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.