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.