Snowpiercer (2014); directed by Bong Joon Ho

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In order to combat global warming, various nations on the planet decide to inject the atmosphere with a coolant. The film opens with a bright blue sky, and three planes careening by far above, leaving behind a white trail of this stuff. The coolant works better than originally planned. As a matter of fact, it is a disaster. The world is plunged into an Ice Age in a matter of months, and all life on earth (well, almost all) is eradicated. Ice and snow covers the land. Thankfully, an industrial wizard named Wilford has invented an “eternal train,” a train that circles the globe endlessly, cutting through the snow and ice, somehow transforming it into water for the people on board. The train rattles through the icy landscape. It is longer than any train on earth today. It is broken up into sections, similar to what was going on on the doomed Titanic, with third-class passengers barricaded in the belly of the ship. There are the huddled masses who live in squalor in “the tail” of the train, and they are loomed over by soldiers holding machine guns. Population control is paramount. Babies are born on the train (the train has been hurtling around the globe for 17 straight years), and sometimes the crowd needs to be thinned out. And it is. Brutally. What is going on in the head of the train? Nobody knows. The sections of the train are locked off by a series of gates. There’s no way to get through them.

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This is the premise of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (based on a graphic novel). I have loved Bong Joon Ho’s work for years, and his devotion to genre pictures (his Memories of Murder is one of the best police procedurals I have ever seen). The Host was superb, a great monster movie. Mother was devastating, and it also was a nod to multiple genres, and it featured one of the best performances that year (or, hell, any year) by Hye-ja Kim. He’s a glorious film-maker, audacious, clever, visceral, with a hardy and talented group of regulars. I look forward to whatever he does. Snowpiercer arrived in theaters a couple weeks ago with a lot of baggage attached to it. Bong Joon Ho had been in a protracted war with Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film. Bong Joon Ho dug his heels in. Weinstein finally relented, and the film is being released in its full version, but bratty Weinstein retaliated by giving it a very limited release in theaters. So it’s hard to find. It’s outrageous and unfair. It’s been playing for a couple of weeks now at only a couple of theaters in Manhattan. When Tilda Swinton spoke at EbertFest, she RAVED about the experience of making the film, and RAVED about the whole concept, and it made me excited to see it.

Dystopian universe? Familiar landscape made strange and scary by ice as far as the eye can see? The dirty rabble bonding together in order to storm the front of the train? A comment on totalitarianism? Fascism? Moral and ethical questions? And, oh yeah, one of the hottest guys who has ever walked planet earth, frozen or not?

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Count me in.

It could have been horrible. It could have been Battlefield Earth. Or Waterworld. But not with Bong Joon Ho at the helm. Snowpiercer is fantastic. The situation is so otherworldly, but the actors play it all grounded in such reality that there are sequences so tense I found it nearly unbearable. It’s got it all. It’s got a hot dirty guy being all moral and tormented and brave and a reluctant Leader. It’s got Octavia Spencer doing a fight scene. Brilliantly. She kicks ass, she’s heartbreaking, she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. It’s got a surprise bit of casting that I actually managed to not know before I went into it (the guy who plays Wilford), and so when the mysterious Wilford is revealed, like Oz behind the curtain … it was a gasp of recognition and excitement.

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It’s got Joon Ho regular Song Kang-Ho, so great in Memories of Murder and The Host, as “Nam,” a crazy wild-haired engineer who was originally hired to maintain the multitude of gates in the train before being shunned and put into a sort of cryogenic state, because basically he knew too much. He’s such a strange and powerful actor, a great listener, and phenomenal physically. He’s a big barrel-chested blurpy guy, and seeing him in action is to feel an actual threat of danger.

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Huddled at Nam’s side, is his wide-eyed nearly feral daughter Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), who is known as a “train baby”, born on the train, her whole life spent on the train.

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When we first meet the passengers in the tail, we understand that a plan is already afoot to storm the gates. The plan is to somehow get through all the gates until they reach the head of the train. Because whoever controls the engine, controls the train. Curtis (the aforementioned hot Chris Evans) says, “We control the engine, we control the world. Without that, we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.”

Okay, you talk like that, and you have MY love and attention, big boy.

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Curtis has two co-conspirators who help plan the revolution, one being the one-legged, one-armed Gilliam (hat tip to Terry and “Brazil” perhaps?) – played by John Hurt, and one being a tough English kid named Edgar (Jamie Bell, who was so awesome in Nymphomaniac, Vol. II). They come up with a plan. And hell, it is ingenious. But how to make it happen when they are loomed over by guards, when they are tortured at will to teach the crowd a lesson, when they are never left alone?

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On occasion, a representative from Wilford Industries stalks into the “tail” of the plane to give the huddled dirty masses a pep talk/threatening monologue. This is Mason, played by a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. She is clearly terrified of the mob in front of her, probably hates what they smell like, and tries to be both friendly and threatening at the same time, which makes the overall effect tremendously awkward. It’s a beautiful piece of pantomime, this character. She is not suited to authority, and yet isn’t that so often the case, those who have power just don’t have the stomach or character for it. She’s a reprehensible character.

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The train barrels along over treacherous mountain passes, with dizzying abysses below, it plunges into long tunnels, it crashes through ice in its way. There are some CGI effects used in these train sequences and I found them haunting and beautiful, not too slick, but just enough to give us a sense of the true scope of the damage out there.

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The not-knowing what is up in the front of the train, the fact that nobody has ever left the tail, adds to the tension of the slow move forward. They are moving into the unknown. And what they find, as they progress through each car, is increasingly strange, increasingly bizarre … You won’t believe it until you see it. And even when you see it, you won’t believe it.

The production design of the film is unbelievable. The entire thing takes place on a train, so each “set” for each car is a certain width. Bong Joon Ho and his production team clearly reveled in those limitations, and never once do you forget that you are on a train. Because of the Ice Age, things have gone extinct. When Nam is brought out of his frozen state, he pulls out a battered pack of cigarettes, only two left. The crowd looking on is agog. There are no more cigarettes in their world. Octavia Spencer breathes, as though she is in the presence of the Holy Grail: “Marlboro Lights?” When Nam lights up, the entire crowd leans in to get a whiff of second-hand smoke, a welcome and funny tonic to the attitudes towards smoking today. There are no more bullets, as well, so that calls into question the shot guns held on the people in the tail, and also means they have to improvise when it comes to their own weaponry. When the huddled masses fight back, they have to use tools, and axes, and pipes, and sometimes, thrillingly, torches, hurtling them across the train to the enemy. It’s brutal and medieval, chaotic and bloody.

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I just have to give a shout-out to all of the actors, as well as the massive stunt doubles, because these fight scenes are terrifying, and completely lacking in the glitter and gleam of CGI superhero violence. It looks like it’s really happening. It looks like at any second the axes will crash through the windows, letting in the deathly freezing air. It looks like actors could possibly be getting actually hurt. They’re NOT, but that’s how real it looks. The frame is filled, end to end, with violence, mob on mob violence, all contained in the walls of a little train careening over a mountain pass.

All of this could seem quite silly. Maybe it is. It sure hit me in the sweet spot though. It’s earnest, in the best sense. It’s earnest in the way all disaster movies are, cliffhangers involving a group of disparate people trying to get out of a burning building, or trying to survive a plane crash, or trying to band together against a common foe. The actors are all on the same page with their creator and with the material. It is a life-or-death struggle, first of all, but it is also a struggle to insist that we, as humans, get to CHOOSE how we live, or how we die. Maybe there’s a way to live out there in the tundra if they were allowed to figure it out for themselves. Maybe there’s a chance. Or maybe they’ll all die. But that should be up to the individual.

It’s worth it, too, to find it … if you can … playing on a big screen. The visuals are unbelievable.

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Boyhood (2014); directed by Richard Linklater

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I was about to start off by saying “Movies like Boyhood…” and stopped myself. Because there are no other movies like Boyhood. There are other films about a boy coming of age, there are other films about a child becoming a man, there are other films about domestic life and problems. About adolescence.

But none do what Boyhood has done.

The closest parallel is Michael Apted’s Up series, but that’s a documentary. Doing a similar thing with a group of actors and actual real-life children playing parts has never been done. The miracle is that it works so well. The miracle also is that the film is a deeply profound experience, a musing on the nature of time, and “ain’t it funny how time slips away,” and how there is no ultimate meaning except for “the moment.” That’s the key, isn’t it. The key to how to live a good life. Embrace the moment. Easier said than done, but Boyhood makes you actually feel that in a very real and visceral way.

An audacious project, carried out basically in secret over a 12-year period, Boyhood was shot in distinct small chunks over the course of those 12 years, so that we actually see the little boy in the poster grow into an 18-year-old kid. The cast remains the same: Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the parents, and Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as their children. Linklater does not make a gimmick of the concept. It unfolds as naturally as, well, life. He does not give us year-markers as delineators, he does not explain that it is now a year later, we just get it because the kids’ hair is different, their heights are different, the stories on the news tell us where we are in time, the parents’ are different, older.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) are divorced when the film starts. They have two young children, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Olivia has full custody, basically because Mason Sr. is irresponsible and has decided to move to Alaska to “clear his head” and work on a boat and write some music. He roars into town occasionally, driving a black GTO (a hat-tip to Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Linklater’s favorite films), and taking the kids out for bowling and sleepovers. Boyhood is not conventional in its presentation (obviously) and not conventional in other important ways, in the same way that the Before Sunrise movies both acknowledges the rom-com tropes and then discards them, allowing the characters space to maneuver, to surprise us and each other. It is only when you see something like Boyhood that you realize how hemmed-in most characters are in other films, by the demands of the plot, by cliches, by assumptions being made about them.

Nothing huge or earth-shattering happens, but one of the ways that that works is that you realize/remember how intense life is on an everyday basis, especially for children, but for adults too. Mason Sr. says to his 18-year-old son at one point, “We’re all just winging it, man,” and that’s pretty much the size of it. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

Life moves along in Boyhood. The years pass. Olivia and the kids move a lot, which means that Mason Sr. has to drive hundreds of miles sometimes to spend every other weekend with his kids. Olivia marries two more times, both times to guys who seem responsible on the surface, but who end up having drinking problems (in one case, a severe drinking problem). She says, self-deprecatingly at one point to her now-teenage son, “Obviously I enjoy making poor lifestyle choices.” Olivia is doing the best she can, and has gone back to school to get her Master’s, and ends up being a professor of psychology, beloved by her students, and influential in her community. It’s not a surprise that this occurs. She obviously keeps her nose to the grindstone, and works her ass off. We watch this happen, in distinct spurts, over the years.

Mason Sr. has his own journey to go on. He’s an attentive dad, he talks about the tough stuff (trying to engage his mortified teenage daughter in a conversation about safe sex, should she be interested in trying sex at some point), and we slowly see him “get his shit together,” although it’s not clear how good that is for him. He marries again, too.

The kids accept the changes in their parents’ lives, but there are also deeper unspoken levels of questioning going on, something that Linklater excels in. He doesn’t make too fine a point of it, he doesn’t underline themes, but the questions reverberate off the screen. What does it mean to be responsible? What does it mean to do your best? Are there other alternatives? Olivia seems pretty overwhelmed throughout, but she keeps trucking along, like any mother you’ve ever met, and she has her off moments, but in general, she keeps things moving, keeps it together. Early in the film, a guy she is dating clearly is giving her a hard time for “using” her kids as an excuse. She can’t just go out at a moment’s notice, she can’t find a babysitter last minute, and he is pissed off about it. She screams, “I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother!!” There was no gap, no time for herself. A simplistic film would have made her comment seem villainous, as though the resentment of her role was a point against her. Linklater doesn’t work on the points system. That comment comes out of an exhausted and upset moment, and she loves her kids, but what she says is ALSO true.

Life is not either/or. There are very few ACTUAL “villains” in real life. The pleasure in Boyhood, and it takes some getting used to, is that nobody here is bad. Even a teacher giving Mason Jr. a hard time for slacking off in photography class is trying to get Mason Jr. to be better at his art. Be artistic but ALSO be responsible: both qualities will serve you well. It’s a great little scene.

The acting is unlike other acting in other films. It has a documentary reality, a sense that we are “visiting” these people over the years, dropping by periodically to see how they are doing. Sometimes they are doing well. Scenes unfold lazily, like a conversation between Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. when they’re on a camping trip. There’s no “point” to the scene, it’s a conversation between father and son that unfolds naturally, beautifully. They talk about Star Wars. They talk about school. They talk about life. They talk about everything. These are the conversations that make up the majority of most people’s lives, and yet it is so rarely portrayed onscreen!

The film is not lacking in drama. In one tense sequence, Olivia engineers a separation from her now-violent husband, and Arquette is absolutely heart-breaking and ferocious in her need to protect her children. But the real drama comes from the small, the everyday, the moments that make up the majority of our lives. Talking seriously with someone you have a crush on when you’re 15. How profound it is, how scary, how fun, how disorienting. The awkwardness between teenage siblings, how of course you love each other, but yuk, stay away from me. The growing awareness that you have a self, a self that is distinct from others, a self that is distinct from your parents, from other people, that you are You. And what do you do with that knowledge?

If you’re a teenager, sometimes it means dyeing your hair or cutting your hair off or dressing distinctly. These are not just surface things, they are a way to assert your individuality. Boyhood respects the experience of teenagers in a way that seems almost damn near revelatory, in today’s overly-sexualized and hostile atmosphere. Mason Jr. dates a girl, and they have serious conversations about their dreams, and about technology (he deletes his Facebook page, and they have a big talk about it), and about what they want to do with their lives. They also get stoned and have sex, because they’re 16 years old and that’s what goes on. It’s ALL true. She’s not leered at like some hottie cheerleader prize. She’s her own person. This is high school for most people. This is life and adolescence. It’s deeply serious to those who are living it.

There are scenes that left me wrung dry, there are scenes that are hilarious. There was one scene, a nighttime talk between Mason Jr. – age 8 or 9 – and his father – about “magic” – that left the audience HOWLING with laughter, laughter that kept going, on and on, into the next scene.

In that laughter I didn’t just hear how funny the exchange was. I heard a collective RELEASE. A sense of almost awed recognition that yes, yes, YES, life is like this!!, talking with an 8-year-old is like this, and how we NEED to see such things on-screen, how we YEARN for our lives to be reflected up there with more subtlety and sensitivity! It was truly cathartic.

One of the best films I’ve seen all year.

There are no comparisons. Boyhood is sui generis.

And if possible, see it with a crowd.

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Because This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Seen

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Happy Bastille Day

One of the best scenes in cinema, the scene of the “dueling anthems” in Casablanca, when the crowd drowns out the German anthem with “La Marseillaise”. Gives me goosebumps every time, especially considering that most of those extras and actors with bit parts were actual refugees from Europe, they had fled the Nazis, fled to America, many of them had families in concentration camps, and here they were, playing that actual situation in a film. It was personal. It was an intense day of filming and the emotion expressed is not counterfeit, one of the many reasons why the scene is so powerful.

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First Look Trailer for Survivor’s Remorse, Coming This Fall

Survivor’s Remorse is a new series on STARZ premiering on October 4. You can check out the first look trailer here.

My cousin Mike created the show, wrote it, and is also executive producing. Great cast. Mike’s a great writer. I can’t wait.

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iPod Shuffle

From last week. Things going well. Juggling about 3 different jobs right now. Managing. Getting ready to go on vacation with my family in a week. Music accompanies me wherever I go. Especially in the summer in New York City which, frankly, I find unbearable. The sticky subways, the stink, the humidity. I walked to work one day from the bus station. It’s 8 blocks. By the time I arrived at my destination, I looked like I had swum the Hudson, fully clothed, to get to work.

“The Beatitudes” – Noirin Ni Riain & The Monks of Glenstal Abbey. She’s an Irish singer, the monks are … well. They are a force to be reckoned with. Noirin and the monks pair up for an album. The Beatitudes, of course, are a list. “Blessed are …” I listen to this album sometimes when I have to calm my spirit. Or pray.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve. It’s not a very good song. There is also no reason for it go on for almost 6 minutes. But the “hook” is killer, that repeated theme. The hook is the only reason I own the song.

“Mean Mean Man” – Wanda Jackson. I love how she breaks up the word “man” – mah-yan! Also, the way she roughs up her voice … Hot. A rock ‘n roll classic giving the all-important Girl Side of things.

“Airbag” – Radiohead. I associate this whole album with a specific season in my life, and one particular guy. Radiohead was on at all of those parties. It was such an intense time, for multiple reasons, global, political, historical, and personal. I was playing with fire every time I saw him. And that’s just one example of many. I also always seemed to run into him right before or during some world-wide or national cataclysm. I’m not making any inappropriate connection with said events, I am just stating the coincidence. I’m “friends” with him on Facebook but I keep far far away from him other than that. So yeah, that was good times all around, and yeah, I can’t really listen to Radiohead anymore.

“Shit Stained Moon” – the wonderful Bleu, one of my favorite singer/songwriters working today. Wrote about seeing him at Rockwood Music Hall here. He’s a great pop-song writer. “Shit Stained Moon” is a perfect example. It’s about a breakup and trying to survive while single. He obsesses about a diner waitress. He’s falling in love with her, but only because he misses his girlfriend. And boy, he can sing. LOVE HIM.

“Love Child” – The Supremes. Classic. The little whispery “tenement slum” that starts off the whole thing …

“Wilkommen” – Alan Cumming in the Roundabout revival of Cabaret, starring Cumming and Natasha Richardson, which I was so so lucky to see with that original cast. One of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. It was so intense that my friend Brooke reached out to grab my hand at one point, gripping tight.

“I’m a Rover” – The Dubliners. Part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

“I Spy” – my awesome sister Siobhan O’Malley. A song about her days as a bartender. Very funny. “I Spy” was used in a promotional spot for a paper goods company, you can view it here.

“Why Did You Waste My Time” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins asks a very valid question. He has a moment during the bridge where he breaks down into wild howling sobs. He’s so out there. I love him.

“The Stolen Child” – The Waterboys. Yeats’ poem set to music. I was haunted by this poem when I was a kid (especially since we visited Glencar as a family, where there’s a plaque with the poem on it). There was something about that repeated line: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” that spoke to me. Even at age 11, 12.

“Portland Rain” – Everclear. Sexy-as-hell song. R-rated. Human.

“In the Garden” – Elvis Presley, in his most holy aspect. There’s a slight echo on his voice. He sounds gentle, sincere, as he sings this classic hymn. And when the chorus comes in behind him … One of the ways to really understand Elvis is to really really grok that he meant everything. And I mean everything. Elvis’ gospel stuff have helped me get through some pretty dark days. I mean, not really. But they are still very soothing.

“This Too Shall Pass” – Ok Go. I was a fan before they really “hit.” I love their spirit. And their videos are cool, yes, but the songs are fantastic even without the videos.

“Finale” – from the Broadway original cast recording of 1776. The roll call. Goosebumps.

“Love Is Like a Butterfly” – Dolly Parton. She’s perfect. A living legend. I love her latest album, Blue Smoke!

“Marian the Librarian” – Robert Preston, in The Music Man. As the daughter of a librarian, this song was always a huge hit in our household. I was vaguely obsessed with The Music Man as a child. We all were. We could recite it from beginning to end.

“I’ve Just Begun Having My Fun” – Britney Spears. Yes, Brit-Brit, and that’s what’s worrisome. No, just kidding. I love her.

“Sing! Sing! Sing!” – the great and sexy sexy sexy Gene Krupa. Maybe his most well known recording.

“Tremolo” – Bleu. See comments above. Sing OUT, Louise. He sings the hell out of it.

“Tragedy” – The Bee Gees. Until my dying day, this awesome track will remind me of Michael and our night at an underage dance club in Ithaca, New York. The two of us huddling in the alley where we could hear the music they were playing so Michael could decide if it was worthwhile to go in. All hell broke loose when they played “Tragedy.”

“The Bitter End” – Scala & Kolocny Brothers, this awesome all-girl choir from Belgium, I believe. They do covers, awesome arrangements. You may remember their cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” I love them.

“Old Shep” – Elvis’ drippy ballad about a boy and his dog. He loved the song. He sang it in a talent contest in Tupelo when he was 9 or 10 years old. He had to stand on a box to reach the microphone. So here he is, a huge superstar, and he records it. I mean, he was so sincere about things, about the things he loved. “Old Shep” is a bore, but it’s sweet because Elvis obviously loved the song so much and it connected him to his childhood. That little boy standing on the box at the fairgrounds.

“I Beg Of You” – Elvis Presley. One of his sexiest tracks. Bratty, sexy Elvis. Recorded in 1958, when he was on leave from basic training. A very productive recording session, every song that came out of it was a classic.

“Bijou” – Queen. Awesome. Instrumental. DRAMA!

“By All Means Necessary” – the great Robbie Williams, who is, frankly, the best damn entertainer today. He is doing something very very old-school with his career. He is doing whatever he wants. His journey is fascinating to me. He was definitely someone who could have flamed out, a la Amy Winehouse. He hasn’t. He has survived. He has thrived. I LOVE him.

“The Way of Love” – Cher. She literally could not be more melodramatic if she tried. And with Cher, Melodrama is always 100% sincere. That’s why it works. “The Way of Love” is crazy! We used to blast it at parties in college and all sing along, because we were Nerds.

“Drop Dead Beautiful” – Britney Spears. “and yeah your body looks so sick I think I caught the flu.” That’s some Pulitzer Prize shit right there. This song is on my workout mix.

“Surrender” – Cheap Trick. Good advice, guys, thanks!

“Wolf Call Boogie” – Hot Shot Love, old-school gritty blues, harmonica, recorded at Sun Records. This is the kind of stuff Sam Phillips felt an almost messianic mission to record. You can see why. It redeems the cat call.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey. Getting our daily dose of classic rock.

“Get Here” – a heartbreaking and sweet ballad by Oleta Adams, a singer I have always loved. “I don’t care when you get here, just … get here when you can.” Amen.

“I Got Stung” – Elvis Presley. Again, from that productive RCA recording session in 1958, recorded under great time-pressure because Elvis was disappearing into the Army for 2 years. No recording during that time. So RCA felt a huge pressure to get as much of Elvis down as possible to release during his time away. A great track. Elvis is on fire. And the entire session is available for purchase, each failed take, etc. But Elvis, in take after take after take, is perfect. But the arrangements were complex, lots of instruments, the Jordanaires, it took a lot of coordination to get everyone on the same page. But listening to those tracks, sometimes 30 takes per song, and hearing how consistent Elvis is … it’s awesome.

“I’m So Blue” – Katie Thompson. I can’t remember why I bought this or how I heard about it. She’s got a great voice, kind of country-ish.

“Just Because” – the ferocious Lloyd Price. His voice LEAPS out of the speakers.

“Hurt” – Elvis Presley. One of the great tracks from the 1970s. A howl of pain. The control of his extraordinary voice, what he makes it do, where he goes … is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

“Fashion Victim” – Green Day. I wondered when they would show up. Hi, boys.

“Small Hours” – The Pogues. God, we were obsessed with them in high school. I still love them.

“The Fool” – a great rockabilly track from Sanford Clark. Pretty much everyone covered this song, and you can see why. That guitar part … kind of helps make the song. And it just is on eternal repeat. Doesn’t matter: that’s why it works.

“Funny How Time Slips Away” – Elvis, performing in 1975 in Shreveport, the city that helped give him his start, when he was a regular on the radio show the Louisiana Hayride. Elvis loved this song so much. It’s also good to hear these live tracks from the mid-70s, where he is totally on point, totally in charge, in control. He is having a blast with his performance, he’s so EASY with it, it’s like he’s alone in his living room. But he’s not. Anyway, this is 1975. He has less than two years left to live. But he sounds like he’s at the top of his game. A good reality check for those who think the 70s were a constant downward spiral.

“Polythene Pam” – The Beatles, from Abbey Road. Those opening chords sound almost Rolling Stones-ish.

“Christ for President” – Billy Bragg & Wilco. I love this album so much. Billy Bragg & Wilco covering Woody Guthrie songs. We played this all the time in the first couple of months following the birth of my nephew Cashel, who is now in high school. And little baby Cashel would lie on his little rug on the floor, in his onesie, wriggling around whenever this song came on. He loved it.

“Comin’ Home” – Mel Torme. Sooooooo smooth.

“Shot Through the Heart” – Bon Jovi. I am not ashamed.

“Darts of Pleasure” – Franz Ferdinand. I was really into them for a hot second. Kind of lost track of them.

“Up ‘n Down” – Britney Spears. Lots of Brit-Brit on this shuffle. I ain’t complaining. I love how all of her songs are like, “I’m so hot, you know you want me, but you can’t handle me.” It’s okay, Britney. Relax.

“Rock of Ages” – Def Leppard. I literally could not be happier with the character of this iPod Shuffle if I tried. This song must be blasted at volume eleven.

“Love Buzz” – Nirvana. From Bleach. It’s one of my favorite tracks from Nirvana. Ferocious. Its own thing, but also a call-back to punk rock, metal, pop rock, the whole shebang. It’s all in there.

“Medley: Blueberry Hill /.I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Elvis Presley, playing Memphis in 1974. Another example of how awesome these live performances were. And here he is, playing his hometown. I love this entire concert. It is Elvis at his very best. And “I Can’t Stop Loving You” always propelled Elvis into some other level of commitment altogether.

“Minnie the Moocher” – Robbie Williams from his latest album Swing Both Ways. When I learned that Robbie had actually recorded Minnie the Moocher I felt like I had entered into some alternate reality where everything was working out just as it should.

“All You Need Is Love” – The Beatles. My cousin Liam learned that I did not have “the Beatles in mono” so he sent me a gigantic file via Dropbox with many of their tracks in mono. It does make a huge difference in the sound. This is the mono track. How many times have I heard this song? 500? More? Never get sick of it.

“It’s Only Love” – The Beatles. Listen to the subtle shit Ringo is doing in the background.

“One Fine Day” – Robbie Williams. He is incapable of writing a boring song. At least I don’t find any of his original songs boring. I find them to be pop classics.

“Volvo Driving Soccer Mom” – Everclear. Super-mean.

“The Ace of Sorrow” – Brown & Dana. Earnest folk duo. I have just this one track. I think my parents had one of their albums when I was a kid.

“O Mary Don’t You Weep” – Bruce Springsteen from The Seeger Sessions, an album I adore. This is my favorite track. RAUCOUS.

“Jesus Gave Me Water” – Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. If I recall correctly, this was their first hit in the vibrant and active gospel circuit. One can see why.

“True Colors” – Cyndi Lauper. How I love her. Then and now. Her Tony-award acceptance speech made me cry.

“Young Blood” – The Beatles, from those crazy and rough and gritty “Live at the BBC” tracks. So sexy, so alive, so fresh.

“Empty Sky” – Bruce Springsteen, from The Rising. And that’s what it felt like. The sky was empty. It was empty for years. Now it’s full again. And I’m not used to it yet. I am happy the new tower is there. I am happy it is taller than what was there before. But there were years when downtown looked … truncated, cut off, wrong. Empty sky.

“Princes of the Universe” – Queen. Freddie Mercury is irreplaceable. Sui generis.

“Vision of a Kiss” – The B-52′s. This particular album, Good Stuff, was on all the time during a time of gigantic upheaval in my life. Driving cross-country with my boyfriend, the two of us breaking up HORRIBLY, as we did so. Then I had a crackup in Los Angeles. One of those times, looking back on it, where I think, “I should have been in a hospital.” But I wasn’t. I was out amongst the English. Finally, I decided to save my own life, and I sold all my possessions, and moved to Chicago, with two suitcases of belongings. That was it. Best move I ever made. Good Stuff was the soundtrack to that time.

“I Will Always Love You” – Dolly Parton. I am sure everyone knows the story. In the 70s, Dolly Parton got a call from The Colonel (Elvis’ manager). It was last-minute, a kind of ninja attack. He said that Elvis had fallen in love with her song “I Will Always Love You” and wanted to record it. The way Elvis was set up as a musician was that he got half of the publishing rights of any song he sang. HALF. Publishing was where the real money was at, and Colonel Tom knew that. The 60s started to break apart that situation and it became harder and harder for Elvis to find good songs, and people who were willing to give up half their publishing rights: singer-songwriters started rising, people who wanted to retain their own rights to their own material. Elvis’ Achilles heel was that he didn’t write songs, and this publishing agreement was something set up to protect him. Anyway, Dolly Parton got the call from Colonel Tom, saying, “Elvis is set to record your song this weekend – if you could just sign over half of the publishing rights that would be great, kthx.” And Dolly refused. Considering what ended up happening with that song, when Whitney Houston turned it into one of the biggest hits ever, Parton was smart to refuse. But she has always expressed sadness that the situation was as it was, because she loved that Elvis loved something she had written, and she still wishes that she could have heard him sing her song. I wish it too. She said in an interview once, “I hope that he was as disappointed as I was.”

“You Don’t Know Me” – Ray Charles. I basically can’t take it. It’s so perfect.

“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” – Johnny Cash. Very Spaghetti-Western-ish. He’s awesome.

“Women Do Know How to Carry On” – the great Waylon Jennings. Wow, that’s a great trifecta of testosterone right there.

“Besame Mucho” – The Beatles. Gloriously goofy.

“Go Go Go” – Roy Orbison, recorded at Sun Records. Classic. Hot. That guitar background. It has everything in it. The blending of genres, the history of music, and its exciting future.

“I Should Have Known” – Foo Fighters. Angsty male melodrama. Great stuff.

“Goddamn Pusher Man” – Nina Simone. She is so damn intense. Her voice is so lived in, she’s been there, she’s experienced it, it’s there in her voice.

“Revolution” – a Nina Simone cluster. In this track, she coaches the musicians. Stops the song and tells them the feel she needs. I love it. She was a musician. And then you can hear the musicians adjust, following her lead.

“Something’s Got a Hold On Me” – Etta James. When she screams? The hairs on my arms rise up.

“Walk This Way” – Aerosmith. Don’t tell me what to do.

“Amy Amy Amy” – Amy Winehouse. Dammit. Still pissed. Still miss her.

“I Who Have Nothing” – Shirley Bassey. Mitchell’s obsession with her, my friend Alex’s obsession with her, rubbed off. This track is out of control. Tom Jones would listen to the performance and think, “Wow. Someone who leaves me in the dust. I better up my game.”

“Same Girl” – Randy Newman. He breaks my heart. And my heart has been broken so many times. I can’t take much more.

“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix. Good fucking music, if you’ll forgive me. There’s a biopic coming out. I’ve seen trailers. I wonder. I hope. We’ll see.

“The House Is Rockin’” – Stevie Ray Vaughn. He always makes me think of M. Otherwise known as Window-Boy. Or Tough Guy. My most important relationship. Healing. How on earth that worked out I have no idea. We were two messed-up wild uncontrollable people, who cut each other MILES of slack. Slack that no other potential partner EVER gave us. We were always in trouble with other people, but never with each other. It lasted for years. Over a decade. I am thankful for him. I will always wish him well. We listened to a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn. And watched kung fu movies at 3 a.m.

“Paradise” – The Ronettes. Magical sound.

“Surfin’ Safari” – The Beach Boys. They make me so happy. It’s almost physical. A happy pill.

“Something In the Air” – Thunderclap Newman. Of course immortalized in Easy Rider. Haunting somehow.

“Only When I Walk Away” – Justin Timberlake, from his latest album, which is pretty damn great.

“Smile Away” – Paul McCartney, from Ram, a pretty classic album. He feels set free, unleashed. “I could smell your feet a mile away …”

“I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” – Sinéad O’Connor. She’s so light-hearted, so carefree. I kid, I kid. It’s rather amazing, in retrospect, that someone so … brutally dark … would become so mainstream. I mean, this track, for example. A cappella. Repetitive. Creepy. Almost 6 minutes long. And it’s awesome. That album was a juggernaut. Then of course she torched her own career and I don’t fault her for that at all. She has a new album coming out and I am looking forward to it.

“One More Try” – George Michael. Beautiful. I love him.

“In the Misty Moonlight” – Dean Martin. The absolute BEST. Here’s a big post about him.

“Life In the Fast Lane” – The Eagles. I remember hearing this song when I was a child. “Good in bed” baffled me. What did THAT mean? And what did THAT have to do with anything?

“In My Life” – Bette Midler. One of those situations where the cover is almost as good as the original. Or, hell, as good. She sings it as an internal monologue, a soliloquy. It’s amazing.

“Unchained Melody” – the incomparable Charlie Rich. Recorded at Sun Records. The music those walls have soaked up. Jesus Mary and Joseph.

“Future/Now” – the white-hot fierce MC5. Boys swinging their cocks around. Rock ‘n roll.

“Never Been to Spain” – Elvis Presley, the midnight show on Feb. 16, 1972, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Elvis in high form, as he always was when he sang this song. It has a slow build, starting slow and groovy, before it EX-PLODES.

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” – Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. One of the best duos ever. What a blend. The ultimate masculine and the ultimate feminine. They find the balance. They meet in the middle. Incredible sound together. Robert Redford had this to say about working with Barbra Streisand (and I paraphrase): “She’s so masculine that I get to be feminine. And she’s so feminine that I get to be my most masculine.” This is something that today’s rom-coms and romances do not understand. It’s almost a lost art. And that’s what’s going on with Porter and Dolly.

“Leper Messiah” – Metallica. Listen to Lars. Methodically, fiercely, he creates the space where the song can happen. It’s crazy what he’s doing back there.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His voice. Good Lord. He lives his songs. Which makes it sound like he has climbed out of Hell, or fallen from Heaven. These are real things to him.

“The Night Hank Williams to Town” – Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Now that is some heavy-hitting name dropping there, all around.

“The Morning After” – Count Five. Loopy and silly and catchy. I love Count Five, and of course I always think of Lester Bangs’ crazy piece about them.

“Heroin” – The Velvet Underground. Terrifying.

“Antiques” – Pat McCurdy. I was wondering when he would show up. An old old friend of mine. I’ve written about him before. He thanked me in the liner notes for this album (Fainting with Happiness) and I’m not sure why and he never said. It was a difficult time. This is a great album, one of his best, so I’m strangely moved that I was acknowledged, even though I did jack-squat. “Antiques” is Pat’s nod to “Norwegian Wood.”

“Of Wolf and Man” – Metallica. They’re doing this crazy great tour now, where every set is different: the audience votes en masse on what they want played and Metallica comply. I have no idea how they are organizing it. Are audience members taking a survey online beforehand? It’s such a cool idea though. I’ve been following the whole tour on Facebook.

“Look At Her Face” – The Coral Sea. You know how some songs insert themselves into your life and take on meaning that goes far beyond the lyrics? The song becomes representative of something essential? That’s how certain songs work for me, and this is one of those songs. 2009 was a terrible year. Months were lost. I was so out of my mind at times that I have no memory of it, but I do remember driving and driving and driving in my car, randomly, aimlessly, for HOURS – almost an entire day – I remember I had to re-fill my tank so I could keep driving – I drove up to the Tappan Zee area, I drove around through North Jersey, never stopping. And I played this song the entire time. It felt like it was keeping me alive. So it’s a little hard to hear now. But it also reminds me of my script, which I finished in 2009 and despite all of my problems, managed to organize a New York reading of it, as well as a reading of it in Los Angeles. This song has a lot to do with my script. When I listen to it, I think of what I was trying to express. So yeah. That’s a hell of a lot of associations to put onto one song, but that’s the way it works sometimes.

And the LYRICS. BAH.

I’ll end there.

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R.I.P to the Last of the Ramones

Tommy

Here’s Variety’s obituary for Tommy Ramone.

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Elvis Overhears an Assassination Threat in Costa-Gavras’ Z.

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Affluenza (2014)

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Not good.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Some Reviews

– Slate’s Dana Stevens writes a gorgeous piece about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which I cannot WAIT to see. What Linklater is attempting has never been attempted before, not in this particular way, and I can’t wait to check it out.

– My friend Matt Seitz’s review of Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, brought tears to my eyes.

– Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice writes an extraordinary piece on the current re-release of A Hard Day’s Night. It’s not just a review. It’s a philosophical contemplation. (It’s a two-pager.) Here it is. The “white rabbit” girl kills me too. In her, is all of us.

– Godfrey Cheshire’s review of Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain. One quote:

At which point, roughly halfway through the film (inevitable spoiler alert here), Panahi himself walks into the frame, and we see that, in addition to baring the windows, the removal of the curtains also reveals Italian and French posters for some of his earlier films. This startling moment recalls a similar one in the middle of Panahi’s “The Mirror” when the little girl playing the film’s main character suddenly declares she’s not acting any more and runs away from the film location, to be followed by other cameras. That “coup de cinema,” though, took us from fiction to something closer to documentary, whereas this one transitions to a kind of subjective surrealism—call it a documentary about the inside of Panahi’s head in recent years.

Even just hearing a description of that moment … of him pulling down the curtains …fills my heart with despair and RAGE for him. I haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps this weekend. Wrote about Panahi just yesterday.

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