George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons: The presence of two or three of the show's more powerful latter-season scenes (Cersei's humiliation comes to mind) elevate this 1100-page mess above the previous terrible book, A Feast For Crows, but not by much. If you didn't know this, the two thousand-page bellyflops--and yes, they are definitely the worst of the five books--were originally one tome that Martin painfully split into two and repeatedly delayed the latter until 2011, by which point the show started, no doubt preventing Martin from ever finishing the sixth and seventh books. Which is fine--if the show's ending was a failure, the idea that Martin could salvage it in the sixth or seventh books is even more pathetic, as the fourth and fifth books are the worst direction possible: long-winded, meandering, overloaded with world-building details that are painful to keep track of, and filled to the brim with plots that not only didn't make into the show, but would have made it even worse if they had. Tyrion is stuck on a boat riding pigs to entertain people! Daenerys has been reduced from a conqueror to a love struck teenage girl endlessly deciding which poorly-named Meereenese suitor to choose from! Victarion Greyjoy? Arianna Martell? Aegon Targaryen?
Who? The fifth and sixth seasons were the show's weakest as it was; literally the only thing I can think of that I like about this book is that it didn't get around to the excruciating Shireen Baratheon sacrifice from season 5 of the show. It is highly unlikely that I will ever read anything by Martin again; the first and third books were the best, but even those suffer to some degree from the problems I've been telling you about. If he finishes the sixth and seventh books, which he probably won't, I'll gladly avoid them; even my OCD habits were starting to give out on me by the time I finished this mess.
Walker: The critically reviled 1987 film that ruined Repo Man/Sid & Nancy director Alex Cox's career, I didn't feel like purchasing the Criterion so I ended up watching it online. It's about William Walker, a rich Southerner who gave up lucrative careers to venture south of the border with his private army to spread Manifest Destiny, which Cox, of course, uses to draw parallels with the horror that happened in Central America in the 1980s. Ed Harris (whose age in any given movie has always been difficult to guess) was perfectly cast as Walker, and the movie has great production design and a few funny anachronistic gags like having Walker read a Time magazine with his face on the cover, but I think watching it once is more than enough to get the point. It wants to get your attention by being deeply ironic and indulging you in the awful white man's decadence and Ugly American bloodlust, and that's good and all, but it's really one-dimensional and you're probably not going to be terribly surprised by anything that happens after the first 10 minutes, except maybe for Peter Boyle showing up as Cornelius Vanderbilt with an open flatulence problem. That said, it is worth at least that one view, though I doubt anyone thinks it's better than Cox's two big hits.
The Great Silence: A 1968 spaghetti western from Django director Sergio Corbucci, this infamously bleak cult favorite was probably watched by Quentin Tarantino some sixty thousand times, no doubt with a big tub of Vaseline handy. Klaus Kinski is the leader of a psychotic group of bloodthirsty bounty hunters up against hero Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose muteness (hence the title) plays like an extreme or ironic take on Clint Eastwood's near-silence. The snowy cinematography is terrific and Ennio Morricone's score is (believe it or not) even better than his Leone scores (I swear to God some of his instrumentation evokes Pet Sounds!) but what you know about this movie is the legendary bleak ending, which....would frankly have been unsurprising even if I hadn't known about it beforehand, since there isn't a shred of light in this film. EVERYTHING that happens in it is bleak, depressing, negative, or cold, EVERYTHING. That's all good and well, but I'm lukewarm on the film at best--yeah, you've got all that coldness, but it's not really a great story. I wouldn't tell anyone to skip it though.
A Band Called Death: This 2013 documentary covers the not-rise-so-there-wasn't-a-fall of the three black Christian brothers who made up early 70s Detroit protopunk power trio DEATH. Obscure they were and probably still are indeed: you get the obligatory two minutes of celebrity talking-head testimonials at the beginning extolling how amazingly ahead of their time the band was, but I'm guessing more people saw this movie than have even heard Death's music! The movie doesn't really tell a story so much as spend time with two of the three brothers, since the guitarist brother who masterminded the band is no longer with us. And for that matter, it's only a marginally interesting story: the band had a chance to sign with a major label, but refused to change their name and didn't get the deal; the only other major "plot points" are that they broke up, one of them started a reggae act, the main brother died, and now they get a documentary. So how is the music? I barely know, which is the big nail in the movie's heart: we don't get to hear very much of it, like maybe 20 minutes worth? I'd have to go listen to the albums on Youtube to be sure! I'm not even really sure I would recommend this, and I'm REALLY grateful that I didn't purchase the DVD at a record store for like $40 when it came out, which is what it actually was retailing for. Dodge!!
1917: So far this is my front runner for the best movie I've seen in 2021; if you haven't seen it yet, what you probably know about it is that it's a World War I movie made up of long tracking shots computer-edited together into a seeming single shot. The great thing about the film is that the tracking shots are the only remotely pretentious thing about it; they're just there to enhance a good WWI action movie, nothing more. As far as I could discern, there's no big "statement" being made about combat or World War I in the film at all; even Dunkirk had more to say about combat, and thank God for that: I like the idea that probably everything that needed to be said about WWI's ugliness was said in All Quiet On The Western Front ninety years ago. Meanwhile, the action is good, the tracking shots are graceful and the sets are all pretty convincing. Did people say F-bombs in 1917? Maybe. So now Sam Mendes has three films I like and three I really didn't. Get on the good side of no-man's-land, Mendes!!
Wild: Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose wonderful mother dies young, then she gets into divorce, drugs and promiscuous sex and spirals downward until she gets an abortion (soft-pedalled by this film) and decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple thousand miles to "find herself." She's alive, so I guess she turned out better than Christopher McCandless, but I didn't really think her "accomplishment" amounted to much more than his did(n't). The Dallas Buyers Club guy directed this, and it's sort of scattershot: part harrowing tale of loss, part gruelling survival story, part warning about being better prepared to do something like Strayed did (much of the film seems to hinge on how the pack she's carrying weighs more than she does), and part "every guy she encounters might rape her" fearmongering (the one that comes the closest is Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad.) And in the end, it's basically glorified Oprah-crowd mush--i.e,. you think "good for her, I guess" and continue on your own life, not feeling like hiking for 2600 miles yourself.
Bad Trip: I watched this buzzed-about recent hidden-camera comedy instead of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, which is okay since it's pretty much the exact same thing as Borat, but without the accents. Comedy Central guy Eric Andre, whom I've never heard of before (I'm pretty out of the loop on new comic stars) grabs a friend and tries to go cross-country to find this Asian woman he has a crush on, while being stalked by Tiffany Hadish, whose car he's stolen. I laughed at a lot of this, although the only real advantage it has over a Borat film is that the poeple Andre encounters seem to help him or feel sorry for him whereas people just got annoyed with Sacha Baron Cohen. The funniest gag is where Andre, despondent over his failures, walks up to a military recuiter and offers to suck his d*** if he kills him.
The Asphalt Jungle: 1950 heist-noir by John Huston, watched on Criterion DVD...I don't think about John Huston that much in spite of liking every Huston film I've seen, which amounts to maybe five movies out of the 44 he actually directed. This is about the planning of a diamond heist, the heist itself, and then everything unravelling for the thieves. I didn't care for it much--the acclaim the movie has received, which is substantial, is mostly about praising it for showing the thieves as everyday people instead of romantically gritty movie characters. It's a very talky film and I didn't find much of the talk more than a couple notches above "perfunctory"--i.e., the mundane problems the characters have are discussed a lot: one character has a sick wife, another wants to buy a vacation for his young girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe, whose acting was kinda shaky in 1950, though the film was rereleased with her on the poster in a sexy dress after she became more famous). I like Sterling Hayden a lot, and he's the lead here but he was way better in The Killing. There's also an argument that the show's drab, rundown Midwestern urban setting is a huge plus; I think it's supposed to be Cincinnati, but wherever it is, I wouldn't want to be there. Watch for a young Strother Martin in the police lineup at the beginning.
The Rolling Stones, It's Only Rock 'N Roll: Okay, the Stones actually DID fall on their faces this time--I'll defend Satanic Majesties Request and even Goat's Head Soup and I'll sit there baffled more people don't agree with me, but not this album. It's a bunch of glammy trashy 70s stuff puffed up with obnoxiously decadent glam-era overproduction, remarkably similar in terms of its failings to, of all things, Jethro Tull's War Child from the same year. I like "Time Waits For No One," the title track and "Fingerprint File" and that's about it, and even reading tales of the recording and what the Stones were like in 1974 and whatnot bore me now--hey everybody, didja know Keith Richards was drugged and sexed out of his mind when they made this? Didja didja? The acoustic ballads on the album are the biggest failing, two poor overproduced takes on "Wild Horses," snoooooze. I hadn't actually disliked a Stones album before this (I've also had a lot of trouble picking out an obvious five-star classic, for some reason), but I guess I do have the rest of their catalogue to do yet, barring Some Girls...
The Beach Boys, Still Cruisin': Can I...maybe...defend this?...a little? NOBODY likes this, not even the Beach Boys themselves--it's "Kokomo," the silly Fat Boys duet "Wipe Out," a few songs that made it into recent movies, and most pathetically, "I Get Around," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "California Girls" padding out the running time to 31-minute album length, not even re-recorded (not that that would've been a good idea). So yeah, it's a sorry excuse for an "album," but...God help me, four or five of these songs are kinda catchy. I dunno, the production of "Still Cruisin," "Somewhere Near Japan" and "Island Girl" is at least quite a bit better than that godawful 1985 album, isn't it? "Kokomo"--yeah, a cheesy, silly, annoying song, but it's a friggin' JEWEL compared to most of M. I. U. Album, isn't it? Finally, I LOVE "Make It Big," if only ironically--Carl Wilson singing a girly pop melody along with a big bright Billy Idol Casio keyboards? It sure is, and it's howlingly bad, and...God help me, catchy as hell. Shoot me in the head, I deserve death!
Pixies, Beneath The Eyrie: Released in 2019, this is their third studio album since reuniting, and it "dropped" to very little fanfare; certainly nobody at this board has even mentioned it, meaning that I guess everyone just wants live greatest hits out of the Pixies for the rest of their days. A shame, I think; it's their best reunion album so far, which means if it were a letter grade and a half better than it is, it'd be a Pixies classic! If I had to pinpoint why, I'd guess that they're aiming for quite a bit more "prettiness" of the "Velouria"/"Where Is My Mind?" variety, which certainly means *I'll* be more of a sucker for it than Head Carrier. Still, you have to wade through about half an album's worth of the band's forgivable second-rate middle-aged songwriting, they're depressingly never going to "break ground" EVER again, and the two songs here I loved, "Silver Bullet" and "Long Rider," aren't even going to crack my top 15 Pixies songs...but I'll go to bat for those and "In The Arms Of Mrs. Mark Of Cain," "This Is My Fate," "Catfish Kate" and "Daniel Boone." There's a second disc of stuff that didn't make it onto the album and I'm actually glad I heard it, too: "Caught In A Dream" and "Mal De Mer," at least, could have replaced weaker BTE tracks like "Bird Of Prey."
The Kinks Low Budget: Their 1979 "comeback," wasn't it? One's initial reaction to this is that it sounds awesome, like the band was totally and vampirically revived by all the punk rock, disco, power-pop and Van Halen-type stuff popping up in the late 70s, and even the lyrics seem well-motivated, commenting on Carter-era problems like gas shortages, recessions and America's failing status in the world instead of Ray Davies' increasingly boring 1970s concept-album notions. Yep, the band drops any studio pretensions to just get out their guitars and rip into hard electric stadium rock, and it all sounds wonderful....until a few listens later, I realize I don't like it any more than Sleepwalker or Misfits (i.e., about half the songs are good, led by "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" and backed by "Attitude," "Pressure" and "National Health") and in fact, for the same reasons I dislike most 70s Kinks albums: the band is mostly just playing plain, obvious, generic melodies, they're just somewhat better disguising that with all the loud electric guitars and punk-influenced energy. Not a bad album mind you, but the rose REALLY fell off the bloom with this.
Kansas, Song For America: This is dominated by Kerry Livgren's prog-rock epics and overblown synth/organ/piano arrangements, and the shorter songs, unlike on Kansas' debut, don't work either, resulting in a pretty bad album. I probably don't hate it quite as much as George did since I do like the title track, even though it contains an embarrassing ripoff of the "Firth Of Fifth" intro on synth that pops up a couple of times in the ten-minute song. Unfortunately, I was already familiar with that tune a long time ago, and the rest of this pretty much just flops, made all the worse by the fact that the band obviously totally believes in what it's doing and plays its f***ing heart out. Most of George Starostin's legendary hatred for this band seemed to revolve around this album (and "Dust In The Wind") and while I probably didn't hate it quite as much as he did, I'm afraid he's correct about why it fails. Weirdly, his is the only bad review I could find; all the prog-album review sites I frequent LOVED it, and most Amazon reviews were glowing too. If I were still in high school, I could have been fooled by this into thinking it, like any long-winded bombastic prog, was awesome--but the reason I know that is because I stupidly liked Leftoverture in high school before coming to my senses.
Van Der Graaf Generator, Trisector: This 2008 album still isn't great--you've got three albums left, VDGG, don't disappoint me!--but the songs are mostly short and, THANK GOD, they dumped the annoying saxophone guy (hence the album title--only three band members left), always one of the worst aspects of their sound, and made Peter Hamill play electric guitar again! So I'll go to bat for the silly 80s-ish instrumental "Hurlyburly" as well as the dark likes of "Drop Dead," "All That Before," "Interference Patterns" and "(We Are) Not Here," which makes for what, half an album? Even the 12 minute epic "Over The Hill" manages to not be utterly terrible! I think I'd only give the album a 9 out of 15 on George's scale, tops, but I'm almost glad I didn't stop with VDGG in 1978...
The Cars, Candy-O: Meh. Pass. This is notable for being "more new wave" than the debut, which seems to mean they doubled down on the tinny synthesizers and they were all wearing those dorky New Wave clothes on the album sleeve, but I only really gave a crap about maybe three of the songs: "Since I Held You," "You Can't Hold On For Too Long" and "Got A Lot On My Head." Stuff like the tinny "Night Spots" and the dorkily obvious teen-friendly melodies of "It's All I Can Do" are NOT for me. I hope to God that this band comes up with a second good album in their discography because I already have a sinking feeling I'm not going to find one.
NP: The Rolling Stones - "Crazy Mama"