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.