Friday, April 29, 2016

How Late, How Long

Another trip, another song to forever be associated with it.  The Sheepdogs' "How Late How Long" is a nice throwback to the sounds of the Allman Brothers.  It really fit the Arizona vibe.  But I did not hear it until our final morning there, just hours before flying home.  I was sitting in the lobby of the Palomar Hotel in downtown Phoenix, sipping complimentary coffee and pondering breakfast while my wife was in the gym.  I was also running the entire past week through my head, a trip that took us through Sedona, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon and back to Phoenix.  I have an entry coming. 

This tune captures the laid back, non-neurotic aura of this most scenic of states.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

White Heat

Few actors seared the screen like James Cagney. What was it about him? That face?  That hard to quantify aura, presence, what have you commands your attention every time you see him, whether his mug fills the frame or his stature is viewed in long shot.  Some actors just have it, regardless of how they're lit.  Cagney played a variety of roles (including the lead in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY) but is best known for his portrayals of gangsters.  When he made 1949's WHITE HEAT, it had been nearly a decade since he last carried the gun, dodging the heat. 

As Arthur "Cody" Jarrett, Cagney had perhaps his greatest and most iconic role - a violent, deranged criminal with a fierce devotion to his mother, "Ma" (Margaret Wycherly).  In fact, she's part of his gang, and his only confidante.  The others, especially "Big Ed" (Steve Cochran) are not to be trusted.  Perhaps they're  weary of taking orders and are looking to overthrow the pint sized psycho.  Cody's wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is mostly neglected, competing for her husband's affections with Ma at every turn.

Cornered while on the run after a train robbery (in which some were killed), Cody hatches a plan to turn himself in for a lesser crime committed elsewhere (by an associate), knowing he'll merely get a few years in the state pen.  Treasury guy Philip Evans (John Archer) is wise to Cody's scheme and plants undercover agent Frank (Edmond O'Brien) in the same prison to get close to Cody.   Meanwhile, Big Ed also has a guy there would will take out Cody, ensuring Big Ed's role as #1. But Ma is also wise, and warns her dear son while he serves his stretch.  Complicating things further are Cody's episodic headaches, often edging into what is diagnosed as psychosis, just like his father who died in an asylum.

Among the B-movie plot mechanics of WHITE HEAT is a fairly observant psychological drama.  The near Oedipal relationship between Cody and Ma is surprisingly blatant for a film of its time, and the actors put it over strongly and uncomfortably.  Everyone in the cast plays it to the hilt.   Raoul Walsh masterfully orchestrates and paces a would be potboiler into a really fascinating bit of sociology.  And it's just so entertaining and exciting, too, one of the greatest noirs filmed.  There must have been a symbiosis between Walsh and Cagney, a trust that allowed the star to improvise at times, especially during the famous mess hall freak out.

By the time Cagney repeats "Top of the world" during the explosive finale, you've spent a few hours being dazzled by a wonderfully written screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.  A mid twentieth century Greek tragedy, if you will, complete with a Trojan horse-esque plot turn involving an empty fuel tanker.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Beautiful One

I owe most of my thirty year plus appreciation of Prince Rogers Nelson, who passed away this week, to a guy named Richard Holt.  He was a high school classmate, a fascinating guy who was as interested in obscure literature as he was playing varsity football.  We had some great discussions.  Most memorable about him was his enthusiasm for the Purple One.  I very clearly recall him wearing his Walkman to class, absorbing the just released Around the World in a Day, the follow-up to the soundtrack smash Purple Rain.  Holt was a true blue fan, quoting lyrics not only to the hits everyone knew but also songs like "17 Days".  He even wrote "don't let the elevator get you down" in my yearbook.

I learned of Prince's death last Thursday when my audiology assistant rushed into the kitchen and breathlessly relayed the news.  She is 23, and unrepentedly dismissive of all things '80s but even she recognized that a true light had been snuffed out of the world.  I had a similar feeling in my gut as when I learned of the passings of Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and far too many others.   Fifty-seven years old. Dafuq? (as a friend likes to say).  I don't know the details.  I have ideas.  Anyone would about a fairly young musician.  Doesn't make it any less brutal.

Prince was unique: wildly successful on the charts yet always doing his own thing. He didn't really sound like other R & B/soul acts.  The early records were minimalist funky and quite dirty at times.  Prince would record some blushingly risque tunes like "Erotic City" and "Sexy MF" throughout his very prolific career.  His guitar prowess came into view during Purple Rain.  He seemed as if channeling Hendrix.  Find some YouTube clips; the guy could shred.

I have countless memories associated with Prince's music.  He was virtually the soundtrack to my high school years.  I had another friend at that time who was quite obsessed with him.  She lent me the unfortunate UNDER THE CHERRY MOON film he made, a failed attempt at mid century European art house (though it was stylish). The PURPLE RAIN movie was far from great itself but was a good showcase for the artist's music and was well shot. Anyway,  Brenda and I were on yearbook staff together and had endless discussions the man who would one day change his name to a symbol, then reconsider years later.   When I connected with Brenda on Facebook many years later she told me that she did not listen to Prince anymore as she was now a devoted Christian.  Many conservative folks with this belief system saw a problem with loving the Lord and appreciating Prince.  I did (and do) not.

Check some of the lyrics:

"I'm your messiah and you're the reason why."

"I'm going to a better life, how 'bout you?"

Those are the more obvious ones.  I feel Prince had a very strong connection and relationship with God, though the very present sexual elements in his music muddy the thesis.  Or maybe not.

Mr. Holt is not on Facebook.  I did chat with him several years ago through the Classmates site.  He still liked Prince, he said, though was more into world music as he had traveled quite a bit before settling down.  I wonder how he felt on 4/21/16.

R.I.P. Beautiful One




Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rust Never Sleeps

"Rock and roll will never die" sings Neil Young during two separate versions of "My My, Hey Hey" in the 1979 concert film RUST NEVER SLEEPS.  I agree, but I would also add that "rock and roll will also survive despite poor attempts to capture it on film" and "ill advised theatrics to accompany said music."  It is a testament to Mr. Young's talent as a musician that RUST NEVER SLEEPS is well worth seeing even with those two elements working against it.

The movie was recorded at San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1978.  Young plays a few songs acoustically then plugs in to join the members of his band Crazy Horse for some seriously electrifying tunes.  There is not a weak number in this set list.  I can't rave enough over how engaging, exciting, and inspiring the music is.  Young and the guys in the group are really into it, truly enjoying themselves.  As you watch, I'll bet you wish you had been there.  But....

I have to wonder what they were thinking with the action in the peripheries.  A group of guys in brown cloaks with glowing eyes scurry about the stage with oversized microphones and tuning forks.  These "roadeyes" look like Jawas, seen in the then-recent first STAR WARS movie. This would've been a cute idea in small doses, maybe just even for an introduction for the evening.  Instead, they amble out between numbers and are often seen at the back of the stage.  They don't do anything interesting.  They are not interesting.  For some reason, their footsteps are miked to the point of irritation.  Every move they make is amplified.  I don't get it.

Was Neil trying to lighten his image? Is that also why some sleazy guy comes out wearing 3-D glasses and tells the audience to sit back and enjoy "Rust-o-vision"? Or how about the use of announcements from the Woodstock festival, the one with the guy warning the audience not to eat the brown acid?  None of this nonsense is necessary.  Many bands whose music is lacking resort to gimmicks like these.  Young and company rivet us with their repetoire.  A spare stage would've been just fine.  The extras are just gratuitous.  I did like the use of Hendrix and Beatles tunes during the introduction.

Then there's the matter of the film itself.  Director "Bernard Shakey" is Young himself, and based on the ragged product here it does not show even the most rudimenatry understanding of how to shoot or edit a motion picture.  The camera always hesitates, never knows where to focus.  The film stock looks like Super 8 blown up. A mess.  The law of averages does allow the occasional effective shot of Neil Young shredding away, face filled with concentration.

Many years later Young would work (on HEART OF GOLD, as yet unseen by me) with director Jonathan Demme, who created what I consider the greatest concert movie of all time, STOP MAKING SENSE.  Too bad they hadn't met to collaborate on RUST NEVER SLEEPS.  It might've been an all around classic.  As it is, I still recommend the film, 'cause despite it all rock and roll is here to stay.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

For Your Eyes Only

While I acknowledge that Roger Moore's finest hour as James Bond was probably THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), my personal favorite is 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.   It's a lean, mostly no nonsense entry in the 007 series that hearkens back to the spare 1960s efforts with Sean Connery where gimmickry was at a minimum and while tongue was firmly in cheek, they were never too cheeky.  Moore's take often got a little too cute.  Too many tired wisecracks.  The screenplays also went far astray from Ian Fleming's vision, particularly when Bond went to outer space in MOONRAKER, which was rushed into production after the runaway success of STAR WARS.  In OCTOPUSSY, 007 was reduced to wearing a clown outfit.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY does have the requisite gags with gadgetry and the occasional silly scene (note when 007 goes solo against a hockey team) but is otherwise a fairly serious adventure minus flamboyant villains and plots to rule the world. A real back to basics picture.  Some criticized this film for its admittedly bland villain, Kristakos (Julian Glover), who merely seeks to get rich by selling a British military tracking device to the KGB.  Some critics feel that a James Bond film is only as good as its villain, an idea that defies understanding.  And after the two previous Bonds, with their cartoonish performances, love interests with silly names (admittedly a Fleming trademark), and outrageous sets, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY was refreshing in its simplicity.

But the movie most certainly does not skimp on stunt work.  The second unit was mightily busy on this one.  We have the usual underwater scenes and car chases, as well as some wildly exciting and imaginative ski chases that additionally involve motorcycles and bobsleds and are among the best action set pieces in the series.  These scenes are so involving you pretty much forget everything else about the movie, and even where you are.

Also as usual, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY globe trots at will, this time among The Bahamas, Italy, and Greece, the home of heroine Melina (Carole Bouquet, ravishingly beautiful but dull), whose parents are gunned down in front of her.  More colorful are Lynn-Holly Johnson as Bibi, a young figure skater who brazenly tries to seduce the superagent, and Topol as pistachio munching Milos Columbo, a former accomplice of Kristakos who assists Bond on the case.  Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q, but we no longer had Bernard Lee as M, and he was missed.

Moore is quite comfortable and natural as 007 and continues his winking humour but does not pour it on too thick this time.  He even gets rougher than usual in this film.  While his other forays into the secret agent's world were more colorful and outlandish,  I still prefer this one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Blues Brothers

Executive producer Bernie Brillstein was not a fan of 1980's THE BLUES BROTHERS.  He is quoted as saying that "(the movie) was supposed to be about two guys who loved each other.  Instead (Film director John) Landis set off World War III."  Much of the criticism I've read would concur with that thought, that the popular, fictional Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) from Saturday Night Live would've been better served by a small character study rather than this "steamroller" of a musical.  As much as I love this movie, it's food for thought.  I can easily picture a low budget, ninety minute indie-like film that maybe traces the brothers' early years and the formation of their crack band.  Quirky, low key humor and lots of music.

That did not happen.  Well, there is a lot of music and quirky humor in THE BLUES BROTHERS,  even some low-key moments, but otherwise Brillstein was on target. This is a huge kitchen-sink affair, a loud, lengthy exercise of More! More! More! that perhaps reeks of unchecked creative ADHD.  Aykoyd's mammoth script was originally delivered to Universal in a telephone book binder.  Hundreds of pages of character (and automobile) details.  Landis had the task of paring down the screenplay to something that resembled a movie.

Even so, the result is a film that does not squander a single opportunity for visual excess.  And not just the oft mentioned car chases/crashes.  Note the scene in the country bar, when Jake and Elwood, pretending to be a Southern act that plays C & W, dazzle the audience with "Rawhide".  Jake finds a whip and soon there is a shot of a cigarette being whacked out of an audience member's mouth.  Completely gratuitous, a moment that has made some viewers wince, or rather laugh not because it is inherently funny but that it shows the lengths to which the filmmakers will go for a gag.

The decision was made early on to go for the carnage.  For large scale crowd scenes and vehicle pile-ups that are really astonishing.  Despite what looks like a blueprint for certain disaster, the movie works beautifully.   It sort of feels like an MGM musical made by restless children.  The barest of plots - Jake and Elwood attempt to get their old band back together to raise money for their old orphanage- is essentially lifted from the 1930s.  Upon this framework are placed many crazy ideas, like a spurned bride (Carrie Fisher) who repeatedly tries to kill the brothers for reasons that are not explained until much later, after she tries to annihilate them with rocket launchers, bombs, and flamethrowers.  Or a group of peeved Nazis (led by Henry Gibson) who seeks revenge after they are forced to jump in a lake after the brothers try to run them over during one of their hate rallies.  Or a country band who were late to their gig.  And of course, battalions of police officers and even military personnel.  Everyone is after the Blues Brothers, and a lot of destruction is left in their wake.

But in between chase scenes are many stops for musical numbers by the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway.  Each feature elaborate (sometimes clumsy) choreography to add to the fun. Many viewers enjoy THE BLUES BROTHERS for that, even if they are shaking their heads over the rest of it.  The movie is also a wonderful travelogue for Chicago.  Amazing the place still stands after all that happens in this movie.

Saturday, April 9, 2016