Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorite Movies Of 2013

#1: A man, a cat, a guitar
I'm finally posting the list of my favorite movies that I watched for the first time in the last year.  I still have American Hustle, The Wolf Of Wall Street and 12 Years A Slave to catch up on but those should all be around for a while. My rules for this list are to include anything I saw for the first time in 2013, no matter when the film was first released. Saying that, I;ve obviously been making a lot of trips to movie theatres lately because ten of the nineteen films I'm listing are from this year. In fact only three of them were originally released before 2000. I still watch a lot of older films through Netflix and ClassicFlix. This particular year though most of those were things I'd seen at least once before like High And Low and Million Dollar Legs. So here are the new-to-me films that got to me the most in 2013:

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
2. Nebraska (2013)
3. The Kids Are All Right (2010)
4. Greetings From Tim Buckley (2012)
5. Philomena (2013)
6. The Telephone Book (1971)
7. Blue Jasmine (2013)
8. Gravity (2013)
9. Amour (2012)
10. Burnt By The Sun (1994)
11. The Angels' Share (2013)
12. Trance (2013)
13. Hannah Arendt (2013)
14. Rust And Bone (2012)
15. The Bling Ring (2013)
16. Some Came Running (1958)
17. Cosmopolis (2012)
18. Life Of Pi (2012)
19. American Splendor (2003)


I've written about most of these on this blog before and others like Nebraska, Gravity and Blue Jasmine have already received tons of acclaim. A few, though, seem to be getting overlooked in all the professional 2013 post-mortems. Ken Loach's wonderful The Angel's Share I've talked about. The Bling Ring was Sofia Coppola's latest and, although she can't seem to get away from making movies about rich, bored young women, she turned that to her advantage in this really funny satire about an actual gang of wealthy Hollywood teens who blithely walked into the homes of celebrities and robbed to their hearts' content.  Trance was a twisted little crime movie from the often underrated Danny Boyle about an art theft with a plot that constantly turned and twisted virtually until the closing credits. It owed some of its ideas to Hitchcock (what thriller doesn't?) and was notable for casting Rosario Dawson in the part that, in old Hollywood days,  would have been played by an icy blonde Hitchcock-like femme fatale.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

What The Hell Was That?: The Telephone Book (1971)

Browsing through Netflix Instant I occasionally like to pick up on films I never heard of before. That's how I found The Telephone Book.  I watched it the other day and I'm having a time convincing myself that it wasn't some wacko hallucination.

The Telephone Book is a sex comedy made in New York in 1971. It concerns Alice, a free-spirited young woman who one day receives an obscene phone call that she declares is the best she ever heard. She sets out on a quest to find the caller and has encounters with different types of perverts like you'd only find in New York before meeting her dream man. This premise could easily have been turned into a grubby porn film but with professional acting, a funny script and a genuinely positive outlook towards sexual adventure, this specimen is far more than that.

The film was written and directed by Nelson Lyon who was a friend of John Belushi's and worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live and he concocted a daffy, light comedy that goes counterculture without being heavy-handed. The cast is full of high-quality actors and includes some surprisingly familiar faces. Jill Clayburgh has a small role which is not too surprising since this was at the start of her career but Roger C. Carmel and Barry Morse, two then familiar character actors, also show up as a couple of the perverts.  Morse was most well-known for playing Lt. Gerard on The Fugitive and, after seeing him here playing a porn actor literally covered with naked women, I can never watch that show the same way again.

Alice likes what she hears.

Alice is played by Sarah Kennedy, a bubbly little blonde with a resemblance to the young Goldie Hawn, who later became a Laugh-In cast member. There are also a few Andy Warhol regulars around the periphery like Ondine and Ultra Violet which is no surprise since the film resembles a Warhol movie with real humor added. The caller himself is played by Norman Rose who was the preeminent voiceover artist of his day, known for doing a bunch of commercial gigs and the National Lampoon "Deteriorara" parody.  In the last part of the film he shows up at Alice's apartment wearing a pig mask and tells her the story of how he became an obscene phone caller, a long monologue about dropping out of the mainstream that his deep, burnished voice makes compelling. Alice is enraptured and begs him to have sex with her.  They do in a fashion but you don't see any actual simluated or real sex. Instead it is illustrated by a wild hardcore animation that's a bizarre cross between R. Crumb, Ralph Bakshi and Hieronymus Bosch.

Looking for information on the internet on this thing I found that this movie wasfar more talked about than seen for many years before someone released a  full-blown Blu-Ray DVD version which is the version on Netflix. There is a trailer for the film arounf which which contains praise from Steve Martin among others and it's easy to see that this crazy little oddity could get a cult following if more people were aware of it. It's an amazing little relic of its era that touches on the work of Warhol, William Klein and Terry Southern but has its own distinctive sex-positive sweetness. Lord knows it's far more funny than a lot of better-known satires from that period.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Movie Roundup #23: Family Secrets

Dame Judi and Alan Partridge

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench deserves all the accolades she is getting for her performance in this film but a lot of love also needs to go to Steve Coogan who co-wrote the script and played the male lead.  The script is a lot more acerbic than it could have been given the film's tearjerking storyline and Coogan plays his role with the same  subtle petulance he brings to his comic parts.

This could have been much more over the top. Coogan plays a disgraced government press secretary  and Dench plays Philomena, a woman with a secret he thinks he can exploit for a magazine article. She had a son out of wedlock while living at a Catholic school fifty years earlier. The child was adopted by a rich couple and the nuns forbade her to have any contact with him. Now an old woman, Philomena decides to find out what happened to her son and she enlists Martin's help in doing so.  For his part Martin is subtly contemptuous of the entire exercise and looks on it as an opportunity to reestablish his writing career. However as he helps Philomena in a search that takes them all the way to Washington, DC he grows to respect her and becomes emotionally attached to her story.

It's a story that could have easily been schmaltzy but outside of the overblown orchestral score, it doesn't. Dench and Coogan both play their roles with a clear-eyed intelligence and straightforwardness that keeps the bathos to a minimum. No big speeches or weepy moments, just two actors who communicate volumes through their eyes and facial expressions.  I love Steve Coogan dearly for his various TV appearances as the obnoxiously clueless talk show host, Alan Partridge, but this film shows that he can play seriously equally well.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

I sort of liked this film even though it wasn't what I expected.  It won points from me for simply referencing avant-garde mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian in its title and from the little I heard about it, I expected some kind of homage to the 70's Italian horror films of Mario Bava and Dario Aregento.  It is in some ways but it's not a horror film itself.

The plot concerns a BBC sound engineer who is mysteriously hired to work on a low-budge horror film in Italy. When he gets there he finds the producer and several crew members to be vaguely sinister and the voice actresses dubbing the film to be on edge. Furthermore the director is a flamboyant "art is everything" type and the screams the engineer has to work with on the soundtrack seem disturbingly real.

However that setup does not lead to anything really evil. No one is being murdered or tortured by the crew.  The real drama comes in the way working on this film starts to unravel the engineer's mind. After a certain point the film narrative starts to disintegrate and by the end, what you have is a meditation on the melding of fantasy and reality in filmmaking. It comes out more Bergman and Antonioni than Bava and Argento.

For all that I think I liked the movie. Toby Jones is very good at conveying the unease and fears of the engineer and there is a convincing 70's Italian thriller vibe to the production as well as some nice little jokes and insights about the work of film dubbing. I would like to see this again sometime to make out exactly how successful it is at what it attempts.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

This wasn't what I expected either but in a good way. The plot concerns the son of a lesbian couple who becomes curious about the identity of his birth father and finds the guy who then inserts himself into the family and even takes one of the two partners to bed.

I thought the movie would have a lot of angsty scenes about a rebellious kid who rejects his parents for a father's love but I should have known better. The film was written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko who is gay and has a son by a sperm donor in real life. She presents the two women partners, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and their teenage kids as a real family and the "father" played by Mark Ruffalo as a self-centered free spirit type who is ultimately rejected by everyone when he is perceived as a threat to the family unit. It's also a funny social comedy with far more literate dialogue than you find in most romantic comedies these days and nice unique touches like the kids' casual acceptance of their mothers' lifestyle and the actual constant use of the term "sperm donor" instead of "father". This film wasn nominated for several Oscars but didn't win and the ones that do that tend to be quickly forgotten these days. I hope that doesn't happen here. With this movie's warmth and resonance it deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Jazz World: Bird Words

Coleman Hawkins

In early dance bands, the saxophone was mainly used as a novelty instrument that made all sorts of squeaky, funny noises. That lasted until Coleman Hawkins came on the scene. Hawkins was the first man to tame the unwieldy tenor saxophone and turn it into a vehicle for melodic improvisation.  His big, robust sound was the standard for the instrument. He was one of the two most influential of the great tenor players, continually refining his sound for over forty years even to the point of collaborating  with younger stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.

The most famous example of what Hawkins' powers is his 1939 improvisation on his biggest commercial hit "Body And Soul", a textbook example of how to turn a familiar melody into something dazzlingly fresh:

Lester Young

I said there was another very influential early tenor player. That would be Lester Young whose singing, laid back sound was often the polar opposite of Hawkins' brawny serenading. He floated over rhythms with a relaxed, soulful grace made him a star in the Count Basie orchestra and a great compliment to the singing of Billie Holiday.  He would also be an inspiration to later saxophonists like Stan Getz and Al Cohn who would refine his lighter sound into their own individual conceptions. Here he is in 1942 playing "Tea For Two":

In the 1940's a generation of musicians began to emerge with new ideas who experimented with chords, meter and time and created a newer, more cerebral sort of jazz that was often fast, complex and alienating to more traditional fans. This music came to be known as bebop and it produced some of the music's greatest figures.

Charlie Parker

First above all there was Charlie "Yardbird" or "Bird" Parker. Parker played alto sax but picked up a lot from Lester Young, putting that floating beauty through exponential increases in time and speed and creating a revolutionary sound. Here he is living up to his nickname, chirping like a madman on "Koko":

Parker fell into a cadre of like-minded musicians in New York like Dizzy Gillespie, Curly Russell, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach who worked on their ideas on night club bandstands and developed a devoted following. Parker himself was subject to personal demons, especially heroin, but always tried to stretch himself and develop new concepts.  He was fascinated by the music of Igor Stravinsky and recorded with a string orchestra, something jazz musicians rarely did back then.  Fans have always been divided on this work but I've always thought that Parker's quicksilver alto really blossomed in these interesting arrangements./ Here is "April In Paris":

Dizzy Gillespie

Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34 but his colleagues kept the bop revolution going.  The most important was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who was just as keen on intellectual experimentation of the music as Parker but had a more outgoing and humorous personality that helped make him a star with the general public. He could play with incendiary speed and power or blow the coolest of blues both in small groups or forceful big bands.

Here he is in 1965 with one of his small groups featuring James Moody on sax and flute and Kenny Barron on piano:

One of Dizzy's other achievements was to help create Afro-Cuban jazz in his 1940's big band when he added Cuban conga player Chano Pozo to his orchestra. This is one of the big songs that came out of that influence, "Manteca", performed by an international big band in 1970:

Next: The Cool

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stan Tracey and Jim Hall

Here we go again. Two more of my favorite jazz players have passed away within the last few days. A couple of weeks ago it was Chico Hamilton. Now it's Stan Tracey and Jim Hall.

Stan Tracey (1926-2013)

Stan Tracey passed away on December 6. He is not a name most Americans know but he was one of the legendary figures of British jazz. He gained his first big reputation as the house pianist at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London in the 1960's where he played piano behind visiting American stars like Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins. He was known for his craggy piano style, a sly, inventive variation on Thelonious Monk's sound, and his composing. He wrote many suites and literary adaptations for bands of various sizes with the most famous being a suite based on the Dylan Thomas play, Under Milkwood. He was a traditionalist at heart with an great affinity for Monk and Ellington but starting in the 1970's he would occasionally explore the free jazz leanings of the younger British players of the day. He even recorded fully improvised albums with two of the biggest names of the younger generation, Keith Tippett and Evan Parker. He received many honors in his life including the Order of the British Empire and was performing and recording up until the end, releasing a final album, The Flying Pig, just a couple of months ago.

This is the most famous of Tracey's works, "Starless And Bible Black" from the original 1965 recording of Under Milkwood with Bobby Wellins playing remarkable tenor sax:

Here he is live with his quartet on a 2009 broadcast of the BBC television show, Later...with Jools Holland:

Jim Hall (1930-2013)

Hall left us just yesterday. It would be very hard to find any jazz guitar player active today who does not have a little Jim Hall in him. His dry, crisp sound has influenced generations and he has been a sparring partner for musicians who ranged from Sonny Rollings to Pat Metheny.  He first gained notice in the intellectual but swinging bands of Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Giuffre.  After that came collaborations with, among others Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and Ron Carter. Some of the later folk who paid attention to him included Bill Frisell, Chris Potter and Joe Lovano.  He played in Washington with Lovano just a few months ago and in my everlasting stupidity I missed it.

Hall had a way of voicing chords that always seemed fresh, a malleable low-key style that was melodic, frisky and classy.  Here he is playing the blues with disciple Frisell in a 1995 concert:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Jazz World: Swing It!

The jazz musicians of New Orleans migrated north to other cities and began to influence players all over the country. Soon jazz scenes began to spring up in places like New York, Chicago and Kansas City. The musicians found work in speakeasies, night clubs and stage shows eventually coming together in large orchestras to play at places like Harlem's Cotton Club.  There were any number of important bandleaders who emerged in the 1920's and 1930's like Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Cab Calloway but without question the most important was Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington

Ellington is universally recognized as the finest composer jazz ever produced.  He led his orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974 and had a gift of producing memorable tunes that showcased the talents of all the great soloists he employed, men like Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton and Paul Gonsalves.  He was brilliant writing in shorter forms, coming up with  classic works like "Black And Tan Fantasy", "Mood Indigo", "Satin Doll" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" but in later years he was able to expand his range, doing longer suites dedicated to Asia, Africa and the plays of Shakespeare among other subjects. In the last thirty years of his career he got to collaborate with another gifted composer, Billy Strayhorn. and to top it all off, he was an amazing piano player away from the band.

No one or two clips can do Ellington's music justice but here is a tiny sampling. First up is "It Don't Mean A Thing". Ray Nance is the first singer and violinist and Ben Webster takes the tenor solo:

And from the later days, perhaps the greatest soloist Duke ever employed, the magnificent alto player Johnny Hodges performing Strayhorn's "Isfahan" from the Far East Suite. (The holding the score bit was evidently an in joke within the band. Hodges didn't need to read the music.)

Benny Goodman

In the 1930's big band jazz, then known as Swing, became the most popular music in the country and the bandleader who led that surge was Benny Goodman, a deserving front man. Goodman's clarinet playing was superb, his band swung mightily and he had a lof of gifted soloists like trumpeter Harry James, pianist Jess Stacy and drummer Gene Krupa. Goodman also led one of the most successful small groups of the day in his trio with Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Teddy Wilson on piano.  In 1938 his band became the first jazz group to play Carnegie Hall helping legitimize the music as art.

This is the Goodman orchestra in the 1937 movie Hollywood Hotel doing "Sing Sing Sing" with James and Krupa featured then immediately cutting to some action by the trio with Krupa added.

Count Basie

The other great bandleader of this period I wanted to mention was Count Basie.  Basie's group came out of Kansas City and was heavily steeped in the blues. His sound may have been simpler than Ellington's but it was a powerhouse, sporting a gifted blues singer named Jimmy Rushing who'll I'll discuss in a later post and one of the most influential tenor players of all time in Lester Young.  Basie, like all the big band leaders, went through a fallow period after World War II as popular tastes shifted from large bands to singers but he rebounded strongly in the 1950's with a sleek but massive ensemble sound and a number of excellent tunes provided by arrangers like Frank Foster, Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti. However it was organist Wild Bill Davis, who did the arraignment of the tune that became one of the signatures of the latter day Basie band, "April In Paris":

Next Time: A couple of saxophone players and a revolution.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton 1921-2013

I just read another of those bits of news you never want to hear. Drummer Chico Hamilton has just passed away at the age of 92.

Hamilton was a Los Angeles native who came up in that city's 1940's jazz scene.  As a leader in the 1950's he led a quintet that became emblematic of the West Coast "cool" scene, using guitar, flute and cello to create a dreamy, exotic texture unlike anything else at the time. His work would evolve over the years as he absorbed the sounds of hard bop, jazz-rock and funk into later groups.  He was one of those bandleaders who brought an astonishing amount of talent to attention.  Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, John Pisano, Fred Katz, Eric Dolphy, Gabor Sazbo, Larry Coryell, Charles Lloyd, Arthur Blythe and Eric Persson are just some of the musicians he worked with early in their careers. Lloyd's classic "Forest Flower" was first heard on Hamilton's Man from Two Worlds album.

Here is Hamilton's quintet at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with Eric Dolphy on flute playing "Blue Sands" in an excerpt from the classic film Jazz on a Summer's Day:

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Jazz World: Beginnings

Louis Armstrong

The origins of American jazz are pretty clear cut. Coming out of the blues and dances passed down from West Africans who came to America as slaves, it began at the dawn of the 20th century as the party music played in the brothels of the Storyville district of New Orleans. There were important early figures like trumpeters Buddy Bolden, who left no surviving recordings, and Joe "King" Oliver but the music's undisputed first superstar was an Oliver protege, Louis Armstrong.  The constant invention and power Armstrong showed in his playing was the high water mark of the music up to that point. He also sang in a gravelly, melodic voice that sounded as special as his pealing trumpet work. Legend has it that during one recording session he dropped his sheet music and starting making up sounds and words during his vocal break, inventing the art of scat singing.  His greatest work came between 1925 and 1928 when he recorded with his small groups called the Hot Five or Hot Seven. Of those records the pinnacle is generally considered to be "West End Blues" which starts with an amazing solo trumpet cadenza and continues with some of his sweetest wordless singing.

Jelly Roll Morton

If Armstrong was the music's first great soloist, Jelly Roll Morton was its first great composer. At one time a pianist for the Storyville brothels, Morton's compositions and arrangements for his group, the Red Hot Peppers, kept the spontaneity and improvisational feel of jazz going in a written context. He wrote many tunes that became familiar in later years like "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "The Pearls" and "Black Bottom Stomp":

Bix Beiderbecke

From almost the exact moment that records of the New Orleans musicians began to appear, white musicians from other parts of the country listened and began to play their own takes on the sound. Almost immediately some grumbled that this music was just a pale imitation of the real thing, prettied up and diluted for a white audience.  Going by the work of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, a case could be made for that but in the 1920's the first white musicians with undeniably original voices began to emerge from the Midwest and New York. That group included saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang and epsciialy trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.  Beiderbecke's horn had a different sound than Armstrong, sunnier and jauntier with its own sense of freedom and adventure.  His most famous solo came on a recording with Trumbauer's orchestra, "Singin' The Blues:

Beiderbecke also did some composing and recorded a few piano solo pieces that were some of the first jazz works to try to pull the music away from traditional blues rhythms and into something influenced by the most progressive classical composers of the day like Ravel and Debussy.  If he had continued in this vein he might have become an even more significant figure, but sadly he wouldn't live long enough to carry on. A heavy drinker, Beiderbecke died in 1931 at the age of 30. Here is one of his piano works, "In A Mist":

Fats Waller

I wanted to touch on one other big name from the 1920's, Fats Waller. Waller began working as a professional pianist at 15 and soon built a career for himself as a performer and songwriter, writing over 400 songs in some estimates, including future standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Jitterbug Waltz". He was renowned as one of the great stride pianists of his day and had an outsized performing personality that made him as famous as his music. That's evident is the first actual film clip I get to put up for this series, a 1942 Soundie (a early form of music video) for "Honeysuckle Rose":

Next: The Swing Era

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Jazz World: Introduction

A few people who know about my love of jazz have told me that I should put together some kind of list of Jazz artists or recordings I would recommend for someone who didn't know much about the music. In the next few days I'm going to start trying to do that but on a more ambitious scale. I'm going to start writing a series of posts about jazz artists I really love. This will cover a lot of ground so I'll posting sound clips and videos from other places on the Web, first in roughly chronological order, then branching out into some of the sub-groupings I really like such as vocalists, large ensembles and British jazz.

I want to make it clear from the beginning that this will all reflect my personal tastes and not be any attempt at a comprehensive history of the music. Professional writers like Gary Giddins and Ted Gioia have done far better books on that then I ever could.  I'll be mentioning some of the bedrock figures who have to be dealt with in this music's history, but eventually it's going to come around to the people I know and enjoy the most. I know I'm going to pass over some crucial names simply because I'm not as familiar with their music as I should be or because I just plain forgot. What I do talk about should just be considered starting points. If you like some of what you hear, investigating that artist's work is invariably going to lead you to plenty of other great artists. That's the path I followed when I first really started digging into this music.

I hope to do the first post in the next few days and try to continue weekly from there (though I can barely say that with a straight face). I have enough material to do this for a while.  Just looking around on YouTube I found several film clips by duos or groups I didn't dream had ever been filmed.  If you read any of these posts hopefully you'll hear something that will give you a sense of the great variety in this music and make you want to seek out more..

And just as a sample, here's a 1989 clip from a Vienna concert of two people I should be returning to down the line, pianist Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow doing Bley's composition, "Sing Me Softly Of The Blues":

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The First Goodbye: Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley

With some musical biographies, what you get out of them can depend on your familiarity with the people being discussed.  For example I thoroughly enjoyed Control, the film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, and 24 Hour Party People, the story of that band's label, Factory Records, and its owner, Tony Wilson, though I can understand that they both might seem impenetrable to someone who wasn't that conversant with British post-punk. Similarly I loved the film Greetings From Tim Buckley but I understand where it might lose people who don't know anything about the careers of its subjects.  It helps if you know something about the lives of Tim and Jeff Buckley but even if you don't this is still a moving story about a young man trying to come out from the shadow of a famous deceased father and make it as his own man.

Tim Buckley was a wildly talented singer-songwriter of the 1960's with a multi-octave vocal range who started out as a folksinger but played around with psychedelia, jazz, avant-garde improvisation and rock and roll before his premature death in 1975 at the age of 27 from a drug overdose.  This film, however, is about his son, Jeff, who took up music himself and it chronicles what happened when he went to New York in 1991 to take part in a tribute concert to his father.

As the movie tells it, as soon as Jeff walks into the concert space, St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, for his first rehearsal, everyone is astonished by his physical resemblance to Tim, something Jeff doesn't care to hear about.  He's still very resentful of the fact that his father spent most of his childhood touring in the company of various girlfriends while he and his mother sat home in California and that he saw Tim very few times before his death.

This has the potential to come out as rote sub-James Dean "hurt man-child" stuff but this film runs deeper. Penn Badgley, who plays Jeff, has a scary physical resemblance to him and does the role with a mixture of charm, anger and hurt that is touching.  It also helps that Badgley's singing voice comes damn close to Jeff Buckley's actual otherworldly wail. There is one scene in a record store where he sings everything from "The Twelfth Of Never" to T. Rex and Led Zeppelin while flipping through albums that will floor you even if you've never heard Jeff Buckley in your life. His scenes are contrasted with brief flashbacks of Tim himself, played by Ben Rosenfeld, doing shows in New York, hanging out with his band and girlfriend while his wife sits home 3000 miles away pregnant. The real Tim and Jeff Buckley did have a strong physical resemblance and that holds true for Badgely and Rosenfeld who have a noticeable similarity in their movements and manners. You see that Jeff is chanelling his father even when he tries to declare his independence from him.

Jeff finds some solace in the company of Allie, a young woman working on the concert, played by Imogen Poots,   Their scenes together feel playful and fresh, with romantic longings taking a back seat to the sight of two lonely kids reaching out for friendship.  The movie climaxes with the concert itself, where Jeff, after cringing at the mention of his father's name throughout the film, sucks it up, goes on stage and blows everyone away singing his father's "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain", "Phantasmagoria In Two" and "Once I Was" in a glorious voice, coming into the full flowering of his talent. The film ends with Jeff saying goodbye to Allie after the concert and leaving New York, a very poignant moment if you know what lies ahead of him.

In real life. Jeff's performance caught the music industry's attention and two years later, he recorded the album Grace which eventually became a big hit. Sadly his life paralleled his father's to the end.  In 1997, he too died at an ungodly young age, accidentally drowning in the Mississippi River.

The film, directed by Daniel Algrant, is told with measured pacing and subdued colors but it is suffused with music. Tim Buckley's recordings are all over the soundtrack but the scenes after the concert switch to one of Jeff's recordings "Lilac Wine", signalling that he's laid his father's ghost to rest.  Various musical figures like the concert producer; Hal Willner and Tim's old guitarist, Lee Underwood, are played by actors but there is an appearance from a real figure in this story, guitarist Gary Lucas who became Jeff's bandmate after he moved to New York. There's a nice scene of he and Badgley playing each other guitar riffs in his apartment. Lucas playing figures that I think eventually turned up as some of the songs on Grace.

There is a moving story about a son making peace with his father's memory here. It's a shame that lack of general familiarly about the Buckley's work will probably keep many people from seeing it. Greetings From Tim Buckley is a movie worth seeing and if it leads you to check out either father's or son's music, so much the better.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Legendary Heart

The music world would be a very different place today without Lou Reed. He wasn't the only one who made rock music "grow up" and liberate it from an endless succession of songs about school, girls and teenage fun. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson all played important roles in that but none of them went to the dark side quite like Reed did.

In the Velvet Underground alongside John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker with Andy Warhol and Nico helping out, he told tales of junkies, sexual deviants and God knows what through scary feedback-laden music contrasting that with some of the most delicate and beautiful love songs anyone ever wrote like "Here She Comes Now" and "Sunday Morning". On the later Velvets albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, Warhol and Cale were gone and the mood lightened a bit. However each record still contained a number of great songs including two masterpieces "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Sweet Jane".

His solo work tended to be more divisive. I actually bought his first few solo albums at the time they came out. I wasn't all that impressed with the first two (though I'm now a lot older and wiser about Transformer) but Berlin floored me from the first listen. He took a sad little tale about expatriate junkies in Berlin and transformed it into grand romantic tragedy.  Some subsequent material wasn't all that good (See Sally Can't Dance) but just when you'd write him off, you'd hear a tune like "Coney Island Baby" and say "Hey, maybe Lou's still got something."

I didn't pay rapt attention to him in the 80's and 90's but I did have a few favorite songs like "Legendary Hearts", "Street Hassle", "Dirty Boulevard" and a kickass version of "September Song" he did on a Kurt Weill tribute CD. As time went on I began to appreciate his dogged, take-no-prisoners impulse to experiment. In his younger days he collaborated with the likes of Warhol and David Bowie. Later years found him working with artists from other realms like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Jimmy Scott, Anthony Hegarty, John Zorn and his wife, Laurie Anderson. Not only was he a great writer and performer he was a musical experimenter going back to the white noise days of "European Son" and "Sister Ray".  In recent years he was doing improv concerts with Zorn and Anderson and playing as a featured soloist with an ensemble that performed his infamous "Metal Machine Music" live.

I particularly like some of the later recordings that haven't been mentioned much in the tributes I've read so far: The Raven, his ambitious song cycle on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the sludgy but passionate Ecstasy, mostly a group of contented love songs with the pointed exception of "Like A Possum",  an 18-minute epic of sex, drugs, rage and warped sound loops. Then there was his last, Lulu, his obscene, blood-soaked summit meeting with Metallica. To me this work was quintessential Lou Reed, foul-mouthed curses and threats alternating with pleas for love set to a torrential musical thunderstorm that ends in soothing strings on the closing "Junior Dad".

Without Reed's immense body of work there would be no examples of "the other" for glam rock to aspire to, nothing to inspire the more intellectual of the original New Wave gang like Talking Heads and Television not to mention everyone that came after them. I've heard a supposed quote by Michael Stipe that only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground and Nico when it came out but every one of them started a band. I read a column on Grantland today where supposedly Brian Eno  gave the quote but said 30,000 people. It could have been David Bowie talking about 50,000 people and they would all be right. The point is that Lou Reed's influence was enormous and his music is iconic. The man was proof that rock music can produce artists. No one else was as good at taking us to Hell but still showing us the light. R.I.P. Lou.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed (1942 - 2013)

I felt a little sick writing the above headline. I'll have more to say about Lou once I get my thoughts together but for now from YouTube, this is a live performance of "Dirty Boulevard":

Movie Roundup #22: The Good

High And Low: Mifune, Nakadai and company talk it out.

High And Low (1963)

As compelling as the deepening moral abyss of Breaking Bad is (I'm now three episodes away from the end of what's available on Netflix and as they say, the sh*t done got real.) it's refreshing to watch this classic film by Akira Kurosawa, a crime story that turns on someone doing the honorable and right thing.

The film centers on Gondo, a shoe company executive played by Toshiro Mifune. He is plotting strategy in a struggle with some of his partners for control of the company when he gets a phone call telling him that his 8-year-old son has been kidnapped for a 30 million yen ransom. He frantically agrees to pay even though it would mean his financial ruin but then his son walks in the room completely unharmed. It turns out that the kidnappers mistakenly grabbed the son of Gondo's chauffeur, with whom his own boy had been playing but even when they realize their error, their demands don't change, 30 million yen or the kids dies. The question then becomes will Gondo pay the ransom money to save another man's child.

This story originated as one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, King's Ransom.  In that story the executive cannot bring himself to pay the ransom. Kurosawa flips that response and, in keeping with the self-sacrifice theme of some of his other films, Gondo, after a lot of soul-searching, pays the money. Much of the rest of the film is police procedural stuff of the police painstakingly tracking down the kidnappers while Gondo is forced out of his company and forced to start over while in middle-age.

The early part of the movie is laid out like a play. Set almost totally in Gondo's living room, the characters move through the scene's space often turning their backs to him in embarrassment as he rages about how he cannot pay while his wife and chauffeur plead with him. Later on as the focus moves to the cops' manhunt the movie starts to resemble Dragnet without narration, long scenes of conferences, interviews and suspect tracking that move through the differing levels of Japanese society. The scenes shift from open air markets to night clubs and finally, dope dens, far away from the rich man's house where the movie started. In the last scene Gondo confronts the kidnapper, now captured and on death row. He turns out to be a Raskolnikov-like medical intern who had never even met Gondo but just hated him because he was rich and lived in a big house on a hill. At the end Gondo, the ruined man, sits composed and at peace with his life while the kidnapper screams in denial of where he is and what's become of him.

Mifune, as usual, is excellent, raging and bellowing at the beginning but shifting to a controlled, philosophical resignation. In one beautiful scene the police have the suitcases to be used for the ransom money and are discussing where to put signal devices that would alert them if the cases are burned or dumped in the river. Mifune calmly gets out his shoe making tools and starts carving pockets into the cases to hide the devices. Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune's nemesis in films like Yojimbo, plays the lead police detective while there are also plenty of faces from Kurosawa's regular stock company in small roles whom I don't know by name, with the exception of the great Takashi Shimura who shows up as a police official.

Akria Kurosawa made two of my all-time favorite films, The Seven Samurai and Ikiru. High and Low doesn't quite belong in that select company but it's damn close. Beneath the crime elements it has a respect for the decency and honesty of the individual that few filmmakers pulled off quite as well as him.

Carson Corners:  J'accuse - The janitor did it (or did he?)

"The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners" (1954)

Television drama was in a very different place than today in the early 50's.  There were no likable serial killers, sexy vampires, suburban drug lords, crime bosses with emotional problems, or psychotic government agents back then. Significant stories were still told. The best of them just worked on a lower keyed and more subtle level. Rod Serling's "Requiem For A Heavyweight" and "Patterns" are two of the more well-known examples of the period but the lesser-known "The Remarkable Incident At Carson Corners" written by Reginald Rose has something to say as well.

This drama was part of the Westinghouse Studio One anthology series and it told a very simple story. The kids of a small town called Carson Corners invite their parents to a special school project. When everyone has assembled in jolly "What are the little tykes planning?" good humor, the kids unveil their surprise. They are holding a mock trial and accusing the school janitor of the murder of one of their classmates.

Rose's most famous work was another Studio One play, "12 Angry Men" and you can see elements of that story here as some of the parents turn into an angry mob out for the janitor's blood while a few cooler heads try to get at the truth.  It turns out the kids are mistaken but as all the adults in the room are forced to reconsider the circumstances of the boy's death. The story follows one of Breaking Bad's (that show again!) guiding principles, The Law Of Unintended Consequences. Things done or not done that seemed harmless at the moment turn out to have contributed to the tragedy.

The show quietly puts out the message that we are all responsible for one another and if we neglect that responsibility something bad could happen, not a terrorist bombing or a drug cartel shootout, but something tragic all the same. The point is made well here without over-the-top histrionics or preachy dialogue. There are not any famous actors in early roles here as you sometimes get in these old shows, just a few faces recognizable to hardcore old TV fans like Frank Overton and Harry Townes. The relative anonymity of the cast keeps the message out front, not that the message is still that relevant. After all it's sixty years later and we all recognize the value of looking out for one another...right?

Virtue (1932) 

If you're an old movie fan and I were to tell you that this pre-Code film starred Pat O'Brien and Carole Lombard you'd be all set for a fast-paced, wise-cracking big city story and you'd be partially wrong. Virtue was made at Columbia not O'Brien's long time studio, Warner Brothers and O'Brien is not the fast-talking sharpie he usually was in Warners films even though the plot here could have been prime Warners material.

O'Brien plays a New York City cabdriver who meets and falls in love with Lombard who he thinks is an out of work stenographer. In reality she is a prostitute who just skipped out on a trip to an upstate work farm but that makes no difference and the two falls in love and get married. Things go along well for them even after O'Brien finds out the truth.  Then Lombard gives a sick friend $200 that O'Brien was saving to invest in a gas station and in the ensuing complications, he walks out and she gets charged with a murder.

Again this is a more subdued Lombard and O'Brien than you see in the fast-moving razzle dazzle of their signature movies and Lombard in particular shows a tough, dramatic edge worthy of a Stanwyck or Crawford, a side of her not apparent in My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred. The movie goes by fast, wrapping up in just over an hour without any overdone sentiment or annoying "comic relief" and showing some visual flair in a montage of a trip to Coney Island. It's a surprisingly likable little programmer.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


I know that most of the world has already found out the final fates of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and the other people in their world but I'm still slowly making my way through Breaking Bad. Some people seem to like to watch TV shows in one big gulp now, devouring entire seasons either on DVD or online in one or two days. Not me. This show, in particular, deserves to be savored one episode at a time. Getting into a rhythm of no more than one a day gives me the opportunity to reflect on the plot twists and overall majesty of the series. This thing is shaping up to be a Shakespearean-style tragedy and I just hope the end lives up to the buildup.

One thing I'm particularly appreciating now is how all the supporting characters are turning out to have many facets beyond what they initially show.  Hank, Walt's blowhard DEA agent brother-in-law, has turned out to be a dogged cop with great reasoning skill. Skyler, Walt's wife, becomes chillingly pragmatic when faced with the facts about her husband's drug activities. Then, there's Gus, Walt's drug kingpin boss. His back story is still being revealed but it's become very clear that he can be monstrously cold-blooded and vengeful on one side and quietly practical on the other.

I've managed to stay clear of most spoilers, outside of the fact that Walt and Jessie do seem to live at least into the last episode, which lessens the tension whenever they get into a potentially deadly situation now.  I do know that Marty Robbins' song "El Paso" shows up in the final episode and provides it with its title, "Felina" and that Badfinger's "Baby Blue" comes up over the closing credits performing the function "Don't Stop Believin''" did in The Sopranos. I'm also intrigued by the vague references everywhere to how evil Walt becomes since I'm really not at that point yet. Where I've left off he has just had an emomtrinal talk with his son while recovering from the beatdown Jesse gave him at the same time that Gus, Mike and Jesse are escaping from the Mexican drug cartel. There would seem to still be a lot of fun times ahead of me.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Movie Roundup # 21: They Can't All Be Winners

In A World... (2013)

I've ended up seeing this movie twice, once alone and once with other people, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.  It bothered me the first time but when I saw it again it seemed a little better but I still wasn't all that crazy about it.

The film tells a familiar story of female empowerment in an original setting. Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the film, plays Carol, a woman who works as a voice coach for actors but aspires to do voiceovers for movie trailers, a job where her father is a legendary figure. When another top voice man gets sick and can't make a recording, she gets a chance to do the work and soon gets more trailer gigs and is up for doing the trailers for a high prestige "Hunger Games" like series of films.This is not even mentioning the subplot about Carol's sister cheating on her husband that seems to be thrown into the mix for no good reason.

It goes by  pleasantly enough if you accept the premise but I couldn't get too much into it. Bell delivers her dialogue in a mumbling stream-of-consciousness fashion mumbled lines that seem to be meant as funny but doesn't work. The character of Carol herself comes off really diffident and whiny and hard to relate to. She is not as bad as the queen of whiny comedy heroines, Diane Keaton's Annie Hall, but she's distressingly close.

Also, I realize this is just a generational problem on my part (I'm old enough now to have those.) but it bothered me that Carol and Louis, the sound engineer who becomes her boyfriend, played by Demitri Martin, are adults who dress and talk like high school sophomores.  On the other hand there are a few good jokes about the inner workings of the movie business and there is a genuinely funny performance from Fred Melamed as Carol's blustery, condescending dad. Otherwise I kept thinking how odd the entire plot seems.  I'm not sure how much voiceover work is done for movie trailers today but a lot of the voice work I notice in television announcing and animation is done by women today. Even a place you'd think of as a male bastion, the NFL Network, uses at least one female announcer. Is this entire story even realistic?

Yeah, right!

The Night Porter (1974)

Upon its release in 1974 The Night Porter was a big controversial deal but it hasn't worn well. The premise is certainly shocking. In 1957 a former Nazi concentration camp officer works as a hotel porter and when he encounters a woman who had been a prisoner of the camp whom he had a sexual relationship with, they pick up right where they left off.  The problem is that their relationship isn't explored any deeper than that. There are no motivations or psychology given for anything they do. There is just the most superficial of characterization which is what you would t expect in some cheap gridnhouse skin flick but not a prestigious foreign production like this that starred two distinguished actors, Dirk Bohgrde and Charlotte Rampling.

The plot is fleshed out by the presence of other ex-Nazis who want to see Rampling killed because she was a witness to Bogarde's war crimes but he's fallen back in love with her and refuses to give her up.  There are a few scenes of supposed Nazi decadence like Rampling singing some mock-Dietrich ditty at a Gestapo party while wearing only a SS officer's pants and cap but the entire movie just seems drab and a bit silly.  Boagrde and Rampling treat it all with far more seriousness than it deserves.

Let's hear it for Jobriath!

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

This movie was director Todd Haynes' love letter to David Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust period.  The story follows a Citizen Kane-like path as a journalist is assigned to find out what has happened to Brian Slade, an flamboyant openly bisexual glam rock icon who ten years earlier had faked his assassination on stage and disappeared when the hoax was discovered.

I was predisposed to enjoy this film since it deals with that early 70's era of showy British glam rock that I grew up on and still love but it did not do a lot for me.  You see flashbacks of the journalist, played by Christian Bale, as a closeted gay teen feeling empowered by Slade's music and leaving home for London and get a sense of what this story means to Haynes.  What you don't get is any sense of drama or purpose in Slade's story itself.  The journalist interviews Slade's old manager (played by Eddie Izzard), his ex-wife (Toni Collette) and an punkish Iggy Pop-like collaborator (Ewan McGregor) but all their stories do is tick off familiar boxes about the lure of fame, sexual experimentation and creative angst. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, playing Slade  makes a lovely, dark-eyed faux-Bowie but he doesn't communicate any kind of real character.

Haynes does at least know the period's music.  He fills the soundtrack with all sorts of familiar tunes by the popular musicians of the era, Roxy Music, T. Rex, Lou Reed, the Stooges, Gary Glitter and even pulls out deep 70's chestnuts like Andy Pratt's "Avenging Annie" and Brian Eno's "Needles In The Camel's Eye".  Only one figure's music is conspicuous by its absence, David Bowie himself.  For whatever reason The Thin White Duke's songs are nowhere to be found and poor Rhys-Meyers is forced to sing made up facsimiles of "Space Oddity" and other Bowie numbers as well as a couple of grandiose numbers by the forgotten 70's band, Cockney Rebel.

Not hearing Bowie's music in the midst of so many of his contemporaries somehow made his presence stronger when watching this. And that make me reflect that the real man's career has been far longer and richer than Brian Slade's. When Bowie put Ziggy to sleep, he moved on to bigger and better things, the "plastic soul" era of Young Americans, Station To Station, a movie career that has included The Man Who Fell To Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno, "Ashes To Ashes", "Let's Dance",  and even a glorious return from his own long silence this year with The Next Day. David Bowie's actual body of work dwarfs the stuff talked about here. As for just being a British movie that deals with the thrill of being young and finding your own musical soundtrack, I remember Quadrophenia and Absolute Beginners as being far more lively examples.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Back From Chicago

I've just come back from my second straight trip to the Chicago Jazz Festival and I enjoyed myself. The weather wasn't always the greatest. There was a bad thunderstorm Friday night that delayed that evening's show half an hour and Saturday evening it got so cool I was kicking myself for not packing a jacket. The music however was superb. Chicago's festival is a free event they have on Labor Day weekend every year in a huge park just off Lake Michigan. It had been headquartered in Grant Park but this year it moved just up the street to Millennium Park, a place full of impressive public structures including the Pritzker Pavilion, the outdoor auditorium where the evening shows were held.

The fun of going to this festival, other than the sheer volume of great music, is seeing many musicians for the first time often playing in unique combinations. There were three stages of music during the day and a few preliminary events in other locations that happened before I got there. This time out I got to two Midwestern saxophonists I'd reviewed  live for the first time, Chicago's Mike Smith and Cleveland's Ernie Krivda.  I also got to experience Wadada Leo Smith with his quartet and a string section playing excerpts from his massive Civil Rights Movement opus, Ten Freedom Summers and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist David Fiuczynski cooking up heady Indian-Jazz fusions

G. Porter blesses the crowd.

I'd seen singer Gregory Porter locally a few months ago but it was fun hearing him again and watching him win over a larger crowd. Porter is a soulful baritone who sounds like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Leon Thomas and with all the gospel and blues in his voice, he's a marvel to hear. He's about to have a CD come out on Blue Note which will hopefully lead to him becoming the star he deserves to be. His presentation was a little slicker this show in that he now has a saxophonist who wanders into the giddy froth of smooth jazz at times but the rest of his group charged hard throughout the set. His new material sounded fine but when Porter kicked into his old favorites like "The Work Song" and "Be Good" he set the place on fire.

Hamid Drake
Each year the festival has an artist in residence who seems to always be a local who's part of Chicago's deep jazz tradition. This year it was drummer Hamid Drake and I got to see him in a couple of settings. On Thursday, he played to a packed hall in Roosevelt University across the street from the park in a trio with two other local heavyweights, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and bassist Harrison Bankhead. That hall was so packed I didn't stay long but I did hear him at length on Saturday in a group called Palm Of Soul that was another congregation of masters. The group featured William Parker on bass, Cooper-Moore on piano and New Orleans sax legend Kidd Jordan on tenor and they created a deep set of fire-breathing energy music steeped in blues.  I also got to hear a bit of local guitar master George Freeman at the dedication of a performance space named for his brother, the late Von Freeman and a boiling young alto player named Nick Mazzarella.

One of the other pleasures of the trip was a pilgrimage to what now probably is the one of the last full-scale physical Jazz record stores in the country, Jazz Record Mart, the home of the legendary Delmark label, and a place stocked wall to wall with CD's and vinyl like a store existing ten years in the past. I easily and happily dropped $100 there buying discs by people like David S. Ware, John Zorn and Roswell Rudd.

Jack DeJohnette

Each day I was there though I saw one show that was really special and transcendent. On Thursday it was Chicago-born drummer Jack DeJohnette leading a group called Special Legends Edition Chicago that contained some of the founding fathers of Chicago's important AACM organization, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. With long-time Chicago player Larry Gray on bass, the band was as powerful as could be imagined playing compositions by each member and sounding alternately stormy, pensive and ominous. Everyone sounded good but Mitchell playing soprano and sopranino saxophones was really in incendiary form.

Friday it was Charles Lloyd evidently still doing his 75th birthday tour as he was when he played the Kennedy Center in March. His quartet did not have the special guests that appeared on that occasion but they did have an added voice, guitarist Bill Frisell.  I don't know if Lloyd and Frisell ever played together before but here they made a far more natural pairing than you might think. Lloyd played with his usual ethereal soulfulness and Frisell made his concepts fit right in. On the opening tune, "Go Down Moses" he played more actual Jazz guitar than I'd ever heard from him before, sounding like Jim Hall or Jimmy Raney, but as the set went on his sustains and effects came into play blending very well into into the exotic melodies Lloyd conjured. At one point they hit an ominous Spanish mood redolent of a Morricone Western soundtrack. Hopefully this activity means Lloyd and Frisell will be recording sometime in the future.

The Talented Ms. Fujii

Then on Saturday came a bit of a surprise, Satoko Fujii's Orchestra Chicago.  I knew that Fujii was a formidable pianist and composer but I hadn;t listened to much of her large group music before. For this show she came up with a special piece for the quartet she's currently touring with, KAZE (Fujii's husband, Natsuki Tamura and Christian Pruvost on trumpet plus Peter Orins on drums) plus eight of Chicago's heaviest current players, Dave Rempis, Ernest Dawkins, and Keefe Jackson on saxophones, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Kent Kessler on bass, John McLean on guitar, and Michael Zerang on drums. The result was one of those strong Ascension-like blowouts with each musician soloing between statements of an imposing massed theme.  There were striking solo moments like Wilkes' bleeding electronic distortions and Tamura's impressive arsenal of whispered and mashed trumpet noises but the thing that most struck me was watching Fujii, a tiny Japanese woman, directing all this musical firepower while playing some bits of her own jangling, explosive piano to boot.  I was similarly moved watching Maria Schneider coaxing beautiful music out of her orchestra a few years ago.

And with all that there was still a lot of stuff I missed, old masters Jimmy Heath and Randy Weston, the young Chicago bands Fast Citizens and the Engines and the Swedish group Atomic.  Hopefully I'll be able to return next year. If I can ever get my hands on a Chicago subway map I might be able to branch out and hit some of the prominent city jazz clubs next time out.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Breaking Slowly

I'm still slowly making my way through Breaking Bad on Netflix. I'm now up to the halfway point of Season 3 and I'm constantly amazed by the plot twists and intricate character psychologies of this series.

I don't get the concept of binge-watching. I would think that in watching any really good TV show you would want to take time to savor each episode instead of burning through a bunch of shows in one sitting. That's especially true with a show like this where every installment has some sort of twist or revelation that I need to think about after I watch. The writers of this show are particularly brilliant at misdirection. You think you know where a plotline is going but then presto! it goes somewhere completely unexpected. And these turns never feel forced or contrived. As crazy as they can sometimes be, they always so far turn out to have a logical if occasionally bizarre progression.

The whole of Season 2 was a great example of misdirection. Throughout several episodes there were flash forwards to scenes of a hazmat team retrieving burned debris from the White swimming pool.  Considering that this show is about an ordinary high school teacher slipping deeper and deeper into the drug trade you think these scenes indicate one thing.  Then in the final episode of the season, "ABQ", they pull the rug out and those shots turn out to mean something completely different. Similarly in Season 3 so far, one of the background plotlines has been about twin Mexican hit men out to kill Walt. In the episode I just saw, "Sunset",  that story takes a sudden detour that makes me even more curious about what happens next.

I know that the final episodes have begun airing on AMC and I'm trying like hell to avoid reading anything about the show online. I ignore anyting about it on the Grantland website and stay away from posts on other blogs. I know that all the main characters, Walt, Skyler, Jesse, Walt Jr, Hank and Marie survive into Season 5. Other than that I don't want to know anything that happens before I actually watch the episodes. I'm just enjoying the uniformly great acting and writing of this amazingly creepy saga about a man's fall into darkness. Also I know Bryan Cranston has won several Emmys for this show but he also deserves some kind of award for his pizza tossing.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Karen Black

Jack orders toast. Karen looks away.

She always had a somewhat exotic look and there are times in later films when her performances bordered on the bizarre but in her time Karen Black could be incredible. She was fortunate enough to come along in the era when American films briefly seemed to come to full artistic maturity and she excelled in some of the greatest works of the 70's. There was Nashville and Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for Robert Altman. There was Cisco Pike, Easy Rider and The Day Of The Locust. Some people will probably remember her best for the Dan Curtis TV-movie Trilogy Of Terror but for me the indelible memory of her is as Rayette Dipesto, Jack Nicholson's sad little country singer girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces. 

Most of the other members of that BBS crew are still around somewhere. Peter Fonda still shows up in movies from time to time, Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern received the Best Actor Award at Cannes last spring. Black came down to smaller and smaller roles in tiny genre films before her cancer took control but at her best she exemplified the bruised, damaged feminine response to the macho lust for freedom that dominated those films. Karen Black was a great actress.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie Roundup #20: Music, Maestro, Please!

Garden Of The Moon (1938)

Some time ago I posted  the production number "Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish" from the movie Garden Of The Moon because it's one of my favorite movie musical bits. Last week I finally got to watch the entire movie again and it still held up.

This film is a typically efficient, rapid-fire Warner Brothers comedy of the late 30s' concerning an ongoing battle of wits between the leader of a dance band and the manager of the ritzy Hollywood night club he's playing at, The Garden Of The Moon.  Pat O'Brien plays the scheming manager in the same fast-talking manner he used whenever he wasn't playing a priest in those days and the bandleader is played by John Payne long before he became known as a dramatic actor in thrillers and westerns. The movie is directed by Busby Berkeley, the last musical he would direct for Warners and while there are none of the elaborate dance numbers of his heyday, he did manage some inventive staging of two musical numbers by the band, "Dervish" and "The Lady on the Two Cent Stamp".  (That's not a typo. Once upon a time stamps did cost two cents.)

Watching the film for the second time I was surprised to notice more and more familiar faces in the cast in early parts of their careers. There was Payne, of course, but there was also Penny Singleton, who would later gain fame in the Blondie movies, in a small part as a singer forced onto the band by O'Brien.  Then there are the band members who do much of the singing in the musical numbers. Trumpeter Johnny "Scat" Davis worked in several Warners films in this period but the bug-eyed trombone player with the handlebar musctahe is none other than Jerry Colonna a few years before he would become famous through Bob Hope's radio show. The shock for me was seeing a balding, portly violinist in the group. That was Joe Venuti, one of the earliest jazz violin soloists. Here's "Dervish" again.  Venuti is the guy who screams "Alligator! That's the ticket!" at the end.

Carolina Blues (1944)

Garden showed up on  TCM as part of an all day session of movies featuring big bands. Besides Garden I got to catch most of Carolina Blues, a film featuring bandleader Kay Kyser and his orchestra.

Kyser and his guys made a group of decent little comedies for RKO in the Forties but this came out after that and was made by Columbia Pictures.  It wasn't the same. This film had too many plot lines going on and dragged out interminably to the point where I bailed before the end.  In one storyline, Kyser's singer, Georgia Carroll, was quitting the band to get married and a girl, played by dancer Ann Miller, kept trying to replace her. At the same time Kyser's band is trying to go on vacation but he's trying to get them to stay together to play fundraising concerts to finance a battleship that would be named after his hometown, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. On top of all this Ann Miller's character and her gambler father, played by Victor Moore, are pretending to be rich to impress Kyser but he thinks because Miller's rich, she doesn't have the drive to stick it out in show business.

You see how complicated this gets? And that's not even mentioning the big all-black dance number in the middle of the picture, "Mr. Beebe", featuring Harold Nicholas and the Four Step Brothers, that has no relation to the rest of the movie or the momentary appearance of Doodles Weaver as a Kyser lookalike.

The one thing I really couldn't get my head around is that in the movie Carroll, the actual singer for Ksyer's band, was supposed to be quitting to marry a serviceman but in real life she was already Kay Kyser! Yet here he was in this picture making goo-goo eyes at Ann Miller often with his wife in the same scene.

Also there was a great opportunity lost considering what stuidio this movie was made at. One of the featured comedian-musicians in Kyser's band was a trumpeter who called himself Ish Kabibble. He was known for a black bowl haircut that looked just like the hairdo of a certain member of a comedy team who worked for many years at Columbia. This picture would have been made for me if there had been a scene where Larry Fine and Curly Howard approached Kabbible from the back and said "How ya doin', Moe?"  At the very least I hope somebody at least thought of it at the time.

The Un-Tony: Gandolfini and Stewart

Welcome To The Rileys (2010)

When James Gandolfini passed away recently most of the attention naturally went to his work as Tony Soprano especially since he didn't live long enough to do a lot of other lead roles. Welcome To The Rileys was one of his few post-Tony films that deserves some recognition.  In it Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a business owner who, along with his wife, is still feeling the effects from the death of his teenaged daughter in a car wreck several years before.  On a business trip to New Orleans he meets Mallory, an underage stripper and prostitute with a defiant attitude and gets it in his head to stay in New Orleans for an indefinite time to help the girl get her life in order while also trying to make up for his own loss.

The story is basically predictable but it works because the work of the three lead actors is so good. Gandolfini, as hie did in The Sopranos,  lets all his emotions play across his face and body and makes his character's exhaustion and sorrow feel very real.  Kristen Stewart as Mallory comes off sad and pathetic but able to respond to kindness and shows some innate dignity that comes through when she rebels against the Rileys trying to take over her life.

The most searing acting, though, comes from Melissa Leo playing Mrs. Riley. At the beginning of the film she is so traumatized by her daughter's death that she refuses to leave her house. As the movie progresses however she exhibits a lot of nervous but determined resolve as she drives to New Orleans alone and reunites with her husband and comes to grips with the idea of having an instant foster daughter.

This is Lifetime Movie material played with restraint and ambiguity.  Mallory does not end up in the bosom of the Rileys at the end of the story but the feeling comes through that all three people come out of this experience a lot more healed than they were before. It's a quietly effective little film that shouldn't be overlooked when discussing Gandolfini's career.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Movie Roundup #19: The Other Side

The Most Beautiful (1944)

Thanks to companies like Criterion and Kino Lorber today we have access to many movies that were never intended to be shown to an audience outside their home country.  For example Akira Kurosawa's The Most Beautiful, the second film he ever directed, is a World War II propaganda movie about the efforts of young female factory workers supporting the troops on the front lines. There is a message of sacrifice and support for the war effort that you have to mentally put into context to enjoy the film.  Still it's blessedly more subtle than it could have been and still shows early signs of Kurosawa's lifelong humanism.

The protagonists are teenage girls who live and work in a factory making lenses for the bombsites of Japanese planes.  The factory manager, played by Takashi Shimura, an integral Kurosawa player in later films, pushes the girls to up their quota which they happily do although eventually the work takes its toll, leading to illness, breakdowns and arguments.

Despite this plot there's never a sense of hard sell in the movie. The factory bosses are all very solicitous of the girls' health and they happily plunge into their work even if it means shutting themselves off from their families and home life. In the banners shown around the factory there is a quiet acknowledgement that the war is not going well for their side but that's just supposed to spur the girls on to greater effort.  Kurosawa gets enough into the personalities of these young women to make them human even though from our viewpoint today, what's going on may look tragic. We know now that their efforts went for naught and that the army they were supporting weren't always the most noble or humane of warriors, but confined to this time and place the story works.  At the end Watanabe, the girl who stays up most of the night rechecking lenses because she thinks she didn't inspect one properly, is looked on as the shining example of dedication and sacrifice but in Kurosawa's hands she's as much person as symbol.

Then again he may have other reasons for making that character shine. Watanabe is played by a young woman named Yoko Yaguchi who became the off camera spokesperson for the actresses and constantly squabbled with the director during the filming. Just like an old romantic comedy, this bickering led to Kurosawa and Yaguchi marrying in 1945. They were together until her death forty years later.

The Far Country (1955)

This is the fourth in the series of Western collaborations between James Stewart and director Anthony Mann but it lacks something of the dark edge of their other films together.  Stewart plays Jeff Webster, a cowboy who drives a herd of cattle into the Yukon territory with his partner played by Walter Brennan and runs afoul of a crooked lawman named Gannon who steals gold mining claims from prospectors in a small mountain town.  Stewart's character is constantly out for his own interest even when he sees the townspeople bullied by Gannon but as you might expect he comes around in the end.  The character is supposed to be a hard-bitten type but oddly Stewart does not play him that way.  He plays the role quietly with little of the mean edge he brought to Winchester '73 and the other Mann westerns. Also the role of the villainous judge is played by John McIntire,  who comes off slippery enough but without a really mean edge.  In addition there's not a lot of complexity to the plot.  It's pretty obvious how things are going to play out as the movie runs, even to the point of having the movie's "bad girl" get fatally wounded helping Stewart during the climactic shootout.  

As usual for 50's studio Westerns there is a huge number of familiar faces in the cast.  Brennan, Jack Elam, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Jay C. Flippen, Robert J. Wilke and Ruth Roman all play various supporting characters. Corrine Calvet is a bit grating as an ingenue with a pouty French accent. It's a good, professional Western but misses the drama of some of its contemporaries.

Cream: Royal Albert Hall (2005)

When I first started listening to rock music in 1970, one of the first groups I got into, along with Procol Harum and Traffic, was Cream.  I loved everything about the group, the speedy complexity of the music, Jack Bruce's barking vocals and Eric Clapton's whining guitar.  By the time I heard them they had already broken up but I still got all of their records (I'm proud to say I still own my old vinyl copes of Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire) and they were my entry point into British jazz and jazz-rock. From Cream I went to Jack Bruce's solo records to Colosseum, the Soft Machine and the other Canterbury bands. Then I went on  from Keith Tippett and the Brotherhood Of Breath to John Surman and Mike Westbrook and so on. 

I was happy to hear in 2005 that they were getting back together for a reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the same place they had played their farewell show thirty-seven years later.  I waited for the CD of the concert to come out but by the time it did, I never got around to buying it.  I've finally seen the film of those reunion shows and after a couple of numbers I began to remember why I loved this band so much.

The three members, Clapton, Bruce and Ginger Baker, of course were older, their tempos were slightly slower than before and Bruce couldn't hit all the high notes he once did, but their musiccal prowess was  greater than ever. They locked together on all their old blues and rock standbys like a speeding engine, Clapton fireballing, Bruce nimble on the bass and Baker a pistoning rhythm machine.

The film moved back and forth over the four nights of their May 2005 engagement and the trio played almost all of the old songs from their records. "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" and "I Feel Free" were missing but "Politician", "Sweet Wine", "N.S.U.", "Born Under A Bad Sign", "White Room" and all the rest were there. There were even a few surprises in songs they seemed to have never played live before, like Clapton's "Badge", his feature song from their final album, "We're Going Wrong", a moody Disraeli piece they worked into a swirling live epic and incredibly "Pressed Rat And Warthog", Baker's deadpan recitation of a Lewis Carroll-like nursery rhyme.   Even Baker's infamous drum feature, "Toad", was called out. He paced himself more than the old days as he went around his kit, working in African rhythms and making sudden tempo changes, but still came to a wild climax.

Jack Bruce's voice may have lost a bit of range but it was still powerful and Eric Clapton reminded that he has matured into a great singer in his own right when he traded verses with the bassist. This show also proved something to me about Eric Clapton. Hearing his old hits like "Pretending" and "After Midnight" over and over on classic rock stations it's easy to take the guy for granted but hearing him peal out spellbinding solo after solo here, you're suddenly reminded he's one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. His slow blues solo on "Stormy Monday" here is amazing. After that number Bruce tells the audience what a privilege it is to play with Clapton. You know he meant it.

The show ended with an encore of their biggest hit "Sunshine Of Your Love" winding off into a long jam. In the interviews in the DVD Clapton mentions how he'd like this revival to keep going and have Cream even play some dates in America.  It's now been eight years since those concerts and though, theoretically the three guys could still get together again, it now looks as though that reunion was a one time thing.  Still from the recorded evidence Cream's return to the Royal Albert Hall was incredible.