Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Movie Roundup #16: A Cure For Pain

(I dropped the "Weekly" part of these posts because obviously I'm not writing one of these movie things every week. I've discovered that I just have nothing to say about some of the movies I watch. Also life occasionally gets in the way of doing this regularly. At least I'm still keeping to my goal of posting on a regular basis, whether it's about movies, music or something else. And so, to this week's impressions...)

Diane Lane punks out.

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

There are some good elements to this pop music rags-to-riches fable but taken as a whole, it doesn't hang together too well. It centers on Corinne Burns, a disillusioned young woman from a small Pennsylvania town. She becomes a small-scale celebrity by mouthing off to a condescending television reporter. From that, she and the band she's formed with her sister and cousin are invited to be a support group on a tour with an aging glam rocker and a snooty British punk band. The girls can barely play but at their first gig, Corinne sporting a skunk-like two tone hair style, talks back to hecklers with a defiance that strikes a chord in all the young girls watching. That leads to Corinne and the band really becoming popular with the requisite jealousies and other problems ensuing before it all comes crashing down...temporarily.

Several well-known actors appear here at the beginnings of their career, notably Diane Lane as Corinne, Laura Dern as her cousin, and British actor Ray Winstone as the lead singer of the British punks, the Looters.  Lane is good with her suspicious, flinty attitude and  a very slim and boyish Winstone really shows the depth and aggression he would later bring so well to movies like Sexy Beast and The Proposition. The rest of his band is played by three guys who were non-actors but knew all about acting like punk rock musicians, Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash.

Overall  though the movie feels flat. Lou Adler direction's does not have mirror of the edge or rebellious attitude of the main characters. The scenes that seem like they should be ridiculing the smarminess of the "straights" and washed-up rockers can't make up their minds to be serious or funny. The plot of the film makes little sense as well. The "overnight sensation" and "packaged rebellion" things are well-worn tropes that were done very well in films like Breaking Glass and Privilege and still hold true today but how does that happen with a band that becomes hot without recording in a pre-YouTube world? Also what little you hear of the Stains' music is repetitious, monotone stuff without a drummer, more Raincoats or Sleater-Kenney than Sex Pistols and not the sort of music that would seem to inspire hordes of American teen girls. Also the climax of the film would have you believe that an unknown punk singer can tell a hostile crowd of teenage girls that their idol is a fraud and they will instantly turn on her when she next comes out to perform. If it were that easy we could have been rid of Justin Bieber long ago.

Not to worry though because at the very end of the film, Corinne and her friends make an instant comeback becoming glammed-up music video stars (looking strongly like the Bangles, actually) performing the same song the movie earlier condemned Corinne for stealing from the Looters.  Not the clearest message in the world.

This man is having a very bad day.
Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Anyone who has problems with depression should stay far away from this film. It is set in Norway and concerns a day in the life of Anders, a young writer who had previously fallen prey to drug addiction and is now living at a rehab center. He gets a day pass to leave the center and go to Oslo for a job interview and also tries to see his sister and some old friends. To say tht things don't go well is a massive understatement.

At the very beginning of the film Anders tries to commit suicide but doesn't, so it's established early on he isn't in the best frame of mind. As he goes through the day nothing improves his mood. He visits an old college friend who's now married and a father, but he's unhappy with his life. He calls his ex-girlfriend who's now living in New York but never gets to talk to her, his sister does not want to see him and he sabotages the job interview he has at a magazine by telling the editor about his drug problems and leaving without giving the man a chance to respond.


At the end of the film Anders deliberately O.D.'s and dies, leaving you to wonder just what the point of this film was. It's very poetically made but it's no fun watching someone spiral down deeper and deeper into depression and alienation until they irrevocably crash and burn. For anyone who's been in similar emotional pain these kinds of experiences are all too familiar. often the only thing that keeps you going through this state of mind is the hope that things will get better one day. That doesn't exist here.  In the end nothing matters to Anders. Even going to a party and briefly flirting with a pretty girl gives him nothing. Maybe from a detached standpoint, this film can be appreciated for its technical qualities but if you know anything about this situation, this can represent your worst nightmare, the horror you don't escape. It's not a scenario you want in your head.

This girl is trying to have a good day.
Turn Me On Dammit! (2011)

Fortunately this Norwegian film shows that not everyone in that country lives under an unrelieved cloud of gloom.  The film concerns Alma, a 15-year-old girl who lives in a small village, bored out of her mind and always fantasizing about sex. Most of her daydreams center around a schoolmate named Artur. She halfheartedly flirts with him at a party and he responds in a unique way.  He takes his penis out and rubs it against her thigh. She tells some of her friends about this, not in a disgusted way, but in a "Gee, he likes me!" way. Still Artur denies it all and Alma is looked on as an outcast and weirdo by her friends and mother.

The best thing about the movie is that Alma's interest in sex is considered to be normal. Her fantasies and urges are looked on as just part of who she is, not sick behavior.  She does have one friend, Sara, a fellow misfit who talks matter of factly about moving to Texas and working to abolish the death penalty (Good luck with that.) which turns out to be as much a bored fantasy as Sara's sex dreams. The entire mood of the film is lighthearted and the best thing is that by the end, Sara does not change but learns to accept herself and define her own life. This leads to a response from Artur that made me laugh out loud. It's the kind of climax (no pun intended) you'd see in an Afterschool Special in some alternate universe.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Evening Dawn

Dawn Upshaw

I've long been intrigued by what is nowadays called "new music"  (I guess "modern classical music" sounds too old-fashioned) but I've never gone deeply into it the way I have jazz. I do have some random Ives, Stravinsky and Bartok in my ever-growing horde of CDs but I don't have any real handle on the breadth of 20th and 21st century classical music out there.  I do know about soprano Dawn Upshaw though and when I found out she was performing at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night, I made time to see her. I was very glad I did.

The concert opened with Upshaw performing two pieces by composer Osvaldo Golijov, one of her frequent collaborators, with a string quartet. I am not an expert on classical singers but I was touched bu the warmth and humanity in Upshaw's voice. Her singing is not as athletic as others I've heard but it's still very moving. The strings were mostly subdued and melancholy beneath her as she sang poems by Rosalia de Castro and Emily Dickinson and it was a graceful beginning to the show.

Upshaw and the quartet left the stage and after a few more chairs were added and rearranged, out came the Crash Ensemble, a new music group from Ireland, assembled by composer Donnacha Dennehy as a vehicle for performing his music. For this first number the group consisted of two violins, one viola, one cello, one string bass, and one each of clarinet, flute, trumpet, trombone and electric guitar plus a percussionist who mainly seemed to play various vibraphones and marimbas. They were joined by vocalist Iarla O'Lionaird who specializes in traditional Gaelic singing as they performed a Dennehy piece called "Gra agus Bas" (Love and Death).

This was amazing. O'Lionaird started in murmuring lines in old Gaelic with intricate rising and falling pitches while the ensemble attacked the music with a rhythmic, repetitive vigor that, in my limited frame of reference, reminded me of Steve Reich or Phillip Glass, and was flavored with traces of Irish jigs and fiddle tunes. Coming from a background in jazz and improvisation I was really taken with the rhythmic bounce carried through the strings and woodwinds with the percussion rattling around the edges and the brass and guitar adding carefully placed long chords. In the most intense moments this reminded me of saxophonist Evan Parker and his circular breathing feats, a twirling ribbon of sound that seemed go on forever.  While that was going on, O'Lionaird was crying out over the top, bring even more tension to the work. I've heard composers Dave Douglas and Sean Noonan use that type of folksinging in a jazz context but I've never seen it used in this fashion before.

After a needed intermission the Ensemble returned, this time with Upshaw in tow. The group was a bit different. The trumpeter was gone but a pianist and accordionist were there in her place. This combination performed "That the Night Come", a Dennehy song cycle constructed from six W.B. Yeats poems.  The group's activities were a bit more solemn this time as Upshaw's haunting voice took the lead. The rhythms still flowed freely with the strings and woodwinds again doing the heavy lifting but there seemed to be a graver and more internally turbulent feel to this piece. On the last piece of the suite, "That the Night Come", a bit of the earlier intoxicating highs returned as the ensemble picked up the pace and Upshaw soared to a powerful conclusion and the audience responded warmly.

Great.  Now I've got some more musicians to spend money on. What's next? Upshaw recently released a collaboration with one of my favorite "jazz" composers, Maria Schneider,Winter Morning Walks (left), and I'll probably order that this weekend. It also turns out that all the Dennehy music here was released on a 2011 Nonesuch CD by these same performers so that's definitely on my radar as well. I spend too damn much on   music but when it's this rewarding, I don't regret it a bit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #15: Let The Punishment Fit The Crime

Pete and Syd: Just two fun-loving guys out on the town
The Verdict (1946)

The Verdict is probably the only film in which the great character actor Sydney Greenstreet got top billing. It's a Victorian murder mystery where he plays a Scotland Yard police superintendent who finds out he just sent an innocent man to the gallows minutes after his execution. Greenstreet is relieved of his duties but soon finds himself called in to help investigate another murder which turns out to be connected to the earlier crime.

The movie is a serviceable little mystery with director Don Siegel playing up the shadows and atmosphere but the real fun comes from the byplay between Greenstreet and his frequent co-star Peter Lorre who plays his friend, a playboy artist. The mystery seems trickier than it otherwise might because those two can make even the most innocent line sound sinister. Between Lorre's melodiously creepy line voice and Greenstreet's shifty facial expressions you're convinced one or both of them must be guilty of something although that is not fully cleared up until the last few minutes of the film.

At the end it turns out the murder was an arguably justifiable killing but the murderer is sent to prison anyway.   That's not the case in the next film...

The Big Shakedown (1934)

Showing what you could get away with in the Pre-Code era, a bad guy also dies in this film and in pretty gruesome fashion to boot, yet his killer is allowed to escape scott free.

The movie itself is a lesser example of Warner Brothers' social issue films, this time concerning a seemin g then-current problem of counterfeit prescription drugs. The plot has a bunch of gangsters who, run out of the liquor business by the end of Prohibition, decide to start a new racket in selling counterfeit, cut-rate products to drug stores. With the help of a young chemist, they start with phony toothpaste and cosmetics but then branch out into medicine where, as you might imagine, trouble really starts.

The film is directed by John Francis Dillon, who passed away the year this was released, and does not have the anger or energy of the best Warners message movies of the time like Five Star Final.  The chief gangster, played by Ricardo Cortez, comes off as a likable sort of slimeball when he's not threatening somebody and his girlfriend, played by Glenda Farrell, and his gang, led by Allen Jenkins and Dewey Robinson, comes off as more comic relief than anything else. In this atmosphere the two killings and other bits of violence that occur are really jarring. It also doesn't help that Charles Farrell, as the chemist, is a far more doughy hero than Edward G. Robinson or Paul Muni would be, and that Bette Davis is stuck in a nothing role as his girlfriend. Still it's got the Warners streetwise snapiness to it and it's worth a look for its unusual plot.

Cosmopolis (2012)

The movie that makes you ask yourself "Is a haircut really that damn important?"

This overlooked 2012 gem is a David Cronenberg work from a Don DeLillo novel that chronicles the life of a young billionaire financier on the day he world comes crumbling around him. Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, just wants to get in his limousine, go across Manhattan and get a haircut. Along the way he has to deal with massive traffic jams, a new wife he seems to have picked up in an arranged marriage, anarchist rioters and his fortune dwindling down to nothing. And oh by the way, somebody is trying to kill him as well.

I haven't seen A Dangerous Method yet but in his films just before that, Cronenberg seemed to getting away from the kind of bizarre stories that made his reputation. Here he definitely goes back to the crazy.  Most of the film takes place inside Packer's limo, his home for meetings, doctor visits and even sex, an extremely controlled environment where he is in charge. At the same time there is a sense of this man slowly disintegrating, coming out of his confined cocoon and even seeming to enjoy his loss of control. I have stayed far away from the Twilight movies but here Pattinson shows he'a s good actor, slowly letting expressions come to light and making the clipped, elliptical dialogue, which Cronenberg takes straight from the book, sound natural.  There's also a very good supporting cast around him, including Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti as various people in Packer's life.  The claustrophobic, unbalanced side of Cronenberg's art is really to the fore here.

Haywire (2012)

There are very few movie genres Steven Soderbergh hasn't tried his hand at and Haywire is his version of a spy movie,  a conventional plot about a private company agent who is double-crossed by almost everyone.  The movie's main hook is that the agent is played by MMA fighter Gina Carano allowing the action sequences to be done in close focus with realistic-looking and vicious fighting.

The film feels like Soderbergh decided to tell a James Bond story in the style of John LeCarre. The action is there but very subdued compared to most modern action films. There are no loud explosions, or wisecracks, just subtle bits of humor like the very last shot.   Instead the film has a very cool and intense film with David Holmes' taut electronic score being the closet thing to bombast. Carano carries her part off well. She is not called on to do a lot of heavy acting but she reads her lines convincingly and she's got an amazing lot of name actors around to play her various friends and enemies in Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender. Soderbergh hasn't stacked the deck like that since his Oceans'11 movies.  Carano will next have a part in Fast & Furious 6 in a couple of weeks. Hopefully that will take her farther into a decent film career and away from a job where people hit her for real.