Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Catching up with Woody

Between 1971 (Sleeper) and 1987 (Radio Days), Woody Allen could do no wrong in my book. I know he's not everyone's cup of tea (and I'm not even gonna go into the Mia/Soon-Yi thing here), but I loved his movies during this period, some more than others, but they were all worth seeing and most still reward re-viewing. My favorites are Annie Hall, Love and Death, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, and Hannah and Her Sisters, and even his much-maligned straight drama of the period, Interiors, was not a bad movie. After 2 rather boring "serious" movies in a row (September and Another Woman), I sort of drifted away from him. I still saw most of his films, though often waiting for the video rather than rushing out to the theaters. A handful since then, including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, and Small Time Crooks, have been quite good.

But most of his movies of the last decade have been at best lackluster (Hollywood Ending) and at worst absolutely excruciating (Celebrity). Even his big commerical comeback, Match Point, was more interersting than enjoyable. The problem for me is that he keeps making the same movies over and over: the same themes, the same characters, the same speech inflections, even sometimes the same dialogue (perhaps not literally, but in the pretty bad Anything Else from 2003, he seems to have recycled everything from Annie Hall to no purpose). As an actor, he now seems tired and lazy (the sad Curse of the Jade Scorpion), so to his credit, he is appearing less and less in his own movies.

I recently caught up with his latest films. Both are mixed bags but both seem different enough from his other films that I see some promise for the future. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about two young women on holiday in Spain who get involved with a sexy artist (Javier Bardem); one of them (Rebecca Hall) has a one-shot fling and the other (Scarlett Johansson) winds up living with him for the summer. When his crazy ex- (Penelope Cruz) shows up, she and Bardem and Johansson have a menage-a-trois arrangement for a while, but it all turns out to be just "midsummer madness," to quote Vera Charles in Auntie Mame. There's not much heft to this little romance--I wish I felt like there was more a stake for the characters--but the acting is good all around (Cruz, who is up for an Oscar, is fine, but Johansson, who I don't typically like, is also good) and the honeyed golden tones of the cinematography are gorgeous.

Cassandra's Dream, his next-to-last film, with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor is even better, although it got a bum rap on its initial release. Farrell and McGregor are working-class brothers who both dream of better lives; Farrell's an auto mechanic who has a steady girlfriend and a yen for gambling--he tends to lose and lose, then suddenly win (because we see him when he's losing but never when his luck turns and he comes into lots of money, I assumed that he wasn't really winning but was stealing the money, but that's not the case); Farrell, the family golden boy, is in his dad's restaurant business, but is itching to make a big break. With some money from one of Farrell's dog racing hunches, they buy a small boat (from which the movie gets its name), Farrell becomes modestly upwardly mobile, moving into a decent flat with his girlfriend, and McGregor gets involved in an investment business and starts dating an actress who is at least one notch above him in class.

When bad times hit and both need money, they go to their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson) who agrees to help them if they'll do him a little favor: kill a man who is threatening to expose some of Wilkinson's shady doings. The brothers eventually agree, though both, especially Farrell, are stricken by conscience along the way. I won't divulge how it all plays out, except to say that this is another examination of issues of good and evil and guilt and chance as done before in Crimes and Misdemenors and Match Point, though things end quite differently (though satisfyingly) this time. Both lead actors are excellent, and they have resisted the temptation to ape Allen's speech and mannerisms, which in part is what makes this the least Allen-like film that Allen has made in some time. As good as Farrell is, it still feels like a dry run for his even better performance as a similiar character in In Bruges. Wilkinson feels all wrong for his part, like he can't keep up with Allen or the lads, but he doesn't spoil the show. Both these films give me hope that Allen's creative juices aren't yet exhausted, so I guess I need to keep him on my pop culture radar.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

2 quick book notes

1) Just finished a cute little British novel called The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp, written in 1953 by Charles Terrot. A young, angelic woman pawns a harp to get some money for a vacation, and affects the lives of several people including Mr. Webman the pawnbroker, his old friend Ned, and his young and naive clerk Len, all of whom assume that she is, in fact, an angel who can perform miracles. I found this in our library's junk books and saved it; I'd never heard of it, but it seemed to have promise as a cute bit of whimsy along the lines of The Bishop's Wife, and it is indeed a charming, lightweight story, if perhaps a bit too predictable. I discovered it was made into a movie in England in 1954 (the poster is pictured), though it doesn't appear to be widely available. Though the pawnbroker is supposed to be the central character, it's Len, with his smothering mother and his long-time crush on a seemingly unattainable girl, who really draws you into the story. Perhaps because of the whimsy of Pushing Daisies, I was picturing a younger Lee Pace as Len, and Kristin Chenoweth as the angel (with a little less personality, as she isn't really a very active character). As I've probably made clear, it's cute and whimsical, nothing more.

2) I'm almost finished with Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow, a huge biography of the man who directed two of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. However, Fleming's name has not endured like his contemporaries John Ford or Frank Capra, mainly, I think, because he didn't have an obvious personal touch (he was not what would today be called an auteur), and instead excelled at making mainstream middlebrow entertainments (Red Dust, Test Pilot, Captains Courageous) which are still highly watchable movies but which don't have cult followings or the air of genius about them. It's also interesting that his two biggest movies were projects that he did not initiate but instead inherited from other directors by studio decree--Richard Thorpe had done the set-up for Oz and King Vidor shot all the Kansas scenes; three other directors, most notably George Cukor, had put in time on GWTW.

This book is one of the best popular biographies I've ever read: it's well written and well researched, it does a nice job balancing the subject's life and works (and, without relying too much on unsubstantiated rumors, does find a place for the occasional bit of gossip), and its reach is both wide and relevant: unlike the recent book on Reagan in Hollywood, this one includes lots of peripheral material--particularly about Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy--but manages to make it all seem important to Fleming's story. I only have one more chapter to go, but I'll be sorry to see it end. More importantly, I want to go back and re-view some of Fleming's work that I haven't seen in a while, primarily Red Dust (pictured, with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable) and A Guy Named Joe. I suspect most of his movies aren't really great ones, but they are well made and usually boast fine performances. This book is a must for classic-era movie fans.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Effin' Ineffable Bruges

In my usual way of being a bad, even inept, fan/potential stalker of hot celebs, I have seen very few movies with Colin Farrell even though he always gives me the vapors. In fact, until this weekend, out of the 20 movies he's made so far, I'd only seen two: Minority Report, in which he has a supporting role, and the indie movie Home at the End of the World, which I can barely remember. But after seen In Burges, I'm gonna try to be a committed fan: I've got Cassandra's Dream on hold at the library, and I may even put the supposedly dreadful Alexander on our Netflix queue.

In Burges, written and directed by acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, follows two hit men (Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who, after they bungle the killing of a priest (they get him, but Farrell accidently kills a small child at the same time), are sent by their boss (Ralph Finnes) to hide out in Bruges while things cool down. This film has been described as a crime thriller or an action movie, and elements of those genres are certainly present, but it's better described as a dark comedy of character, as for the bulk of the film, we simply follow the thugish but dim Farrell (who we come to care for when we see how the death of the child has affected him) and the older, smarter Gleeson (who has a past tragedy of his own still haunting him) as they sightsee, get bored, pick up girls, do drugs, get bored again, etc.

The main running gag is that Gleeson keeps trying to get Farrell to appreciate the rustic beauty of the medieval town, but Farrell keeps getting distracted by, not only girls and drugs, but by a film crew shooting in town, and specifically by a dwarf actor from the film (Jordan Prentice), who, in a very clever plot twist, plays a surprisingly crucial role in the film's bloody climax. Eventually, the meandering narrative gets more sharply focused when Finnes, via phone, orders Gleeson to kill Farrell for his blunder. Gleeson can't quite bring himself to do it (in a wonderful scene which could be a textbook example of "black comedy"), and things build to a climax when Finnes comes to town to check up on things.

The supporting characters include a lovely young drug-dealer who Farrell is taken with, her inept thug of a boyfriend, and an even lovelier young woman who runs the hotel where Farrell and Gleeson are staying--normally, the fact that she's pregnant would exempt her from physical harm, but in a movie like this that keeps you off-balance, you can never be sure. Farrell is quite handsome, sometimes looking goofy on the edge of insane, and gives an excellent full-blooded performance while things real. Gleeson does a nice job fleshing out a character who seems as though he didn't amount to much on the page. I thought Finnes was OK, though many critics really like him here, I suspect mostly because he's playing against type. I liked this movie more than I thought I would. The movie is filled with hysterically funny vulgar dialogue (you might start to think that the name of the town is "F**kin' Bruges") and has a nicely ambigious ending. And the town manages to seem both like a precious fairy-tale place and like a shithole (in the slighly less vulgar words of Farrell). Recommended.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

There were pumas in the crevasses!!

As I well know, revisiting the mass media joys of one's past can be a dangerous thing. I loved the fantasy movie The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (co-created by Dr. Seuss) when I was a kid, but when I saw the movie again some 20 years later, I was sorely disappointed. I think it's letting such a lot of time pass between viewings, as I still love The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business and the old I Love Lucys which I loved as a kid and continued to have access to as I grew up. Still, I forge ahead bravely, risking disappointment, when I get the chance to re-view some of my childhood pleasures.

Hence, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 on DVD. In my memory, I have lumped this show in with another hip, controversial 60's comedy-variety series, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. A few years ago, I watched some old Laugh-In episodes and, while some bits still made me laugh, I appreciated it more as an exercise in nostalgia. I got pretty much the same feeling with the Smothers Brothers, who took their existing comic folk-music act and gave it a political jolt with lots of satirical jabs at the war, the government, and parents, and made lots of references (some veiled, some not) to drugs and the protest movement. By the third season (1968-69, the season during which they were cancelled due to their controversial material while still being a top 20 show), they had pretty much dropped their sibling rivalry schtick (slow Tommy whining to pompous Dickie, "Mom always liked you best!") for topical humor, and as we all know, that's the humor most susceptible to becoming quickly dated, and that's definitely true here.

However, the musical performances are still quite enjoyable, and not lip-synched. The Doors do "Touch Me" with horn players sharing the stage, Mama Cass sings "Dream a Little Dream of Me" to a napping Tommy Smothers, and on an episode that was taped during a musician's strike, the theme song and other musical backing for the evening is done acappella by a singing group, and Donovan (at right) performs "Happiness Runs" as a round with the audience--quite enchanting. Some comic bits by an improv group called The Committee (with Rob Reiner and Peter Bonerz among the members) don't hold up very well, and surprisingly, Jackie Mason, who is still performing today, seems outdated as well. The Smothers' banter is still mostly fun, and I was surprised how vividly a bit came back to me in which Tommy, while deconstructing a old work song, insists that American railroad workers of yore had to deal with the dangers of pumas in crevasses. You have to hear him insist on that over and over, his voice rising in pitch and volume, to really get it. If you don't mind having your misty memories get a little jaded, this set would be fun for most boomers.

I couldn't embed the video of Donovan's "Happiness Runs" performance, but here's a link:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rediscovering vinyl

This past weekend, they were calling for an ice storm, so Don finished setting up my new Ion turntable that allows me to transfer songs from vinyl records to mp3 files on our computer, so I can play the songs on my iPod. Finally, I could go down to the basement and dredge up the hundreds of songs I have only on vinyl and hear them again after roughly 13 years without a working turntable in the house. Yay!!

However, it turns out that I have far more songs from my past already on CD or mp3 than I realized. I could only come up with a sparse little handful of LPs and 45s to scuttle upstairs with. (I have hundreds more records living in my mom's basement, and when I visited her on Sunday, I grabbed one more handful; I'm sure I'll find more when she deigns to let me into my old bedroom, which has become her "stuffed with crap" room, where most of my vinyl is.) The first thing I transferred (is "ripped" the right word?) was a double album by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition called The Ballad of Calico, more about which I will write another day.

Then I did a few 45s, including the single of Loggins & Messina's "Thinking of You," which is a re-recorded version of the album song and unavailable on CD. I also did my 45 of "The Court of the Crimson King," a 3-1/2 minute single version of a 9 minute album song--I have the album on CD (pictured), but I wanted the short version just for kicks. The ripping is very easy to do and went quite smoothly. Right now, I'm using the standard software which does not allow for altering the sound quality, so the vinyl pops and hisses transfer right over to mp3 with the music, but I don't really mind; I kept my records in fairly decent shape so the noises aren't distracting, just enough to remind me that I'm listening to vinyl. An advanced software is available if I need to become a mad sound scientist someday.

I still cling to the belief that vinyl has a warmer, richer sound than CD, and if I want, I can use the turntable and software to simply listen to my vinyl at the computer. While I'm not planning any wholesale re-ripping of songs I already have on CD or mp3, I may test my theory about Motown 45s: I find that the Motown hits of the 60's and 70's have never sounded as good as they did on vinyl 45's. I know that their singles were mixed for a crisper, brighter sound for maximum enjoyment on AM radios, and I truly believe that the Supremes, Temptations, Smokey, et al. have never sounded as good on LP or CD as they did on 45s. Same with Altantic's Aretha Franklin songs; I own her 2-disc hits collection and the songs just don't sound as full and rich as they did on my old 45s. So next up, as soon as I find them: "Love Child," "I Can't Get Next to You," "Tears of a Clown," and "Until You Come Back to Me"!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Books of 2008, such as they were

I complained last summer about my reading habits, saying I was reading "fairly undemanding non-fiction books, mostly about movies or music." Things didn't get better in the second half of the year. I used to read a wide range of fiction: literary, popular, midlist (the stuff in between), fantasy, SF, mysteries, and gay novels. Now, apparently, I read only light non-fiction about the movies and music that I consume when I'm not reading.

I am just geeky enough that I keep a blank book journal of everything I read, with comments. Back in 2002, to pick a year at random, I read 74 books: 45 non-fiction, 29 fiction. 8 were mysteries, 6 were SF/fantasy/horror, and 17 were about movies. In 2008, I read 45 books: 37 non-fiction, 8 fiction. I didn't bother to do a genre breakdown, but I can tell you that I only read one mystery, The War Against Miss Winter by Kathryn Miller Haines. I didn't finish The Underground City, the WWII novel I'd been reading back in August when I made my last book post here. And I didn't bother to make a best-of list for the year; everything seemed so-so. If I had to pick standouts, I'd pick The Star Machine, a book about the old star-making machinery of the movie studios in the 30's and 40's, Pictures at a Revolution, about the movies of 1967, and Bright Boulevards Bold Dreams, about black Hollywood of the 30's and 40's.

I also enjoyed Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot. I like Reagan's scrappy little B-movies of the 40's, especially the Brass Bancroft series, and this book was stuffed with information about his acting career and the womanizing he did back then. The author has an irritating habit of including lots of movie info and gossip that isn't germane to the subject--he seems to include it just to show that he knows his stuff--but as a light movie-star bio, it's one of the better ones I've read lately. I also liked The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter, about FDR's first 100 days in office. It got some press in the fall when it was mentioned as one of Barak Obama's reads. Obama could do worse than pick FDR as a model, though this book doesn't treat Roosevelt as a saint. It stops at the end of the 100 days, and makes me want to read a more encompassing bio of FDR soon.

In the first 9 days of this year, I've finished 2 books, both more or less mysteries: The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson is about a young man who finds himself in Venice, working as a companion for an older man who wrote one book for which he became famous, and never wrote another one again. The narrator decides to pry into his life and write a tell-all bio, but first he has to: 1) get the old man talking, and 2) do something about the pesky woman who is already working on a bio. The book works well as a "literary" thriller, though things were tied up a bit too neatly at the end (though the last plot twist is a good one). I also read Bone By Bone by Carol O'Connell, about a man who returns to his hometown to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his younger brother some 20 years earlier. Her writing style makes the narrative feel rather oblique; I kept thinking I was missing something, grasping at straws to get the plot to come clear. I finished it and I guess I didn't miss anything because it all made sense, but it's a rather convoluted plot with lots of blind leads and characters who are thrown in just so there will be a lot of folks as suspects. But hey, that's 2 novels so far, so maybe I'm off my non-ficiton kick for a time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2 PBS surprises

I rarely channel-surf these days: too damn many channels! And too damn much "reality" TV, not just silly shows like Survivor, but DIY shows on cooking and cleaning and exercising, and even "documentary" shows on driving big trucks along ice highways (who the hell knew?). But by happy happenstance, I stumbled on 2 PBS shows in the last week that I enjoyed. One was Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, about how the 1976 Maysles Brothers documentary film Gray Gardens, which chronicled the life of two formerly rich women, who were blood relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who lived in squalor in a broken-down house in the Hamptons, became a hit, Tony-winning musical in 2006. The movie became something of a gay camp sensation, perhaps because Edie Beale was a theatrically larger-than-life person who was clearly having fun in the limelight. The film could even be seen as a forerunner of some of today's "living on camera" reality shows. The musical, which I haven't seen, looks like it was a showcase for Christine Ebersole (pictured), and when she left, the show closed despite having played to big audiences, both off- and on Broadway for over a year. This 45-minute documentary (about a play based on a documentary) was not much more than functional, but it piqued my interest in seeing the show, and the composer of the show's score, Scott Frankel, seemed articulate and interesting.

The other show was Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, about the actors and filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany and came in a steady stream to the United States to form a little film colony of their own. Many, like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and S. Z. Sakall, had solid careers here, though many more, some of whom were respected stage actors in Europe, became bit actors (most of the supporting cast of Casablanca) or found no show biz work at all. Much of the info here will not be new to classic film buffs, though I did not that two of the most famous film music composers of the 40's, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, were German exiles, as was Henry Koster, director of one of my favorite moves, The Bishop's Wife. The doc gives short shrift to Edgar G. Ulmer who is known today as a B-movie auteur, but otherwise this was good viewing, with good narration by Sigourney Weaver.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

iPod Archives: Random "H" songs

[My iPod is on alphabetical play of its entire contents, so I'm hearing songs in batches by first letter of the song title]

"The Horizon Has Been Defeated" by Jack Johnson (at right): A mellow aging surfer, drifting away on weed, contemplates a philosophical shift in his outlook on the natural world--maybe? I don't think I could listen to too much Johnson (pardon the classic-movie in-joke pun), but I like this one, though I'm not sure I've figured out the title yet--surfer lingo? goodbye, nature? I'm too high to see 10 feet in front of me?

"Housequake" by Prince, from Sign 'O' the Times (1987): One of my favorite Prince tracks, set at a rockin' house party just before the neighbors call the cops; there are lyrics, with Prince's voice sounding like it's been sped up or processed or something, but the most fun is the chanting: "Shut up already/ Damn!" "My Lord!" "Bullshit!!" and "What was that? … Aftershock." Prince was rarely this fun again.

"Hot Rod Lincoln" by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, 1972: A novelty tune about a guy having fun racing his Lincoln until the cops get him. This was the fourth chart version of this tune which was first a hit in 1951. It's a fun story song complete with sound effects, but oddly I find Cody's (George Frayne's) spoken, almost growled, vocals kinda sexy. I wonder what he sounds like when he's singing? (I know I've heard his '75 version of "Don't Let Go" but I can't remember what it sounds like.)

"Hummingbird" by Seals & Crofts, 1973: I was not really a big fan of the duo; I saw them in concert in '73, but only because Cheech & Chong cancelled their scheduled show and Seals & Crofts was the only other show we could switch our tickets for. This song starts with a nice yearning intro, bursts into the catchy chorus ("Hummingbird, don't fly away, fly away"), midway through has a great sweeping bridge ("Haven't you noticed the day/Somehow keeps getting longer…"), and finally a lovely chord-change coda. My favorite S&C, with second place going to "We May Never Pass This Way Again."

"House of the Rising Sun" by Frijid Pink: This Detroit band's only top 10 hit, from 1970; the vocal can't touch Eric Burden's, but the fuzz and wah-wah guitars give this an apocalyptic grunge/garage sound that works well. The video below looks live, but it's lip-synced.

Friday, January 2, 2009


This old crank set a new record low for number of visits to a movie theater in one calendar year: I saw exactly 6 movies outside of the house in 2008. That is by far the lowest number ever. Back in the 70's and 80's, I averaged a movie a week and sometimes more; one year back in my college days, I saw over 80 movies in one year. But home video, less well mannered audiences, a big screen TV, and a general disenchantment with Hollywood has led me do most of my movieviewing 1) at home, and 2) of classic-era movies rather than recent ones. I still keep up on some current films, but generally through Netflix, cable TV, or the library.

But I had a good experience on New Years' Day by going out "among 'em," as my mom would say, and seeing Milk. Friends and colleagues who rarely ask me about recent films were asking me, Have you seen Milk yet? I soon realized it was my gay civic duty to see it, so I went not necessarily expecting a lot: I'm not a fan of Sean Penn (the star) or Gus van Sant (the director). But it's a excellent film and Penn gives the best performance by a leading actor that I've seen in years. He fully inhabits the role of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay people to be elected to public office, on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, back in 1978 at a time when Anita Bryant was traveling the country, helping get anti-gay legislation passed in a number of states.

The film starts in 1970 when Milk was living a buttoned-down life in New York City, and follows him through the decade when he begins leading a more free-wheeling existence in San Francisco, just as the Castro neighborhood was taking off as a gay mecca. Milk worked hard to become a respected merchant and soon became a politician, trying to represent not just his gay constituents, but minorities and the working class as well. It takes him a few years, but he is eventually elected a City Supervisor; after being in office for a year, he was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco, by Dan White, a disgruntled (that's the adjective that virtually every print source about this guy uses) Supervisor who was certainly homophobic, possibly a latent homosexual, and who claimed that his acts were caused by too many Twinkies in his diet.

Penn is a wonder, resisting the temptation to exaggerate mannerisms or play it campy; after the first few minutes, he totally disappears in the role. Josh Brolin is almost as good as White; he doesn't have as much to work with, as White was and remains a cipher, at least to the public, but he does a lot with his eyes: sometimes angry, sometimes dead, always chilling. The rest of the cast is good, though only James Franco (above) as Milk's long-time partner, who left Milk when the political animal in him took over, gets much substantive screen time. I also liked Alison Pill as Milk's campaign manager, Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone, and Joseph Cross as a friend of Milk's, who gets one of the few laughs in the film during a brief sexual escapade. I got quite teary at the end in a scene that plays out like the finale of Field of Dreams (which always gets my waterworks going). The film does a nice job mixing in occasional bits of real-life footage, though we don't see the real Harvey Milk until the credits sequence starts. Highly recommended; I haven't seen many of the Oscar-bait films yet, but I hope at the very least that Penn wins Best Actor for this.