Monday, March 25, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #11: European Unions

Yeah, we've all been there, buddy.

Masculin Feminin (1966)

This is a typical Jean-Luc Godard provocation from the 60's, a movie that's ostensibly about a romance between a young student radical (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a budding pop star (Chantal Goya). As the film unfolds though, it takes turns focusing everywhere but the romance. There are interviews of young women about politics and their lives, scenes of violence that seem to wander in from other films, a rant about projecting movies in the correct aspect ratio and even a cameo from Brigitte Bardot. The camera even occasionally focuses on disembodied arms or scenery during dialogue scenes  as though it was losing interest in what is being said.

Some of these impressions only come up at a remove of fifty years from the movie's making. At the time the sentiments espoused by Leaud and his friends were the coming thing in France and as, subsequent films like Weekend showed, Godard  was in tune with the leftist thinking of the day. Now of course we've since seen that Maoist philosophy didn't work out so well, so the film's political sentiments come off as a curio of the times. Still Godard's playful disregard for the rules of narrative filmaking still make the movie enjoyable to watch today.

L'eclisse (1962)

In Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse narrative is subverted in other ways. This plot concerns a tentative romance between a stock trader (Alain Delon) and a literary translator (Monica Vitti)  who parry and chat with each other but never seem to be able to commit to love. Antonioni shoots the film in such a way that location becomes almost an active character. People are constantly framed within doorways and other frames and there's always a sense that the characters are trapped, whether by  the patterns of their lives or by the buildings and rooms they inhabit. Anything representing freedom, whether a balloon rising into the sky or the African wilderness where one supprting character once lived, is shot down or tamed in brutal fashion.  At the end of the movie the lovers plan to meet at 8:00 one evening but when the time comes, you never see them. You see trees, buildings and streetlights with no one around. It's as though their material world has devoured the pair. Antonioni took a lot of stick in some circles for the dessicated view of society represented by films like this but the artistry and precision of his filmaking really makes despair into something profound and artistic.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

When you first see films some time after their initial releases you are bound to run across a few performances that you think should have gotten more attention when the movies originally came out. My personal list of these include Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground, Sigourney Weaver in A Map Of The World and going way back Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra. Add to those Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea.

     This is director Terence Davies' treatment of a Terence Rattigan play about a titled noblewoman in 1950's England who leaves a stifling marriage with her decent but unexciting husband to live with a younger man whose great life achievement was being a fighter pilot in World War II.  She eventually finds that relationship so unsatisfying she tries to kill herself leading to even more problems when her boy friend find out what she attempted.  Davies does a fine job creating a cozy yet claustrophobic atmosphere that sets the tone for the story and Weisz is tremendous showing shifting emotions from seething hostility to starry-eyed love and finally weary desolation. She comes off like a woman being torn apart by her frustrations and she is always sympathetic helped by the fact that Tom Hiddleston, playing her lover, comes off as a selfish, immature prick. It's a really compelling study and if the film had gotten more play in this country Weisz should have gotten serious consideration for a Best Actress Oscar.

The Captive City (1952)

This is a low-budget independent production about gangland corruption infiltrating small town America that looks a lot better than you'd expect thanks to photography by Lee Garmes and direction by Robert Wise that uses close-ups and shadows to create a dark and sinister atmosphere. John Forsythe stars as a newspaper editor in a sleepy small town who gets a tip about a divorce case that leads him to small bookmaking operations run by local merchants. He is discouraged from digging any deeper by the local police and advertisers but does so anyway and finds out the bookmakers have ties to the Mafia. As a result of all this he and his wife find themselves on the run from mob assassins,

The film is supposedly based on a true story and comes with the on-screen endorsement of Senator Estes Kefauver who was known at the time for his investigations into organized crime. It contains what has to be one of the first mentions of the Mafia in a film and is pretty blunt about the spread of its influence into small towns through gambling. There are very few recognizable actors in the cast and those (Forsythe, Ray Teal, Martin Milner) are familiar through their subsequent television work. Other than that it's mostly ordinary looking people acting out this tale which adds to the story's realistic feel.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Charles Lloyd's Map Of The World

As comedian Dick Gregory said during the 75th birthday celebration of saxophonist Charles Lloyd at the Kennedy Center last night, "Follow the career of Charles Lloyd and you'll have a map of the world".  This concert was proof of that.

Lloyd originally came to prominence in the 1960's, first as a member of one of drummer Chico Hamilton's groups, then with his own band. Lloyd was a pioneer in using rock and funk rhythms in his group's music though, unlike later experimenters such as Miles Davis, he never went electric. He had a big hit with his tune "Forest Flower" and his quartet, which included young pups like Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, played at rock venues like the Fillmore East. Then in the 1970's he abruptly dropped from sight, retreating to a hermit's life in California's Big Sur country, studying transcendental meditation and emerging only to record with such folk as the Beach Boys (He plays flute on "Feel Flows" on the Surf's Up album.) Then in 1981 he reemerged to mentor and play with pianist Michel Petrucianni and at the end of the decade began to record for the ECM label where's he been a  constant presence ever since.

What's been notable about the last twenty years of Lloyd's career, other than his playing with heavyweight artists like Bobo Stenson, Geri Allen, Billy Higgins and Jason Moran, is the way he has more and more embraced musics from other cultures. That was on display through the guest artists who appeared at the Kennedy Center show. It began with Lloyd walking out with his current quartet, Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland accompanied by Alicia Hall Moran, Jason Moran's wife and an accomplished classical singer. She sang the spiritual "Go Down Moses" slowly and powerfully and Lloyd answered her, sololing on his tenor sax with a tone that was full of both prayer and exultation. Then the quartet played "Abide With Me" and slid into a swinging and jovial blues that showed their communication and highlighted the subdued sweetness of Lloyd's playing.

After remarks by Gregory, an old friend of Lloyd, tabla master Zakir Hussain came out. Moran and Rogers left the stage and we were left with the trio that recorded Lloyd's CD, Sangam. Lloyd moved around to the piano and slowly built up an ominous melody while Harland shook a tambourine and other percussion instruments. While this was going on Hussain slowly worked rhythms on his tabla drums. Then as things were going good, Harland shifted to the piano and Lloyd went over to his flute. Eventually Harland would go back to his drum set matching Hussain stroke for stroke while Lloyd also played tarogato and tenor and the three of them worked up to a boiling climax that sounded more Brazilian than Indian.

Following this Hussain left the stage and Moran and Rogers returned bringing with them two Greek musicians, lyre player Sokratis Sinopoulos and singer Maria Farantouri, whom Lloyd has been studying with for the past decade. The ensemble took off again, playing sorrowing but bluesy Greek melodies led by Farantouri's beautiful low voice. Sinopoulis had some intense moments bowing his lyle in tandem with Rogers bowing his bass. Harland and Moran were both animated and Lloyd was amazing, his tenor singing with his poignant cry. There is still an echo of John Coltrane in his sound and it's not hard to imagine that if Coltrane had lived longer and had more of a chance to explore other cultures, he might have wound up making music something like this.

The finish of this brought the audience to their feet and for an encore all eight musicians returned as Farantouri led them in another Greek melody. The drummers, string players and singers all sounded wonderfully together regardless that they were from so many different countries and musical backgrounds. Over it all Lloyd played with that beautiful devotional tone sounding like a benediction.

Before the concert I ran across a horde of high school kids from New York down here on a field trip to participate in some kind of "Mock UN" exercise. I don't know exactly what they had to do but if they wanted to learn about the harmonious blending of cultures, they should have been at the Kennedy Center Friday night.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #10: Tigers Will Survive

Life Of Pi (2012)

I now know that the 2012 Best Director Oscar went to the right person. Ang Lee's Life Of Pi is an amazing film that uses CGI wizardry as well as I've ever seen it, creating beautiful spectacles of imaginary oceans and  islands as well as making you completely believe you are seeing a tiger prowl around a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

This is all in the service of the moving story of an Indian man who tells a writer the story of his childhood growing up next to a zoo owned by his father, surviving a shipwreck that kills his family and almost all of the zoo animals and surviving for 277 days at sea in a lifeboat accompanied by a zebra, hyena and orangutan as well as the tiger. The tiger is soon the only animal on board (for obvious reasons) and eventually settles into an uneasy coexistence with Pi for the rest of their journey. The film is as much about Pi's internal journey to maturity and inner peace  as his ocean trip and at the end, an alternate, less fantastic explanation for his odyssey is put up but in such a way that you can believe whichever version you want. In the few reviews I've read of this movie, some people roll their eyes at the religious and metaphysical aspects of this tale even as much as they love the visuals. Their loss. The film works so well because its physical beauty is in the service of real ideas.

The Crazy Gang
The Frozen Limits (1939)

The Crazy Gang was a British comedy troupe formed in the 1930's that was a gathering of three double acts,  Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold and Jimmy Norvo and Teddy Knox. They were most famous as a stage act but they made a few films in the 1937-1941 period, one of which was   The Frozen Limits.

The plot of this is typical comedy team fodder. The Gang plays carnival entertainers who hear about a gold rush in the Yukon and go there to get rich not realizing that the gold rush they heard about happened twenty years earlier. They end up in a deserted town inhabited only by an old prospector and his daughter, get involved in a real gold hunt and help foil the inevitable bad guys after both the gold and the daughter. I don't know how well the troupe worked in their other films but in this one you're left wondering why all these comics are necessary. Six guys trying to be funny at once does not leave much room for any of them to make an impression.  There's a theatrical melodrama sketch where all six men have specific roles and a variation on the Marx Brothers' "mirror" scene in Duck Soup where all six dress up in identical nightshirts and creep around town pretending to be the old prospector. Those bits work well. Outside of that the comedy mostly seems cluttered with little that a smaller grouping like Abbott & Costello or the Three Stooges could not have done more efficiently. Indeed the best dialogue bit comes from just Flanagan and Allen as they do a wordplay sketch ("Gold ore! Gold or what?") in the familiar manner of Bud and Lou talking about baseball players.

Square Dance Jubilee (1949)

This is the movie that shares a DVD in the "Showtime USA" series with last week's Yes Sir, Mr. Bones. Like that one this is basically a bunch of musical performances pretending to be a narrative feature, in this case a western. The story has two New York talent scouts, played by cowboy actor Don "Red" Barry and comedian Wally Vernon going out west to find musical acts for a TV show. They find plenty but also encounter a gang of rustlers robbing a pretty ranch owner which accounts for the dramatic part of the movie.

I was a little leery about watching this because one of the top billed performers is Western Swing star Spade Cooley. I can never watch him without remembering that a few years after this he would beat his wife to death in a drunken rage. Fortunately Cooley's just in a couple of performance sections in the first half of the film and the other singers and musicians in his band dominate those. As for the rest of the music, again Richard Roberts and his friends fill you in about everyone else on the commentary track. I will mention that the singing cast includes two fairly big country stars of the day, Cowboy Copas and Claude Casey and one of the great guitarists of the day, Jimmy Bryant, is in the main backing band. Red Barry even sings a song himself and shows that as a singer, he was a great movie tough guy. Vernon makes for annoying comic relief but proves to be an accomplished eccentric dancer. There are all sorts of other singing and dancing acts and the show is closed by the Elder Lovelies, a dance troupe of former chorus girls in their Sixties and Seventies with moves tha defy gravity, time and logic. Like its companion feature this is a piece of goofy, fun entertainment that preserves lesser known performers on film.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


In the 1980's as the ashes of Britain's punk rock explosion cooled off, a new musical wave seemed to emerge every few weeks, supposedly making the last one passe. At one time or another, there were the New Romantics, industrial, goth, the Germanic influence of Martin Hannett and the Factory records label, and a ska revival. For a while there was a turn away from all types of rock music in favor of other, more sophisticated pop musics like Jazz, Bossa Nova, and continental pop. This movement really got kickstarted when Paul Weller disbanded the Jam to form the Style Council but soon all sorts of seductive female singers on their own or fronting bands and dealing in sophisticated blends of Jazz, funk and soul came along. These included performers like Sade, Everything But The Girl, Weekend, Swing Out Sister and the subject of this piece, Carmel.

Carmel, The Band: Darby, McCourt, Parris.

Carmel was both the name of a trio and its lead singer, Carmel McCourt. In school in Manchester after other musical adventures McCourt joined up with bassist Jim Parris and his cousin, drummer Gerry Darby to form the band. I got their first EP way back in 1982 and immediately paid attention.  The lead track, "Tracks Of My Tears" stayed most in my mind. Their treatment was very skeletal with the song's distinctive melody replaced by a simple downbeat jazz-blues walking rhythm by acoustic bass and drums with Carmel doing the heavy work singing the lyrics in a unique tough and brassy style that didn't sound like any of the softer voiced singers around at the time. She didn't have a conventionally pretty sound or a big range but there was power and emotion along with a note of wavering uncertainty in her voice that underlined the fact this was a real person singing. It got me to pay attention when further records came out, a chilling gospel-powered single, "Bad Day" that had Carmel shouting over organ and a backing choir, and two full albums, The Drum Is Everything and The Falling, which featured excellent songs like "More, More, More", "The Drum Is Everything" and "Mercy" and found the trio further experimenting by adding African and Caribbean elements to their mix.

As time went on I didn't see any further releases by the band in the stores outside of a live CD, Live At Ronnie Scott's, so I basically forgot they existed.  Then about a month ago I came across a small review in Jazzwise magazine of a new Carmel CD called Strictly Piaf, an Edith Piaf tribute that was her first recording in 17 years. After searching around on the Internet I learned that the band had been hugely successful in France for many years and that of late, they had been busy separately with writing, teaching and performing gigs. Darby officially left a few years ago leaving McCourt and Parris as the core players on the new CD. Thanks to Amazon almost no CD is hard to find anymore so I ordered Piaf and was happy to find things much the same as I remembered but improved.

McCourt's range is stronger now. She hits high notes and holds them more effortlessly than she did before but the human, soulful bleat that makes her voice so arresting is still there. The CD is all Piaf material but, as in the past, wildly rearranged. "Sous Le Ciel De Paris" is done as mid tempo lounge jazz, "Les Amants D'un Jour" is sung in French to a dark reggae beat and "Running" is done as ambient funk with trumpet and piano featured. "Autumn Leaves" is sung hauntingly over rippling electric piano, "The Poor People Of Paris" is sludgy like a slow motion carousel and "La Vie En Rose" is unrecognizable with a chorus of treated voices singing the song's lyrics over a rippling synthesized vamp. Only "Mon Legionnaire" sticks close to Piaf's torchy vibrato and McCourt is as good doing that as she is at everything else.

Further investigation revealed there had been four other Carmel CDs released in the 80's and 90's I had completely slept on, Everybody's Got A Little...Soul, Set Me Free, Good News and World Gone Crazy. Fortunately all four were reissued just last year in fully tricked out deluxe packages  with remixes, b-sides, and live recordings. I have the first two now and I expect the others will follow. This music is gutsy and thrilling in all the best ways.

Here are a couple of examples of what I'm talking about. First a live TV performance of "Sticks And Stones":

And a TV clip of "Mercy". They may be playing along to the record but Lord what a record! Have mercy, indeed...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #9: More Movies About Lizards And Gambling

Bay Of Angels (1963)

Director Jacques Demy was famous for lushly romantic films like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg so it shouldn't be a surprised that even when he did a film about gambling addiction he made it look like a happy and carefree life.

Bay Of Angels is about Jean, a bank clerk who, never having gambled in his life, goes to a casino with a friend, wins a little at roulette and immediately catches the fever. He meets a beautiful woman named Jackie, gets involved with her and that's all she wrote. For the rest of the film the two of them alternately win money, lose money, make love and break up while traveling around various European casinos. Jackie is played by Jeanne Moreau so obviously there's something else besides the thrill of gambling tempting the poor guy. It's a little odd at first seeing Moreau with bright blonde hair but this film was made near the time of Jules And Jim and she's at the peak of her beauty.

In this film's universe, heavy gambling does not lead to any rendezvous with shady characters in flashy suits or musclebound legbreakers. Everything looks sunny, bright and gay and when the couple is down to their last chip, they miraculously start winning again. There is a point at the end where Jean seems about to return to a normal life but as soon as Jackie runs after him, he takes her back and there is no sense that the two of them will ever change. The film embraces Hollywood escapism to an extreme degree but Demy makes this such a gorgeous looking fairytale, you don't really mind.

"The monkey had biplanes. I gotta deal with tanks!?"

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

Meanwhile in Italy, there are a whole different set of problems going on in the shape of a two-legged lizard man from Venus. In this classic 50's science fiction film, this fellow arrives in Sicily as a embryonic specimen in an American rocket ship returning from an expedition to the planet. An inquisitive little boy in a fishing village takes the embryo out of its container and the alien immediately starts growing to gigantic size and eventually runs amok in Rome.

Comparing this film to the bloated length of recent science fiction movies, it seems remarkable how effiiciently it does its business. It plows through its story in a trim 82 minutes at which point a modern remake would probably be just showing the monster for the first time. That 82 includes subplots spent on the annoying kid and the romance between the expedition leader and a female doctor.  The film's greatest claim to fame is the work of the legendary Ray Harryhausen who brings the creature to life. His stop-motion work still looks credible today even stacked up against all the wonders of CGI. His lizard man rampages through Rome, fights an elephant, tears up bridges and makes a last stand atop the Coliseum that is very reminiscent of what Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brien, did with a certain giant gorilla stomping around New York City 24 years earlier. The alien's fall from the Coliseum doesn't have the tragedy of Kong's plunge from the Empire State Building but it's a pretty convincing climax to the whole spectacle.

Pete Townsend: Music from Lifehouse 

This is a video of a concert given by The Who's Pete Townsend in 2000 of the music from a science fiction story he had been working on for decades called Lifehouse. The Who never recorded the full tale but several songs from it ended up on the Who's Next album and Townsend continually revised the material for years, recording other pieces solo and with the band, before eventually doing it as a BBC radio play in 1999 and then putting on this concert.

For this show Townsend was accompanied by a full orchestra and a band with guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion, harmonica and background singers. Townsend himself played only acoustic guitars but he still attacked them with as much aggression as his electric ones. The familiar songs here, Who's Next classics like "Behind Blue Eyes", "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" along with stray tracks like "Pure And Easy" and "Join Together" sound a bit different without Roger Daltrey's snarl or the Entwhistle-Moon rhythm section's pomp but they are no less exhilarating.  Townsend is no bad singer in his own right and he really seems charged up performing some of his most profound material. This is a really enjoyable show from one of the masters.

"Yes Sir, Mr. Bones" (1951)

And now to the problem child.  In 2007,  VCI video put out a four-volume set of 1940s-1950s musical variety features under the title Showtime USA.  One of them is "Yes Sir, Mr. Bones", a 1951 recreation of an old-time minstrel show.

The problems a lot of people would have with this film are obvious. There is no question that minstrel shows  trafficked in the worst kind of stereotyping of black people and there is plenty of that here if anyone wants to get worked up over it. On the other hand this film is also an invaluable record of several historic performers who left few if any other filmed records.

The film begins with a little boy spying on some old-time minstrel performers as they sit in their club and reminiscence about the old days.  The bizarre thing about this scene is that most of the old guys are white but they all wear some kind of tan makeup that seems to be supposed to make us think they're really black men. The little boy walks into the club and asks what minstrel shows were and there's a flashback to a full-blown minstrel performance full of singing, dancing and comedy that takes up the balance of the movie. In this part the white minstrels are in full-on blackface but some of them are black men as well. The film scholars who do the DVD commentary on this DVD, like Richard Roberts, do a much better job than I could in describing who's who among these folks but one notable in the cast is the legendary country songwriter and singer, Emmett Miller, who was one of the progenitors of Western Swing and wrote Hank Williams' hit "Lovesick Blues". The black performers include one of the pioneers of black vaudeville, Flournoy Miller as well as Scatman Crothers and Brother Bones, the man whose recording of "Sweet Georgia Brown" provided the Harlem Globetrotters' theme song. There are also some classic comedy routines done by the likes of Abbott and Costello and Mantan Moreland in other films and eccentric dance routines which really become remarkable when you realize that the old-timers doing them were in their fifties and sixties. Altogether this is not a bad little movie if you can get your head past the obvious problems.