Best imperial phase projects

John Lennon and Paul McCartney in 1964. Elton John in 1973-1975. Bowie during the same period. Michael Jackson from 1980-1985. As defined by pop theorist and musicians Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and developed by Tom Ewing, the imperial phase consists of, to quote Ewing, “accelerated moments in a career, times where intense scrutiny meets intense opportunity.” So confident are these artists that they can donate material to the less fortunate.

I limited myself to one song per songwriter(s).

1. Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes (David Bowie)
2. Sheila E – The Glamorous Life (Prince)
3. Ringo Starr – It Don’t Come Easy (George Harrison)
4. Ma$e – Feel So Good (Puff Daddy)
5. Liza Minnelli – So Sorry I Said (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe)
6. Dolly Parton – Starting Over Again (Donna Summer & Bruce Sudano)
7. Pointer Sisters – Fire (Bruce Springsteen)
8. Britney Spears – Till the World Ends (Kesha)
9. Yvonne Ellimann – If I Can’t Have You (The Gibbs)
10. Rebbie Jackson – Centipede (Michael Jackson)
11. Kenny Rogers – Lady (Lionel Richie)
12. Nicole ft. Missy Elliott – Make It Hot (Missy Elliott)
13. Jellybean – Sidewalk Talk (Madonna)
14. Madonna – Bedtime Stories (Bjork)
15. George McCrae – Rock Your Baby (Wayne Casey)
16. Rufus and Chaka Khan – Tell Me Something Good (Stevie Wonder)
17. The Monkees – Daddy’s Song (Nilsson)
18. Debbie Harry – I Want That Man (Thompson Twins)
19. Patsy Cline – Crazy (Willie Nelson)
20. Billy J. Kramer – Bad to Me (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

‘CQ’ an affectionate homage to ’60s sci-fi

Coppola wines were doing okay in 2001. The Coppola kids too. Although screened out of competition that May, CQ followed The Virgin Suicides a year earlier by also debuting at the Cannes Film Festival. Roman Coppola’s film, however, didn’t get half the attention that Sofia’s did. She had the pedigree (an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ acclaimed novel) and the notoriety (for an undeservedly panned performance in The Godfather Part III) – a original brew. Worse for her male detractors, she was a woman.

By contrast, CQ opened in limited release in the United States the following year to tepid reviews. “Taken in busy bits and pieces, CQ feels like an accomplishment. Put together, the bits and pieces don’t fit so well,” Keith Phipps wrote in The AV Club. Fifteen years’ distance hasn’t improved on this judgment. Intermittently amusing, CQ is the sort of film that only a tyro filmmaker would make: punch drunk on the film canon, less sure about human beings relating to each other.

I wrote “punch drunk” because Coppola, who set CQ in 1969, loves French New Wave and period kitsch. Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey, Saving Private Ryan) plays Paul, an editor of gangly nervousness assigned to Codename: Dragonfly, a piece of period sci-fi quasi-schlock written and directed by Andrezej (Gérard Depardieu, for once using his terrible English in the service of a character). When producer Enzo (Giancarlo Giannini) clashes with Andrzej over the picture’s ending, he hires Paul for a salvage job. In the course of filming, Paul falls in love with star Valentine (Angela Lindvall), whom he knows already from bouts of political activism. Codename: Dragonfly eschews politics; its models are Barbarella and Modesty Blaise, two extravagant cases of films places and times a long, long time ago in galaxies far, far away. Meanwhile Paul’s girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez of The Dreamlife of Angels, directed to emphasize every zut alors) tries to cut through the crap. Despite being hired to work on what is in essence a hack job, Paul insists, morosely, that he wants to “capture” something “real.” Marlene rolls her eyes. “What if it’s boring? Did you ever think about that?” she says.

Thanks to production designer Dean Tavoularis and cinematographer Robert Yeoman, CQ boasts a convincing period look. Paul’s reveries, shot in black and white, summon mid sixties Godard pictures like  Vivre Sa Vie except the joke’s on him. Davies is almost too well cast; he dithers beautifully. I can believe Giannini, eyes flashing behind horn rims  and salt and pepper hair parted to the right, was getting revenge on Marcello Mastroianni, who rivaled him on the international stage. A chase scene in the final third distracts but in keeping with CQ’s insouciance.

A decade later, Coppola released his next film to a different reception. If CQ was an homage to his favorite late sixties cinema tropes, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is a parody in search of a target and a point.

CQ will screen at Miami Beach Cinematheque tonight at 8:45 p.m. I will introduce the film.

Cover songs that compete with originals

Unlike many of my lists, this one isn’t categorical. I can triple it. Inspired, again, by a long intelligent Facebook discussion in which The Bangles’ cover of a Simon & Garfunkel number demolished the pallid original. Great covers illuminate the possibilities of those originals. Bryan Ferry’s classic run of Dylan reinterpretations coaxed out the his camp grandeur. Aretha’s take on “The Thrill is Gone” unearthed its cocktail bar detachment. Patti Smith, sure, and U2, of all people, didn’t change the gender of the objects of desire.

1. Bryan Ferry – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
2. The Bangles – Hazy Shade of Winter
3. Al Green – How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
4. The English Beat – Can’t Get Used to Losing You
5. Nico – These Days
6. Talking Heads – Take Me to the River
7. Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now (2000 version)
8. Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
9. David Bowie – Nite Flights
10. Kate Bush – Rocket Man
11. Tricky – Black Steel
12. Vampire Weekend – Exit Music
13. Aretha Franklin – The Thrill is Gone
14. Aztec Camera – Jump
15. The Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze
16. Van Morrison w/Meshell Ndegeocello  – Wild Nights

17. The Beatles – Boys
18. Johnny Cash – I Won’t Back Down
19. Donna Summer – MacArthur Park
20. Earth, Wind & Fire – Got To Get You Into My Life
21. The Pogues – Dirty Old Town
22. Pet Shop Boys – It’s Alright
23. The Rolling Stones – Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
24. John Cale – Hallelujah
25. Rod Stewart – Tomorrow is a Long Time
26. Ray Charles – I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You
27. Curtis Mayfield – We’ve Only Just Begun
28. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – Crimson and Clover
29. Stevie Wonder – We Can Work It Out
30. George Michael – I Can’t Make You Love Me
31. Robert Palmer – I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On
32. Madonna – I Want You
33. Everything But the Girl – I Don’t Wanna Talk About It
34. Lee Ann Womack – Out on the Weekend
35. Rosanne Cash – The Way You Mend a Broken Heart
36. The Raincoat – Lola
37. Yo La Tengo – Little Honda
38. Husker Du – Eight Miles High
39. U2 – Dancing Barefoot
40. Cyndi Lauper – When You Were Mine

The party of Reagan = the party of Arpaio and Trump

Of course Chuck Todd said the GOP is keeping silent about the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I can lay the encouragement of Arpaio’s sadism across the lap of a generation of Republican legislators. Scott Lemieux:

Trump’s decision to pardon Arpaio, like Trump’s success in the Republican primary, is an outgrowth and an emblem of the GOP’s decision to foster the intellectual and cultural climates of Fox News across the country—concentrated in heavily gerrymandered congressional districts—to help them win elections. On its own terms, that project has been an incomparable success, but it has also been a moral abomination, forcing one of America’s two major political parties into complicity with the worst actors in the country. Conservatives finally discovered a vocal distaste for Arpaio after Trump pardoned him, but for decades they have done nothing to kick Arpaioites out of the coalition. Some Republicans may be genuinely uncomfortable with this arrangement, but nearly all of them represent parts of the country that are walled off from dissent.

Trump is a culmination, not an aberration. Jack Balkin wrote one of this week’s must-reads: an absorbing, fluent thesis arguing for Trump’s role in destroying the Reagan coalition. Like many theses, Balkin’s essay depends on formulas and a conceptual patness. Because the New Deal coalition began to fray in the seventies, he argues, the Reagan one must too: it’s been more than thirty years, after all. It reminds me of the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his fetish for political cycles. Trump’s boorishness, racism, hair trigger temper, and contempt for governing norms may endanger the GOP legislative agenda, but as Balkin admits and I wrote a few months ago, President Romney, President Jeb!, and President Plankton would’ve tried to kill the ACA too. They would have appointed judges  hatched in the Federalist Society incubator (Justice Neil Gorsuch had been on short lists for years). They would have nominated a Scott Pruitt as official liasion between the petrol community and the Oval Office.

And, alas, as Texans crawl out of the Hurricane Harvey murk and Felix Sater’s real estate cunning and skills with a broken margarita glass start to interest Robert Mueller, I turn to the polls and see that while his support has slipped among Republicans the president is still not going anywhere. House Republicans will not send articles of impeachment to the Senate.  They will not turn on him – how can they turn on a president who talks and thinks like them? Not since the 1920s have we seen a more grievous assembly of charlatans, grifters, and morons sent to Capitol Hill – sent to Washington, I must add, because voters want to stick it to the liberals,  to the fags, to the women, to the blacks, to the media. Voters will vote for Donald Trump again because they appreciate indiscriminately deployed malevolence. Economic anxiety doesn’t unsettle them; anxiety about liberals and the media calling them out for their small minds does. The more “Morning” Joe and “Mika” pick on him, the more cable news anchors show their contempt, the longer lines you’ll see in November 2020 for citizens to cast an enthusiastic, delighted vote for Trump.

It doesn’t have to be this way if Democrats and liberals plan for 2018.

Harvey horrors #32: islands of fire ants

Besides displacing thousands of residents in southern Texas, Hurricane Harvey kicked up a host of unpleasant critters, one of whom intends to visit the region with the First Lady this afternoon. Bigger problems include the usual marooned snakes and alligators and, well, islands of fire ants:

The ants, known officially as red imported fire ants, are an invasive species with a sting that can cause burning, blisters, scarring, infections and even death to those who are hypersensitive to their venom. They’re destructive to wildlife and agriculture. And during floods, they’re the ultimate teammates.

Instead of drowning, the ants emerge from the soil and come together in the thousands to form floating rafts. These can be several feet wide, and in recent days images of their terrifying flotillas have starred on social media.

And survival makes these ants creative:

The workers start climbing, up a branch or what have you, while other ants stay at the base to support the weight. “It’s just like a chocolate fountain running in slow motion in reverse,” says engineer Craig Tovey of Georgia Tech. “Go up the sides and down the middle, and they just keep doing that.”

The construction job isn’t exactly efficient. “It’s almost a trial and error thing,” Tovey adds. “If part of the tower is too tall and skinny, it collapses, it sort of peels off. And what you’re left with is the part that’s stable, the part that shaped kind of like the Eiffel Tower.” Which is fine, because it doesn’t need to be as consistently solid as the raft. The ants are just buying time as they set up a new colony.

During our typical Florida downpours, all manner of ghoulish material resurfaces. I can’t imagine parents letting their kids play it it or tromp through it barefoot.

The urgency of now: the best of Smashing Pumpkins

To imagine twenty years ago that I’d compile a twenty-song Smashing Pumpkins list in 2017 is like thinking I’d deliver Ronald Reagan’s eulogy. But the Pumpkins, whose innovation was to find hard rock wrinkles in Butch Vig and especially Alan Moulder’s shoegaze mixes, were intermittently formidable, despite Billy Corgan — in every sense. I recoil from his voice. I can’t deny how dense the Pumpkins sounded when Corgan wrote worthwhile material. “Crush” was my introduction in fall 1991, receiving airplay on my top 40 station’s Sunday evening “modern rock” Sunday shows. “I Am One” and “Rhinoceros” followed. Their breakthrough two years later came as no surprise — for all Corgan’s complaints about Stephen Malkmus and cred he kept a hawk’s eye on the marketplace. After 1998, sorry, I lost track of them. I thought twice before including “1979” because I can’t forget how he mangled a perfect hook and decent lyric with a mouth full of cotton candy.

Finally, consider the photograph. My grandmother wore Corgan’s clothes in 1975.

1. Today
2. Appels + Oranjes
3. Zero
4. Rhinoceros
5. I Am One
6. Hummer
7. Bodies
8. Cherub Rock
9. To Sheila
10. Thirty-Three
11. Quiet
12. Siva
13. Disarm
14. Crush
15. The End Is the Beginning Is the End
16. Pissant
17. Porcelina of the Vast Oceans
18. Landslide
19. 1979

Veteran envy and veterans: The War on Drugs and Filthy Friends

I like to write these posts for the benefit of friends who avoid social media (saludos, Gaucho!). Last week I reviewed The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia band appreciated for its guitar grandstanding and for the unsubtle manner in which singer/leader Adam Granduciel compels reviewers to mention Dire Straits, Don Henley, Tom Petty, or whoever else imitated Dylan’s whine projected over canyon-wide echo. I didn’t like the record much besides a couple tracks but expect to hear about it a lot at the end of the year.

Better is Filthy Friends, a group comprising Sleater Kinney’s Corin Tucker, R.E.M.’s unemployed guitarist Peter Buck, and members of the Minus 5. To say I’m happy Tucker gets another chance to show why she’s one of rock’s most compelling singers is an understatement; I wish the material were more original. My review for Pitchfork.

The best film of Ridley Scott

Eight films is more than enough to commemorate a good director. When the clamor got out of hand in early 2016 about rewarding Ridley Scott with a Best Director Oscar, wags preferred to see the award as a career retrospective. They had a point — directors less talented in the last thirty years have thanked their mothers before a billion people and disappeared int obscurity. But this striking visual stylist hasn’t made many memorable films; the list is rather depressing, actually. 1492: Conquest of Paradise, G.I. Jane, and Matchstick Men are grisly things to watch in the middle of the night, and don’t let cable TV’s infatuation fool you into thinking Gladiator is anything but an advertisement for New Age funerals. He does have a talent for handsome men in crisis, notably when wearing the latest in tight shirts. May’s Alien: Covenant is proof. Also absurd. I ranked Hannibal so high because its repulsive hooey has momentum, verve, a stronger pulp instinct than Thomas Harris’ novel.

Which brings me to the Blade Runner Problem. A masterful recreation of a rain-wet future metropolis, it holds up neither as noir or romance. The lack of a definitive version tells me that no one, including Obergruppenführer Scott, had a clue what its intentions were supposed to be; it’s possible the production design schematics existed before a literate script. Either way, the results are damp and sodden.

1. Alien
2. The Duellists
3. Thelma and Louise
4. Hannibal
5. Black Hawk Down
6. Prometheus
7. White Squall
8. Alien: Covenant

‘Logan Lucky’ pulls off its heist, not much else

From his flop The Underneath to the triumph of Out of Sight and the box office success of Ocean’s 11 and even The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh has relished taking heists apart and reassembling the pieces. He’s even better at filming the heist itself as if it and the players formed part of a ball of twine that he unwinds inch by inch, making us wonder if he can roll it back up. Logan Lucky is his most audacious example of this approach. It barely works — the audience has to believe many of these barely articulate residents of Boone County, West Virginia have the brains for stealing thousands of dollars in cash from the Coca Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. What makes it (barely) watchable is, as usual with Soderbergh, a game cast and the suspense generated by watching one of contemporary film’s most ruthless formalists toy with expectations.

That stolid hunk of manflesh called Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, whose family is a joke among locals for their talent for finding bad luck. “You Logans must be as simpleminded as people say,” a spectator observes. In classic fashion, Soderbergh sets up the elements. Fired from his job as a coal mine excavator, about to have his cell phone shut off for non-payment (he hates the damn thing anyway), Jimmy is at wit’s end. Worse, his ex wife (Katie Holmes, playing the least convincing Southerner since Anne Hathaway’s Texas wife drawled through Brokeback Mountain) has married a wealthy car dealer who wears Ford caps and has eyes on his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), the latter unimpressed by his inability to drive stick. But Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), rehearsing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” to perform at a beauty pageant, still believes in him. Meanwhile his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) may have lost an arm in Iraq but he’s a wizard tending bar at the rather archly named Duck Tape; if I didn’t gag at the thought of a vodka martini, I’d cheer his precision and grace.

Now, Driver is as West Virginian as George Clooney was Mississippian in O Brother Where Art Thou?, and I didn’t believe for a minute they were related. Don’t let that stop you. To rip off the race, the brothers hook up with convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and Joe’s half wit brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), given to adding an “s” to Twitter and entangling sentences in molasses. Getting Joe doesn’t satisfy Jimmy’s demand that they recruit “one of them Facebook boys” — you know, a computer expert. Describing the heist of this Nascar race would consume what remains of my word count; it involves a birthday cake, hand-painted live cockroaches, and an explosive device (don’t call it a bomb, Joe insists) made of bleach pens, fake salt, a plastic bag and gummy bears. After blowing the power to the speedway’s credit card readers, the crooks reverse the flow of the the in-house vacuum tubes to suck out the sudden cash intake. But to get to this point in the film Joe and Clyde have to get out of jail for a few hours — and return; Clyde got himself in on purpose on a ninety-day term by smashing his car through a store window.

Erin Brockovich demonstrated how well Soderbergh understands the aspirations of the working poor: how their dreams look vulgar to the rest of us because we haven’t had to long for them as insatiably as Julia Roberts’ eponymous heroine. In Logan Lucky, he comes up short. Craig comes off best: as Joe Bang, his eyes constantly roam the room, in search of stimulation and danger. During the heist he wastes no time on nonsense because he wants to spend his cut on nonsense when it’s over. Tatum, a performer with immediate audience rapport who can play and — difficult trick — step back from playing lunkheads with finesse, is fine. The rest of the actors aren’t playing characters so much as Saturday Night Live sketches of rubes. Dwight Yoakam as the oafish warden and Hillary Swank as an FBI investigator are wasted. When Seth MacFarlane wanders in as a British racer with a serious chip on his shoulder, Soderbergh telegraphs his intentions within seconds; we know what MacFarlane’s here for and what he’ll end up doing within seconds. Although Soderbergh is not exactly making fun of this milieu, the line between empathy and malice often disappears. How convenient that the crooks are sucking the money from the hands of fellow hairdressers, coal miners, and bartenders who regard Nascar as their Superbowl.

Too occupied with getting the jigsaw pieces to fit, Soderbergh blocks goon show episodes in Logan Lucky whose punch lines need an extra polish. Rebecca Blunt’s script has a few bits of lived-in, rumpled dialogue, often on the fringes: a nurse sassing Joe when he fakes an illness at the jail infirmary; one of Mellie’s beauty parlor clients tut-tutting the infamous Logan bad luck. But the movie doesn’t have the lived-in, rumpled virtues of Tampa in Magic Mike or that sand-blasted California town in Erin Brockovich; Soderbergh gives us postcards you can find in Cracker Barrell. there’s no reason why Lucky Logan has to be almost two hours long and resort to a Robin Hood-indebted last act. In the Age of Trump, class consciousness has a poisonous bite. The generosity with which Jimmy treats friends and foes alike feels like a rebuke to liberal caricatures about so-called flyover country. But Blunt and Soderbergh have still presented warmhearted rubes, simple because they’re simple. What’s left is curt editing and the result of thousands spent on language coaches — a compendium of flash.

GRADE: C+

Anthems for doomed youth: the best of The Who

What a relief to hear “Eminence Front” in car commercials: the heretofore forgotten 1982 track, distinguished by a burbling synthesizer loop and a steady Kenney Jones drum track that’s like a metronome and for once doesn’t make me miss Keith Moon, now is among The Who’s most streamed and downloaded songs. “Eminence Front” also redeems the group’s ignoble final chapter, during which Pete Townshend, realizing he was no longer young, couldn’t write for an imagined audience of twentysomethings and pretend he still understood them. Who Are You, Face Dances, and especially It’s Hard were among the first signs of the menace represented by the boomer generation as it aged. When Roger Daltrey rasps, “You came to me with open arms/and open legs” in 1981’s “You Better You Bet,” I want to hide in a fallout shelter. And it got MTV play.

But for a decade Townshend did understand. The kids weren’t just alright; sexually confused, struggling with a rage incommensurate with the parents they had no say in choosing or the schools to which they were sent, they were fucked up and willing to get more fucked up. Townshend offered no answers save release.

1. I Can See For Miles
2. Substitute
3. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
4. Eminence Front
5. Bargain
6. Pinball Wizard
7. I Can’t Explain
8. Won’t Get Fooled Again
9. The Kids Are Alright
10. Love, Reign O’er Me
11. 5.15
12. Pictures of Lily
13. Happy Jack
14. I’m a Boy
15. Baba O’Riley
16. The Seeker
17. Another Tricky Day
18. I’m Free
19. Call Me Lightning
20. Do You Think It’s Alright?

Singles 8/25

Enough of a rarity to get a pass, Kele Okereke and Olly Alexander’s ballad sung by and to gay men works on its own merits anyway: a theater-influenced performance piece, and I emphasize the penultimate adjective; being gay often means acting gay. Alexander keep getting better as a singer. I look forward to the next Years & Years album; their first has become one of my favorite perennials.

Elsewhere, Rae Sremmurd and Thomas Rhett milk their sounds to the last drop. K-pop saved us.

Click on links for full reviews.

Kele Okereke ft. Olly Alexander – Grounds for Resentment (7)
PRETTYMUCH – Would You Mind (7)
Smiley ft. Juno – Rara (7)
Rae Sremmurd – Perplexing Pegasus (6)
Hachi ft. Hatsune Miku – Suna no Wakusei (6)
Thomas Rhett – Unforgettable (5)
Major Lazer ft. Anitta & Pabllo Vittar – Sua Cara (5)
Yungen ft. Yxng Bane – Bestie (5)
Justin Moore – Somebody Else Will (4)
Jake Paul ft. Erika Costell & Uncle Kade – Jerika (3)
Macklemore ft. Skylar Grey – Glorious (2)

‘Few bullies as pernicious’ as Joe Arpaio

Astute readers of Donald J. Trump before crowds can distinguish the insincere bombast from the sincere bombast. When Sheriff Joe Arpaio came up last Tuesday in Phoenix, I heard a catch in the president’s voice, like the septuagenarian Bernstein remembering the girl with the parasol in Citizen Kane. On an afternoon when he knew the media were switching attention to Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Corpus Christi as a Category 4 storm, the White House made its announcement, together with another announcement banning transgender recruits. They had no connection or explanation; like piece of corrugated steel and roofing tile unmoored by winds, they blew in every direction.

As for Arpaio, Charles Pierce sums it up for bullet point dissemination:

He didn’t just commit criminal contempt when he violated a federal court order halting his unconstitutional immigration roundups. He did so gleefully, boastfully, publicly—daring federal authorities to do something about it. And then, when they did, when federal prosecutors called him on his misconduct, Arpaio wasn’t even willing or able to muster the courage of his race-related convictions. He pretended instead that he had been ignorant all along.

Inside every bully is a coward, and for decades in the desert there were few bullies as pernicious as Arpaio. He was gratuitously cruel to inmates even before he began to be unconstitutionally cruel to his Hispanic constituents. And the sad punchline is that he continues to this day to be the darling of conservatives despite the fact that he became so obsessed with harassing undocumented immigrants (and lawful ones, too) that his investigators failed to investigate violent sex crimes. Hundreds of them. This is the public servant the president praises and seeks to protect from punishment.

I’m not sure how anyone can conclude but that President Donald Trump will pardon any Cabinet, sub-Cabinet, or appointed official whom Robert Mueller cites for contempt. “The foundation of our entire system of laws is that public officials like Arpaio must comply with valid court orders whether they agree with them or not,” Pierce writes in despair.