Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Movies

This is the time of year when everyone in Blogland seems to look back and reflect on what were their favorite movies, music, TV shows, books, etc. of the past year. The only two of those I even halfway keep up with are the first two and I really don't see or hear enough of what is new in either realm to comment the way others do.

As far as music goes I do prepare a Top 10 CD list for Cadence but that is confined to what has been reviewed in the magazine over the past year, not what came out in the actual calendar year. With movies, I simply don't go out to the theatre to see current films that much. Instead like most people these days I see most things at home through my TV, DVD player and computer. So instead I'm going to list a bunch of movies I saw for the first time in 2010 with some comments.

The Ones I Saw In A Theatre (and liked):
Black Swan, Get Low, White Material, Inception, Boxing Gym, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Art Of The Steal

Classics I Finally Got Around To:
2001: A Space Odyssey, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (original version), In A Lonely Place, Peeping Tom, A Walk In The Sun, The Burmese Harp

Recent Acclaimed Films:
Burn After Reading; Ghost World; The Informant!; Rabbit Proof Fence

Robert Ryan Was One Bad Ass:
On Dangerous Ground; Day Of The Outlaw - a strange Western where Ryan plays a rancher whose feud with neighboring farmers is interrupted by a band of ruthless outlaws led by Burl Ives

Assorted Asian Weirdness:
Thirst; Dr. Akagi - The story of a Japanese doctor in the waning months of World War II who is obsessed with curing hepatitis. Far less normal than it sounds.

Jazz Documentaries:
Anita O'Day: The Life Of A Jazz Singer; 'Tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris - Films about the rocky lives of two great jazz singers, one who was famous and one who should have been.

The Troubles:
Hunger; The Magdalene Sisters

The Really Obscure Stuff:
Where Are My Children? - A 1916 anti-abortion film(!) directed by one of the early woman filmmakers, Lois Weber.
Antares - An intricate Austrian drama about three interlocking domestic dramas that all take place within the same apartment complex.
Christ In Concrete - A grim story about the struggles of an Italian immigrant worker in New York City that was actually a prequel of sorts to the novel of the same name. With a blacklisted director in Edward Dmytryk and blacklisted star in Sam Wanamaker.
Shotgun Stories - The story of a blood feud between two Southern families that share the same father.
Claire Dolan - An unsettingly dispassionate look at the career and self-redemption of a New York prostitute.
Carosello Napoletano - A pageant-like musical trawl through Italian history from the Renaissance through post-Mussolini with a young Sophia Loren featured in one sequence.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quick thoughts on some movies I've seen in the last few weeks:

Private Hell 36 - I saw this thanks to Netflix streaming.  It turned out to be a tough little lowbudget noir film co-written by Ida Lupino and directed by Don Siegel. Two police detectives track down stolen money from a robbery and one decides to help himself to some of the loot. Steve Cochran plays the crooked cop and Lupino plays a disillusioned bar singer who falls in love with him. They are contrasted with Cochran's honest partner played by Lupino's real-life husband, Howard Duff whose movie wife is a smoking hot Dorothy Malone.  Other familiar actors like Dean Jagger, Dabbs Greer and Richard Deacon also appear.

3some - This is a Spanish film about three young art students, two men and a woman, who develop a sexual and romantic relationship where both guys are in love with the girl and vice versa. I've seen a lot of post-Franco Spanish films that take on unconventional sexual topics in a much more open-minded and serious way than similar stuff would be tertead in an American film. There are no dumb dirty jokes or embarrassed overreactions in this movie, just a serious look at shifting relationship dynamics that ends on an ambiguous note.

Black Swan -  It's a 21st century update of The Red Shoes and it also bears the same relationship to its source, the ballet Swan Lake, as Michael Powell's film did to the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired it.  This is a nifty little gothic thriller set in the ballet world about a ballerina whose quest for perfection essentially drives her insane. There's enough usage of evil doppelgangers that the film can also claim the Edgar Allan Poe story "William Wilson" as an ancestor and there's a touch of Roman Polanski's Repulsion in there too. Natalie Portman is tremendous in the lead and is Barbara Hershey as her controlling mother.

Sunnyside Up - A 1929 musical notable as the first talking picture teaming of Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor who were a very popular romantic couple in Twenties movies. It's actually a musical and a bit frothier than other Farrell-Gaynor films like Street Angel and Seventh Heaven  with folks like Marjorie White and El Brendel around to provide the comic relief. The picture spawned a couple of popular songs of the period, "If I Had A Talking Picture Of You" and "Turn On The Heat" and the stars do their own singing with Gaynor even getting a solo dance number.  The only notable quirk in the picture now is that the early recording equipment had Gaynor talking in a squeaky Betty Boop voice with no lower range. Yet that didn't seem to hurt her career because she continued to be a star for several years and her voice sounded more normal in her later films.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Very Hip Christmas

There is a long tradition of Jazz big bands holding down once a week residencies in New York clubs.  For the last few months a big band here in Washington, DC has been doing the same thing, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra and tonight, after months of procrastination I got my fat ass down to the Bohemian Caverns to see them (which to my embarrassment, was the first time I'd been to the place even though I've lived in DC my entire life).

The group is co-led by saxophonist Brad Linde and trumpeter Joe Herrera and tonight they did a set of Christmas-related music, arrangements of familiar pieces like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Sleigh Ride" with Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" somehow sneaking in there. The highlight was the full Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite, played true to the structure of the Ellington orchestra with a five-strong sax line of individual players, a sassy brass section and nimble powering from the rhythm section.  The orchestra was on the money all night, boasting a gorgeous full ensemble sound with smart, tough soloing from just about every member of the band.  What stood out to me?  drummer Larry Ferguson dancing on the rhythms all night, Charles Phanuef on clarinet, a instrument he took up two months ago, playing asliquidly as Jimmy Hamilton on Nutcracker, Herrera's atonal but lovely version of "Silent Night" that sounded influenced by Andrew Hill's writing and the closing "Merry Little Christmas" with Sarah Hughes playing a weightless behind the beat alto solo with the creamy tone of Johnny Hodges followed by sassy, squawking trombone from Greg Boyer.

Best of all I saw the entire first set and got home before 11 which means I can go back and see the band even on weeks when I have to work.

Friday, December 17, 2010

He Made Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On His Knee

They always talk about the deaths of famous people coming in threes but the last 24 hours have been especially cruel.  First the news that Blake Edwards, a director whose work I always respected, has died, then the confirmation of the death of the European erotic horror filmmaker Jean Rollin. Now just a few minutes ago I heard about the death of Don Van Vliet better known to music fans and freaks everywhere as Captain Beefheart. Damn!

I first heard Beefheart in the early 70's when the local "alternative" radio stations, WHFS and WGTB, would occasionally play "The Blimp" from Trout Mask Replica. Then I actually bought his equally out-there followup album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby though, honestly I don't think I really got what he was doing at the time. He continued to be a constant presence on radio through the more accessible (Yeah, right.) The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot,  the too-smooth Unconditionally Guaranteed and the back-to-the-gonzo sounds of Shiny Beast, Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow.

As the years went on his sandpapery singing, bent beat poetry lyrics and mutated delta blues-free jazz-desert crazed music began to make more and more sense. I've bought two copies of Trout Mask over the years and I think I saw him live during the later Radar Station days at the 9:30 club but, for the life of me, I can't remember any details about the show.  (EDIT: I may be confusing him with Pere Ubu's David Thomas who I do remember seeing at that club.) I do know that I've come to love his one-of-a-kind Howlin' Wolf meets Sonny Sharrock sound.  I was a bit dismayed to read in a book excerpt last year that some of Beefheart's weirdness came from drug intake. I had always though he was just naturally strange. No matter. The man made music like no one else on Earth.

I was listening to a Vic Chestnutt CD just now but when I read the news, I dug out my CD twofer of Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot and put it on. Right now I'm listening to him sing and blow nasty harmonica on "Glider" as the Magic Band beats out a hiccuping stomp rhythm on drums and slide guitar.  R.I.P., Captain.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Background Music

The other night I was in Rosslyn, VA, the kind of urban area the term "concrete canyons" was created for, to see some silent movies. Before the show I went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. The food was all right but they had the depressing screeching of Celine Dion coming out of the speakers as background music. It got me thinking that this bathetic crap has come to represent "adult music" in the minds of most people. You rarely hear fun older music like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee or Nancy Wilson in such places any more.  I left the restaurant and I still had about 90 minutes before the show started, so I walked across the street to a Starbucks to get some coffee. As soon I got in there, guess what I heard playing. Yep, Ella. Followed in succession by Msses. Lee and Wilson with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Louis Armstrong after that.

I know people usually grumble about Starbucks as some evil store chain that sells way-overpriced coffee.  I won't comment on the coffee but it's nice to run into a place where your ears aren't assaulted by bad, boring music the second you walk in. I don't know how the music for this particular store is selected but whoever does it has some taste. Similarly there's an Au Bon Pain sandwich shop near my work and every time I go in there, I'm usually hearing the likes of Dinah Washington, Chet Baker and Diana Krall.  It always seems to be these ubiquitous and impersonal like franchise places where you can eat in the company of good music whereas fancier restaurants often play the sort of music that is so soppy and annoying you eat as fast as you can so you can leave and get away from it. Maybe that's the point.

On a completely unrelated note today I started taking advantage of the On Demand section of my digital cable service and watched a episode of the much ballyhooed show Mad Men for the first time. Just going by one episode I don't see what the big deal is about this show. An advertising executive suffering through existential despair? People openly smoking in their offices and on trains?  There is little here that you couldn't see in spades on any Hollywood movie made before 1967.  The parts where the show says "Look  how dumb those people were back then" by having the cast snickering at the Volkswagen and Lady Chatterley's Lover were really predictable. The only interesting bit was the hint that the lead character is leading some kind of double life.  Hopefully it won't turn out to be a storyline like the Flitcraft anecdote in the book version of The Maltese Falcon where a man runs away from his job and family to settle down in another city with a very similar wife, house and job to what he originally had.
     Everyone on this show looks so handsome and impeccably coiffed and clothed for the period there is a sense of too-perfect unreality to it.  By contrast I saw an old Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode  from 1962 last night that starred Tony Randall as an adman with a severe drinking problem and that felt real. The people in it, especially Randall wearing his most hangdog expression and a heavy, short-haired Jayne Mansfield, looked like they were part of a real world. When you actually lived through an era and see a TV show trying to do a recreation of it, the bullshit parts stick out like sore thumbs.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How To End A Horror Movie

In the past couple of days I've seen a couple of horror movies that both end with a "big reveal" of a monster.  Together they show there are good ways and bad ways to do this.

The bad one is The Maze, a 1953 3-D horror film directed by the great designer William Cameron Menzies.  It's standard "spooky castle" stuff with a titled Englishman shutting himself off from the world in a creepy old family castle and his fiancee and her friends trying to find out the secret that is making him do this.  The movie is atmospheric and all the shots of people walking through long corridors must have looked really powerful in 3-D. Then they come to the reason why the hero has become a recluse. I won't give it away but it involves an unseen relative and it is so jawdroppingly ridiculous it pushes this movie close to Robot Monster - Plan 9 From Outer Space territory.  Let's just say this movie could have been an inspiration to Jim Henson. It's hard to say what's worse, the monster itself or the explanation given for his existence.

The Spanish horror film [REC] from 2007 makes far more sense at its conclusion.  This is a Blair Witch Project-style effort supposedly filmed by a TV documentary crew that spends a night in a firehouse and follows two of the firefighters as they respond to a call about a sick woman in an apartment house.  The woman isn't merely sick. She is infected with something that makes her start taking bites out of people's necks and soon enough, in time honored George Romero tradition, policemen, firemen, the other apartment tenants and the TV people are fighting a losing battle against each other to keep from turning into cannibalistic zombies.

This film was actually remade in an American version recently called Quarantine.  That movie told basically the same story as this one but changed a couple of details seemingly to play to the "conspiracy theory" crowd, such as suggesting the authorities are telling the world everyone has been removed from the house and is safe while they have really been left inside to die.  The biggest change is in the final explanation for it all. There is no explicit "this is how it started" scene but at the end of both versions, the TV reporter and her cameraman, the last two survivors, ascend to the locked penthouse of the complex and discover a hidden laboratory.  In the American version there are newspaper clippings on the wall about a doomsday cult and just vague hints about what has been happening.  In the Spanish original, the clippings are about the demonic possession of a little girl and there is enough evidence mentioned from journals and tape recordings to enable the viewer to piece together the story and also make understand who the two monsters are that appear at the end.  Like Let The Right One In and seemingly, its American remake, Let Me In, this shows that foreign horror films make a lot more sense these days than many of their American counterparts.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


It's one thing to hear musicians on a recording but sometimes when you experience them live, you gain an entirely new appreciation for their work. I've heard CDs by Wadada Leo Smith, Vijay Iyer, John Lindberg and Pheroan AkLaff in all sorts of settings but just hearing them live as Smith's Golden Quartet was a revelation. This band has a dazzling, explosive power to it from AkLaff's savage yet melodic drumming to Smith's steely, demonstrative power on trumpet.

     I'd always thought of Smith as a player who dealt in small notes and silences but here his playing was forceful and fiery. In a pre-concert talk he said his music was influenced by the blues and Miles Davis. You could hear both. There was a mournful blue touch in everything he played and Miles was there especially in his muted work and the way he shot out streams of notes over the occasional spate of electric rhythms from Iyer's electric piano and Lindberg's bass effects pedal.  The other major surprise to me was AkLaff who regularly worked his drumming into a nuclear frenzy but was always controlled and maintained the sense of the compositions.

The size of the audience was also heartening. This concert was held at the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.  It was an auditorium that held a few hundred people and the place was packed. Every seat was taken and there were a bunch of overflow patrons around. Okay, so the concert was free but we are not talking about household names here. Jazz, especially this forward looking sort, is considered to be a marginal music yet this show drew a stunning number of people. It makes you think there's some hope yet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tooning In

Wandering around the internet yesterday, I caught mention of a new cable channel starting on January 1 called Antenna TV. This looks to be something along the lines of the Retro TV channel showing a variety of old shows other channels don't show anymore. Whereas Retro TV gets its stuff mostly from the Universal Studio vaults, this new channel will use all kinds of shows from the Sony archives like All In The Family, Father Knows Best, The Monkees, The Partridge Family and Gidget.  What got my attention on their schedule, though, was what they are showing on Saturday mornings, Totally Tuned In.  If that's what I think it is, that's a real find.

Totally Tuned In was a series put together by Columbia in 1999 to showcase their large library of cartoons. According to Cartoon Research, the website of animation historian Jerry Beck who worked on the show, it was syndicated in foreign countries but never shown in America. This may be the show's American debut.

The importance of all this is that most of the Columbia cartoons have been rarely seen for a long time. When I was growing up in the late 50's and 60's I saw cartoons from all the other major movie studios, the Warners mob, the Paramount stuff from the Fleischer Brothers and later Famous Studios, Universal's Walter Lantz work and even Terrytoons cartoons from Fox.  As for Columbia, they put all their live comedy shorts on television, featuring of course The Three Stooges, but none of their theatrical cartoons.  Back then I didn't even know Columbia ever released any cartoons. They did have one enduring star, Mr. Magoo, but, as I know now, the Magoo cartoons I saw back in the day were new ones made for television.

     Since then I've read some about the various Columbia series and seen some of them through VHS tapes and YouTube but this series looks to be a bonanza of little seen work. There's a list of what's on all the Tooned In episodes here and looking through it made my eyes pop. Besides the Magoo cartoons there is work from directors Ub Iwerks and Frank Tashlin, some of Columbia's other most successful series, The Fox And The Crow and a lot of work from the legendary "modern" studio of the 40's, UPA, which Columbia distributed. Now I just hope this channel makes its way to my cable system here in Northern Virginia

Saturday, October 16, 2010


In the late 1950's and early 1960's, the western genre dominated television to an extent that no other genre has since. In the 1958-1959 season there were 31 western series on the air, which is really amazing when you remember there were only three networks back then. Some of those shows like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Cheyenne and Maverick are well remembered today. Others have fallen through the cracks of history. That brings me to one old show I've just been watching that I had never even heard of until recently, Tate.

     Tate wasn't around for long. It was a summer replacement series that ran on NBC for 13 weeks in 1960. Its creator was writer Harry Julian Fink who, among other things, wrote several excellent episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel.  Tate, the show's hero, comes off as a less courtly and crafty version of Paladin. He is a gunman who lost the use of his arm during a Civil War battle and now roams the West as a bounty hunter.     Just going by the five episodes I've seen, the show had a severe and brutal view of the Old West without even the humor or warmth of other adult Westerns like Gunsmoke and Have Gun. Tate seemed to be invariably on the trail of someone who had committed some kind of brutal crime, usually involving the killing of women and children but that plot was always secondary to other trouble he would face like the killer's family trying to break him out of jail or entire towns refusing to give the bad guy up.  In one episode Tate runs into another bounty hunter who mistakes him for a killer and is nonchalant about bringing him in alive or dead even after he gets word that Tate is innocent.

     The most powerful episode I saw, "Stopover", was even more hard-bitten. In that one Tate finds his quarry, a legendary old fast gun, in a small town and shoots him in a gunfight in the first five minutes. His problem then is, while waiting to get his reward money wired to him, a younger gunfighter keeps hanging threateningly around him. It turns out he had been trailing the old man to face him in a fight and prove he was a faster draw, but now that's he dead, he wants the man who killed him...Tate. 

And that's still not all. There is one more main character in this episode, a young "saloon girl" who charges five dollars just for conversation. She makes friends with Tate and when he asks her why she doesn't go back home, she tells him home was a shack where she was one of fifteen children and she suffered some kind of unspecified abuse.  She's much happier in her current life where people are at least nice to her. That's pretty heavy territory for a 1960 TV show and I'm amazed the saloon girl stuff got past the censors, even as ambiguous as it was.

     As on just about any show from this era there are several actors in these episodes in the early stages of their career who would go on greater success, like Robert Culp, Robert Redford, Louise Fletcher and James Coburn as well as former child star Peggy Ann Garner as the saloon girl and Royal Dano as a sheriff caught in a Rio Bravo-like standoff against the family of a man about to hang for murder.  Tate himself was played by an actor named David McLean who was a new name to me. According to IMDB, though, he did gain later fame as one of the actors who played the Marlboro Man, the rugged cigarette smoking cowboy in the famous Marlboro TV commercials. He was also one of several actors in those commercials who eventually died of lung cancer.

    In its short thirteen week life Tate doesn't seem to have developed the breadth of the more successful adult Westerns, but it was an uniquely tough-minded show closer in tone to the original radio version of Gunsmoke than any of its TV contemporaries that I've seen so far.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Clare Dolan

A Irish woman works as a high-priced prostitute in New York City in order to pay off a debt to a man who is acting as her pimp. When her mother dies the woman runs away to Newark, gets a job as a beautician and starts a romance with a taxi driver. One day her pimp finds her...

You think you know how this story would play out from that description but the film Clare Dolan is nothing like you'd expect. The characters here act out the story in a very austere and controlled way.  Except for two momentary scenes, neither of which involve the title character, there is no violence. Even when the pimp finds Clare he doesn't raise a hand to her. He simply tells her to get back to work and drives her to Manhattan.
     Little is outright explained in the movie. There are no clunky exposition monologues explaining everyone's backstories or motivations. They talk tersely to each other like people who already know watch other well would and the audience is just left to speculate. How long has Clare done this? Did she do it before she had to pay this debt? Why is she so cold and mechanical to all men, even her boyfriend? None of those questions are answered, but you do eventually see that a child is the one thing that means something to her. She carries an unsmiling expression on her face for most of the film and the only time she smiles in the entire picture is at the end when she watches a sonogram of her unborn child.
   It's an eerie, mesmerizing film played out mostly in a landscape of straight angled offices and hotel rooms often viewed through mirrors or windows. Katrin Cartlidge is powerful in the title role doing a combination of serene  blankness and vulnerability. It's sobering to realize she would die four years after this film came out. Colm Meany cuts a calm and businesslike but subtly menacing figure as the pimp and Vincent D'Onofrio is fine as the taxi driver who futilely tries to understand his lover. What's most stunning to me is that the director, Lodge Kerrigan, has only made two other films since this was done in 1998. How does someone this talented get so few chances to work in this day and age?

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Real "Jazz Festival"

A lot of times these days events advertised as jazz festivals have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept. For example a local "jazz festival" in Silver Spring, MD last Saturday was headlined by Aaron Neville, a great singer without doubt but hardly a jazz guy.  There was another jazz festival closer to me in Rosslyn, VA the same day that really fitknew what it was about featuring acts like Jason Moran and Tierney Sutton.

The show was held in a lovely outdoor park at the foot of Key Bridge which is literally a walk away from the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. There were the sort of distractions that can come at these outdoor events like planes flying overhead, traffic noise and conversations from people obilvious to the music but that didn't really hurt my enjoyment of things. The opening act, the Afro Bop Alliance, didn't do much for me as all Latin jazz groups tend to sound alike to me at this point. Then came one of the people I came out to see, pianist Jason Moran and his trio, the Bandwagon.

Moran has been acclaimed for some time as one of the most important younger pianists out there, someone who takes influences from all styles of music as well as art and other disciplines and, with the other members of his trio, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, works them into a thrilling stew that constantly shifts mood and time, working in piano styles from stride to swing to free with amazing fluidity. His chopping and rolling was well supported by his long time rhythm mates, especially Waits who in his solo spots, established himself as one of the killer modern drummers. Moran used some taped music to introduce a couple of pieces, one a Billie Holiday song, the other, a 1905 Bert Williams recording of "Nobody". His allegiance to the Jaki Byards and Thelonious Monks of the world is well known but here was Moran going back over a hundred years to give respect to one of the first great African-American performers. That kind of embrace of history is what made his performance so dazzling.

Moran's trio was followed by another highly touted piano trio, The Bad Plus, known for their rockish rhythms and their covers of the likes of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Iron Man".  I appreciate what they do and their pianist Ethan Iverson shows he knows his music in his blog writing but at this concert I couldn't warm to them. With drummer Dave King often taking the lead role and Iverson content to vamp repeatedly in the background, this sounded more to me like prog rock without the syntthesizers and guitar solos, a music that pushed mechanically instead of cutting loose with the organic rolling flow of Moran's work. Still there was a lot of loud applause at their set and a lot of the younger people at the show got up to leave after they finished. I almost did but I was glad I stayed.

I had seen Tierney Sutton's name around before but not paid too much attention to her. Saturday I thought  "Just another swoony saloon singer doing standards. I'll listen to her first song, then leave." Thirty seconds after she started performing I knew I was staying for her entire set.

Tierney Sutton is one of those singers who takes the Great American Songbook and puts it through a Cuisinart. Fronting the trio she has worked with for 17 years, she sings in a waling incantory style like Sheila Jordan turning her familiar material inside out. Fast songs are done slow, slow songs are speeded up, and she stretches "Get Happy" out into a doomy monotone that sounds cut from a Nirvana album. On this day she and her excellent band pushed and pulled their way through songs like "Blue Skies", "Fever", "Summertime", Something Cool" and "My Man's Gone Now" in imaginative and sometimes ballsy arrangements. I found a new singer to go crazy over Saturday.

Here are a couple of clips of Moran and Tierney from recent years. First Moran and the Bandwagon doing their slippery eel stride thing in Brazil in 2003. Watch Nasheet Waits kick butt and take names.

Then Tierney Sutton and her band running the changes on "Route 66" and doing their "chimes of doom" version of "Get Happy" in San Diego in 2007.  Sutton was wearing different clothes Saturday of course but there was the same set up of her sitting on a stool in front the band. Pianist Christian Jacob gets a very cool solo here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Vile Vivienne Vyle

You can have Tina Fey. When it comes to funny women on TV I'll take British writer and performer Jennifer Saunders. Her show Absolutely Fabulous was a fearless slapstick classic about two middle aged women boozing and drugging their way through the fashion industry like the Swinging Sixties never ended. Her 2007 show, The Life And Times Of Vivienne Vyle, is even darker, going way beyond what a show like 30 Rock would even dare. 

Saunders (above) stars on this show as Vivienne Vyle, a daytime TV host who runs a show where she parades the dregs of humanity before the cameras and tells them how disgusting they are under the pretense of helping them. There have been any number of these hosts in America,of course, from Jerry Springer to Maury Povich to Sally Jesse Raphael and beyond, but this character is supposed to based on a specific British TV star named Jeremy Kyle. If this concept had been attempted here by Fey or anyone else,  the host would be probably be humanized with some kind of inner conflict about what they are doing. Not Saunders, she makes Vyle a self-centered, unrepentant monster who will exploit anyone for her own gain, even her own husband.

There is still a lot of physical comedy on this show as on AbFab with Saunders still not above the occasional pratfall or bizarre sight gag. There are also a couple of characters that echo the earlier show's craziness. The talk show's producer, Helena, played by Miranda Richardson, is the same sort of scatterbrained, drugged-out mess as Saunders' Edwina and Vivienne also has a gay husband the same way that Edwina had a gay ex.

The overall tone of this show is much grimmer though. Vivienne is a more controlled person and she is so cold-blooded you can't identify with her in any way. There is a more sympathetic character in a therapist hired as a consultant on the show who is the closest thing to normal here and stands somewhat apart from the mad swirl of Vivienne's circle but he is really secondary. (Incidentally this show was created by Saunders and a clinical psychologist, Dr. Tanya Block. I haven't read anything where the doctor worked on a talk show but you have to wonder.) There is an evil genius in the way Vivienne twists a possible scandal involving her husband  to her advantage on live TV with a made up story of childhood abuse in the last episode but that's not something I could really laugh at. This is a fascinating show in its way, just not one of the laugh riots Saunders has done in the past.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Abeey Lincoln 1930-2010

I was going to write something about the film Fillmore: The Last Days but I happened to see that Abbey Lincoln passed away today.

We seem to lose a plethora of giant jazz figures every year. In the last few months alone, Hank Jones, Fred Anderson, Bill Dixon, Harry Beckett and Willem Breuker have passed on. Now it's Abbey Lincoln. She wasn't as overall prolific as other great jazz singers but the work she did was impressive, singing powerful and passionate songs in a strident carrying voice that demanded your attention. She had two great periods as a vocalist, in the Sixties when she worked with her then-husband Max Roach for a few years. The highlight of that time being their monumental protest album, We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite. Then there was little music from her until she turned up on Verve Records in the 1980s doing a series of very personal and uncompromising records in the company of people like Stan Getz and Hank Jones. She wasn't a "pretty" singer but she got her message across.

This is a video of her on the old NBC "Night Music" show in the 80s doing Charlie Haden's "First Song".  Not only is she in great voice but she obviously lit a fire under host David Sanborn.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


When there are music or film festivals taking place hundreds of miles from you, you can say you have a reason for not going. When there's one practically in your backyard you have no excuse. So it is that I have been going to the mid-July Slapsticon film festival in Rosslyn, VA the past few years.

Slapsticon, which ran just last weekend, is a four-day program of old silent and early sound comedies put together by several film buffs and historians, concentrating on rare and recently discovered films. They had a big mainstream draw this year in the first public showing of an early Charlie Chaplin film done for Mack Sennett in 1914 but most of the time is pent viewing the work of far lesser known comics like Andy Clyde, Lloyd Hamilton, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Lupino Lane and many others. The movies are shown in the Rosslyn Spectrum theatre just two blocks from the subway and the silents play with live musical accompaniment from a rotating team of pianists with help this year from the Snark Ensemble, a group that specializes in accompanying silent films.

This year, as usual, I only made it to Friday and Saturday. Watching continuous old comedies from 9 AM to 12 midnight burns me out after a couple of days even with a couple of hours for lunch and dinner breaks. What I saw was not only funny, but an education. It's always instructive to see a film that fills in your knowledge about an actor you never heard of or a part of someone's career you didn't previously know about.

The highlights for me included the work of Sidney Drew, a very sophisticated comedian from the 1910's who did domestic comedy that had the dark, sardonic edge of Buster Keaton without the precision slapstick and a film that wasn't a comedy at all, The Round-Up, a 1920 western that starred one Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle playing a tough Old West sheriff very convincingly. This film showed that Arbuckle had acting range that might have better explored if his career hadn't been sabotaged by scandal.

There were plenty of other fun things like one reel of a Stan Laurel solo comedy, When Knights Were Cold, that parodied swashbuckler movies with a crazy abandon that anticipated Monty Python And The Holy Grail and a Buster Keaton television show from 1949 where he revived a lot of his classic boxing gags. There were also a few "Did I really see that?" shorts like one starring Snooky The Human-zee, a chimp who dressed like a man and interacted with a human cast and the Dippy Doo Dads, a Hal Roach series with live animals like dogs, ducks, and monkeys spoofing dramatic genres, like a boxing story.

There was also a lot of Charlie Chase (right) who seems to be a perennial Slapsticon favorite with good reason. He worked as a writer and director for Sennett, Roach and Columbia for over thirty years and also starred periodically in short comedies perfecting a style of humanized, believable slapstick that was the foundation of the situation comedy. They showed a Roach short from the early 30's, one of his last Columbia shorts from 1940 and his first talkie, Modern Love, made for Universal in 1929. Altogether the films showed how adaptable he was, working equally well with the genteel slapstick of Roach to the louder, violent style of Columbia and moving deftly into light romantic comedy in the feature, even getting to sing a song.

One section of the festival I always like is when they show a block of cartoons on Saturday, again with rarities mixed in with more familiar stuff. This year there were some familiar titles like the Betty Boop version of Snow White and the early Warner Brothers musical cartoon, Red Headed Baby, but there were some surprising things I hadn't seen before. One was The Old Plantation, a 10-minute Harman-Ising MGM cartoon with Southern caricatured Negro dolls involved in a horse race and another was Voodoo In Harlem, a strange Walter Lantz "out of the inkwell" type piece with stereotypical African figures jumping out of an inkwell and dancing around a cartoonist's studio.

It's easy to understand why those cartoons never saw the light of day on television when I was a kid. The real surprise, though, was a Tex Avery classic I had seen several times, Magical Maestro (right). I'd only seen this on TV before but now I discovered that the uncut version had a couple of ethnic gags, including one really good ones that referenced the Ink Spots.  Slapsticon is a place where I always enjoy myself and I will definitely be back there next year. Maybe this time I'll go the entire four days

Tuesday, July 13, 2010



I watched a couple of very good films over the weekend, Hunger, about IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland in the 1980's and Antares, an Austrian drama that told three interlocking stories about tenants of a large apartment house, yet the image I can't get out of my mind is of a damned goldfish swimming across my TV screen.

You see besides those two, I also watched a couple of Mexican wrestler movies. These are the action films that were made for decades where actual masked Mexican wrestlers like Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras ran around acting like superheroes, fighting crime and righting wrongs fully masked as well as wrestling in the ring. As wacky as the premise was, especially since these guys never took their masks off whether in business meetings, hanging out at the beach or sleeping, the two movies I saw, The Champions of Justice and Mystery In Bermuda, didn't impress me all that much. They looked embarrassingly cheap, particularly Bermuda where Blue Demon and his buddies mostly just threw would-be assassins around hotel rooms before disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle (No kidding. That is how the movie ended.)

Champions had more going for it with the group fighting a mad scientist and his army of evil wrestlers and super-strong red-suited midgets as he kidnapped beauty contestants for some vague evil scheme. There was more action in this one but it's hard to get that excited when one of the big fights takes place in a quiet grassy field presumably because the producers didn't have the money for a decent set. There was one moment though that was so lame it buzzkilled the entire movie for me. At one point a couple of the wrestlers were having this fierce underwater fight with a couple of frogmen. The camera was positioned underwater to show them battling and as they were going at it, a small goldfish wiggled by in the foreground.

I'm not an expert in marine life but somehow I don't think there are goldfish in the Gulf of Mexico. They shot the bloody scene through a fishtank! I don't mind low budgets but that one got to me. I don't know if any of the earlier wrestling movies that involve mummies or werewolves are any better, but after that I'm in no hurry to do further investigations of the genre.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Maverick on Netflix

I recently discovered while browsing through Netflix's instant play section that they offer a lot of "B" westerns that haven't been released on DVD yet. In looking deeper through the site the other day, I saw they also had seasons of old TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel beyond what was currently on DVD. Then I noticed a certain word I wasn't expecting to see..."Maverick".

That's right. Netflix is offering online viewing of one of the most legendary TV westerns of all time. Not every episode but they seem to have most of the shows from all five seasons.  This led to me spending Sunday afternoon watching three Maverick episodes that all starred James Garner: "The Sheriff Of Duck'n'Shoot", "Escape To Tampico" and "The Saga Of Waco Williams".

A few years ago the TV Land network, when it still specialized in old TV shows, ran an entire weekend of old Maverick episodes. That is when I realized that the show's reputation is slightly inflated. It was a wonderful satire of old west conventions, but only in some episodes, usually the ones where James Garner starred as Bret Maverick. Other programs, which usually seemed to be the ones that featured Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, were conventional western dramas and dull ones at that.

The three shows I watched Sunday were from both the comedy and drama sides and also had echoes of television or movies from before and after the show's run. "Duck'n'Shoot" was a broad slapstick comedy where Bret is tricked into becoming the sheriff of a lawless town, an odd pre-echo of Garner's later hit film, Support Your Local Sheriff. It also featured the laughing brass soundtrack the show sometimes used to underline funny scenes, a bit I really found annoying this time around.
     "Escape From Tampico" was a mostly serious show but a pretty good one where Bret was hired to find an accused killer in Mexico and bring him back to the United States. The notable thing here is that most of the story took place in a Mexican cantina which was the same Warner Brothers set that had served as Rick's American Cafe in the movie Casablanca. Even odder actor Gerald Mohr played the owner of the cantina in a manner a lot like Humphrey Bogart. (SPOILER) He didn't end up like Bogart though. Mohr's character turned out to be guilty of murder even though all the dialogue and plot before the ending suggested that he was being framed. That may have something to do with the fact the man who seemed to be the real bad guy in the early scenes was played by Paul Picerni who would have been getting a steady job at about that time as one of Eliot Ness' men on The Untouchables. Did that have anything to do with his character disappearing from this episode leading to what seemed like a hasty rewrite?
     "Waco Williams" was a show with more subtle humor where Bret was travelling for his own undisclosed reasons with a heroic cowboy named Waco Williams, the kind of guy who would stubbornly walk into a fight when Bret would just as soon sneak out the back door. By the end of the episode Waco ends up the most popular man in town and engaged to a cattleman's daughter (played by a young Louise Fletcher) while Bret slinks away broke and forgotten. The plot was so good it ended up reprised by Stephen J. Cannell in Garner's later Rockford Files where down and out Jim Rockford is contrasted to brave and perfect P.I. Lance White played by Tom Selleck.
      As I said not every episode is on here. I was particularly bummed to see that "The Rivals", an adaptation of the 18th century comedy of that name, is not available. Still there is plenty here to enjoy until Warner Home Video finally gets its act together and puts the entire series out on DVD.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Forty Shades Of Indestructible

I think I heard about the film Forty Shades Of Blue on a blog where someone was listing unknown "great films". After watching this I don't think it qualifies. The premise can be summed up like this: A legendary Memphis music producer has a much younger Russian girlfriend and son. He is visited by his estranged adult son.

Do I have to say any more? You know what happens from here. I know what happens from here. (The poster on the left gives you a hint.) I was hoping as I watched that the movie wouldn't go that predictable route but there it went.

My main problem wasn't the familiar plot though. It was the characterizations. You'd buy this story if the producer, played by Rip Torn, was a cold-blooded monster but he's not. The character seems inspired by Sun Records legend Sam Phillips and Rip plays him as basically a nice, gregarious guy. He has a tantrum or two, most demonstratively in a recording studio where you would expect a producer to scream and holler. He does act cold and distracted around his son but he never shows any of the nasty sarcasm you would expect and he's particularly nice towards his young lover, never even putting up a fuss when she goes out for the night on her own.

This points up the other problem. In contrast to Torn, the girlfriend and the son come off as self-absorbed, unsympathetic jerks who mope around feeling sorry for themselves. There are scenes where you do get a good sense of the alien loneliness of the girlfriend, played by Dina Korzun, as she wanders aimlessly in department stores but the son, played by Darren Burrowes, just seems a brooding ninny whose likability isn't helped by the fact that he's got a pregnant wife at home while he's making the beast with two backs with Korzun.  The film also misses out by not being more immersed in all the great music of Memphis. There are a few blues and soul tunes on the soundtrack but all the big dramatic points are underscored by generic orchestral music, this despite a plot that is a country song come to life.

This is one of those movies that tries to be more sympathetic to the younger generation than the old, only the older generation comes off cool and fun and the younger one seems immature and miserable. Rip Torn's subtle portrayal of a man who loses what he loves and can't understand why is fine, but after watching this movie I felt like pulling out one of his wild older films like Payday or Coming Apart and see Rip really tear things up, no pun intended.

I don't have either of those movies to hand so after watching this, I went to my Horror Classics box set and pulled out a movie at random, which turned out to be Lon Chaney Jr.'s Indestructible Man.
This was a cheapie from the 50's that starred Chaney as a killer who is executed but then revived by a scientist seeking a cure for cancer (?).  Revived with impentrable skin and super-strength, he then walks from San Francisco to Los Angeles looking for the double-crossing partners who sent him to the death house, breaking backs and tossing people to their deaths along the way.

I wish the movie was more entertaining than it is. Most of Chaney's menace consists of him walking fast in a big jacket and grimacing in closeup. The producer managed to get the requisite cheesecake in by having the heroine work in a burlesque house. The best part for me was in seeing a few familiar actors turn up. The actor known both as Casey Adams and Max Showalter, usually a character guy, played the lead cop investigating the case and the would-be cancer curer was played by Robert Shayne, best remembered as Inspector Henderson on the old Adventures Of Superman TV show. Even weirder, his assistant was comedian Joe Flynn forever known as Captain Binghamton on McHale's Navy.

There are a bunch of genuinely fun and classic movies in that horror box like Little Shop Of Horrors, House On Haunted Hill and Carnival Of Souls. Hopefully I'll get around to some of them soon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Visit From The Godfather

Last Wednesday I got on the Internet and the first thing I noticed was a headline in my email that said "STAN TRACEY TRIO".  I thought it was a notice about some concert in New York or Philadelphia that I had no shot of getting to but I clicked on the headline anyway and learned that British jazz pianist Stan Tracey was playing at the United Methodist Church in Baltimore that coming Sunday, the 13th, at 4:30. I spent the next day studying subway and train schedules to see if I could make the trip. Yesterday I was in a sweltering church in Baltimore mesmerized by a concert I never dreamed I'd see.

Stan Tracey is a venerable pianist of 84, referred to as the "Godfather of British Jazz" and one of the legendary figures in the music. He spent the Fifties in London clubs playing behind visiting American stars like Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster and in the Sixties, began a prolific career performing and writing his own work in various group formations; solos, duos, trios, sextets, octets, big bands and orchestras. His 1965 recording, Under Milk Wood, based on the Dylan Thomas play, is one of the most beloved jazz recordings ever made in Britain, on a par with the respect shown A Love Supreme or Kind Of Blue over here. His music comes out of the twin roots of Ellington and Monk but he has been flexible enough over the years to experiment with freer sounds, particularly in duets with two of the grandmasters of British free improv, Evan Parker and Keith Tippett.  Still he's almost completely unknown in the States because he rarely plays over here and his records are not distributed in America. All that made it a very special occasion and a personal must for me when he showed up on Sunday.

At 4:30 sharp he slowly came out from the back, a small man with a mane of grey hair touching his shirt collar, along with the other members of his trio, bassist Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Clark Tracey, Stan's son and frequent collaborator. He briefly announced that they were starting with an obscure Ellington-Strayhorn piece, "Great Times" and they were off. Tracey's playing still contains recognizable pieces of Ellington and Monk with crashing block chords and twisted, broken rhythms but those elements are woven into his own unique driving style. He didn't play any of his own innumerable compositions.  Outside of the Ellington and two closing Monk tunes, everything he played for 90 minutes was a standard which was fine by me. At his age he's earned the right to play whatever the hell he wants to and like other senior jazz masters Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz, any tune Tracey plays becomes fodder for his stabbing and driving style whether the original melody is adhered to or just used as a signpost.

After three numbers, the trio was joined by local saxophonist Ron Holloway whose exuberant r'n'b tinged playing put a nice edge on the trio's brisk interplay. There were only about 30 people in the audience but looking around they all seemed to really enjoy the performance. For me it was more than worth the all day and night trek from Annandale, VA and back. Records are great but when you get a chance to see a living legend in person you should always take it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Unhappy Families and Bela Lugosi's Eyes

Archie Shepp seems to have cured my writer's block of the past two months so I thought I'd keep things going by discussing some of the films I've seen recently.

By sheer coincidence I saw two films over the weekend that both received acting Oscars and dealt with seriously dysfunctional families (which is a popular subject for award winning movies, come to think of it.
     The first was The Heiress (right), a 1949 Henry James adaptation that starred Olivia DeHavilland as a mousy spinster who finds love with a young man played by Montgomery Clift who seems to be really after her money.
DeHavilland justly deserved her award as she takes her character through a convincing journey from awkwardness to joy and finally to hardened disillusion, but I was just as impressed by the great Ralph Richardson as her father playing his part with a beautifully understated mixture of cruelty, shame and smothering love. He's a monster but one you ultimately feel sorry for. Hopefully he at least got a Supporting Actor nomination for this work.

Then there was a much more recent picture about a miserable household, American Beauty. I appreciated the craft of this film and thought that Kevin Spacey's work was certainly Oscar-worthy but something about it left me cold. There were innumerable plots and subplots going on with almost every major character having some kind of dark secret. That wouldn't be bad if there hadn't already been a small army of films and plays about the repression and dark side of suburban life over the last fifty or sixty years.  There isn't much here that hasn't been said more coherently and powerfully a dozen times over. Also the closing thought that the daughter in the film and her boyfriend will be making their way in the world by selling pot creeped me out a bit.

Wanting to be creeped out was the reason I bought another Mill Creek 50 movie DVD package, Horror Classics. That hasn't happened so far. There are a few bondafide classics in the set like Night Of The Living Dead and Nosferatu but all I've sampled so far have one of Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong mysteries and something called Revolt Of The Zombies.

This was a 1936 movie by the Halperin Brothers that was a supposed sequel to their legit horror classic, White Zombie, that starred Bela Lugosi as a Haitian zombie master named Murder Legendre. Only this time the "zombies" were an army of hypnotized soldiers in 1930's Cambodia. An expedition of scientists went there seeking the secret of zombification and they included a sinister chap in a black silk outfit, played by Roy D'Arcy, who would seem to be this film's version of the Lugosi villain except he is killed halfway through by a young Dean Jagger (above) who seems to want to control zombies and take over the world simply his girlfriend left him for a more macho guy.
    Looking at that picture can you blame her? Not exactly the evil mastermind type, is he?  The producers obviously realized that because in closeups where Jagger is supposedly controlling the zombies, they throw in a shot of Lugosi's eyes from White Zombie.

Now those are creepy eyes.

What this movie really boils down to is a drawing room melodrama stuck inside an ill-fitting monster movie framework. Hopefully the rest of the movies in the set will be a lot more fun.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Archie Shepp - Live In San Francisco (Impulse)

I moved last month which has given me the excuse to dig out and relisten to a lot of CDs I hadn't heard in years. In the case of the above, I'm just now appreciating what a heavy sumbitch it is.

This is Archie Shepp at his firebreathing best live in 1966 in a group that includes Roswell Rudd on trombone, Beaver Harris on drums and the twin bass bottom of Lewis Worrell and Donald Garrett. Shepp and Rudd make a great front line prowling around each other, Rudd's long tones an excellent foil for Shepp's deep hollers.  Meanwhile the rhythm section sizzles. The group's version of Herbie Nichols' "Lady Sings The Blues" is brawny and they approach two Ellington standards with a fine woolly swagger.  The CD version of this album closes with a half-hour free marathon, "Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime" where these then-young firebrands wriggle and smoke in the best 60's tradition.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Old Homicide

As promised I checked out a little more of Homicide: Life On The Street and got even more of a feel for how special that show was. It's like no other American network TV cop show I've ever seen. It shows a world of grays, where even the "good guy" cops can guess wrong investigating a crime or do bad things and criminals sometimes go uncaught even when they admit to their guilt.

I watched the first four shows of Season 6 by which time the cast had changed drastically from the Season 2 shows I watched earlier. Richard Belzer, Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor and Yaphet Kotto were still there but old heads Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, Melissa Leo and Jon Polito were long gone, replaced by younger actors whom I, in my limited modern TV watching, have not seen elsewhere. By this time the show was also in the midst of a long-running storyline about a drug kingpin and the revenge his family takes when he is killed by the police.  In the best of the shows I watched, though, that plot did not even appear. The episode was called "The Subway" and a still from it appears above. That's the future Detective Robert Goren, Vincent D'Onofrio on the right playing a man who is pinned under a subway train and has no hope of being rescued alive. The main focus of the show is what you see above, Braugher's character, Pemberton, talking to this man while the fire department works to free him, knowing he only has a few minutes left to live. As you'd expect the tone is somber and quietly powerful. Both actors are great in their roles and the show treats death as something brutally random and inevitabie.

That episode alone shows me why Homicide and its spiritual successor, The Wire, never became quite as popular as shows like Law And Order or The Sopranos.  There were no catchphrases or "cool" characters on this show, just a series of sobering realities and the realization that there are no cut and dried answers in life. It's amazing to me that a program like this lasted on a boradcast network for seven seasons. I don't want to become obsessed with this show and ignore all the other TV and movies out there but I will be checking out more of it every now and then.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bye-Bye CI

There is only one TV show I make any kind of effort to watch regularly even in reruns, Law And Order: Criminal Intent. I watched the latest new episode last night and I think that's going to be the end for me. There is nothing in the show I really want to watch any more.

All three of the Law And Order franchises have long been the only watchable network television for me. Once I got into Criminal Intent I found it really engrossing because it wasn't really a police procedural. It was a mystery show where Robert Goren, the brilliant Sherlock Holmes-like lead, just happened to be a police detective. I really got drawn into the show's formula of detectives Goren and Kay Eames investigating a murder and uncovering a convoluted plot that made no sense whatsoever once you thought about it but was compelling for the time you were watching. A handwriting expert who forges evidence discrediting a dead priest's candidacy for sainthood so his mother will stop giving the priest's foundation money? A recording engineer who leads a gang of homidical teenage bicycle thieves by indoctrinating them in the writings of Marcus Aurelius? A masochistic transvestite who decapitates his best friend to prevent her from writing a book about how he killed his mother when he was a boy? Hey, for 44 minutes it all made sense.

     That was how it worked for the show's first five seasons. Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe worked well together as the detectives and the show clicked along fine, even when Chris Noth, a veteran of the original L&O, and Anabella Sciorra were brought in as a second team when the show's grind started affecting D'Onofrio's health. Then things started to change. Rene Balcer, the original executive producer, left and the shows started getting more sensational and erratic in quality. The mysteries got plainer and Eric Bogosian replaced Jamey Sheridan as the detectives' captain, playing an almost needlessly belligerent character.

  Last season Noth left and was replaced by, of all people, Jeff Goldblum which was really a sign of trouble. The Goren character was a mass of ticks and eccentricities, the kind of character Goldblum could play in his sleep. It was obvious that they wouldn't keep two actors playing virtually the same character around for long and sure enough, as the ninth season began a couple of weeks ago, the entire old cast was replaced. Bogosian's character was killed, Goren was fired from the force and Eames resigned, leaving Goldblum, his new partner played by Saffron Burrows and the new captain played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

The actual plot of the premiere involving weapons traders and an African king assassinated by his son wasn't much but it was worth it to see how Goren and Eames made their exit. Then last night came the first show with the new cast, a story about the shooting of a crooked cop and a grandfatherly Irish gangster that was almost insultingly simple. That killed it. There was none of the show's juice left. There is sone talk that Burrows is not working out and that Erbe may return but I don't think that will rekindle my interest. I'll still watch reruns when they show up or check out early episodes I've never seen through Netflix but the present-day CI has lost me.

At the same time I've just discovered another highly acclaimed police show that's been off the air for 15 years, Homicide: Life On The Street. I knew David Mills, the TV writer, slightly and when he passed away a couple of weeks ago I suddenly wanted to see some of his work so I got a disc of Homicide that contained a renowned script of his, "Bop Gun". I watched all four episodes on the disc. I was a little underwhelmed by the first episode but by the time I watched all four, I got it. I began to see what a singular show this was, a polilce drama with complex characters and stories that resisted easy, didatic labels. I got the full flavor of Richard Belzer's John Munch for the first time and saw what a ferocious actor Andre Braugher can be. I don't know how intently I'll pursue all seven seasons of the show but I did rent another disc from Season 6 that, coincidentally, features Vincent D'Onofrio a few years before Criminal Intent. I'll be interested to see if the quality holds up.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

42 Years Later

I am embarrassed to admit this but tonight, February 28, 2010, I saw the film depicted on the right for the first time.

Yeah, I just saw 2001, A Space Odyssey for the first time. Even on a dinky 15-inch flat screen TV, the film lives up to its formidablereputation. I've seen hundreds of movies in my life, avant garde, commercial, exploitation, musical, animated cartoon, horror and any other type you can name. This film is so unique it's hard for me to put it in the context of anything else I've ever seen. It doesn't have a conventional storyline. Instead it's a much grander meditation on the evolution of mankind and our relationship to the rest of the universe. Stanley Kubrick has been accused of showing a lack of  feeling in his later films. That kills a work like The Shining, the world's slowest horror film, for me but it fits perfectly here. The computer, HAL 9000, is the most human player in the film and the relative robotic nature of the flesh and blood characters fits in with their overall insignificance in comparison to the black slabs they encounter and whatever built them.  If that were Captain James Kirk or Han Solo out there going through that light show on Jupiter it would not have been the same.

As imitated, quoted and parodied as this film has been over the last 40 years, it's still amazingly poweirful to watch for the first time. The first chance I get to see this on a proper big movie screen, I am there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mojo Workin'

For many years I've preferred to get all my musical info from British music magazines. That began in the mid-70's in college when I began to read Melody Maker and discovered exotic names from all sorts of musical genres like Roy Harper, Hatfield And The North, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and the Globe Unity Orchestra. That gave way to the Punk years of the late 70's and early 80's and my allegiances switched over to the New Musical Express which seemed to uncover some fresh new name like The Fall, Stiff Little Fingers or Joy Division every week and talked about music with a fun blend of sarcasm and excitement. Years went by and a lot of British magazines either consolidated or died off while the writers who made them so much fun went on to other things. I tried out different periodicals until several years ago I came upon the one that would become my musical bible, Mojo.

These are some of the featured artists in the February 2010 issue of Mojo: Corinne Bailey Rae, Ian Dury, Jimmy Page, Slayer, Shane MacGowan and Amorphous Androgynous. That lineup gives some small idea of the magazine's breadth. It specializes in older names, with historical features on innumberable bands from the 60's and 70's but also deals with everything that has happened since then, with a British slant that means they cover a lot of people who were big in England but meant little or nothing over here in the US. Dylan, Stones and Who? Sure, but also The Sex Pistols, Neil Young, Scott Walker, Oasis, Mott The Hoople, Kraftwerk, David Sylvian and almost anyone else you could think of.

Some readers grumble because the magazine dedicates at least one cover story each year to this obscure group from Liverpool called the Beat-somethings who haven't released a new record in thirty years. Seriously, you can hardly blame Mojo for that. Their Beatles covers traditionally sell better than any other issues and the last few years especially there's always been something newsworthy about the group, whether it's the recent Cirque De Soleil-inspired Love remix CD, the Beatles Rock Band videogame or last year's remastered albums. They've also been doing annual 40-year anniversary pieces on the later albums starting back, I believe, with Revolver but that should be over after this year's inevitable piece on Let It Be. They may already have another huge band in mind to dissect. They just finished a two-issue treatise on the concert and film versions of Pink Floyd's The Wall and the latest issue has a piece on the legendary first solo album by Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Madcap Laughs.

Mojo also does its part to promote new musicians and they generally have a good track record in their picks, pumping up the likes of Florence And The Machine, Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes though I don't share their gushing enthusiasm for Kings Of Leon. Overall the magazine is a reliably fun read every month.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Silence Of Navarone

Being snowed in like most of the eastern U.S. the last week, I've passed the time mostly watching a lot of old movies thanks to Netflix, the few DVD sets I have lying around the house and Turner Classic Movies. Something that struck me in watching old 60's and 70's films like The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and especially The Guns Of Navarone for the first time is how little dialogue there is in some of these films.

Look at Navarone in particular. Long stretches of the film go by without a word of dialogue, which makes total sense since the film follows a group of World War II saboteurs trying to sneak onto a Nazi fortress and blow up a huge gun enplacement. In that setting you would need to keep your mouth shut so the Germans would not find you. If that film were made today by Quentin Tarantino or someone similar, there would be an unending stream of wisecracks and chatter to the point where you'd think the Nazis would have to be deaf not to discover them. In the 1961 Navarone though, only David Niven makes a lot of wisecracks and that is an integral part of his character. They even go to the other extreme with James Darren and have him speak in only two scenes although he is in just about all of the movie. This film is a great example of giving screen characters individual voices and personalities unlike today when every character in an action or horror film cracks bad jokes and is indistinguishable from every other character.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ernie Kovacs

I finally got through the "Best of Ernie Kovacs" disc I had. As it turned out this was not a new compilation of Kovacs routines but a 1977 PBS TV show of his work that was compiled from the series of specials he did for ABC in 1961-62 just before his death.

Watching this material again I was struck by not only Kovacs' inventiveness and knack for satire but also his reliance on visual humor, which is something that is really a lost art in American TV today where the comedy overwhelmingly depends on dialogue.  Something I else really noticed for the first time was his use of music. He did several bits in these shows of just objects moving around in a setting like an office or a kitchen choreogrpahed to Bartok or Tchaikovsky, nothing overtly humourous but a fascinating way of "illustrating music" as he puts it on one show. Here is one example set in an office to the fizzy arrangements of Juan Carlos Esqueviel.

Of course a lot more "lost" old television clips show up on YouTube and other websites these days, so earlier Kovacs programs are out there for viewing. This is a piece I found of a quiz show he did called "Take A Good Look" where he somehow managed to work in his familiar characters like the poet Percy Dovetonsils. The same person who put this up, rolko52, has also uploaded a couple of complete episodes of a morning show Kovacs did for NBC that actually predated "The Today Show".

Monday, February 8, 2010

Video Watchdog

I'm going to start periodically writing about some of the magazines I read regularly that give me my main information and perspective on the arts I enjoy and my first subject is Video Watchdog.

Video Watchdog is a long-lived glossy-covered little magazine published by Tim and Donna Lucas out of their home in Cincinatti, Ohio. It covers the world of "fantastic video", which over the course of 155 issues and counting, has come to mean every type of cult film genre extant, including horror, fantasy, science fiction, film noir, martial arts, spaghetti westerns, animation and softcore exploitation. Tim Lucas, a thoughtful and intelligent critic who has also written a 1200-page book on Italian fantasy director Mario Bava, does a good bit of the writing himself while, Donna, his wife, does the editing.  Other high-quality film writers like Kim Newman, John Charles, Bill Cooke and David Kalat are also regularly featured. The backbone for VW, like most video magazines is the reviews but they also make room for longer thematic pieces, interviews and in-depth looks at DVD collections of the likes of Tarzan and Astro Boy as well as film-related books and soundtrack CDs.

The great thing about this magazine to me is its scope. They cover the obvious major studio releases but also go far afield to do seemingly anything that makes it to a home video format like J-horror (long before the American remakes started), Russian fanasy films, cult TV series like The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who, micro-budget American indies, Bollywood horror, early Ingmar Bergman, even some genre material that hasn't gotten an official Region 1 release yet. All that and there is still space for the occasional article on maligned directors like Andy Milligan and Jesus Franco or interviews with people who were involved in some of these films like Roger Corman scripter Charles B. Griffith and actress Harriet White Medin.

Every issue of Video Watchdog tells me something I didn't know before whether it's on some movie I've never heard of or a film or TV show I'd run across but previously ignored. All of the magazine's writers, especially Lucas, have a talent for seeing their subjects in a new way and treating even the work they don't care for with respect. Lucas' recent dissection of a notorious European exploitation film from the 60's, Sweden: Heaven And Hell, relating the film to his own memories  and daydreams about seeing it at a Cincinatti drive-in was a particularly strong recent article. Video Watchdog is a remarkably consistent magazine that tallks about the wild genre films of the world with an erudition they rarely receive elsewhere.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Ever since I started this blog, I've bee halfassing it. I only seem to write at rare intervals and when I do I say what comes off the time of my head without much real thought. I've made up my mind to change that. ( I would call this a new year's resolution but it's already February.)  I always thought I didn't have much to say but I've been reading other blogs more and more and I see that others go on these things and write about some of the same topics that interest me, so hey time's a-wasting.

I bought the book Google Blogger For Dummies and am using it to redesign and add things to this blog like the blog list on the right. As for writing topics, my main passions are music and movies though I may talk about other things like comic art and pro wrestling. I have plenty to say about both and I'm going to try hard to collect my thoughts and put them down here.

My tastes in both realms have always tended towards the obscure and offbeat. I make no excuse for this in music. If the mainstream is the likes of Lady Gaga and the smiling zombies on American Idol, I'll happily stick with Captain Beefheart and the Art Ensemble of Chicago so I'll talk about whatever I hear that strikes my fancy. In the movie realm though, I'm going to make a conscious effort to watch more of the more acclaimed and popular films that I've ignored over the last twenty years or so that everybody else discusses.  I have no interest in keeping up with stuff like Indiana Jones or Harry Porter but I will go more in the direction of the likes of American Beauty and Wall-E mixing those in with the exploitation work, Criterion specials and old TV shows I usually get from Netflix.

With a snowstorm currently under way that is going to Washington, DC look more like Buffalo, NY I'm going to have plenty of time to sit at my computer the next couple of days and write. I've got a typically wide selection of DVDs to watch, Force Of Evil, La Guerre Est Finie and The Ernie Kovacs Show plus DVD sets of Berlin Alexanderplatz and The New Adeventures Of Mighty Mouse. I will write about at least some of these.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

Screw the Oscars!

I'm not one of those people who hates the concept of awards shows or thinks they should only be about the movies that made the most money, but now that this year's nominations have come out I realize I could care less about the whole thing this time around.  There is nothing in the nominations that really excites me. I actually did see two of the best picture nominees, The Blind Side and District 9, but neither sent me over the moon and it saddens me to think that Sandra Bullock is going to win an award just for playing a straight role with a Southern accent.
As for the other major nominees  Jeff Bridges as a country singer in Crazy Heart is the only thing I'd go out of my way for. I'll probably catch up with A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, and Up In The Air somewhere down the line. The rest? Avatar looks like a virtual theme park masquerading as a movie, Quentin Tarantino's stuff has gotten so predictable you can figure out the entire story just from watching the trailers and Up is pretty far down the long list of many Pixar movies I want to see. I haven't actually watched the Oscar show in years and this one will be no different.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Viva Doctor Parnassus

Two more movies I've seen recently...

Viva is a very strange animal, a newly made film that is a tribute to the softcore sex movies of the 1970's. A woman named Anna Biller wrote, directed and starred in the movie which has a typical period plot of an abandoned housewife deciding to explore her wild side and get sexually involved with all sorts of period characters like nudists, madams, "art" photgraphers, swingers and other assorted weirdos. Biller also did the set design and costuming for the film, wrote a few original songs and even created an animated drug trip sequence. She really captures the cheesy garish look of those movies and actually goes beyond the genre to toss in references to Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Blow-Up and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 

Despite all her hard work, though, the movie left me asking "Why bother?". Although there are some intentionally humourous moments arising from that period's ideas about "liberation", it's not really a spoof. nor is there enough dramatic meat to take seriously. It all seems a loving tribute to something that was never inteneded to be taken that seriously.

It's a shame that at this time of the year, in the so-called "awards season", all the films released the previous year are boiled down to a few highly touted movies battling for Oscars. This season it lloks as though everyone is expected to bow down and worship at the feet of Avatar while much more imaginative films like Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus get completely forgotten about. What liitle notoriety the film has comes from the fact that Heath Ledger passed away while making it, and that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were all called upon to replace him.

Outside of the stunt casting though this is a really impressive fantasy about a wager between an immortal man and the devilthat involves the man's daughter and an amensiac stranger with a shady past. It's a wild and impressively realized film with all sorts of bizarre fantasy landscapes and a psychedelic "Pilgrim's Progress" take on the choice between good and evil. It has good work from Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus and Tom Waits as the Devil, and the use of Ledger and his celebrity stand-ins is well worked into the story. Hopefully the DVD edition will give some insight as to how Ledger's death may have changed the  plot.  It's a visually rich, crazy film with strong philosophical ideas. Pity no one is paying any attention to it.