Sunday, December 30, 2012

The movies I loved in 2012

This is the time of year when professional pop culture writers and amateur bloggers alike talk about all the TV shows, music, movies, etc. that they really loved over the past 12 months.  For myself, I barely watch television and I don't listen to enough new music to make a list of that worthwhile. I did have to do a Top 10 list for Cadence but that was a couple of months ago and I've since heard several things I would have considered for it if I hadn't had to turn it in so early.

Movies are the one thing I feel comfortable doing a list for.  I don't go out of my way to watch new films as soon as they come into the theatres but I do see a ton of them on DVD and in repertory theatres. Since I've seen several other people do "New To Them" lists of the best films they saw for the first time within the last year I'm doing one of those. Saying all that, it turned out that most of the films in my personal Top 10 were released within the last couple of years.  In fact a current film I just watched this morning has edged The Pawnbroker off the list. Here then are the ten best films I saw for the first time in 2012.

10.  Michael Clayton (2007)

George Clooney has been a very dependable presence for quality films in the last few years.  He misses sometimes, as with The Ides Of March, but this thriller, a tightly structured story about a professional fixer who gets involved in a sinister corporate coverup, is really good work.  Clooney is tough and steely and Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton have excellent supporting roles as well.

9.  Lincoln (2012)

I went off Steven Speilberg after being bored by Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom long agoHis roller coaster camera moves and broad comedy just wore me out.  I've been meaning to catch up with his more serious films like Saving Private Ryan and Munich for a while but I never did. Then I saw this!  The movie takes a relatively overlooked detail of Abraham Lincoln's life, his fight to pass the constitutional amendment to ban slavery, and makes a compelling drama out of it. It takes the shining halo off Lincoln's head and shows he had to be a crafty and sometimes devious politician to get important things done. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent and will probably win his third Oscar easily but the show-stealing performance here is by Tommy Lee Jones as the radical abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

8.  Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

This is the one I saw today, a romantic comedy that redeems the genre's reputation,  a wild, multi-faceted story about two psychologically damaged people finding each other with parents, bookmaking, the Philadelphia Eagles, and a dance competition all figuring in.  Bradley Cooper is wonderful in the male lead, doing a lot of heavy lifting just with his eyes and face and Jennifer Lawrence proves again she is a fine young actress while being indecently hot to boot. Robert DeNiro erases the memories of years of indifferent performance in lousy movies and  even Chris Tucker does a good job.

7.   The Sessions (2012)

I'm obviously drawn to movies about outsiders and messed up people because there are a lot of them on this list. This is a wonderful drama about a man made an outsider by nature,  Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet who contratced polio as a child and spent most of his life living in an iron lung or on a respirator. It's the story of what happened when he decided to lose his virginity so he could have a full relationship with a woman and hired a sex surrogate to teach him what to do.  It's funny and poignant without ever being maudlin or over the top.  John Hawkes is really wonderful as O'Brien as is Helen Hunt as the woman who becomes his therapist and friend.

6.  Leap Year (1922)

Here's the joker in the deck, the one film on this list that is not recent. I found it in a DVD set called The Forgotten Films Of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and it's a feature length comedy Arbuckle made in 1921 a few months before the scandal that destroyed his on-screen career. It was only released in Europe and never saw the light of day on American screens.  Arbuckle plays a rich and single playboy who inadvertently gets engaged to three different women while really being in love with a fourth.  It's a wild farce that shows off Arbuckle's great physical skill at falls, dives and tumbles as well as his ability to play a sympathetic romantic comedy lead.  This shows how sad it is that more of Arbuckle's later work hasn't survived.

5.  The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson's story of unrequited love between the founder of a cult-like religion played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and the damaged ex-sailor he takes under his wing played by Joaquin Phoenix.  It's sprawling, dreamlike and quite lovely. Amy Adams, as Hoffman's wife, like Cooper and Lawrence, gives one of this year's "Where the hell did that come from?" performances.

4.  Melancholia (2011)

I dearly love Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves and Dogville  but I was skeptical if this could be as good as I had heard. It is. It's a meditation on finding your own peace while the world literally collapses around you. Kirsten Dunst proves yet again that there are a hell of a lot of good young actresses around these days.  I've never seen another film turn the end of the world into a thing of serene beauty this way.

3.  We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

The most extraorindary thing about this film is Tilda Swinton's performance as a mother who comes to realize that her young son has the capacity for murder and can do almost nothing about it. This film turned out to have some eerie presentiments about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the whole thing is a slow-growing horror story.

2.  Poetry (2010)

This Korean film resembles Kevin slightly in that it's about a parent who deals with the fact that her child did something horrible, but here it's a grandmother who finds out the grandson who lives with her is one of a bunch of boys who drove a classmate to suicide.  The grandmother is also suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's and trying to find some measure of peace and happiness in her life through writing poetry.  It's a beautiful and haunting film and the lead actress Jeong-Hie Yun is a strong, heartbreaking presence with the fragile determination of Takashi Shimura in my beloved Ikiru.

1.  Higher Ground (2011)

I wrote about this one earlier and it continued to stay with me more than anything else I saw all year. The personal search for religious faith is something filmmakers rarely touch and even then, never with the honest uncertainty that Vera Farmiga put in this movie.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


You don't often get to say you've seen a genius perform, but just off the top of my head, I've done that four times.  Once was seeing Cecil Taylor's trio at Blues Alley several years ago and the other three have been performances by Anthony Braxton, two long ago in a quintet with the Rova Saxophone Quartet and a duo with George Lewis, and the third tonight at the Kennedy Center.

Braxton is one of the most celebrated and far-ranging figures in modern jazz/new music/what-have-you, a composer, player, and teacher who, over five decades, has pioneered the solo saxophone album, written for ensembles of every size and even composed operas.Tonight Braxton played DC's usually staid home of Official Culture with his Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet made up of the man himself on reeds of every size, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones and Taylor Ho Bynum on brass. They were brought there by pianist Jason Moran, the Center's forward thinking Artistic Advisor for Jazz who sat in with the group, making it a quintet.  I've heard Braxton recordings in many different settings but this was the first time I'd experienced the intricate ensemble music he's been making in recent years live. The show was amazing.

For this group Braxton starts by cueing up sound files on a laptop, then turning over an hourglass ("It helps us" he said to the audience) to start the performance.  The group then weaves over, under, around and through the computer sounds for the next seventy-odd minutes. Everybody in this group is an imaginative and experimental leader in their own right but they had no trouble in fitting right into Braxton's concepts.  Sometimes the horns shrank to whispers and barks, sometimes there were gorgeous bits of melody.  Halvorson, who studied under Braxton at Wesleyan University, would cut through the haze with heavy power chords and underscore the overall sound with delicate picking. Bynum, who has been releasing much of Braxton's recent large scale work on his Firehouse 12 label, barked, growled and smeared on cornet, various trumpets and even trombone.  Moran, who to my knowledge was new to this music, stayed in the game admirably, filling in rhythms behind the others and occasionally playing agitated free solos. Laubrock, another fairly new participant to this world, played forceful tenor, alto and soprano and added her own arsenal of vocalized sounds and squeaks. 

The leader himself was awesome to behold, playing everytihing in the sax family from a small sopranino to a huge contrabass instrument he wheeled into position on a tripod.  Braxton is so celebated as a theorist and composer today you forget that he is also a hellacious sax player and, though 67 years old, he was playing tonight as beautifully and intensely as he ever has.  He had a couple of solo passages on soprano that were so hair-raising they nearly had me screaming with joy. I kept my cool though because the audience stayed respectfully silent throughout the proceedings.

That silence seemed to be a good one.  The typical Kennedy Center audiences tend to prefer safer fare so I wondered how they would take to this wondrous madness. A few people did leave during the show but I'll give most credit. They stayed until the end.  A friend told me later that there were not a lot of the usual faces at this show so many people probably knew what they were in for. I'm sure there were a few Center regulars though who were exposed to something radically new tonight.  Hopefully the Center will continue to allow Moran to bring in "out there" masters like Braxton in the future.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I've been wondering if anything would rouse me from my recent torpor and inspire me to write on this blog again. It's finally happened but unfortunately it took death to do it.  Dave Brubeck, the legendary and innovative jazz pianist, died today at the age of 91.

When I was a little boy in the early 1960's Jazz was an accepted part of the popular culture and it was everywhere on television.  Brubeck was a large part of that for me. I don't remember the first time I heard "Take Five" but it seems like it was always around whether on the radio or some live TV appearance with the great Brubeck quartet.  He was as ever present on TV in those days as your average superstar rapper or American Idol zombie is today.  When CBS broadcast the Kentucky Derby back then, the theme music for the show was Brubeck's version of "Camptown Races".  I can remember commericals for Washington Senators baseball telecasts that used the Quartet's sprightly "Unsquare Dance" for background music. 

The quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello, was the most famous group of Brubeck's career but it was really just a part of it. He seems to be often overlooked in the Cliff Notes version of jazz history which lists the most influential post-war pianists as Monk, Powell, Evans and Tyner and you can't think of that many players who have openly followed his craggy, chord-heavy style but he was a major figure, one of the first to combine classical music and jazz with his early octet, pioneering in unusual time signatures like the 5/4 beat of you-know-what (which was actually written by Desmond) and going on to write classical works in his later years. Some people knocked Brubeck for not "swinging" enough and seemed to dismiss him because of his massive commerical success.  Listening to him ("Blue rondo A La Turk" is playing behind me right now) you have to wonder what they were hearing. For all its complexity his playing could be emotional, funny, tender and viscerally thrilling.  That impish, off-center vamp in "Take Five" is famous for a reason. You just can't get that rolling, slightly sinister line out of your head.

I regret I never got to see him live. The last few times he played in DC the tickets were way out of my price range. Listening to recent recordings though he never seems to have lost his edge.  I have a CD of a live concert by son Chris Brubeck's jazz-blues group TriplePlay recorded just last year. Halfway through the show they play  a version of "Blue Rondo". In the middle of it  there is wild cheering from the audience as the pianist bangs out the crashing chords of the theme.  Even if you hadn't read the liner notes you would know that Papa Brubeck was sitting at the bench, though you otherwise never believe that this energetic, charging music was coming from a 90 year old man.

Dave Brubeck's music had a sly, sophistcated coolness which no one did quite the same way.  His collaborators over the years included a select number of great saxophonists lie Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and on one singular occasion, Lee Konitz and Anthony Braxton. Beyond that were collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Jimmy Rushing.  He was a giant.

Rest in peace, Dave.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Between Two Women (2000)

For reasons I've never quite figured out (besides the obvious one) I've always been attracted to movies about gay women.  I've seen a few lately like A Marine Story, The Gymnast,  and The Fish Child as well as watching episodes of The L Word and The Real L Word and all the women in those are as gutsy and dynamic as you would expect in this "out and proud" era.  Between Two Women is a different beast, a 2004 British release told with classic English reserve that almost plays out like a lesbian version of Brief Encounter.

The film is set in an English industrial town in 1957. It concerns a factory worker's wife, Ellen, who develops a friendship with a local teacher, Kathy.  The two bond over Kathy's genuine interest in Ellen's son, Victor and his potential as an artist but it's soon obvious that the two women enjoy each other's company even without the kid involved.  The fact that Kathy feels trapped in a joyless marriage to a disagreeable and insecure husband doesn't exactly retard their growing affection either.

The film's arc is no surprise but the singular thing is how quietly it goes about its business.  There are no screaming dramatics or sweaty love scenes (though I wouldn't have minded one of those).  Things are as understated as they would have had to really been at that time in real life. You never see the women kiss, just hug. They sit on a park bench holding hands, quickly let go when someone (who we never see) strolls by, and join hands again when they're alone.  When Ellen, finally conscious of her feelings, says to Kathy, "Can we go somewhere?", they walk off together and the scene fades to black.  The ladies are given their privacy.

 The acting is uniformly fine. Barbara Marten is excellent at showing Ellen's suffering at home and her happiness with Kathy mostly through facial expressions. The way her face lights up in Kathy's presence is really enchanting. Andrew Dunn is also very good as the poor, dim husband, emotionally wounded and hurt but by the end sadly realizing that he's happier himself with other people than with his wife, and as Kathy, Andrina Carroll is a smart, attractive modern woman who could inspire anybody.  I could have done without so much of the kid but given that part is played by the director's son, I guess the emphasis on him was a necessary evil.

Despite the period setting and the "behind closed doors" attitude, this is not some throwback to the days when even works written by gay people looked on homosexuality as a source of shame and misery.  Ellen's family and husband never find out her true leanings but it's obvious by the end her love for Kathy is a means of personal liberation for her. She is happy, smiling and eager to live when she rides a train to meet her girlfriend as the movie ends.  The entire film is quiet, touching and a nice change of pace from heavier lesbian fare.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Guitar (2008)

On its own merits The Guitar is a fine little film, a story about a woman finding her true passion in life after she's been diagnosed with a terminal disease.  It's no fault of its own that it comes up a little short when compared to a certain classic Japanese film with a similar premise.

The Guitar stars Saffron Burrows as Melody, a New York woman who is told by a doctor that she has inoperable cancer and has only two months left to live.  The same day she subsequently loses her job and is kissed off by her boyfriend, leaving her in a suicidal state of mind.  She doesn't kill herself though. She instead decides to spend her remaining days living it up. This means moving into a huge loft apartment and using her credit cards to buy everything she wants, new clothes, new furniture and especially her childhood fantasy toy, a red electric guitar. She does all this without ever leaving her apartment, having all her meals delivered to her. The only people she comes in contact with are the parcel delivery man and a girl who delivers pizzas and she ends up having affairs with both of them.  She lives out her time blissfully in this environment but then something unexpected changes everything...
As I said this is a charming and uplifting little movie in and of iteslf,  but after watching it I couldn't help but think of another film about someone who was dying of cancer and had to decide how to spend the rest of his life, one of my favorites, Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru.

Ikiru stars Takashi Shimura as a middle-aged government clerk who is the recipient of the bad news. Like Burrows' character, he's alone in the world. His wife is dead and he's lost contact wiht his children. His first impulse is also to live it up and he spends much of the first half of the film on a drunken trawl through Tokyo night clubs but he eventually realizes he should finally accomplish something in his life so he spends his last weeks pushing the paperwork through the city bureaucracy to convert a swampy slum area into a decent playground for children, not exactly the same as shutting yourself up with a guitar and making whoopee with the delivery people.

To be fair, Kurosawa's film was made in a very different culture than The Guitar.  That was done in post-World War II Japan,  a country that had just undergone the shame of losing a war and the trauma of seeing two of its cities incinerated by atomic bombs.  Also Kurosawa was known to pay homage to self-sacrifice and nobiilty in his films. It's no surprise then that in his story, the best way to spend the end of one's life is by helping others.

                                           (SPOILERS FOLLOW)

21st century New York is a very different place of course. The overriding impulse in The Guitar's world is if you've got to go, have as much fun as you can on the way out.  To be fair I can't think of one American film with a termainally ill character that doesn't have that philosophy.  Here though there's an uncomfortable air of self-absorption throughout the movie.   There are flashbacks that show Melody as a child becoming bewitched by a red guitar in a music store and stealing it when she gets the chance but nothing that suggests she ever thought about actually working and saving money to buy a guitar as she got older. At the end of the film Melody has lost all her new possessions, is completely cured and happily playing her guitar on stage in a band. She's living her dream but so what?

And yes I said "completely cured".  By the end Melody is completely cancer-free and the implication is that the tumor disappeared simply becasue she was finally enjoying herself.  I realize there's a bit of the fairy tale to this movie but that is really a little much.

Despite all this I really enjoyed the movie, mostly because of Saffron Burrows. She's such a vital human presence, scared and vunerable then slowly growing in confidence throughout the movie that I couldn't help feel something for her plight.  It's only after the movie was over that all the "Hey, wait a minute!"s started forming in my head and I realized how selfish her behavior was.  I guess you only have to believe in a film for the duration that you're watching it.  Besides if I found out I only had a short time left to live, I probably wouldn't think much about other people either.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Pawnbroker (1964)

When I was a child in the 1960's I'd pay attention to the big important movies of the day. I was too young to actually see any of them but I'd follow TV reviews, particularly on The Today Show, and the annual Oscar telecast.  That's how I heard about films like Breakfast At Tiffany's, Days Of Wine And Roses, Never On Sunday, The Hustler, Lawrence Of Arabia and many more.  Catching up with some of those films in recent years, sometimes I'd be left wondering what all the fuss was about. Other times I'd run into something that more than lived up to its reputation. I've just watched The Pawnbroker and it's definitely in the second category.

This film, directed by Sidney Luemt, stars Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who lost his entire family in the Holocaust and now runs a pawnshop in Harlem. The trauma and guilt of his experiences has caused Nazerman to psychologically withdraw from the rest of humanity.  All day in his shop he deals with people at the end of their rope selling off bits of their lives and does not display an ounce of compassion or mercy.  Encounters with his shop assistant, a well-meaning social worker, a local gangster he does business with and others cause him to have flashbacks about his time in the camps, breaking through his defenses and making him eventually come face to face with his inability to feel anything.

Steiger, a classic scenery chewer if there ever was one, puts on a remarkable show of being totally suppressed and devoid of emotion throughout most of the film, which make his silent cries of despair at the end much more powerful. He was 39 years old when this came out but he was completely beliabvalve playing a man 20 years older, his natural robustness becoming a sagging, stoop-shouldered burden.  Given his roaring performances in other films, it's a revelation seeing him like this and he was probably helped along by being directed by Sidney Lumet who really gets his signature New York grittiness going here.  It is pariticularly notable the way he has Nazerman constantly framed by cages and fences in many shots reflecting his internal isolation from the world, notably the rat's nest of wire fences in the pawn shop itself. 

 The film tunred out to be significant in several ways.  Released in 1964 it was the first American film to deal directly with the Holocaust.  Also it broke ground by including frontal female nudity in a crucial sequence that was denounced by both the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Motion Picture Association of America.  For all that you rarely seen anything about this movie anymore.  Holocaust movies have practically become a punchline in recent decades and when Rod Steiger's name is mentioned,  On The Waterfront and In The Heat Of The Night are brought up way before Pawnbroker.  The actor was nominated for an Oscar for his performance but he, along with Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Oskar Werner, lost to Lee Marvin for the comedy Cat Ballou in what now looks like one of those inimitable, head-shaking, "What were they thinking?" Oscar moments. The Pawnbroker does not deserve to be lost to history. It is a powerful film with a remarkable central performance.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fourteen Hours (1951)

"Are you sure Harold Lloyd started this way?"
Fourteen Hours is a 1951 20th Century Fox film available on DVD under the brand "Fox Film Noir" but it isn't really that.  There's no crime plot, hard boiled hero or femme fatale in this movie but it does share a one thing with noir, a reliance on psychological explanation. Besides that it's an entertaining movie full of familiar faces.

The plot is simple. A young man walks out onto the ledge of a New York City hotel and threatens to jump.  Most of the rest of the film's 92 minutes is concerned with the police trying to figure out why he's doing this and get him down from there.  The story is very well directed by Henry Hathaway who keeps everything going at a brisk pace and it's a bonanza of fine acting from the principals and well known actors at the beginning of their careers in bit parts. 

Richard Basehart in convincing as the troubled young man on the ledge and Paul Douglas, then a top Fox star, is very good as the simple, compassionate cop who gets the task of of trying to talk him off.  Then there's Barbara Bel Geddes as the young man's fiancee and the great Agnes Moorehead acting up a storm as his self-absorbed mother. The other main support comes from the likes of Howard Da Silva as a police chief, Martin Gabel as a psychiatrist and Robert Keith as Basehart's father. 

Below that the cast is insanely full of now-familiar names who would go on to bigger things after this.  Frank Faylen is the waiter who first sees Basehart on the ledge. Jack Benny's TV nemesis, Frank Nelson, is a hotel guest, Jeff Corey is a policeman, Joyce Van Patten, Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget play onlookers, Harvey Lembeck and Ossie Davis are cab drivers and above all, there's the movie debut of Grace Kelly as a woman on her way to divorce her husband.  According to IMDB, Leif Erickson, John Randolph, Brad Dexter, Janice Rule and John Cassavettes are also somewhere in the crowds of rubberneckers, police and reporters shown but I didn't notice any of them.

The psychological element comes near the end of the film when Gabel delivers a detailed diagnosis of Basehart basically saying that all his troubles stem from confused feelings about his parents and resulting self-loathing.  It's the kind of pat explanation that would be spoofed a few years later in Psycho but in this context it sounds plausible.  There's also a sense for the callousness of the watching crowds that is reminiscent of Ace In The Hole but the overall feel  of the film is nowhere nearly as cynical. Peripheral characters may act as though the idea of a man jumping to his death is just a big show but the main folks involved, especially Douglas' cop, are shown as good, caring people.  That's probably one of the reasons Fourteen Hours has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years, not dark enough. Nevertheless it still holds up as tight, engrossing entertainment.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jeanne Lee / Ran Blake - "The Newest Sound Around"

Ran Blake is one of my favorite pianists, a man whose playing is a singluar blend of dissonance, blues and film noir elements. Over a fifty-year career he's mostly played in solo and small group settings but some of his greatest work has come when paired with female singers. He's worked with Chris Connor, Christine Correa and Dominique Eade over the years but his most remarkable duo work came on his very first recording, The Newest Sound Around, where he was paired with his fellow Bard College classmate, Jeanne Lee, who was also making her first recording.

From the first notes of the opening track "Laura" it's obvious this is something special. The dark sensuality of Lee's voice and the icy, clipped notes of Blake's piano create a memserizing effect, attractive and unsettling at the same time. Their version of "Blue Monk" may be the best example of their partnership. Blake goes into the tune with a rattling, alienating strangeness but when Lee brings her velvetly voice in, the oddity gets a human dimension and turns into a downbeat melancholy. Much of the rest of the session, like "Where Flamingos Fly" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" comes off equally ominous and delicate but there are other facets in the work. Blake's solo piece, "Church On Russell Street" is charging gospel piano with a strong Gershwin-like melody, Lee's acapella versions of the traditional "Motherless Child" and "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" are pure spun beauty and there's even a little frivolity on a Fran Landesman song "Season In The Sun" when George Duvivier joins in on bass and the solemn duo momentarily becomes a frisky jazz trio.

This record orignally came out on RCA in 1962 and has been revived a couple of times in the CD era. I first bought it when the format first came around and RCA reissued a whole slew of their jazz rarities on disc. Like a lot of older jazz sessions that have fallen into public domain lately, it's just been reissued, this time on a Spanish label, Solar, and with a nice bonus, some 1963 Blake and Lee live tracks from a concert in Germany that have never been released before.  These sound a little rough but still can be clearly heard. The highlights of this section are a gospel waltz version of Cannonball Adderly's "Sermonette",  a dramatic but lively Blake solo piece called "The Outcast" I'd never heard of before and an arrangement of the song "Round About" with a lilting carousel-like theme that foreshadows Blake's later masterwork "The Short Life Of Barbara Monk".

Altogehter The Newest Sound Around is a singular classic of voice and piano blending in a way no one has quite been able to match in the fifty years since its release.  It's a masterpiece that deserves to be far better known than it is and it's good that it's finally available again.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Even in this "everything comes out eventually" era, once in a while there's a film that its studio dislikes for one reason or another, resulting in its sitting on a shelf for years before a token run in a New York theatre for a week or two and an anonymous DVD release.

The film Margaret was almost one of those. Sitting in the Fox Searchlight vaults since 2007 because the studio and Kenneth Lonergan, the film's director kept squabbling about its length and Lonergan's difficulties in coming up with a finished cut, it did finally get released in New York in September 2011 and that would have been that except some critics saw the film and were impressed enough to make it a cause celebre in the film press and get it more exposure. It did eventually some acclaim and made a few critics' "Best of 2011" list. It's finally getting a wider release now and my personal opinion  In a lot of ways this feels like the airless film about self-absorbed West Side New Yorkers that Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach are always accused of making.

The main thrust of the film concerns a 17-year-old prep school girl, Lisa, who is involved in a bus accident that results in a woman's death.  The woman was run over by a bus whose driver had been distracted by Lisa.  The woman literally dies in her arms and although she at first tells the police the woman was at fault, she becomes consumed with her own guilt and obsessed with making the bus driver legally responsible for the death.

 Anna Paquin plays Lisa and she really conveys her confused senses of guilt, loneliness and outrage well.  When the movie concentrates on this main plot everything works fine.  It's all the bizarre tangents and parallels that drag things down.  Lisa's parents are divorced (naturally) and she lives with her mother, a stage actress who is starring in a hit play and is dating a Colombian businessman.  The mother-daughter estrangement angle is understandable but there seems to be too much time spent on Mom's dates.  As for Lisa herself, when she isn't haranguing police and lawyers about having the bus driver fired, she spends her school time getting in political arguments with a Syrian-born student and having very casual sexual encounters with a classmate she barely talks to and one of her teachers.  There are also some random background statements about the arbitrariness and mystery of existence that further confuse the issues.

All these elements could be part of a compelling movie but they feel poorly organized here.  Lisa comes off selfish, unsympathetic and sometimes so arbitrary you wonder if she might need a therapist.  Paquin is excellent but Lisa is not someone I'd want to watch for two and a half hours. Her character reminds me somewhat of an even more unsympathetic woman Sigourney Weaver played in a 1999 film nobody knows called A Map Of The World. There Weaver portrayed a cold, hostile woman wrongfully jailed for child molestation.  Her frostiness was compelling because it came from a grown woman whose inability to communicate with others seemed a lifelong tragedy.  Paquin's moods come off just come off as the petulance of a spoiled kid.

The acting is really good all around. Paquin, as I said, is convincing and there are also good turns from J.  Smith Cameron as her mother, Jean Reno as Mom's beau, Alison Janney as the accident victim and Matt Damon as the teacher who gets lucky.  Matthew Broderick also appears as another teacher but I have no idea why he is even in the movie.

In the end the film did need a good editor.  Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, no slouches, contributed to putting this version togetrher but making a coherent whole out of all this seemed even beyond their powers.  Not every unseen film is a suppressed masterpiece.

Sister Clodagh's Spring Movie Quiz

Dennis Collazio runs an interesting movie blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, where he occasionally runs a movie quiz to get opinions on a number of film topics. Here is the quiz and my answers are below.

1) Favorite movie featuring nuns

An easy one. Black Narcissus.

2) Second favorite John Frankenheimer movie

Seven Days In May second only to The Manchurian Candidate.

3) William Bendix or Scott Brady?

Bendix. I always confuse Brady with his brother, Lawrence Tierney.

4) What movie, real or imagined, would you stand in line six hours to see? Have you ever done so in real life?

I've never done it but for the 42 reel version of Greed, I'd think about it.

5) Favorite Mitchell Leisen movie

Murder At The Vanities. It was insane but it's the only one I really know.

6) Ann Savage or Peggy Cummins?
Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr? I'd rob a bank for her any time

7) First movie you remember seeing as a child

The animated 101 Dalmatians. (So I'm old. Deal with it.)

8) What moment in a movie that is not a horror movie made you want to bolt from the theater screaming?

I'd say Medea's first appearance in Diary Of A Mad Black Woman except I saw it at a family gathering on DVD, not a theatre.

9) Richard Widmark or Robert Mitchum?

Widmark because he could play cowardly punks as well as tough guys.

10) Best movie Jesus

Jeffery Hunter in King Of Kings. I haven't seen a lot of Jesus films.

11) Silliest straight horror film that you’re still fond of

The Brain That Wouldn't Die. It's both ridiculous and sleazy.

12) Emily Blunt or Sally Gray?

I know who they are but I haven't seen any of their films.

13) Favorite cinematic Biblical spectacular

See #10.

14) Favorite cinematic moment of unintentional humor

The murderer's hysterical confession in Murder At The Vanities.

15) Michael Fassbender or David Farrar?

Farrar. I've missed all of Fassbender's ubiquitous 2011 appearance so far.

16) Most effective faith-affirming movie

2001: A Space Odyssey. It really makes the case that there's something bigger than us out there.

17) Movie that makes the best case for agnosticism

Through A Glass Darkly. No one does loss of faith like Bergman.

18) Favorite song and/or dance sequence from a musical

Two by Busby Berkeley: "Lullaby Of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 and "Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" from Garden of the Moon.

19) Third favorite Howard Hawks movie

Red River coming after Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday

20) Clara Bow or Jean Harlow?

Harlow. Clara Bow has never connected with me.

21) Movie most recently seen in the theater? On DVD/Blu-ray/Streaming?

In a theater: Headhunters.  On DVD: Apocalypse Joe, a Spaghetti western

22) Most unlikely good movie about religion

The Last Temptation Of Christ.  From the publicity I wasn't expecting it to be that positive about faith.
23) Phil Silvers or Red Skelton?

Ernie Bilko, of course.

24) “Favorite” Hollywood scandal

The William Desmond Taylor murder

25) Best religious movie (non-Christian)

The Burmese Harp

26) The King of Cinema: King Vidor, King Hu or Henry King? (Thanks, Peter)

King Vidor

27) Name something modern movies need to relearn how to do that American or foreign classics had down pat

Create characters with the emotional maturity of adults, not hyperactive six-year-olds.

28) Least favorite Federico Fellini movie

And The Ship Sails On.

29) The Three Stooges (2012)—yes or no?

Heck no. I don't do cover bands.

30) Mary Wickes or Patsy Kelly?

Kelly for her shorts with Thelma Todd

31) Best movie-related conspiracy theory

William Randolph Hearst hushing up the accidental shooting of Thomas Ince on his yacht.

32) Your candidate for most misunderstood or misinterpreted movie

Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. Most people hate it but I thought it was a powerful statement about guilt and loneliness.

33) Movie that made you question your own belief system (religious or otherwise)

The Crying Game. Do I have to explain?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Don Byron New Gospel Quintet - "Love, Peace, And Soul"

In his recording career, clarinetist Don Byron has done tributes to a daunting variety of artists such as Junior Walker, Lester Young, Raymond Scott, John Kirby and Borscht Belt comic Mickey Katz. His first CD in four years, Love, Peace, And Soul, expands that list to include gospel pioneers Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and like all his previous projects, he makes his explorations sound perfectly logical and burn like nobody's business.

In his liner notes Byron makes a argument for Dorsey being the first composer to bring an African-American blues influence into religious music to create modern gospel, one of the foundations of all 20th century Black popular music, making Dorsey a monumentally important figure.  Byron and his quintet put forth a hell of a compelling case for this, performing Dorsey's songs with all out gusto. D. K. Dyson sings the house down while Byron shows his prowess on tenor and baritone sax as well as his usual clarinets and the entire band makes a holy stomping noise. Most of the pieces are gospel based but there are also side trips into blues, country and rock and roll and an Eddie Harris funk tune, "Sham Time" fits into the program perfectly. Besides the excellent work of the quintet, Dean Bowman's powerful pipes and a horn section add to a swinging version of Dorsey's "Consideration" and Brandon Ross and Vernon Reid contribute shredding guitar solos elsewhere.

It's been way too long since Don Byron had some new music out. Now with this triumphant reappearance on a new label, Savoy, hopefully we'll be hearing what his fertile mind comes up with a lot more frequently.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Avis Approach

I have been slacking off on this blog big time. I do know there are other blogs where the writer may go weeks or months without posting but for myself, I feel I can do a lot better. Even if i's just talking about movies, music and books I have as many valid things to say as the next guy and given my wandering eye, I often encounter work that nobody else seems to mention, at least going by the blogs I read. I don't know if I could keep up a year-long movie viewing diary the way my writing hero, Tim Lucas, is currently doing but I am going to start trying harder (Hence the post title.) and commit to writing at least one post a week on something I've heard, read or seen.  I currently have Spartacus, a disc of Italian westerns and samplings of a couple of old TV shows as rental DVDs plus a growing pile of sets of cartoons and old comedy shorts I've bought so I'm sure I'll find something to write about this weekend.  For now though, here's a little shout out to the old Midnight Rambler, Levon Helm...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Higher Ground

In my last post, I mentioned that I would be seeing a certain 2011 movie soon that could turn out to be the most moving film I'd see for the entire year.  I was right.

The movie is question is called Higher Ground. It starred and was directed by actress Vera Farmiga and it is based on a memoir about a woman searching for her faith.  Quite simply, the lead character, Corrine, gets baptised when she's a little girl, mostly because it's expected of her. She grows up, gets married and settles into a close-knit evangelical Christian community with her husband and children where the formal trappings of the church are replaced by a more communal atmosphere where peole hold worship groups in each others' homes, everybody wears blue collar working clothes to services and the pastor is called by his first name. The community seems conservative but not fanatical or bigoted while Corrine comes to feel restless and out of place, never getting the deep-seated feeling of God's presence that her husband and friends do. She eventually draws away from the community, leaves her husband, explores the larger world of literature and thought and by the end of the film, she is still waiting to feel God in her life.

This story is very simply and powerfully told. My synopsis left out all the ways Corrine and other characters, like her best friend in the community, Annika, come off as well fleshed-out and believable characters.  As a actress Farmiga draws a haunting portrait of a woman slowly growing into her own person wihtout finding any answers or audience-pleainsg big revelations.  Religion is not ridiculed in this movie. It is treated as something that is an important foundation of people's lives, even as the lead character seeks her own peace but never finds it.

All this explains why the film has been so overlooked in the end-of-year lists.  A woman searching for God isn't anywhere as sexy a topic as sexual addiction or the end of the world.  That the Oscars overlooked it is no surprise (though in a perfect world Farmiga would have nailed a Best Actress nomination at the very least) but in all the should-have-been nominated blog pieces I read, only Roger Ebert, who has become understandably philosophical in recent years, brought this film up.  Even the so-called "anti-Oscars", the Independent Spirit Awards, ignored it.  A story about an honest search for religious fulfillment with no villains or stereotyped characters is obviouvlsy too strong and scary for a lot of people. Sadly, Higher Ground may be one of those movies that sits around unnoticed for several years until someone runs across it on TV and writes an article about how good it is. It'll be a great movie ten years from now and it's a great movie today.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oscar Thoughts

It's Oscar time again and as usual, the movie blogosphere is buzzing with either outrage, disdain or joy over what got nominated and what is expected to win.  For every blog that says a certain film (Hugo/The Artist/The Tree Of Life/(your choice)) is a masterpiece and a wonderful advancement in cinematic art, there's another that says (Hugo/The Artist/The Tree Of Life/ (your choice)) is bland, pretentious junk and a symbol of how corrupt the entire process is.

I'm kind of taken aback by all this.  I've only seen a few of the Best Picture nominees so far and I'd be perfectly fine with The Descendants or The Artist taking the award.  Maybe they weren't the absolute best films of the year but they're both good pieces of work. I'm also tickled by the thought of a silent black and white film possibly winning the top Oscar in the year 2012, a time when noise, gadgetry and bombast rule the theatres.

The truth is that I just haven't seen enough 2011 movies for me to stand on a mountaintop and make thunderous pronouncements about what should have been nominated. I have yet to see Drive, Melancholia, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Take Shelter, Midnight In Paris or Carnage and We Have To Talk About Kevin hasn't even played in this area yet.  There's also one film almost no writer I've read has mentioned that I have a feeling could be the most moving of the lot. I should be seeing that one over the weekend.

If you watch a lot of movies, your opinion on the best of any given year is always subject to change because something always turns up after the fact.  There have been plenty of times when I've seen a film a few years after its release and been completely gobsmacked. Often it's a film that got no critical attention when it originally came out, much less awards.  My prime example of this is always A Map Of The World, a 1999 film that starred Sigourney Weaver as a school nurse falsely accused of molesting a student.  The movie was powerful and Weaver was flat-out amazing. She deserved a Best Actress Oscar nomination at the very least yet I've never seen a single word written about the film anywhere. Given that, it's hard for me to get excited about Albert Brooks getting snubbed for Drive. At least someone noticed he was snubbed.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"The End Of An Era"

Today I did something I'm probably going to have very little chance of doing for the rest of my life, I went to a record store.   Not just any record store but Melody Records, the last independent general record store left in the Washington, DC area. It's been around since 1977 but in the next few weeks Melody will bow to the inevitability of the times and close.  That will leave Barnes and Noble and their meager selection as the only place around here you can actually walk into and buy CDs.

Like any music lover I've been buying this stuff in one form or another for a long time, 40 years in my case, and I've seen plenty of local stores come and go, Waxie Maxie's, Harmony Hut, Viscount, Orpheus, Olsson's, and Kemp Mill and though it was a worldwide chain, Tower Records was always a great stopping place for me because of its infinite variety of selection.  The wonderful thing in going to all these stores was that you were always going to be surprised. You might go in looking for a particular item but you were always going to see some album or CD you had barely heard of or didn't even know existed.  I always loved the feeling of being immersed in music of all types. In the 70's I listened to mostly progressive rock then punk and new wave,  but all the jazz reissues coming out in those days from Original Jazz Classics and Blue Note would invariably catch my eye. As I got to know more about jazz, it was always great to go into a store and find new titles from labels like ECM and Black Saint popping up almost weekly. The covers, the liner notes, even the song titles, all fascinated me.

That's an experience online shopping and (shudder!) downloading can't give you.  I have bought things from several stores with online presences like Seattle's Jazz Loft, Chicago's Dusty Groove and the ubiquitous Amazon but the first two only specialize in certain genres or carry small amounts of titles and Amazon is fine if you know what you're searching for beforehand.  There's no real surprise in buying that way.

Obviously that doesn't matter to most folks so the public has left the physical stores behind and they have slowly given up the ghost, one by one.  Now the last one left in DC has fallen. If I want that pleasure again I'm going to have to wait until I make an infrequent trip to some other city and hope I can find a CD store left like the one I ran across in the historic section of Philadelphia a couple of years ago.

I made my first trip to Melody since the closing announcement 10 days ago. The store was pretty full of people buying up what they could and telling the staff how much they appreciated their being around all these years.  I did that as well and walked out with $100 worth of CDs: Craig Taborn's Avenging Angel, June Tabor's Ashore, Magnus Ostrom's Thread Of Life, Thelonious Monk's Criss-Cross, Claire Martin's Secret Love, Aaron Goldberg's and Guillermo Klein's Bienestan and Katie Bull's Freak Miracle, a haul of avant jazz, jazz singing, British folk and, in the last case, something I had never seen before.  Today I went back again and it was a little depressing. The store was still busy but several racks were now empty with the Jazz, Folk and World sections taking up about half of their former space. I still found another $100 worth to buy though, CDs from Lisa Mezzacappa, Aki Takase, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Jen Shyu, Wu Man, Theresa Wong and again one that came as a complete surprise, a 2 CD set of Gershwin compositions and other 20's Broadway works performed by Scottish classical pianist Joanna MacGregor. I think it's always fun to discover something new and record stores were always a great place to do that for me.  Never again, never again...