Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 In Review - The Non-Depressing Parts

This is the time of year when a lot of internet denizens, professional and amateur, review what things in the popular arts they liked over the last year. In my case that would be music and movies, but I really don't feel able to do a conventional "best of 2011" in either genre. In music, I don't listen to much current rock or pop stuff anymore, usually just paying attention when some familiar old duffer like Tom Waits or Lou Reed comes out with something new, though  Florence and The Machine has caught my ear recently and I always have time for folk-based singers like Gillian Welch and Eliza Carthy.  In that vein I really enjoyed the maligned Reed-Metallica opus, Lulu, and was really amazed upon hearing the legendary Beach Boys Smile Sessions.  Even at a remove of 40 years with bits and pieces floating out there for years, the work turned out to be every bit as beautiful and visionary as it was always claimed to be.

The main music I listen to is Jazz which had an avalanche of riches come out this year, most of which I've yet to hear. Almost every best-of-the-year list I've seen in print or online has different recordings on it which just a few names like Craig Taborn, Bill Frisell and Sonny Rollins showing up in more than one place. That's cool with me because that gives me a lot to catch up on but I've yet to see any love for the 2011 CD I enjoyed the most, Kaiso Stories by the group Other Dimensions In Music.  Jazz Reissue lists have been a different story with praises universally showered on the two historic finds from the International Phonograph label, Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes and Julius Hemphill's Dogon A.D.  The same went for the Miles Davis Live In Europe 1967 set for damn good reasons.

I have spent a lot of time watching movies over the past year but not too many of them were 2011 releases.  I hope to catch up on at least a couple of current releases this week but so far I 've managed to see and enjoy in different ways the following Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Tree of Life, Kill The Irishman, The Guard, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek's Cutoff, Young Adult, The Descendents Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Everything Must Go, the serious Will Ferrell film that seems to have slipped everyone's mind. I did also see one very popular movie, Bridesmaids, about which I can only say...are you kidding me?  A few funny bits of raunch are thrown into a predictable plot about a whiny, unlikable loser who can't find a decent boyfriend and that's supposed to be a great female comedy?  Charlize Theron's Young Adult was much more entertaining even though her character was a complete mess.

Anyway I think for a non-professional movie fan like myself who doesn't have to keep up with all the latest stuff, the idea of just paying attention to the newest work coming out is really antiquated. We live in a time when recent movies are always around on DVD or some other medium and older films are consyantly being rediscovered and put on the market.  At any give point there are hundred of movies available in multiple forms from past decades as entertaining as anything currently playing in theatres.By accident, most of the movies I've seen in the last year have been recent releases from the past few years. Some were highly touted and some really obscure, but all had something that grabbed me. They included a Belgian equivalent of Robot Chicken, A Town Called Panic, Sally Potter's experimental drama made for Smartphone viewing, Rage, Tilda Swinton ripping a hole through Viscontian melodrama in I Am Love, and Ken Loach's comedy about a British postman getting life coaching from the imaginary presence of an English football star, Looking For Eric.

    The others I liked were: Winter's Bone, The Illusionist, The Wrestler, Black Dynamite, The Ghost Writer, Gone Baby Gone, Sugar, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Wild Grass, Boogie Woogie, Alexandra's Project, The Descent, I'm Not There, The Social Network, Babel, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and The Fighter.

As for somewhat older work, I got to see Sir Laurence Olivier in a 1968 production of Siringberg's The Dance Of Death, John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13, Newsfront, an Australian epic about the history if the newsreel business and a real rarity in Girl Of The Night, a 1960 film that starred a gorgeous Anne Francis as a call girl dealing with the psychological trauma of her profession.

I also saw a few oddities from the always fascinating early talkie, Pre-Code era like Safe In Hell, a drama about a prostitute running from a murder rap with a ming-blowing conclusion, He Was Her Man, an obscure early James Cagney film where he plays an uncharacteristically, for him,  gallant gangster who sacrifices himself for the woman he loves and the 1929 version of The Letter, stiff like many talking pictures of its time but with an intense, modern performance by the play's original stage star, the doomed Jeanne Eagles.

Then there were new discoveries from two of my favorite directors, typical Sam Fuller pulp artistry in The Steel Helmet and Underworld U.S.A. and Michael Powell delivering what was proablty one of the most genteel war movies ever made, The Battle Of The River Plate.

Above all though there were two movies that really just blew me away with their effectiveness, two films that only relatively few people have  probably even heard of, 2006's The Gymnast and 2010's A Marine Story.  Both of these films were lesbian themed dramas with the same director, Ned Farr and the same star, his wife, Dreya Weber, a beautiful actress/aerial performer/choreographer. In the first one, Weber plays a former Olympic athlete in an unhappy marriage who develops a spectacular aerial nightclub act with a younger Korean dancer with the two women's feelings inevitably getting out of control. In the second, she's a lesbian former Marine officer, forced out of the Corps because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", who goes back to her hometown and ends up undertaking the rehabilitation of a young woman involved with a drug gang. The narratives of these films ignore all the cliches that others may get from these situations, instead going for deep characterizations and tell stories about people having the courage to find themselves no matter what society thinks. Weber is a striking, compelling actress with impressive athletic skills and is really a formidable presence in both films. The privilege of watching her is one of the things I enjoyed most at the movies this entire year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

R. I. P. Sam Rivers (1923-2011)

Dammit! I've been working on a long post about the past year that I had planned to finish and put up today, but not now. I'm definitely not in the mood.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lou and Lulu

I've got a couple of things I hope to be writing about in the next few days but after hearing the Lou Reed - Metallica opus, Lulu, for the first time, I had to write some quick comments.  The consensus I've seen about this CD online is that it isn't very good. Chuck Klosterman, a writer of some renown, even went so far as call it "totally unlistenable".  As the WWE's Miz would say "Really? REALLY?".

Most of the opinions I read seemed more knowledgeable about Metallica than Reed and were disappointed that Metallica had yet again failed to match their Master Of Puppets heights and were being subservient to an "elderly misanthrope" in Klosterman's words. Well, yes, this is essentially Metallica serving as Reed's backing band and that's perfectly fine with me.

Listening to all the talk I put this on expecting to hear Metal Machine Music 2.  Instead I was treated to Mr. Reed at his pissed-off, profane best, spitting out lyrics over a violent musical backdrop and a lot of musical variety, involving strings and acoustic guitars as well as Hetfield & Company's sturm und drang. Anyone surprised by this stuff has heard very little Lou.  There are echoes of "Sister Ray", Berlin, Street Hassle, Ecstasy and other classics here.  On first hearing it does fade a little in the late going as some tracks on the second CD have more plain riffing than melody but the work ends with a flourish on "Junior Dad", one of Lou's haunting string-laden, open-hearted ballads in the mold of "Sad Song" and "Street Hassle".  If this is unlistenable to some youngbloods, God forbid they ever run into Peter Brotzmann or Merzbow.  For my money it's heartening to know that the "elderly" Mr. Reed is still spitting blood, bile and jism with gale force.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paul Motian 1931 - 2011

(So somebody has to die before I'm inspired to write here again.  Oh well...)

I was looking at the excellent Destination Out website of jazz rarities ( this afternoon when I noticed a mention of "Paul Motian appreciations".  That worried me because there is usually one reason in particular why people start posting appreciations of a particular artist. I checked a couple of other sites and my fears were confirmed. The great jazz drummer, Paul Motian, had passed away this morning.

Paul Motian R.I.P.

Motian was special among the many jazz drummers of the last fifty years.  Whereas a lot chose to follow the multi-directional power drumming route of the likes of Elvin Jones and Sunny Murray,  Motian went the other way playing with subtlety and sparseness and creating a velvety carpet of accents and colors for his bandmates to work with. He played with an insane number of great musicians, Lennie Tristano, Tony Scott, George Russell, Bill Evans in his most famous trio, Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, John Abercrombie, Jason Moran, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Jim Pepper and Lee Konitz just to name a few.  In looking over a couple of his credit listings today I was reminded that he was also the drummer for Carla Bley's epic recording, Escalator Over The Hill, and that he had played with Marilyn Crispell on a bunch of her ECM CDs. You could play the Six Degrees game with Motian and link him to most of the great jazz players of modern times.

Like Count Basie in his later years, Motian eventually reduced his art to its essence, never hitting a lot of notes but always hitting the right ones and letting the music breathe. He could throw down a 4/4 rhythm with the best of them, often in his Electric Bebop Band when he played with younger musicians, but it was always the abstract interplay with others that got me.  Right now I'm listening to one of his many trio recordings with Lovano and Frisell and the rustling decorations and lazy feathering he does around the sax and guitar is simply amazing. He sounds like a free falling ballet dancer.

This clip is from a 1995 performance at the Umbria Jazz Festival where Motian does his thing expertly with a heavyweight group consisting of Lovano, Frisell, Konitz and Marc Johnson. Nobody could float and drive simultaneously like this man.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Good Vibes (I know it's a corny title but I can't think of anything else right now)

I've known about the music of vibraphonist Gary Burton for many years but tonight was the first time I ever got to see him perform live.  Burton has been a long time innovator, both with his technique of playing with four mallets at once and in his mixing of other genres with Jazz, notably country and rock.  He's been around for a long while and it's stunning to realize he is 68 years old. With short blondish hair and glasses, he looks a good twenty years younger than that. Then again, with all the octogenarian Jazzers out there still kicking butt like Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins, I guess Burton is still a relative kid.
     I saw him at Blues Alley tonight in the quartet format he has favored for most of his career. Actually watching him play with four mallets was a fascinating experience with the dexterity he showed in being able to hit different notes simultaneously with a bright rhythmic flow and even use only three mallets at a time with the fourth jammed in his fist but not touching the keys. Of his bandmates, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez were both excellent but the real eye opener was guitarist Julian Lage, a 23-year-old former prodigy that Burton has been playing with for ten years. The young man played with fire, passion and rock-influenced dexterity much in the tradition of former Burton guitar players Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny.
     As good as Lage was Burton's playing was the real revelation for me. Half of the group's set was spent doing tunes from their latest CD but the rest of the time they played familiar pop and Jazz standards. Burton is known for all the non-jazz musics he has dabbled in over the years, like country and rock in the 60's, tango and Spanish music in the 70's and his contributions to ECM's classic airy, hovering aesthetic with albums like Crystal Silence with Chick Corea. Tonight he showed he can play straight-down-the-middle Jazz with real swinging drive as he did "Afro Blue", "I Hear A Rhapsody" and Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue". The encore was Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove" which was bluesy as all get out and struck me as a little poignant. Here was one of the great living masters of the Jazz vibraphone doing the music of a departed master as soulfully as the dour-faced Jackson himself might have played it. It was a great show and I'm glad I went.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Honored Mr. Rollins

I don't usually pay that much attention to the Kennedy Center Honors anymore but when I read this year's list of Honorees, a big smile came onto my face. Meryl Streep, Barbara Cook, Yo Yo Ma, and Neil Diamond are all well-deserving but the name that got me was one Theodore "Sonny" Rollins, arguably the greatest Jazz musician alive.

When these awards started in 1978 the Kennedy Center was pretty good about honoring some of the Jazz legends who were still around like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.  I have a feeling that is because these people had been huge popular stars that a large portion of the event's live and TV audience would still know. That's changed as the rock-loving Baby Boomer audience has grown up and taken over and country and pop legends have taken the spot the Jazz guys used to have. Yes, the last Jazz musician honored was Dave Brubeck only two years ago, but before that the previous one was Quincy Jones in 2001 and honestly Jones' biggest fame comes from his pop production work, especially with Michael Jackson.  Before him the last hardcore jazz name was Benny Carter in 1996.

Acknowledging Sonny as a great American artist like this is a great honor for the entire Jazz field. Today may be his 81st birthday but from all reports he is still the astounding presence on tenor that he has been since the Fifties. I have read noting but raves about his 80th birthday concert last year, part of which is about to be released as a CD on his own label. For a little while jazz should be getting a little mainstream publicity coming from one of its greatest and most vital names. Now if this trend keeps up, might they honor Ornette Coleman next year?...Yeah, I know. I'm dreaming.  Still, congrats Sonny...

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Comedy Just Ain't Funny

I don't blog that often as it is but last week's Natural Disaster Double Feature temporarily stopped me from even thinking about writing anything. I will finish off my Top 10 Songs list soon but first I want to get to some long overdue thoughts about modern TV comedy, one show in particular.

I got out of the habit of watching regular network TV a long time ago, particularly comedies. The only comedy series I've really enjoyed in recent years have been the animated Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the Canadian import, Corner Gas. Nothing else has much appealed to me, especially the highly touted shows that many people call the TV milestones of the last twenty years. Sex And The City was ample proof how unsexy shallow, overdressed women can be. The few times I watched Friends I was creeped out. All I saw was adults behaving with the emotional maturity of eight-year-olds but crayying around grown-up libidos. Seinfeld just felt stale to me like a reheated casserole of all the New York-based sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies, only nowhere near as spontaneous or funny.  The couple of times I've watched Curb Your Enthusiasm it almost gets there with amusingly absurd situations and a lot of genuinely funny guest stars like Wanda Sykes, Bob Einstein and Richard Lewis. My problem with that show though is Larry David himself. With his one-note delivery and hectoring voice, the man is a black hole for comedy, a place where funny goes to die, but he's the second coming of Buster Keaton compared to the star of the current hit sitcom I recently endured two episodes of...

                                                    Yeah, this poor bastard, Louie C.K.

What I've seen of his show, Louie, is well put-together and acted but I'll be damned if I can see where it's a comedy.  The character of the put-upon loser is a long-standing comic archetype, one Chaplin, Keaton, Woody Allen and many others have worked beautifully but all of those characters had some element of hope or fight in their makeup that made you empathize with them. In the two Louie episodes I saw, one where he spends an afternoon with an old girlfriend and one where he debates a young woman who discourages masturbation, Louie just comes off as a beaten-down dog, somebody dragging himself through the world with virtually all hope gone, the kind of guy who'd be right at home sharing a beer with Willy Loman in Harry Hope's Saloon, the setting of The Iceman Cometh. He seems so miserable you'd expect that the last episode of the series will end with the sight of Louie putting his neck in a noose or holding a gun to his head.

Maybe Louis C.K. is a brilliant standup comic but this show is more tragedy than anything else. I'm amazed anybody finds this funny. I love dark material but for me, this is too realistically depressing to be entertaining. There are still some TV comedies out there I'd like to explore like Parks And Recreation, Community and 30 Rock.  Hopefully some of them are actually funny once in a while

Friday, August 26, 2011

My 10 Favorite Songs...for right now, Part 1

I was fooling around on my computer at my job yesterday (your tax dollars at work) when I ran across a list of my 100 favorite songs that I made up years ago. Looking over it I realized there were a bunch of songs on there that I would replace today so I revised the list a bit and then decided that I'd post YouTube clips of the Top Ten on this blog that come from live performances, music videos and homemade photo montages to the songs.

This is a wide mix of styles, jazz classics, soul and rock tunes that are either forgotten or really obscure.  My musical tastes today range to the more experimental sides of jazz, improvised and classical music, and I think now more in terms of entire albums than individual songs so you won't find anything recent here. The newest song on the list dates back to 1996. As much as it hurt me a lot of my favorites did not make the cut. There's no Portishead, The Band, Steeleye Span, Curtis Mayfield, King Crimson, Gene Pitney, Stan Getz or Charles Mingus here but there is not a song on this list I could take off.  Since this looks to be pretty long I will post 6-10 now and do 1-5 in a few days. And so, to the list:

10.  The Temptations - "My Girl"

Everybody has a different favorite Motown song. This is mine. The thudding bass intro, the slow winding guitar riff and then David Ruffin's silky "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day".  All pure magic. This clip doesn't look the best and the song is followed by Berry Gordy talking over silent footage of the Tempts working with producer Norman Whitfield but I chose this version because here the group actually sings the song live.


9.  Jimmy Ruffin - "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"

I promise this is not going to be a Motown oldies show but this song by David Ruffin's brother is just so majestic I can't resist it.  When Berry Gordy's hit factory was at its peak, there was nothing better.

8.  Sophie B. Hawkins - "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover"

I said things would get different.  I saw Sophie live several years ago and wearing just a flannel shirt, t-shirt and torn jeans she put out more animal energy and sexual heat than Beyonce, Lady Gaga and all those other glittery, overrated hoochie mamas currently ruling the pop world put together.  It all depends on the singer and her songs, in this case, a miraculous gem of longing and passion. MTV, the noted reality show network, used to show music videos once upon a time and actually banned this one, showing a much tamer clip in its place. Some people can't handle the real thing.

7.  Guided By Voices - "The Official Ironman Rally Song"

Robert Pollard, the leader of the band Guided By Voices, used to do something I did when I was a kid, make up titles and track listings for imaginary record albums. Unlike me though he actually progressed from that to becoming a musician. I haven't heard much of his work but this 1996 song started haunting me the first time I heard it. I don't know if it's the watery vocal sound or the gorgeous circular melody but something in this song often brings me near tears. This bizarrely sentimental video is great too.

6.  Ornette Coleman - "Lonely Woman"

Finally some jazz, couresty of one of the most important musicians of the last fifty years.  Ornette Coleman's music was once considered fraudulent and ugly. Listening to this early masterpiece now, that seems impossible.  The blue cries of Ornette and Don Cherry are heartbreakingly beautiful int their humanity and the tension set up by Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins is perfect.

Soon, Numbers 1 - 5, featuring trips to Georgia and Seattle, Dostoevsky explained in 4 minutes and the Tao of Miles.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Belated Thoughts on "The Social Network"

It took me less than a year, which is good for me, but I finally caught up with The Social Network over the weekend.  I thought it was a fine movie, engrossing and very well acted, deserving of all the praise it received.  Then I ran across a comment on a blog the other day which I had heard before but I can only now relate to, that it was a travesty that Network lost out at the Oscars to The King's Speech because it was a type of film that had never been done before.

I haven't seen King Speech yet so I can't comment on how it compares to Social Network (though as far as last year's big movies go, I liked the delirious rush of Black Swan best of all)  but anybody who thinks that the Facebook movie was new and innovative hasn't seen many films that are more than ten years old.

  Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is sharp and clever but it goes right back to the fast-paced talk of the crime films and screwball comedies of the Thirties. It's like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur crossed with the clipped, ping-ponging pace of Jack Webb's Dragnet.  As for the plot, take away the high-tech jargon and illusion of youth and you have a story as old as the dawn of time. A guy just muddling along at his chosen profession, works his way up to becoming rich and famous but changes for the worst and ignores all his friends and loved ones.  I saw almost the same story on TCM a couple of days ago in a 1932 film called Crooner about a struggling musician who becomes a Rudy Vallee-like singing sensation. In that movie, as in most of the older cases, the star falls on hard times and, humbled, reunites with his girlfriend at the end. That doesn't happen in Network, Mark Zuckerberg ends the film still a billionaire and alienated from his one-time friends, but the story arc up to the end is basically the same.

Cooler heads have compared the movie to Citizen Kane and I see those connections although Welles' masterpiece invariably wins any comparison. Network even ends on a "Rosebud" moment.  Throughout the film it's pretty well established that wealth and power mean nothing to Zuckerberg.  He really just wants to impress Erica, the girl who dumps him in the opening scene of the film for being a clueless, asocial geek.  At the end he pulls up her Facebook page, sends her a friend request, and waits in vain for her to accept it.  It's a powerful moment, one as touching in its way as Kane's burning sled, but not some great innovation. There are only a finite number of dramatic plots in the world. Social Network for all its virtues does not create a new one.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What Now?

It seems there's been a welcome change of plans. I've been writing for a while about the imminent demise of Cadence Magazine at the end of the year but they've now sent word there's been a reprieve. Someone has decided to step up and take on the task of continuing to publish Cadence after 2011. The plans right now are for 3 online issues plus one print one a year.

Frankly I had gotten myself adjusted to the idea of a break from reviewing but I'm more than happy to continue writing for the magazine and I've told them so. I was especially glad to keep doing it when I opened my new review package of CDs and saw stuff from Joe Morris, Terri Lyne Carrington, local phenom Brian Settles and the trio Farmers By Nature. Being able to hear and share my feelings on music like this is why I love doing this job.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Eugene McDaniels (1935-2011)

I slack off far more than I should when it comes to acknowledging artists important to me who have passed.  The past week or so has seen the deaths of Frank Foster, long time Count Basie saxophonist and lyricist Fran Landesman who wrote some of the most literate standards out there including "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" and "Ballad Of The Sad Young Men".  The one I really had to mention, though, was Eugene McDaniels.

Like a lot of musicians in the Fifties and Sixties McDaniels' career went through breakneck changes.  He started out in gospel at a young age and matured into a jazz singer working in Hollywood clubs. Then he was signed to Liberty Records and had a successful stint as a pop singer with several Top 40 hits including two songs I've always loved, schmaltzy arrangements and all, "Tower Of Strength" and "Point Of No Return". 

Then as the Sixties went on, his pop hits dried up and McDaniels, like so many others, started looking around him and writing about the turmoils of the world, trading in his lounge style for nasty soul-funk-jazz that fit right in with the era of Sly Stone, Gil-Scott Heron, George Clinton and Bitches' Brew

As Eugene McDaniels, he released two albums in this style for Atlantic, Outlaw and Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse.  I've never heard Outlaw
but I know Headless Heroes and it is strong, strong stuff that takes on racism, war, and the plight of the Native American to the tune of slick, head nodding rock-flavored funk.  The record was so strong that according to legend the Nixon Administration leaned on Atlantic to bury it.  Today it's known mostly to funk connoisseurs.

In the few obituaries I've read for McDaniels so far, this stuff isn't brought up except to mention the names of his albums. His pop hits and the fact that he wrote one of Roberta Flack's big hits, "Feel Like Makin' Love" are cited but nobody seems to bring up that he wrote several songs for Flack's early records,  including the most well-known song McDaniels ever composed. Flack's version of that song is really obscure though. The famous one was a live recording by Les McCann and Eddie Harris from the Montreux Jazz Festival, a song called "Compared To What", and miracle of miracles, that recording has turned up on YouTube...

This was recorded in 1969. The sad part is 95% of the lyrics still ring true today.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dancing Irish Lawmen, or something like that

I keep seeing more and more movies I want to write something about, so I'd better get something down before the queue gets any longer.

Kill The Irishman (2001)  - Somebody needs to explain to me how we got to the point where a mob movie with stylistic and cast connections to Tarantino, Scorsese, The Godfather and The Sopranos ends up only getting a token release in a few "arthouse cinemas".  That's just what happened to this film.  It is the true story of Danny Green, an Irish dockworker in Cleveland who worked his way up to be head of the local union, got in good with the local Mafia and eventually started a war with them which caused the bombing deaths of dozens of criminals as the mob tried to kill him over and over without success.

Like a classic western, you know how the story is going to go but it is so well told it's a pleasure to see it unfold, even if it nods directly to Godfather in a couple of scenes. It stars Irish actor Ray Stevenson who is very good as Green and he is supported by a stunning list of familiar crime movie and TV badasses including  Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony LoBianco, Christopher Walken, Vinnie Jones, Robert Davi, and Stephen R. Schrripa AKA Bobby Bacala from The Sopranos. When Paul Sorvino shows up late in the film playing Mafia don "Fat Tony" Salerno, it feels inevitable, not a surprise.

The movie is classic "tough guy" entertainment yet they couldn't find room for it in the multiplexes among all the CGI animated features, video game-derived fantasys and lunkheaded fratboy comedies around. Sad, just sad.

Lawman (1970) - By 1970 the Western genre was in total thrall to the gritty, hard-nosed sensibilities of the European "spaghetti westerns" and The Wild Bunch.  This is a fine example of what resulted.  Burt Lancaster plays a marshall who comes to a strange town to arrest a bunch of cowboys who had ridden into his town a few months earlier, shot up the place and accidentally killed an old man.  He finds that everyone around is hostile to him because the cowboys all work for the town's big rancher, played by Lee J. Cobb, a man everyone around owes their livelihood to.

It's the sort of tragic film where everybody knowingly acts out of duty or pride rather than common sense. The marshall knows that when he brings the men back they'll just probably pay a fine rather than be charged with murder, yet he goes after them all the same. The rancher knows he can make the entire thing go away with some apologies and money but some of his men insist on gunning for the marshall and wind up dead, meaning he now feels obligated to go after him.

The film shows its Euro influences in details like the realistic bloody shootings and having most of the local citizens including the mayor and the local marshall, played by Robert Ryan, spending their evenings at the town brothel where the women look older and plainer than the usual run of Western movie prostitutes.  Lancaster and Ryan are great as always as are supporting players like Sheree North, Robert Duvall and Richard Jordan but the best work comes from Lee J. Cobb, who constantly plays the rancher as a man tired of violence and death, not the blustery villain you might expect. Michael Winner directed this with maybe too many zoom shots but he gets the feeling of the story right.  I'm at a loss at to why he is so largely considered a hack. 

The Dance Of Death (1969) - My response to Netflix's upcoming price hike is going to be cutting loose of the streaming service I rarely use before the new pricing starts on September 1.  Before that I'll go over there more often to cherry pick a few things I might otherwise not see, like this 1969 film production of August Strindberg's famous play starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan (right) as an Army captain and his wife trapped in a hellish marriage. The two spend three acts torturing each other with insults, adulteries, betrayals and threats made palpable by the superb, roaring histrionics of Olivier and McEwan's subtler playing. By the way, I'd only seen McEwan before playing Miss Marple in recent years.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that back in '69 she was a babe.

The story drags a bit in the third act which feels like an epilogue to the preceding action designed to leave the audience with a somewhat happy ending and spends far too much time on the soppy characters of the couple's daughter and her pop-eyed cadet suitors but when Olivier and McEwan are snarling at each other, it is wonderful fun.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cuckoos Will Dance!!!

Below is a press release that appeared as part of a release annoucement on the blog.  I've read this over and over but I can still scarcely believe it.


Celebrating the genius of the most beloved comedy team of all time, Laurel and Hardy - The Essential Collection debuts in a stunning 10-disc set on October 25, 2011 from RHI Entertainment and Vivendi Entertainment. With a comedic style that defined an era and created a legacy that is still celebrated today, 58 of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s talking shorts and feature films, produced under legendary movie mogul Hal Roach from 1929 through 1940, are now available for the first time in the U.S. all together in one magnificent collection.

Transferred in high definition for the first time and digitally enhanced for home viewing in the finest quality available to date, the set contains favorites that have been enjoyed for generations including Helpmates, Hog Wild, Another Fine Mess, Sons of the Desert, Way Out West, and the Academy Award winning film The Music Box.

Laurel and Hardy - The Essential Collection comes housed in collectible, book-style packaging with an extensive, detailed film guide. The set also boasts over two hours of special features including exclusive, never-before-seen interviews with comedy legends Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Tim Conway and more, who discuss the enduring impact and influence of Laurel and Hardy.

Additional features include commentaries by Laurel and Hardy aficionados, along with a virtual location map that allows viewers to take an interactive tour of the iconic places in and around Los Angeles where Laurel and Hardy filmed.
In a word...YAHOOOO!!!!  Somebody will probably bitch that their silent shorts aren't included but who cares?  A Region 1 comprehensive Laurel and Hardy set is so overdue it's not even funny. I already know exactly what I want for Christmas if there was anybody around to get it for me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Not Horrible Bosses

The alleged comedy Horrible Bosses comes out in theaters today. I have no interest in seeing this movie. From the TV ads alone it looks about as funny as a severe hernia and I have a lot of trouble swallowing the plotline that some undersized nerd would complain about Jennifer Aniston putting the moves on him. I have been surprised though at the favorable critical reaction the movie has been getting, particularly from unexpected sources like Rex Reed and Leonard Maltin.

One note struck in most of the reviews I've read bothers me though, that everyone can identify with this film because everybody has had terrible bosses they wanted to see come to a bad end.  Oh really? Maybe if you're in your early 20's and balk at the idea of anyone telling you what to do, but us older folks?  I've only had one boss in my life that I really considered a disaster and that was only for three years.

Then again, I have a sort of unique situation. I work for the Navy and have had an officer in the LT/LCDR/CDR range as my supervisor since 1985. The unique part is that military people don't stay in one job forever. They do three to four years at one post and then move on to another job somewhere in another part of the world. Therefore in the last 26 years I've had 13 military bosses and the great majority have been fine to work for. They've all been different, some quiet, some the type who'd go out to a bar with you after work. One was a college football fanatic. One always decorated the office for holidays and brought in cakes for peoples' birthdays. One called me into her office one mid-December, told me I had a ridiculous amount of use-or-lose leave on the books and that I was going on holiday leave immediately until January 8th, a three week period. The point is most of them have been genuinely nice, decent people who have treated me fairly and respectfully and been a pleasure to work with, not the Wicked Dragons of this movie.

Between 2005 and 2008, I did have one boss who was a terror.  I don't want to go into detail about what she did but she made my life miserable. My consolation was that I wasn't alone. She treated everyone in our office badly driving some people to tears and she even treated other officers like crap and drove the most mild-mannered, even-tempered people into profane tirades. Fortunately in the fall of 2008 she left and our entire agency breathed a collective sigh of relief. The three people who have held that job since her have been saints in comparisons and have even all joked with me at times about the bad old days.

So even when I had a horrible boss, it wasn't for very long,  one of many reasons why I'll be avoiding this movie like the proverbial plague for now. Actually if there's one thing I want to do this weekend, it's finally get off my fat ass and go see The Tree Of Life.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Now What?

I'm about to be at a point where for the first time in over 20 years, I'll be wondering what to do with most of my free time.  Since the 80's a large part of my time outside of work has been dedicated to writing reviews for one publication or another, first, movie reviews for the Prince Georges' Post, then music reviews for OPtion Magazine, and since about 1990 Jazz CD reviews for Cadence Magazine.  The first two of those titles bit the dust long ago and Cadence is going away at the end of the year. More to the point I have just finished the major work on my last reviews for Cadence. In addition at the end of this month I will finally be paying off a large debt that has been hanging over me for some time, so I will soon have both more time and spending money on my hands.

Now I know there are a lot of practical things I could and should do when I get more cash but the fact is I'm an unrepentant music and movie geek and some money will be going towards those things though it's daunting to think of how much is out there.  The mainstream media keeps blithely saying that physical media like CDs, DVDs and books are dying out but despite their blather, all that stuff keeps coming out week after week and there is always something new arriving to attract people into various genres and niches like me. There are books on the work of comics artists like Bill Everett, Milt Gross, John Stanley, and Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, collections of Mickey Mouse and Popeye comic strips, and a 3-DVD set of the first 37 Tom & Jerry cartoons in chronological order all either out or about to come out. As for music the Jazz specialist label Mosaic alone has put out box sets on the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Lunceford, Sam Rivers and Charles Tolliver in recent months. None of this counts things that actually involve leaving the house like going to a movie. (I still intend to see The Tree Of Life while it's in theatres.)

The killer for me in all this is not money but time. I've seen fellow geeks in other blogs come to the realization that you cannot see/hear everything that is out there, especially with both the new and old material constantly being released and all the venues available now for listening or watching.  Even if you could devote 24 hours a day to this stuff you would never catch up. So I'm not going to worry about it. I am aware of all the more popular work out there I haven't seen and I may get around to experiencing it someday but I won't feel unfulfilled if I never do. I may watch Saving Private Ryan or Anchorman if the opportunity comes along but if Turner Classic is showing a Laurel and Hardy marathon or Celine And Julie Go Boating opposite it, I know what I'm doing.  As for music I am far more knowledgeable about Kurt Elling and Julie Tippetts than I ever will be about Lil' Wayne and Beyonce and I am fine with that.  From now on I will able to spend most of my free time on things I really enjoy and that will be an interesting change,

Monday, June 27, 2011

James, Alex and Max

I saw three movies over the weekend that couldn't be more different from each other.  To wit...


A long time ago I saw a movie compiled from footage of both the 1964 concert film classic, The T.A.M.I. Show and its sequel, the 1966 concert film,  The Big T.N.T Show, and I was completely blown away by all the vintage rock and soul acts.  Saturday I looked at the fully restored T.A.M.I. Show and was able to watch the movie through more mature eyes.  This time around I noticed that all of the acts actually sang live letting you appreciate the fact that Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Leslie Gore could really sing although poor Smokey Robinson sounded really hoarse.  Also the two lesser Merseybeat bands on the show, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, came off embarrassingly nerdy. The Pacemakers were lively but had the misfortune to be trading songs with the supercool Chuck Berry, a battle they'd still lose if playing with Chuck today.  Kramer came off like an out of place crooner and prevented the Beach Boys' Mike Love from being the single dorkiest performer in the show.   Speaking of the Beach Boys, their segment had been cut out of previous video releases of this movie but this time they were there present and correct including Brian Wilson playing rhythm guitar and singing high harmonies, taking over the lead vocal for "Little Surfer Girl".

    Everything else was pretty much as I remembered it.  All the Motown acts, Gaye, Smokey and the Supremes were slick and polished, go-go dancers were everywhere, and Jan And Dean were annoying MC's but sang a couple of their hits well.  The show-stopping peak of the show, though, was the same segment that killed me on my first viewing and the segment that has made this film legendary, the performance of James Brown at his jaw-dropping finest, earning the titles Mr. Dynamite, The Godfather Of Soul, The Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk, The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, and every other nickname he ever had with his screaming, knee drops, capes, splits and wobbly legged, impossible dance moves.  The first time I saw this movie I was so amazed by all this I could have cared less about the act that followed him, a little band called The Rolling Stones.  This time around I had to give Mick and the boys their propers,  they were damned tight. Keith Richards chugged out the riffs, Charlie Watts was ferocious on the drums and an incredibly young Mick Jagger prowled around the stage like he was having the time of his life. Even Brian Jones was smiling.  All in all, this was a very cool time capsule of 1964 rock and roll. Now hopefully Shout Factory, the folks that put this DVD out, will do the same for The Big T.N.T. Show.


This 2003 Australian film is a sample of what can pop up in the Free Movies part of the On Demand cable channels.  The set up is that it's the birthday of Steve, an average suburban husband and father.  He gets presents from his kids upon waking up, gets a cake and a promotion at work and hurries home at the end of the day to further celebrate with his family. When he gets home, though, the house is deserted, all the light bulbs have been taken out of their sockets and the only sign of humanity is a chair and TV set up in the living room and a videotape marked "play me".  Steve pops the tape in and is treated to the sight of his wife, Alexandra, doing a striptease.  She stops when she gets down to her underwear and starts complaining about all the problems in their marriage.  Steve snorts at this and fast forwards through the tape but stops abruptly when he sees Alexandra pointing a gun at him...

This is an involving and well-constructed study of a marriage broken  beyond repair done as mainly a two person show with one watching the other on TV.  Alexandra leads Steve down a twisty path of deception and misdirection ending with brutal and humiliating truth in a calculated study of cold-blooded revenge. Gary Sweet is excellent as Steve going thourhg a gamut of emotions, joy, lust, fear, sorrow, rage and exhausted numbness, most of which he does without another living actor to react to. Helen Buday is also great as Alexandra. As she tells her story, she talks with a calm conviction that really conveys the anguishes that drove her to this point.  This isn't a movie I think a lot of guys would care for but it's very strong and engrossing work.


This is another film about a marriage with problems, but of a very different sort. The wife has taken a chimpanzee for a lover.  Yep, that's a problem all right.

The couple is a British diplomat stationed in Paris, played by Anthony Higgins, and his wife, played by Charlotte Rampling.  The diplomat starts getting suspicious that his wife is seeing someone on the side. He finds out about an apartment she goes to every day, follows her there and finds her in bed with a chimp named Max. After the expected shock and recrimination the diplomat does the only thing a sophisticated man of the world would, he lets Max move into their home. Complications inevitably ensue.

This movie, contrasting civilized behavior with the most absurd situation imaginable, would have been right up Luis Bunuel's alley and several of his collaborators were involved in it. Unfortunately the old master was dead by the time this was made.  Instead the film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, a Japanese director known for his own shocking and provocative works like In The Realm Of The Senses.  He doesn't mesh with this material though. The movie rarely feels as sharp or attacking as it should. Drawing room comedy, even when it involved bestiality, was obovulidly not Oshima's thing.

It's not a total loss though. Higgins and Rampling are very good in the leads. Rampling, who's done more than her share of sexually provocative roles, really convinces you that she is in love with a chimp (actually a man in a realistic chimp suit, if that's more presentable).  The movie comes off then as a failed but watchable experiment.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Boogie Woogie" String Along For Real

It's always fun when you run across a review or mention of a film you've never previously heard of and it sounds so intriguing you end up watching it. Sometimes that approach can put you in for an endurance test, but other times you discover something really entertaining.  I stumbled onto the film Boogie Woogie just browsing through Netflix one day. The cast (Christopher Lee, Heather Graham and a host of others) and premise sounded interesting so I put it in my queue and I finally watched it yesterday. It turned out to be a fun black comedy that slipped through the cracks big time.

It's set in the London art world with a cast of characters who are almost uniformly despicable, art dealers, art collectors and artists who are constantly trying to screw each other both figuratively and literally.  The main thrust of the plot is supposedly an original Piet Mondrian painting, one of his geometric "Boogie Woogie" series, hence the film's title,  owned by an aging collector, played by Lee, who refuses to sell no matter how much his wife, played by Joanna Lumley, and an oily art dealer, played by Danny Huston, beg him to.  That's really just part of the snaky goings-on which also include, Huston's top assistant, played by Graham sleeping with a rich collector (Stellan Skarsgard) to get him to finance her own gallery, the collector's wife (Gillian Anderson) sleeping with an ambitious artist (Jack Huston, Danny's nephew) just because, and a lesbian artist (Jamie Winstone) keeping a video diary of her entire life including her betrayal of her agent and her numerous infidelities against her girlfriend.

90 minutes in the company of this crew could be hard to take but this movie is as light and subversively funny as an updated Evelyn Waugh novel.  The characters play out varying degrees of greed, ambition and callousness so that it's not just shrill, one level humor.  Most of the acting is fine expect for Gillian Anderson who does not do a convincing upper class London accent and whose role could have better been played by the great Joanna Lumley who is wasted in a small part. On the other hand, Huston as the slimy, insincere dealer and Skarsgard as the bluff, happily lecherous collector are great and Alan Cumming and Amanda Seyfried are good as the two innocents among all these sharks. Heather Graham is nicely calculating in her role as well plus she has a topless scene, which is never a bad thing. 

I don't know what if any American release this film had, probably just a week or two in some New York theater if that, but this is a prime example of the kind of solid, smart movie you can still uncover if you keep your eyes open.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish"

I didn't know it at the time but my appreciation for Jazz and musical arranging started when I was a little kid from watching television.  Back then the soundtracks for many shows were Jazz based and that included the old cartoons from the 30's and 40's I saw, particularly the Warner Brothers ones.  From the beginning the soundtracks of the old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons used songs owned by Warners music publishing company, including many that were used in their musicals.  As a result I knew tunes like "42nd Street",  "Deep In A Dream",  "Lullaby Of Broadway" and "Jeepers Creepers" long before I ever heard them in features.

One of my favorite songs from those cartoons was "Girl Friend Of The Whirling Dervish" which was written by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, and Johnny Mercer original for the 1938 musical Garden Of The Moon. That film happened to be the last musical Busby Berkeley made at Warner Brothers and you could guess he was near the end of his run by watching the production number for this song.  It's set bound, taking place entirely on a bandstand, in a way few Berkeley numbers ever were. Still I've always liked this scene for the way he uses camera movement and staging even when confined to a small space. The song itself is a lot of fun as well.

I was very surprised to find the entire number posted on YouTube.  I couldn't embed it here but I have put a link to it below.  The bandleader-singer here is John Payne, who like Alan Ladd and Fred MacMurray, started out as a big band singer before moving on to tough guy roles in the movies and Jerry Colonna is the "girl friend".

NOTE: Jeffrey Spivaki, the author of a biography, sent me an email correcting me about "Garden" being Berkeley's last Warners film.  It was his last Warners musical. He made the John Garfield drama, They Made Me A Criminal after that, then left and made a couple more films for the studio some time later. I've corrected my original post.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

To Jazz Or Not To To Jazz

One of the things that slightly bothers me about the internet is that on some message boards, you find people who take their love of a certain area so seriously that they get very upset when they feel that something else is taking time or attention away from their precious object of affection (and I'm not even talking about Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin fans).

Fro example I was reading the Turner Classic Movies message board today and saw that someone had started a topic "What movies was Dave Brubeck in??".   It so happens that TCM showed a group of jazz documentaries and features last night produced or directed by Clint Eastwood, including documentaries on Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, and Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, Bird

I missed the Brubeck film last night but I'd seen the Monk one, Straight No Chaser, several years ago in a theatre and it's excellent.  Still these message board folks were all spun up that TCM took a few hours away from what they consider "classic movies"  and made some unholy alliance with Clint Eastwood to show pictures about a couple of weirdo jazz musicians.

I've only been able to get Turner Classic sporadically over the last few years due to all the moving I've done but when I do have it like now, I'm amazed by the variety of their programming.  Yes, there are a few movies like Lawrence Of Arabia and Gigi that somehow manage to get on at least once every month but they also have a big enough range to include silents, foreign films, Tarzan movies and old serials. Any movie channel that has the nerve to program Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and feature singing cowboy movies for a month, as TCM will do in July, is okay with me.  The last time I checked documentaries could be considered classic films and it would be fine by me if TCM threw in more jazz films once in a while like Sun Ra's Space Is The Place or Shirley Clarke's film about Ornette Coleman, Ornette: Made In America but I know there's fat chance of that happening so I'll take what I can get.

And incidentally the gentleman on that message board might be surprised to know that Dave Brubeck has been in a regular movie,  All Night Long,  a British film that updated the Othello story to the 60's London jazz scene. He was part of a sort of Greek chorus of musicians that also included Charles Mingus, Tubby Hayes and John Dankworth who played throughout the film. See below...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Taking the Quiz, SLIFR Style

Okay, so it was just a couple of days ago that I was bemoaning my lack of posting but here I am doing a long-ass one.  I ran across the Summer Quiz on the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule which is actually a survey of your moviegoing likes and dislikes, not a right and wrong answer quiz.  I wasn't going to do anything with it at first, feeling too spotty in my movie knowledge to give an opinion on most of the questions.  Then I read what some other bloggers had written and I saw that others had no problem skipping questions they had no answers for,  so I decided to stop worrying about the fact that I couldn't tell one Eugene Pallette performance from another and try the thing out.  Here are my answers:

1) Depending on your mood, your favorite or least-loved movie cliché

The policeman or soldier who talks fondly about getting out/retiring in a few days and then is killed by the main villain five minutes later.

2) Regardless of whether or not you eventually caught up with it, which film classic have you lied about seeing in the past?

Jaws, and I still haven't seen it.

3) Roland Young or Edward Everett Horton?

I saw and enjoyedThe Man Who Could Work Miracles recently so I'll say Roland Young.

4) Second favorite Frank Tashlin movie

His cartoons don't seem to be getting much love from people, so I'll say Swooner Crooner, his "Crosby vs. Sinatra in the barnyard" throwdown. The Girl Can't Help It would be Number One.

5) Clockwork Orange-- yes or no?

Since I haven't seen it in a long time, a provisional "yes".

6) Best/favorite use of gender dysphoria in a horror film (Ariel Schudson)

The old standby - Norman Bates and his mother

7) Melanie Laurent or Blake Lively?

I haven't seen either one in anything but I guess Laurent because she was in Inglorious Bastards  and Quentin Tarantino has a knack for hiring good actors.

8) Best movie of 2011 (so far…)

The Illusionist

9) Favorite screen performer with a noticeable facial deformity (Peg Aloi)

The unfortunate "Creeper", Rondo Hatton

10) Lars von Trier: shithead or misunderstood comic savant? (Dean Treadway)

More like socially awkward dweeb.  I'll cut the man a lot of slack for blowing my mind with Breaking The Waves and Dogville.

11) Timothy Carey or Henry Silva?

Silva could act. Carey just seemed to yell.

12) Low-profile writer who deserves more attention from critics and /or audiences

If you mean a writer about movies, Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas. If you're talking about screenwriters, I can't think of one.

13) Movie most recently viewed theatrically, and on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming
Theatrically: Everything Must Go.   On DVD:  Wild Grass

14) Favorite film noir villain

Everett Sloane's Arthur Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai

15) Best thing about streaming movies?
They are right there with no freezing or skipping.

16) Fay Spain or France Nuyen? (Peter Nellhaus)

France Nuyen just because she was married to Robert Culp.

17) Favorite Kirk Douglas movie that isn’t called Spartacus (Peter Nellhaus)

Ace In The Hole

18) Favorite movie about cars

Two Lane Blacktop

19) Audrey Totter or Marie Windsor?

Windsor for being in The Killing and Roger Corman's Swamp Women

20) Existing Stephen King movie adaptation that could use an remake/reboot/overhaul

Aren't they all getting remade eventually?

21) Low-profile director who deserves more attention from critics and/or audiences

Can't think of one.

22) What actor that you previously enjoyed has become distracting or a self-parody? (Adam Ross)

Samuel L. Jackson (easy choice, huh?)

23) Best place in the world to see a movie

No idea.

24) Charles McGraw or Sterling Hayden?

For The Asphalt Jungle and Dr. Strangelove, Hayden

25) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu film

I Was Born, But..., the silent film about two boys who grow disappointed in their father for kowtowing to his boss.

26) Most memorable horror movie father figure

Terry O'Quinn in The Stepfather

27) Name a non-action-oriented movie that would be fun to see in Sensurround

Can't think of one

28) Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds?

Ryan Reynolds because he looks a lot more like Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan than Chris Evans does Steve (Captain America) Rogers.

29) Favorite relatively unknown supporting player, from either or both the classic and the modern era

Would Hans Conreid qualify here? 

30) Real-life movie location you most recently visited or saw

The Capitol.  I live in the Washington DC area so I'm surrounded by movie locations.

31) Second favorite Budd Boetticher movie

Ride Lonesome, second only to The Tall T

32) Mara Corday or Julie Adams?

Julie Adams and her white bathing suit in Creature From The Black Lagoon? We have a winner.

33) Favorite Universal-International western

Winchester '73

34) What's the biggest "gimmick" that's drawn you out to see a movie? (Sal Gomez)

Can't think of one.

35) Favorite actress of the silent era

Louise Brooks even if it is really just because of a couple of films.

36) Best Eugene Pallette performance (Larry Aydlette)

Have to pass here.

37) Best/worst remake of the 21st century so far? (Dan Aloi)
I've avoided as many of these mistakes as possible but the worst I've seen has been The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

38) What could multiplex owners do right now to improve the theatrical viewing experience for moviegoers? What could moviegoers do?  Multiplex owners could ban cellphones, pagers and talking during the movie but good luck getting that to happen.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Well I was going pretty good for a while, putting an entry onto this blog at least every one or two weeks but since mid-April I've been afflicted with the condition depicted above. The words just haven't come.  It didn't help that for a while every DVD I put into my player was either skipping, freezing or not playing at all.  Finally it dawned on me that my player was ten years old. So I went out and bought a new one and solved that problem.  I've gotten back to seeing movies more regularly the last couple of weeks. I've been returning to my various box sets of Charlie Chase, cartoons, and Thriller and I've seen a couple of feature films that really impressed me, A Marine Story and, just today, The High And The Mighty, but nothing has inspired me to write yet.

Then too I'm probably a little down because I just received my final package of review CDs from Cadence and I know that once I write these up, that will be my last work for the magazine.  They're ending things in style though. They sent me 32 CDs in just about every Jazz-related genre imaginable:  free improv, piano, blues, large ensemble, vocal and God knows what else.  There are a few names I know in the pile like Archie Shepp and Marc Charig but most are by people I never heard of before, which I love.  Discovering new musicians has always been one of the most fun parts of reviewing for me. 

Hopefully I'll pull out of this mental tailspin soon. Something I see or hear will start the creative synapses firing and I'll be back here writing about it. When that will be though, I can't say for sure.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rage (2009)

Maybe I don't look at enough movie review websites and blogs but despite all the people out there commenting on this or that film, some movies still seem to slip through the cracks, work singular enough to make you ask "Hey, how come nobody else has noticed this movie yet?".

That applies to a title I just discovered, Rage, a 2009 film by British filmmaker Sally Potter.  Potter is not that prolific at making features and her most well-known film, Orlando, came out back in 1992 so that may account for some of the neglect. Also the film actually seems to have premiered on digital platforms, like cellphones, and as far as I can tell, has had limited theatrical distribution.  Still it did make it out onto DVD where I saw it and found it very striking.

The setup for the film is a student interviewing various people at a fashion show over the course of a week for a school project. These people include all the types you would think of, models, the dress designer, a photographer, publicists, the owner of the fashion house, his bodyguard, a newspaper critic and others but their behavior changes drastically when a model dies onstage in the middle of the show.

This movie is put together as minimally as possible. It's just each character answering questions individually in front of a blue screen. None of the actors interact with one another and we only know what else is going on from offscreen noises and their descriptions.  By design then, what you get is a compelling set of performances by various actors that are intercut to tell a somewhat ambiguous but engrossing story. The photographer, played by Steve Buscemi, is a veteran war correspondent who boasts about keeping his cool in the face of death. The original owner of the fashion house, played by Dianne Wiest, comes off initially passive but eventually angry at the way her place is now run.  One model, played by Lily Cole, is a frightened babyfaced British girl. The other, played by Jude Law in drag (!), does the cool supermodel thing but starts to slip her reserve when things go bad. The owner, played by Eddie Izzard, is an oily, "I can buy anything" type and so on. Most of the acting, by a cast that also includes Judi Dench, Bob Balaban and John Leguizamo, is very good and gets beyond the obvious stereotypes.  Only a slick-dressing black police  detective, played by David Oyelowo, really flirts with caricature.

The film is not just a swipe at the fashion industry but a more incisive look at how people cope with crisis, whether it's fear, "what's in it for me" calculation, or denial.  Stripping away everything but the acting really drives this home. There are ambiguities and unanswered questions in the plot but this is one of those films where that really isn't important. Rage is an unusual experiment in film making that stays with you as a deep look into human behaviour.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hello Martial, Goodbye Billy

The thing I love about the piano as a jazz instrument is that a dozen different players, be they Herbie Hancock, Marilyn Crispell, Fred Hersch, Kenny Barron, Alex Von Schlippenbach, Misha Mengelberg, McCoy Tyner, Jessica Williams or anyone else, can sit down at the same piano and play the same song and no two versions will sound the same. And not a single one of them will sound anything like Martial Solal.

Solal is a French pianist now in his 80's whom I had the privilege of seeing play solo at the Library of Congress last night. He is known internationally as both a player and a composer who has done several movie soundtracks including an insignificant little Jean-Luc Godard picture known as Breathless.  Judging by his piano skills he was well matched by the frisky jump cutting of that film.

When he plays Solal, as he said last night, makes old songs sound new. He twists and deconstructs standards with sudden tempo shifts, repeating phrases and ornate Art Tatum-like filigrees to the point where they are barely recognizable. Everything he played at the concert was a familiar tune but he was halfway through "Here's That Rainy Day" before I recognized part of the melody and I was almost home on the subway before I realized that the last piece he played was "Have You Met Miss Jones".

   Solals' fingers move all over the keyboard with a speed and accuracy a man half his age would envy,  shooting out notes like Chico Marx, breaking melodies into crazily connected fragments like Bugs Bunny beating up Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody in the cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit and tossing out stream of consciousness quotes of everything from "Salt Peanuts" to "Peter And The Wolf". For all of his antics though his playing is not all sugary frosting.  There is substance to it, an ongoing sense of keeping the melody in play and a use of darker chords and dissonances that connects to Thelonious Monk and Ran Blake.  His treatments of "Corcovado" and "All The Things You Are" were downright subdued compared to the other pieces and showed that he can get some feeling out of a song when he has a mind to.

     I had previously heard little of Solal's music but now I'm thoroughly impressed.  Fortunately he has a surprisingly large amount of CDs available on Amazon to check out ranging in settings from solos to trios, both with French musicians and an American dream team of Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, to a larger group playing Ellington arrangements. Here is a taste of what I heard at the Library, Solal (in I think the same suit he wore last night) playing "My Funny Valentine" live in Paris.

On a sadder musical topic, the great violinist Billy Bang passed away April 11 after a long battle with cancer. I heard last summer that he was sick but this is still a blow. Bang was the hardest playing and wildest of modern jazz violinists with a sense of swing and feel for the blues that was unmatched. I was lucky enough to see him twice live, once in New York at the Vision Festival and once down here in Takoma Park, MD. Each time his playing floored me. In recent years Bang was best known for the two CDs he'd recorded commemorating his years fighting in Vietnam. At the Takoma Park show I overheard him say that he was preparing to complete that cycle by going back to Vietnam and recording with local musicians. I hope that project came off. Here he is in Poland bowing and plucking with another master, William Parker.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rockin' In The Rockies with Moe, Larry and Curly

In flipping through TV channels last night I ran across a movie on Encore Westerns called Rockin' In The Rockies. From the description it seemed to be just a 40's B-Western, something I usually pay little attention to, but the cast list caught my eye. The stars were no less than The Three Stooges (!).
This was a completely new find to me. I knew about the features the boys made in the early 30's like Soup To Nuts, Meet The Baron and Dancing Lady and the B-western they did with George O'Brien in 1951, Gold Raiders, but I'd never heard of this movie before. Naturally I sat down and watched it.

It turned out to be a Western set musical comedy and the Stooges are easily the best things in it.  There isn't much plot. It starts out with Moe conning Larry and Curly and a couple of stranded showgirls into helping him prospect for gold.  That storyline peters out halfway through and is replaced by one of everybody plus some singing cowboys, played by the Hoosier Hotshots, auditioning for a Broadway producer who's come out Wesr for a vacation.

None of the other lead players in this thing make an impression. The male romantic lead, Jay Kirby, is "meh", the songs done by the lead women are forgettable and the Hotshots aren't all that at either music or comedy. However it was nice to see Vernon Dent, one of the Stooges' long time foils, in a supporting role even though he had no scenes with the boys.  There's also a good Western Swing number from Spade Cooley's band with Tex Williams on vocals.

All the other cast members take time away from our beloved knuckleheads (seen on the left of this picture, barely) but they do show up in about half the picture, often repeating familiar routines from their shorts.  Curly doesn't seem as manic as at his best, possibly because this was made during the period where he began to have health problems, but he's still pretty sharp. There are unique features here in that Moe being cast as a ranchhand and Larry and Curly as itinerant show people, the three of them don't always work together. Larry and Curly do a lot of scenes as a duo with Larry taking over Moe's bossy leader role. Also this is the only Stooges movie I've ever seen where Moe spends the entire film with his hair combed back instead of in his familiar bowl haircut.  This isn't some great lost find of Stooge greatness, but just about anything featuring their craziness is worth a watch.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A piece of the Grail

One of the great things about this modern age that most people either don't realize or take for granted is that  every lost or legendarily unseen piece of popular art out there seems to somehow, someway get back onto the marketplace. Comic books, music, TV shows, doesn't matter. It may be in some limited edition or from some obscure company but eventually someone gets it out there.  In the past year we've seen things like The Complete Thriller, Warren Beatty's and Arthur Penn's Mickey One, collections of the Barney Google and Bringing Up Father comic strips and a bunch of legendary recordings from the pioneering Free Jazz FMP label resurface.  In the near future a huge DVD set of Ernie Kovacs' TV work and a hardback collection of Floyd Gottfriedson's highly touted Mickey Mouse comic strip will be coming out. I've even seen an announcement of an official release of the Beach Boys' Smile in the near future.  But I've just seen a truly stunning announcement on Amazon. 
     Next Tuesday this record will be coming out on CD...

Bill Dixon's Intents And Purposes, one of the hardest to find and most sought after texts of the 60's avant-jazz movement. Actually I thought this had come out on CD back in the 80s at the dawn of the compact disc era, but even if it did that edition is now scarce as hen's teeth.  This was the first large scale ensemble recording of Dixon's music and really the only one recorded until he re-emerged on the performance scene in recent years to work with Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra and then with other young musicians he had influenced. Of course this would show up after Dixon's passing but according to its reputation this record is as important as any of Cecil Taylor's or Ornette Coleman's work from this period.  I usually hem and haw over buying things online. I ordered this as soon as I saw the listing.