movie: Jackie Brown

jackie brown
You know I’m a Tarantino fan, but I stumbled on this one, friends.

Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who’s been busted smuggling cash over international borders for Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell. The cops don’t want her in prison: they want her to inform on him. Ordell bails her out with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who feels decades more dated than the rest of the film), so he can kill her; but she thwarts him. Jackie plays the cops (chiefly an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton) against Ordell against Cherry, who falls for her; adding to the star-studded staff is Ordell’s old friend fresh out of jail, played by Robert De Niro, one of his kept women played by Bridget Fonda, and a brief role by Chris Tucker.

In Tarantino fashion, the plot is many-twisted: Jackie tells everybody a different story of herself and her plans, so watch closely for where she’s really headed and who’s really holding the bag. The script is heavy on clever monologues that are not strictly realistic but are great fun to listen to nonetheless. (These are the great strengths of Pulp Fiction, I think.) I hadn’t known that this movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch), but it makes sense now.

On the other hand, where I think the extensive use of the n-word in Django Unchained was fairly well justified and pointed, it grated here. There were many references to race that felt gratuitous rather than purposeful. I felt uncomfortable. I know this movie is supposed to reference a tradition of “blaxploitation” movies that I missed out on: maybe I’m just lacking the reference point to appreciate Tarantino’s edginess. But that’s my reaction: it was a little too unjustifiably race-conscious for me.

I did like the vintage feel to the movie. Anthony Lee Collins or somebody else with the relevant expertise will have to help me out here: I know there’s something about the cinematography, maybe the type of film used (?), that makes Jackie Brown feel older than it is. I can’t put my finger on it but Robert Forster’s character felt out of another time, even within the context of the film. And then there’s the text used in certain sections, like in the Kill Bill movies, that felt like it referenced something older, too.

So, a mixed review. I liked the plot twists, and the acting was excellent, and Tarantino’s monologues continue to crack me up. But the n-word got to me this time around.


Rating: 5 shopping bags.

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents A View From the Bridge (a Young Vic production)

I recently reviewed A View From the Bridge in preparation for this performance, which like Treasure Island was performed onstage in London, recorded, and then screened at the Lincoln Theatre where I saw Romeo and Juliet (whew).

view bridge

It was outstanding, a truly special experience. The screening opened with a short video incorporating interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes folks involved: the director, set designer, and art director, if memory serves; and scenery video of London (where the theatre is) and Amsterdam (where the director lives). My father, who was my date for this show, commented that it made him miss both cities. We learned a little about the theatre, the director, and the concept for this show: to find a way to surprise the audience even with a play that audiences are expected to know fairly well. I shall avoid spoiling both the play and this production, and only say: they surprised me.

This production was mind-blowingly good, and expertly suited to Miller’s original work. They did deviate from his set design tips: there were no furnishings, just a stark white vinyl floor and wall with a floating glass bench wrapped around the three remaining sides. Costumes were nondescript, neutral or earth tones, and there were few costume changes: Katie changed her shirt when she stood up to Eddie and grew up; and the immigrants changed upon their arrival. This ultra-minimalist lack of color, furniture and set decor left just the actors to carry the story, which they did. The acting was unspeakably good. And the cinematography did it justice: I don’t even recall noting cinematic choices in Treasure Island, which mostly held back and provided panoramic views of the stage – a fine choice, since the stage set in that case was so impressive; but here we relied heavily on close-ups, and the framing really caught my eye. Many shots were close-up of actors’ faces, or scenes involving a few people, say, waist-up; these scenes were then framed by the borders of the white stage set, or framed around one or two props (the chair Marco holds aloft, for example). The whole thing was artistically very fine.

Miller’s humor shone through, but most notably the tension, sexual and violent. There was a percussive gong employed in a few scenes, a slow-paced, low, metronome-like sound that ramped up the tension beautifully, like the tick… tock… of a clock in a silent, anxious room. Somebody in the pre-show video (sorry, I can’t recall who) made an excellent analogy about the play itself: he said that it was like we are watching two cars approach each other at high speed, knowing what is going to happen and then… boom. That is a great description of Miller’s work. It is the story of an inescapable tragedy that we all see coming but are powerless to halt. (This is emphasized further by Mr. Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as chorus, and his foreknowledge and sense of foreboding throughout.)

All in all, in my reading and my watching of this play, I’m deeply impressed: with Miller’s original*, and with this production. If you have a way to access National Theatre Live, don’t miss it. This is some of the finest theatre I’ve ever seen.


Rating: 10 pillowcases.

*I slightly misspeak: as it turns out, Miller’s original was a one-act play. The two-act version that we know best today was actual a reworking, according to Wikipedia.

movie: Muscle Shoals

muscle shoalsFollowing up on The Secret to a Happy Ending that we watched the other night, I finally found the time to watch this 2013 documentary, too. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two years and knew I needed to see it, and now I’m passing it on: go see this film now.

Muscle Shoals is about the town in Alabama of the same name, a small place, a backwater, where some of the greatest American music ever has been recorded. It’s full of beautiful cinematography portraying the natural beauty of the place, and full of impressive musicians talking about the special magic made there. The list of contributors is formidable: Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Rick Hall, David Hood (Patterson Hood’s dad), Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Spooner Oldham, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton… and that’s a who’s who of who is in the movie, not who recorded there. That list is longer and more impressive. There are also video footage and audio tracks from back when history was being made at FAME Studio and later at Muscle Shoals Sound. The whole thing is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can view clips here; but really, you want to go find the whole thing.

The morning after, I ran out to my local record store and bought albums by Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What will you buy?


Rating: 9 tragedies in Rick Hall’s life, whew.

movie: The Secret to a Happy Ending

From the band’s website:

This is a film about the redemptive power of rock and roll; it’s about the American South, where rock was born; it’s about a band straddling the borders of rock, punk and country; it’s about making art, making love and making a living; it’s about the Drive-By Truckers. This film documents the band and their fans as they explore tales of human weakness and redemption. With unparalleled access, this documentary encompasses three critical years of touring and recording as the band struggles to overcome trauma and survives a near breakup, in a persistent search for a happy ending.

secret to a happy endingThe Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands and one that has had an impact on my life and how I look at my world. It is a love I share with the Husband. We saw this movie in a theatre when it came out to town, back in Houston. We bought a copy of it on DVD, too, and now I am in this writing class and working on a long essay about the Truckers and what they mean to me; so as research, we watched the movie again at home.

Obviously and basically, I love the movie because it is a distillation of the band. The filmmaker was lucky to have the Truckers’ cooperation, and followed them to several shows, recording live footage; and interviewed all the band members repeatedly, as well as some of their families. Cultural authorities like a university professor (and obvious DBT fan) and music writer get screen time as well. This is a fan’s documentary, and I think fans can’t help but be pleased by it. Non-fans are liable to become fans… but then, I’m biased.

I like that the movie captures a moment in the life span of this long-lived band, reviewing the early years (including the band Adam’s House Cat, where the two lead men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally played together) and then getting into a few difficult years, when bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell divorced, and Isbell left the band. (He’s had an impressive solo career since. Look him up.) One of the things I’ve come to love about DBT is how many layers there are to love, investigate, and appreciate – like the people involved. The story of Shonna and Isbell breaking up is maybe none of my business; but you can bet all the band’s fans followed it and had feelings about it, nonetheless. For the record, I blame no one and wish them both the best.

It’s a hell of a good movie, and even if you’re not a Truckers fan, I think it’s a fine documentary about rock-and-roll (and other things too). It pulls my heartstrings.


Rating: 9 songs.

I hope this is not too off topic, but I want to share a short piece that didn’t make it into my longer essay about the Truckers and their impact on me.

I have a large tattoo covering my right arm and shoulder: a tree and its surroundings and inhabitants: fallen logs, grasses and flowers and mushrooms, a bunny rabbit, a snake, a squirrel, a turtle, a weasel, a fat yellow songbird. On the front of my shoulder, the tree’s branches part around a Cooley bird. Around the back of my shoulder, wrapping onto my back, a black owl with red eyes flies away, departing. It’s the same owl that my husband Chris has tattooed on his left bicep, flying above a leafless tree on a burnt yellow desert and under a spooky moon that looks down with knowing eyes and a slight smirk.

These tattoos borrow images from Wes Freed, a Virginia-based artist who has drawn all the art for all the Drive-by Truckers’ albums, posters, website art, promotional material, backdrops, and etc. since time immemorial (or at least the Southern Rock Opera album of 2004). He is the band’s brand. In a documentary about the Truckers called The Secret to a Happy Ending (whose cover art he also created), he says: “It’s always about the music. The music is the most important thing. But there’s so much going on with the records. It’s cool to be able to have the opportunity to illustrate the songs. That’s cool.” Wes Freed. I love that his named is a sentence: Wes Freed; or else a description: Wes, Freed. And the songs are themselves filled with dark and toothsome images. I did my own (very poor) copy of Freed’s illustration of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song based on true current events in which a Tennessee preacher’s wife kills her husband: in court, her lawyers then displayed “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear,” as evidence of how abused she had been before she just snapped. Freed portrays a woman in a see-through negligee and high-heeled pumps, blue hair piled and stacked high, holding a shotgun whose smoke swirls around to caress her against an enormous yellow moon. A monkey in a fez cavorts behind her. I’ve looked and looked for Freed’s illustration of this song on the internet, but it seems to have disappeared; all I have is my poor imitation.

Thanks for reading.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Treasure Island

The Pickford Film Center regularly offers this format: live-taped broadcasts from the National Theatre in London, of plays performed on the stage there. I was originally skeptical about the concept; would it translate? The answer is yes, and I will be seeking out more.

treasureI was interested because I have fairly recently read (listened to) Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This adaptation for the stage by Bryony Lavery was astoundingly good – on which more to come; this is mostly a rave review – but I don’t know why I’m always so surprised at how much they change from the original. (This is why they call it an ‘adaptation.’ I know the compression/acceleration is necessary, but I’m always taken aback and disappointed. When will I learn?) In this case, most notably from the start: Jim is parented not by his mother but by a grandmother, both of his parents being dead; and Jim starts out as a gender-bending youth, and then becomes clearly a girl. The former, the grandmother for the mother, remains inexplicable to me. She provided some comic relief; maybe the mother from the original, rather a serious, even dour character, was deemed too sober. But I didn’t find the grandmother so much better as to justify making the change.

Jim as a girl, though, was totally amusing and fun, and provided another element. She’s every bit as boyish as the Jim we know and love; it is mainly just a poke at the original, and an inclusion. I dug it. And the gender-bending confusion here and there is good fun. Maybe it’s strange, that the apparently huge change of the protagonist’s sex bothers me less than the substitution of one female relative for another, but there it is.

This format, of stage-on-film? Completely outstanding. I loved that it captured the best of both worlds: the theatricality of the stage with the informality, convenience, and affordability of the big screen. The music & sound effects were great. And the set! My word, this is the finest set I’ve ever seen onstage: the stage itself was round, and the set lifted up from a flat to a multi-story, and also rotated on demand, so that there was no need for darkened figures hurrying to replace scenery while the audience was distracted: they simply turned the stage around, the actors meanwhile performing in our view, and changed what was behind (or took it underground to change it there). Transitions were perfectly seamless, adding to the drama rather than taking away from the momentum of the play, because there was such a sense of movement, of action. I am blown away.

Jim herself, portrayed by Patsy Ferran, was possibly even more astounding than the astounding set. She was delightfully expressive and sort of puckish, and pulled off that gender confusion early on. Lavery’s adaptation keeps Jim as the narrator of the story, so she speaks directly to the audience lots throughout. I loved the emotion and delivery: action, drama, adventure, humor.

As for some complaint about the “feminist twist”: I have to disagree with the Spectator blog. I don’t feel that the play was feminized aside from the change of Jim’s gender; she goes on no feminist tirades; she’s not a particularly feminine girl by any means. It was more of a nod than anything else, and takes nothing away from Stevenson’s original. The tone of that original is unchanged, except in that this version is a little funnier – which has nothing to do with Jim’s nominal gender. If we’re going to take issue with the fact that the play is not precisely the original novel, I think we have bigger beefs than Jim’s gender, frankly: the ending is changed, for example.

This play was even better than the original book, to which it is not completely faithful – for the best.


Rating: 8 apples.

movie: Stand Up Guys

stand upNot nearly as important as that movie I reviewed the other day; but fun.

Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin are three retired gangsters who reunite in their old age. Val (Pacino) has just gotten out of prison after twenty-eight years when Doc (Walken) goes to pick him up; they later liberate Hirsch (Arkin) from a nursing home and go out on the town, raise a little hell, do a little bad-guy justice. The whole movie covers about 24 hours, in which we enjoy jokes, gruff man-love, joy and death: it’s about what you’d expect from the cast.

Predictable though it may be, I found this sentimental, elegiac, man’s-man end-of-life tale to be thoroughly entertaining. I was reminded of Tarantino: the script is equally, self-consciously funny (hello, Viagra jokes) and off-color, and violent. Not quite so quotable, though, and indeed, Tarantino does not appear to have been involved (though according to the Google, I was not the first one to wonder). For Tarantino fans – or fans of Walken et al! – I think Stand Up Guys is good fun.


Rating: 6 steaks.

movie: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry


I’m really pleased to have gone to see this movie locally with my dad. It was so good that I went back a few days later to see it again with my mom, so now it’s a family affair (as these things should be). She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a recently produced history of the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was nice to see it with my parents, who were there, and involved.

The movie includes historical footage of protests, speeches, news media, and interviews; contemporary interviews of activists who were involved in that history; the odd performances by actors; and reenactments. So many things struck me, and I’d like to point out that while I was often shocked by the horror, and the bravery, I was not surprised. Does that make sense? For example, the divisiveness of the movements – civil rights, women’s rights, peace – is unsurprising but will shock and dismay me every time. When a woman leader got up to speak in front of a crowd of “New Left” men, and they booed and catcalled her, I was (sadly) unsurprised, but astounded nonetheless. When the women’s movement ostracized its lesbian members, likewise.

"Lavender Menace," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“Lavender Menace,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

I enjoyed learning for the first time about the “Lavender Menace” action at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. The need was unfortunate, but the demonstration was great fun, gave me joy. For that matter, another of the revelations of this film, for me, was the sense of fun associated with certain direct actions throughout the movement: that’s a part of the story that I hadn’t heard before, I don’t think. I also didn’t know how close we had gotten to having legislation passed supporting universal child care (thank you Nixon for this among other criminal shortcomings).

The first night I saw the movie, it was followed by a panel discussion with faculty members from local Western Washington University. These women were younger than I’d expected, in their thirties and forties, and the theatre was sold out – all good signs. We touched on the movie’s title: a criticism of the patronizing statement that we’re cute when we’re mad? or a sincere celebration of every woman’s beauty as she pursues right? (I think it’s both.)

I’m glad to have been reminded of that slogan of the women’s movement, that “the personal is political.” I’ve used some variation on this myself, because it makes so much sense: when politicians talk about forcing ultrasounds, we are quite literally talking about the inside of my reproductive organs; what could possibly be more personal? And I’m sure I knew on some level that I was citing my parents and their fellows, but I’m glad to have been reminded.

I cried when the movie got to present-day Texas, all those women in the capital protesting Senate Bill 5. I’m sorry I wasn’t there; I should have been there. Other interesting or affecting points in the film: the portrayal of our rage as a good thing (when emotion has come to be something we’re supposed to be ashamed of); and the excellent statement that the United States doesn’t like to credit radical movements with positive change in our history. Of course this only makes sense: it doesn’t behoove the powers to acknowledge that protest and civil disobedience do good. But revision of our history is a vile and insidious weapon being used all around us, and it bears noting (over and over again). Another statement of the film – I forget who made it – is that merely speaking truth aloud is a revolutionary and powerful act. Let’s not forget it.

"8-26-1970 March," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“8-26-1970 March,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here


Thanks, ladies. I owe you.

Rating: 9 consciousness-raising groups.
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