallow. Country? Not folk or Americana, or alternative? Oh wait, the Civil Wars did get nominated for Best Folk album as well. Along with Fleet Foxes and Eddie Vedder. You heard me right, Eddie Vedder. What, no ukulele category? WTF?

Why do we have all these Latin music categories? Isn’t there already a Latin Grammy Award ceremony?

The Grammys are a joke. Popular music can no longer be categorized in the old ways, which is why everyone was so upset when Arcade Fire took home the top award last year (not me by the way…The Suburbs was one of the best albums of the year, it was just not in the right category). Something needs to be done. I don’t like to miss the Grammys because we are inevitably treated to some magical “once-in-a-lifetime” performances like when Elton John backed Eminem or last year when Mumford and Sons played with Dylan.

This year I’m hoping for a cool tribute to Amy Winehouse. I’d like to see Nikki Minaj join Foo Fighters and Lady Antebellum for a Winehouse medley!