Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend Movie Wrapup

I do most of my movie watching on the weekends and between Netflix, Classic Flix, cable and even an occasional trip to an honest-to-God movie theatre, I can see a very eclectic bunch of stuff over any given weekend. This is what I just saw over the past three days:

Shutter Island - Coming from Martin Scorsese, the man who gave us Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, this is relatively small potatoes but it's a serviceably creepy thriller and when the big twist comes along, you see that this was Scorsese's way of paying homage to one of the most seminal horror films of all time.  I'd had trouble buying into spindly Leonardo DiCaprio as a serious leading man in the past but here I can see him finally maturing into a convincing noirish tough guy.

A Matter Of Life And Death - By coincidence, Scorsese does a short commentary on the DVD of this classic Michael Powell film about a  British World War II pilot who is supposed to die when his plane is shot down but doesn't thanks to a Heavenly mishap and instead falls in love with an American WAC leading to a massive trial in Heaven to determine whether he shall die now or go on living.
    On a first watching, I'm not as overwhelmed by it as other Powell films like Black Narcissus, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp and Peeping Tom but it's still an audacious and very well made romantic fantasy with fine acting from David Niven, Roger Livesy and Kim Hunter.  I was slightly confused, though, when the trial sequence detoured into several minutes of debate on the merits of America vs. Britain.

The Wrestler - The weekend of the 2011 Oscars, I finally saw Darren Aronofsky's previous film about a fatally obsessed performer. I've followed professional wrestling off and on since the 60's and by now, I've heard plenty of the stories of broken families, ruined bodies and early deaths that the business has led to.  This movie captures the feel of that world so authentically it's chilling. I know I'm very late to the party in saying this but Mickey Rourke does give the performance of his life as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a man who only seems to feel alive when he's crashing and bleeding in front of an audience, someone who has let every real relationship in his life slip right through his fingers, someone far too reminiscent of Hulk Hogan, Terry Funk, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Curt Hennig, Brian Pillman, and other real living and dead wrestlers for comfort. When he gives a speech to the audience near the end about how he loves to perform for them, I immediately thought of speeches I've heard by Ric Flair more than once and The Rock on Monday Night RAW a couple of weeks ago.  Marisa Tomei, who has become a scary good actress in the last few years, was equally as affecting as an aging stripper.
     I noticed that the very end was eerily like Aranofsky's Black Swan with both main characters leaping to their deaths, but where you know Natalie Portman's Nina is bleeding to death at the fade of SwanThe Wrestler goes black as Randy The Ram leaps off the top rope. All the signs are that his heart is about to give out on him but you never actually see that. I thought that was a really classy way to send him out.

Monday, February 14, 2011

George Shearing / David F. Friedman

There are a lot of things I could write about right now like Esperanza Spaulding beating out Justin Bieber at the Grammys last night (Yay!) but whatever I was thinking got overruled by the news that two figures from wildly different parts of the cultural world died today, George Shearing and David F. Friedman.

George Shearing is one of those musical names I heard a lot when I was a kid, since jazz was very much in TV's common language back in those days. As I got more into the music, I often heard Shearing blown off as a lightweight, "cocktail jazz" sort of pianist but, like Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamal, what he did looked simple but had a lot of substance to it, especially in his early days when he played with amazing dexterity as in this clip of Denzil Best's "Move.

Besides which the man wrote "Lullaby Of Birdland". That made him forever cool in itself.

Then there were the laughing, lusty lures of Mr. David F. Friedman, one of the all-time great exploitation movie producers.  He specialized in making soft-core nudie films in the 60's and 70's full of boobs, blood and complete insanity including the likes of Trader Hornee, Scum Of The Earth, Nature's Playmates and Herschel Gordon Lewis's notorious "blood trilogy" including Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs.  I discovered him, as I think many did, in the home video era when some of his wild movies started turning up on videocassette and magazines like Psychotronic Video reviewed them. Then he made contact with Something Weird video which put far more of his pictures out and even released compilations of the trailers.

Friedman's movies weren't art but they were wild over-the-top fun with sexy women and crazed plots. I'm not crazy about the ones I've seen where the violence is a bit too gruesome but I've enjoyed the innocent-seeming peekaboo smut gags of Lewis's pre-gore The Adventures Of Lucky Pierre and the wild sex romping of A Smell Of Honey, A Swallow Of Brine where the uninhibited heroine memorably tells her lesbian roommate, "Paula, I may be a bitch but I'll never be a butch."  They don't write dialogue like that anymore.

I actually saw Friedman once at some movie collectors' convention at a table with Something Weird's owner, Mike Vraney, regaling young peole with stories of his days in the exploitation business. I also read his autobiography, A Youth In Babylon, which talked about his time working in carnivals as well as his movie days. A second volume was promised at the end of that book but it never materialized. From the interviews I saw of him Friedman revelled in his rediscovery and never lost his taste for the carny come-on and the razzle dazzle.  He was a showman who made something memorable out of the sleaziest of raw materials.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thriller - Progress Report #1

I've finally started going through my box set of the vintage Thriller TV series.  According to most of the things I've read on the show, the common thinking is that it was a conventional suspense anthology show in its early episodes and only really got good when it turned to the horror themes it's most remembered for.

In actuality these early shows are nothing to sneeze ateither . I've seen just the first nine episodes so far and they've involved gangsters, spies, murder mysteries, haunted houses and serial killers. The first episode, "The Twisted Image" starrted Leslie Nielsen as a businessman hounded by two stalkers with competing agendas and things have stayed interesting from that point on.

The most famous other TV anthology it resembles is Alfred Hitchcock Presents but there's been a darker edge here so far than Hitchcock's black comic whimsy.  The people who made this show did not go for laughs and knew how to get you hooked into the stories of a delusional young boy loose in the woods with a loaded rifle or a mob lawyer trying to go straight in only 50 minutes.

Two of these episodes, "The Purple Room" and "The Watcher" have been more in line with the show's creepy reputation, giving off outright scary vibes.  They were produced by one William Frye whereas Fletcher Markle produced the other shows and you can tell the different approaches from the way Boris Karloff does his introductions. In Markle's shows he appears wearing glasses and talks very chipper and eruditely about the story. In Frye's programs so far, he doesn't wear glasses, talks a bit more dramatically and the lighting gives him a more sinister look befitting one of his movie roles.
As for the shows themselves, "Purple Room" was about a man, played by Rip Torn, who has to spend the night in a haunted house (impersonated by the Bates house from Psycho) in order to get an inheritance. Someone tries to scare him out and needless to say things don't end well. "The Watcher" was directed by John Brahm , who made among things, the great Hangover Square. It was about a high school teacher who closely watches one of his hunky former male students, played by Richard Chamberlain, and murders the young women he thinks are "corrupting" him. There was one scene where the teacher tried to "comfort" the kid where his intent was much more obvious than you would have imagined being shown in 1960. 

All this and people like Mary Astor and Everett Sloane showing up in other shows as well. Thriller, so far is holding up its reputation. It'll be interesting to watch future episodes especially when the horror stuff really kicks in.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


A few days ago I got some unpleasant news that I knew was coming but was still dreading. Cadence, the jazz and improvised music magazine I've been writing for almost 20 years, has announced it will cease publication at the end of this year.

The reasons why are obvious. The last few years have been a tough time for all printed publications with increasing hordes of people deserting them to read things online. A small, independent magazine about an increasingly marginalized music genre would find it tougher going than most. The fact that one of their major newsstand venues, Tower Records, went out of business didn't help matters either.  In 2008 the magazine tried to save itself by changing format from a fat little monthly to a quarterly publication the size of an oversized paperback book. I talked to Bob Rusch, the magazine's publisher, at a concert a few months ago and he reiterated what he had been saying in his editorialsfor a while, that times were tough and he didn't know how long they could continue. Now the closing date has been set.

I'm really bummed about this. Cadence is a unique publication, low on trendy graphics but full of information. Its long interviews with various musicians are more like oral histories with the subjects discussing their careers, experiences and philosophies in unexpurgated fashion. As for reviews they covers a vast sweep of music, from blues and trad jazz to the farthest out there improv. I know I got to review a great variety of work, a lot of it by people I had never heard of before.  The reviewers could be insightful or argumentative but usually they had interesting opinions. I don't know of another magazine around that covers the territory they do, the closest probably being Signal To Noise, but Cadence's demise is going to leave a hole in the musical conversation even if most people don't realize it.

I'm still trying to figure out what this means for me personally. Writing reviews for Cadence has come to take up much of my spare time over the years. It's really what I structure my evenings and weekends around. I guess I'll look around for another magazine or website to write for but I don't know how many options there are that way.  I should have more time to devote to this blog and do other things like go out to concerts and performances but we'll see if that happens.  I don't know how many more CDs I'll be sent for review past what I'm now working on, if any. After that I'm going to have a bunch of extra time on my hands.  I'm just grateful right now I still have a regular day job to keep a roof over my head.