movie: Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders directs this visually stunning, stately-paced film set in West Texas and Los Angeles. I’m really here for those visuals, including old shots of my hometown of Houston (shot around the time of my birth) and the Big Bend area that means so much to me. The plot is as stark as that West Texas scenery. We open with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) in a filthy sports coat and red baseball cap (which didn’t mean then what it often means now), stumbling through the desert. He turns out to be Travis Henderson, who disappeared four years earlier. After he collapses in a little shop in the desert, his brother Walt comes to rescue him, taking him back to L.A. and the household where Walt lives with his wife Anne and the eight-year-old boy who is Travis’s son but calls Walt & Anne Mom & Dad.

Slowly and sparely, Travis and the boy, Hunter, build a relationship of sorts. When Travis gets ready to go find Hunter’s mother Jane, Hunter wants to come along (of course). The two take off on a road trip back to Texas, where the reunion is somewhat dissatisfying for everyone, I think, including me the viewer.

I found the ending (which I won’t spoil too much) a little disappointing. It reminded me of an Abbey novel, when he handles gender relations most poorly. But a dear friend of mine, who is a huge Wenders fan, points out that it’s only honest to Travis’s character; and I guess that’s not wrong. I claim that I wanted something, not sappy, but more open-ended, perhaps… but then I realize I’m thinking of A Perfect World, which was sappy, so maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I can’t say the ending wasn’t realistic. Maybe I wanted something unrealistic.

At any rate, I was pleased with the movie overall. I said I came for the visuals, and these did not disappoint; I could watch several hours more of the same.

Travis & Walt, truck, desert & sky

freshly shaven Travis seeks recognition in mirror

The plot is just a frame to hold these images. Or, the West Texas desert is the central character, more than any of the human ones. Or, the plot is merely performative of the desert. Or, the point of the movie and its plot is simply to communicate that the desert dwarfs humanity and our petty hopes and goals.

I’d watch this again, maybe again and again, and keep seeing new images and metaphors. That big sky.


Rating: 7 car doors.

movies: Notorious (2009) and All Eyez on Me (2017)

These two biopics of the last decade handle the stories of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac, Makaveli) respectively, although their stories are intertwined and each appears in each movie. First, the disclaimer: I’m not a terribly serious rap fan and don’t know a ton about these two giants. I do like some rap music and I do like what I know of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t come into these movies with much of a background of knowledge.

So I guess I came for three things: one, I wanted to hear more of the music each man made. Two, I wanted to learn more about them as people and as public icons. And three, I was interested in the ongoing question of who killed each of them. Maybe a fourth as well – I always want to enjoy a movie and/or admire it as art.

While I enjoyed both movies and took something away, my review is mixed. I feel like in both cases more could have been done with the material. All Eyez on Me takes a particular moment as narrative present and looks back: Tupac’s in prison, giving a reporter an interview. Notorious uses a narrative voiceover, also backward-looking, although it’s not clear what (if any) specific moment he’s speaking from. While this is a technique that can work, I’m not sure it was the right choice here. In Notorious in particular, I felt like it slowed the action down. In All Eyez on Me, the interview often felt performative; at times Tupac and the interviewer explain his past to one another in an obvious narration to the audience, that kind of dialogue that feels totally unrealistic because you know both characters already know everything they’re saying. In fact, I think in All Eyez, dialogue was an overall weakness. This effect faded for me as the movie went on, but I don’t know if that’s because it actually got better, or just because I got numbed to it.

The strength of each movie was definitely its material, the legend of each of these men and the groundbreaking work they each did in rap music, the music business, and the role of rap in a larger culture. Their murders, I’m afraid, are inextricable from their legends: who can say how Biggie’s or Tupac’s career might have ended, had they had the chance to grow old and maybe wash up, sell out, or continue to build their dynasties? Even if the storytelling choices weren’t always the best ones (in my impression), even if dialogue was weak, there’s a powerful magnetism to these characters – even the acted versions of these characters, which I’d say (no offense to the actors) offers a dilution of the originals. For fans who miss their heroes, and who can put aside expecting Demetrius Shipp Jr. to be Tupac (Jamal Woolard/Biggie), there’s something here to be loved and wept over.

In a movie like this, a lot rides on how well the actor looks like, or can channel, his role. I remember in Straight Outta Compton (why didn’t I write that one up??) being really impressed with mostly uncanny lookalikes. The Eminem movie, Eight Mile, had the advantage of the star playing himself, and that one is probably my favorite of the rap biopics, maybe for that reason. From memory, I also think that both of those films featured more music, too. All Eyez did a little better than Notorious; the latter left me really wanting to hear more of Biggie rapping. I did enjoy some of the female musicians featured there, though: Faith Evans, but especially Lil Kim, who I thought was especially true-to-life as played by Naturi Naughton.

Speaking of women, I loved both all-star-cast moms! Biggie’s was played by Angela Bassett, and Tupac’s by Danai Gurira (a small role by Lauren Cohan made this a mini-Walking Dead reunion). Holy smokes – these performances threatened to steal the show. Also, a reprisal in All Eyez by Woolard as Biggie made for nice continuity; that was a good choice. I found Woolard as Biggie a more lookalike casting than Shipp as Tupac, although I have trouble explaining the latter: in some scenes, the resemblance is indeed very close. I think there was just something charismatic and inexplicable about Tupac that Shipp lacks. But I think I’m going to credit that to Tupac’s extreme charisma, rather than dock Shipp points for it, bless his heart. Tough act to follow.

Storytelling so-so; music not as plentiful as I might have hoped for; general awesomeness-as-movies a bit up-and-down. As to how much I learned about the lives of the two, well, I learned a lot I didn’t know, but can’t speak for its accuracy. I was interested to see Biggie portrayed as much more a wanton womanizer, where Tupac had exactly zero love interests until the big one came along. (He comes across as quite virtuous, IF you believe him innocent of the rape he was accused of, as the movie portrays and as he always maintained.) Tupac is portrayed as much more intelligent, ideological, full of plans and dreams and ideas, and revolutionary – although alternating with fun and hijinks. (There is a moment in Notorious that captures this perfectly: “That was Pac,” Biggie muses. “A revolutionary one minute, a thug-life motherfucker the next.”) Biggie is presented, in both movies, as just less intelligent. He doesn’t really have plans or dreams except to make money, although this is not a totally morally void ambition: he wants to provide for his kids, make things better for the next generation.

In Notorious, the question of whether Biggie had anything to do with Pac’s murder is answered: emphatically not, and Biggie was still hoping for a reconciliation. In All Eyez, the truth of what happened isn’t explained (because indeed we don’t know who killed Tupac), but Tupac does not share the goal of making up. Suge Knight is played pretty much as I understood him: a sinister, conniving figure; he could be generous but nothing comes for free. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

These movies are both far from perfect, but they were well worth my time. They’ve mostly served to further whet my curiosity. One reviewer (can’t remember where I read this) recommends I go read Murder Rap next; and who knows, maybe someday I will.


Rating: an even 6 lines for each.

movie: The Lovely Bones (2019)

And then there was The Lovely Bones, which I’ll call a sleeper: we didn’t pick this movie out like we did Extremely Wicked, and in fact missed the first half hour or so. But it turned out to be an impressive one.

I read the book, by Alice Sebold, but some time ago, clearly pre-blog; I don’t remember it very well, and don’t remember it impressing me terribly, but it came back as the movie unfolded. I do remember some talk when the movie came out, of the challenge of the first-person narration by (very minor spoiler here) the ghost of a murdered girl. I remember not being impressed by this challenge: don’t you just use voiceover narration? I guess that’s pretty obvious – maybe too obvious – but it’s how it is handled here. And I have no complaints.

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is brutally murdered by a neighbor: this is the part of the movie I missed, but it sounds like it’s all off-screen and implied rather than shown. She spends the bulk of the film in an in-between zone, neither living nor ready to move on; she wants her murder solved, and she misses her family, and she regrets never having had a first kiss. The killer neighbor cleans up well, and the Salmon family struggles to cope: Susie’s father obsesses over the case, her mother eventually leaves, and her younger sister will take matters into her own hands. There are lovely, ethereal scenes in the in-between, magical and visually stunning – I was reminded of A Wrinkle in Time‘s visuals. The killer is an easy man to hate (the friend I watched this movie with commented that that actor’s now typecast for life). The Salmon father, played by Mark Wahlburg (I confess a weakness for Mark Wahlburg), is easy to sympathize with even as he makes some less than wise choices. And the ending is strangely happy, for a movie with such disturbing content.

I’m deeply impressed by the cinematography, the revelation of information, and the visuals. When I saw that Peter Jackson directed, I thought, oh, of course. That’s why it’s so beautiful, at least. I’m also reading that the plot diverged heavily from the novel in a few points; but my dim recollection of the book felt very familiar here. Maybe it’s better that I let so much time pass between reading and viewing, because I’m always prickly about the way movies mess up the books. But here, the general familiarity felt faithful enough, and the film version was stunning.

I do recommend; and suspect I recommend the book as well.


Rating: 8 bouncy balls.

movie: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

A few days of wifi access have yielded a few movies, beginning with this one. From Sundance to Netflix comes Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a recent biopic about Ted Bundy.

Bundy was known to be a handsome guy, and here played by Zac Ephron, he comes off handsomer than in real life – I’d rate the real Bundy average, not remarkable, where Ephron is eye-catching. His long-term girlfriend Liz is played by Lily Collins. The movie is based on a book that the real-life Liz wrote: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym). The movie takes Liz’s perspective at times, but at times gets well away from her, as she distances herself from Bundy during his incarceration and trials, and the film follows the courtroom drama and Bundy’s developing relationship with Carol Anne (Kaya Scodelario).

I have mixed feeling about the way Bundy was portrayed. I think the idea may have been to show the extreme creepiness of how truly everyday a serial killer can be: this is the guy next door, with arguably better-than-average good looks but otherwise unremarkable. That’s what is showed here, and that’s what’s so scary, right? But in showing how everyday (and charming and handsome) Bundy was, the film skirts the edges of the strange fandom of the gushing young women attending Bundy’s murder trial: we’re getting a little into hero worship. And that’s even creepier. This may be the trouble with telling a story like Bundy’s at all. Maybe we should be less obsessed with serial killers in the first place…

I watched the movie, though, and I have to say it was entertaining, or at least mesmerizing. Ephron’s cute; Liz is compelling, and I feel her pain. I think she could probably have used some more screen time, and somewhere I read the reasonable criticism that her decision to get sober is covered in a mere montage scene, in which she wordlessly throws away half-empty liquor bottles. For such a major life event, and for the movie’s arguable heroine (spoilers aside, she wrote the book that gave us the film, for dog’s sake), I think she may deserve more. But an engaging evening’s viewing, sure.


Rating: 5 butterflies.

movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

movie: Hillbilly (2019)

Disclosure: I am a degree or two removed, socially, from some of the folks involved with the making of this film.


I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.

–Jason Howard

I found Hillbilly deeply moving, beautiful, and appreciated the diversity of people it put in front of the camera.

I heard about this film from several sources at once, all of them sympathetic, and some of them personally connected; the above quotation (which you know resonated with me so strongly) comes from Jason Howard, who’s been guest faculty at WVWC during my tenure as a student there. His husband Silas House is an executive producer. So I came in with a positive preconception, and it was rewarded. I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) to see the negative reviews on Amazon; the “top reviews” were all critical of its political stance (“this is a liberal agenda documentary be forewarned”). Well, fair. I think the film’s perspective was clear from the start. As I watched, I kept thinking of confirmation bias and where we all start out from when we enter a project like this, either as creator or viewer/consumer. My politics align with those of Ashley York, co-director and narrator/”face” of the film, in many or most ways. I appreciated what she’s done here. Those with different politics are likely to appreciate the film less. As much as I loved watching it, I was left kind of sad, too, that we can’t do more real listening to each other.

Not for lack of trying on Ashley’s part. Within the narrative of the film, she introduces herself as an Appalachian native from Kentucky who now lives in Los Angeles. As the 2016 presidential election draws near, she realizes how far apart her pro-Hillary politics are from those of her pro-Trump relations, chiefly her Granny Shelby. So she travels home to talk to Shelby and others, hear their side. I am so glad somebody’s trying to do that work; little enough of it seems to be happening. Ashley is respectful and listens quietly as her family explains why they support Trump. There was not the dialog here that one might wish for, but maybe Ashley was shooting for some level of journalistic neutrality? A separate issue… Speaking of issues, there wasn’t really any discussion of issues or stances, or the gap between Trump’s talk (coal! jobs! economy!) and his concrete plans for action. In the end, this film is less about politics than it is about culture.

I empathize with Ashley’s experience some, especially when she points out how difficult it is to hear a majority-progressive community throw Trump supporters out in one homogeneous basket, in their thinking. This is especially difficult when you come from a place where you’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the people in that basket, and know them as individuals. “They” are no more homogeneous than “we” are. Her uncle tells the story of serving in the military and being ridiculed and rejected by his fellow service members – it was worst in California, he tells her, “no offense” – and he chokes up, saying that he never found the brotherhood he’d sought. I don’t care if you hate his politics, that’s a sad moment. I don’t think “we” liberals gain anything by making fun of people we don’t agree with.

A good chunk of the movie deals with media portrayals of Appalachians. Deliverance makes an appearance, of course. Ashley visits with Billy Redden, who played Lonnie, the younger, hillbilly half of the “Dueling Banjos” scene. He works at Wal-Mart; he got paid $500 for his part in the movie; he hopes to make it to California one day. That Appalachians or hillbillies have gotten a bum deal with Hollywood, there is no question. The rest of us, somebody in the film suggested (I’m sorry I can’t say who), get to feel better about ourselves by making fun of “them.” There’s also some treatment of the history of the region, including the fact that when big business saw how much money there was to be made by extractive industries (coal, for one), it was convenient to evolve from treating hillbillies with gentle contempt, to viewing them as sinister and depraved: people from whom we should definitely take things away.

As a summing-up of a region, its history, its culture(s), and its current contradictions, Hillbilly does a neat job; it is necessarily incomplete, but what do you want from an 85-minute film? I’m so glad that it put people of color and queer people at center, too (and discussed the strange portrayal of Appalachia as white when in fact it’s quite diverse, skin-tone-wise). Any time we sum up any place, we’re going to resort to generalizations that can range from inadequate to damaging. Considering these truths, I think this movie does as good a job as it could have. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just trying to acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of the form, and of any attempt to portray a place with more than, I don’t know, a couple dozen people in it.

Hillbilly gives us Election Night 2016 again, “live,” as it were, and I found it painful all over again. Silas House and Jason Howard speak with some emotion about their feelings – Silas seems to feel betrayed – he has spent his life defending his people (I paraphrase) and (he implies) they have failed to defend him with their votes. He turns to Jason: “You always say you love Appalachia. You don’t feel it loves you.” Jason replies with the line at the top of this review: “I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.”

I just wanted to repeat that because I find it so true. Thank you, Jason, and everyone involved with this film.


Rating: 8 questions.

movie: Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)

I first saw Rent when I was in high school. My dad and I traveled to New York City to investigate that city among a few others where we thought I might go to college. He got us tickets to see Rent at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. I already knew that I loved musical theatre at that time, but this production really changed something for me. It was the first time that I cried at a stage production or at any piece of art other than a book. The subject matter felt especially meaningful and timely for me, as I had friends still discovering their sexuality and coming out to their parents. It was an event that resonated. I immediately bought the soundtrack and it still makes me cry today, twenty years later.

The friends I am visiting with now expressed an interest, and so we rented this version: a live taping of the final performance of the Broadway production, after a twelve-year run. The actors are almost entirely different (every major role was filled by a different actor in this version, from the one I saw). And I guess I had really invested in the first cast; but I have to say, this one was admirably close to the original, so even someone like me was able to be open to the new. Most cast members were very close in physical details as well as in talent; I was able to settle into this production and feel at home.

It’s still everything I remember, after all these years. Musical theatre does tend toward the theatrical (go figure) expression of emotions, but for the few moments of somewhat self-conscious hand-wringing that I might skip, there is such raw power… and the singing and dancing is amazing. I still find this play to be full of all the love, drama, angst, grief, rage, and passion I found there in the first place. It made me cry, again.

As a production, too, I think it works well – that is, both as a stage production (filmed live, with audience and applause) and as a cinecast. Unlike The Wiz and more like National Theatre Live, the camera angles varied and moved around, working for perspective and providing close-ups as appropriate. I don’t recall noticing that the cinematography in itself was extraordinary (as I often do with NT Live), but it was plenty serviceable. Since the chance to see Broadway’s version of Rent has passed, I’d strongly recommend this version.

It’s interesting to think about the extent to which an experience like this is about that original experience. I was probably 16 years old (maybe 17, but I think 16) sitting in the upper rows of the Nederlander Theatre, far from the stage. The words and lyrics and music and dramatic portrayals, the singing and dancing and kissing, took me so powerfully. I’ll never forget; I’ll also never have the same experience again, but every time I hear a song from Rent or see another production (even the 2005 movie, which I remember finding a disappointment), it refers to that original experience just enough to tap into some of those emotions. Still gets me.

In contrast, I have a friend and fellow writer who strongly dislikes Rent. He calls it a singing telegram to AIDS. Dave’s a few years younger than me, and I believe has never seen it live. I’d like to dismiss his opinion on these counts, but think I should give him a little more credit than that. Dave’s also a gay man, and some part of me feels I should defer to his opinion as being a part of a certain demographic – the play is about the AIDS crisis and has more queer characters than cis-het ones. (Another part of me knows that my own opinion & tastes remain worthwhile here.) At any rate I find it interesting, since I respect Dave’s approach to art and we often share interests and tastes. I wonder if he had gotten to see the play live at age 16 how it would have affected him… Then again, maybe the concern is that this is too serious an issue to get all song-and-dance about. That would be a position worth considering.

Local issues aside, Rent remains an important part of my personal understanding of art and value. I’m still hooked. Keep singing.


Rating: 8 samples that won’t delay, for its value in my personal mythology.
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