Movies Seen Recently, Music I'm Listening To

We did go out and see Capote and Brokeback Mountain over the past few weeks, and while I wasn't enthralled by either film, I prefer Capote over Brokeback. I enjoyed Ang Lee's film -- I thought it was elegant and spare -- but also on the verge of sweepy and hollow. Maybe I remained generally unmoved by the film because it is an image of an era ('the closet') that has passed? Or perhaps because it's simply a romance that never quite gets to full boil. Whatever the case, I thought Brokeback Mountain managed to be impressive without being particularly moving or inspiring.

(The one image that has stayed in my mind is the brief moment of violence that appears at the end of the film, involving Jake Gyllenhal's character... you know the scene I'm thinking of... terrifying)

Capote at least gets into the murky waters of the writer's (inevitable?) exploitation of his subject. I tend to side against Truman Capote: I would rather be a bad writer and a good person, than a good writer who denatures (or destroys) his subject to get the Story. There is a lot to debate here: was Capote really all that great? And: can't he be accused of helping to start the era of the mass-media's sensationalizing of violent crime? Or maybe: he was a great writer and a terrible human being? Or: aren't all great writers pretty much that way?

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And here are some older films I've been watching over the past few weeks:

Side Streets (1998; IMDB). Shashi Kapoor plays a really strange role in this small art movie about working-class ethnic New York. Kapoor plays a huge (in more than one sense) movie star whose brother is an NYC taxi driver married to Shabana Azmi. That alone seems rather unrealistic -- one finds it hard to accept that a huge Bollywood star might have a siblings who drive taxis in New York -- but the rest of the film is gritty and believable. There are also parallel plots involving Russian drug dealers, abject fashion designers, and an Afro-Caribbean couple who bicker at length about permission to drive a car. But the real reason to see the film is the scene at the end, where Shashi Kapoor goes nuts and pulls a Charles Bukowski in a posh hotel room.

Ash Wednesday (2002; IMDB). Another New York indie film, this one directed by Edward "cheekbones" Burns of The Brothers McMullen. Ed Burns is a little like John Cassavetes back in the day -- a commercial actor who makes low-budget independent films with the cash he gets from the forgettable films he does in Hollywood. And while Burns's films lack the searing emotional upheaval of Cassavetes flicks like Opening Night or Faces, there is something interesting going on here. The plot of Ash Wednesday is pretty gripping, though the acting by the Irish gangsters of Hell's Kitchen is at times quite weak. The Catholic themes of sacrifice, rebirth, and redemption are strangely appropriate for a gangster film, and are all at play in the film's climactic scenes.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939; IMDB). There is nothing to criticize in this film: snappy 1930s dialogue, great plot, and total relevance to politics today (you can substitute Jack Abramoff for the bad guy in the film without any difficulty whatsoever). It also has the distinction of being the only world-class film I've ever seen that portrays a Senate filibuster as a scene of climactic, world-changing action.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971; IMDB). Yeah, I know it's a banal Broadway myth of the Russian Jewish shtetl, but the songs in this movie are just too much fun. And Topol's big lines have great camp value; I'm especially keen on the moments where he shouts "Tradition!" in an accusing way at God, only to wave off after a moment (eh, ok, so much for tradition). I only hope I'm half this entertaining and melodramatic when I'm fifty. Watching this again also reignited my interest in the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, whose works I'm somewhat curious to read.

The First Time (1969; IMDB). This movie was made in 1969, but it feels like 1954. Wow, is it dated -- it has a script that seems to have been written by a rather sleazy fifteen year old boy. Just truly awful dialogue; I don't know how I watched it all the way through. Maybe it had something to do with Jacqueline Bisset? That would probably be a good guess.

Home Delivery (2005). We watched about half of this recent Bollywood film before falling asleep. It felt like a collage of bits from a TV sitcom crudely stitched together to try and form a film. Yawn -- and that, needless to say, pretty much sums up my attitude to most Bollywood flicks that have been coming out lately (except perhaps Bluffmaster and 15 Park Avenue, both of which I want to see).

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I've been listening to Matisyahu's Live at Stubb's, The Decemberists' Castaways and Cutouts and Picareseque, and the Bluffmaster CD soundtrack. Both the Decemberists and Bluffmaster rock, though in very different ways.

I'm still trying to decide about Matisyahu, who takes an Orthodox/Hasidic messianic vision and channels it into the lyrical and melodic conventions of roots rock reggae and dub. At times it feels a little like a gimmick, but some of the songs really do click quite nicely. There is some real poetry here, though there is also, on some of the longer "jams," a little smelly Phish. We'll see what they do with the studio album...

The Decemberists have been doing their thing for a few years, but I only just got their new CD a month ago. These are, I think, the best-written lyrics I've come across in recent years. Magnificent -- deserving of a separate post (coming soon, hopefully).

And on the lighter side of things, Bluffmaster is the ultimate Bollywood/Hip Hop fusion, complete with spadefuls of swagger. And with cool baritone vocals on some of the best tracks, Abhishek Bachchan is coming to fill in his father's shoes more and more... I don't know if "Sabse Bada Rupaiyya" is going to be as immortal as "Rang Barse," but at least it's got a nice beat and you can dance to it.