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.