Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not For the Attention Deficit Among You

From They Might Be Giants' FB page:

Istanbul (Not Constantinople) - Slowed Down 800%, The Bierberization of by CaptainCaustic

Their 1990 classic remake "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" has been "Bieberized": slowed down 800%. A formerly just over 3 minute song now takes 20 to play. Listen; it sounds like it would be an appropriate soundtrack to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Defense of Brian

You may have heard that Criterion is releasing their restoration of director Brian De Palma's 1981 thriller BLOW OUT in the next few months. This is good news, and you can be certain that a) I will be purchasing it and b) there will be a review here.

De Palma was dogged for years with charges of his plagiarism of Alfred Hitchcock. It is true that many of De Palma's earlier films borrowed heavily, even utiliziing Hitch's composer, Bernard Herrmann. We'll discuss this at length. For now, let me repost a Facebook rant from a fan who's tired of everyone's complaints.....


Listen. Please listen good. Anyone who perpetuates De Palma as a con artist, be it ripping off Hitchcock or Antonioni, is first and foremost a shallow thinker, hung up on blanket statements that have little bearing on any sort of analysis relating to De Palma's incredibly unique sense of decoupage. If all you can notice from De Palma is that he, indeed, uses Hitchcockian narrative elements or appropriates Antonioni here and there, premise wise, then you are unable to notice what really matters in cinema: the fucking form
.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part One

For the next in our very occasional series, we'll focus on an outfit that began as a comprisal of not merely one but two sets of wiseacre duos. First off, let's attend to what the band's name is supposed to represent. A cursory search of the Internet will primarily lead you through the Garden of Legend, the place where rumours are conceived and cultivated for perpetual misbelief. In this case, you'll find that "10cc" is the average sperm count in a male ejaculation. Such a story provides great press and the four musicians who made up this group did nothing to discourage it. Snarky quartet, this outfit.

One story floating around on both sides of the Atlantic was that the name 10cc actually appeared in a dream (involving the famed UK venue Hammersmith Odeon) of one Jonathan King, manager of said musicians. He awakened, recalled it, and his new charges had a catchy name. Whatever the truth, the name 10cc would eventually be synonymous with ingenious jokery. Brilliant melodies, rhythm (and anti-) and generous avant garde stylings.

Each member had a rich musical history behind him. Bassist Graham Gouldman was probably the most successful, having written the 60s tunes "For Your Love" (The Yardbirds) and "Look Through Any Window" (The Hollies), among many others. Drummer Kevin Godley and guitarist/keyboardist Lol Creme had met Gouldman during childhood in grade school. The three recorded and/or produced singles in the 1960s that did not exactly set The Top of the Pops on fire. Godley and Creme did begin a rather symbiotic relationship in those days that would be cemented in 10cc and continued for many years through a myriad of ventures we'll cover.

10cc's 4th member was guitarist Eric Stewart, who had worked with Gouldman in the ill-fated band The Mindbenders, and with Godley and Creme in Hotlegs, which produced the hit single "Neanderthal Man", a hypnotic, drum driven tune. Stewart was also a producer and all-around studio whiz. By 1972 the four musicians had crossed paths enough (including at the famous Strawberry Studios) to recognize potential as a unit.

10cc's first single was "Donna", sung by falsetto-voiced Lol Creme. It is a campy, very tongue-in-cheek stab at doo-wop and other 50s/60s bubblegum. It was pulled from the group's debut album, 10cc. It was written by Creme and Godley, another early indication of things to come. Their songs were loopy, experimental. 10cc's other half, Gouldman and Stewart, wrote more traditional, yet still wry, tuneage. Other spoofy doo-wop was featured on 10cc, including "Johnny Don't Do It", an appropriately sappy-sounding aural equivalent of an old American International Pictures cheapie, complete with a B-movie scenario of a James Dean-like hero.

Godley and Creme's compositions dominated this inaugural album, though Gouldman is also co-credited with some of them. One is the hit, "Rubber Bullets" a bouncy tune about prison riot control. Great harmonies and even danceable. "The Dean and I" is also rather peppy as it describes first love and later apathy. Gouldman and Stewart composed "Headline Hustler", an amusing tale that is a straightforward yet still stinging attack on media outlets, though not as melodious as some of their later tracks (these guys would be the more commercially minded of the band, as we'll see).

What really sets the dividing line between Godley/Creme and Gouldman/Stewart songs at this stage is the formers' "The Hospital Song", a very bizarre, angry rant told by a patient who plots revenge on his nurse. The singing is staccato, the lyrics filled with, uh, piss and vinegar. It would be the first of several G/C compositions that set them apart from their bandmmates quite dramatically, and perhaps set the rocky course that was not to last too long.....

To Be Continued

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Massacre at Central High

Spoilers!

Assemble a group of 2 or more individuals and you've got politics. It is unavoidable. Someone is always seeking to have dominion, to rule or govern over someone else, inadvertantly or otherwise. On a grander scale, it might involve an insane despot keeping his countrymen in a grip of tyranny or simply a 3rd grade playground bully, threatening you and demanding your lunch money. We've all been there, perhaps on both sides. It is especially traumatic in grammar school.

By high school, the social orders are formed with frightening organization. Your (not always chosen) clique usually has specific criteria for physical appearance, wealth, athletic ability, intelligence, religious faith, and even alcohol willingness and tolerance. The elites are usually the physically attractive and strong. Their power is often fed by their belittlement of the weaker students. But what would happen if the elites were wiped out? Would the political beast grow another head in its place?

The 1976 pic MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH has a most interesting and thoughtful blueprint. What if a new kid shows up at a high school, sees the geeks terrorized by the Adonises, then decides to "correct" the situation? David (Derrel Maury) is the new kid, a quiet type with average features who reunites with his old friend Mark (Andrew Stevens), a BMOC. The pair have a history: David once helped Mark out of an unspecified jam in another school.

David quickly notes the pecking order as the preppie thugs push around the chubby kids, the nerds, punks, and assorted misfits. Not just your usual shoving and name calling. Vandalism and attempted rape are common for these well scrubbed junior fascists. One fateful day, David is in the right place at the right time and prevents the would-be rapists from carrying out their plans in a classroom.

Bruce, Craig, and Paul are the bad guys with the cool hair. Mark is friends with them as well, and the trio, knowing of Mark's friendship with David, warns Mark to tell his bud to cool it. Mark meets with David and tells him that high school life can be like that of a country club if he just looks the other way when bad things happen. David is bound to no one's normatives. He remains bothered by what he sees as injustice.

Eventually, the trio corners David and cripple him (they kick the jack out from under a car he is working on). David will proceed to off each of these well-dressed scum in creative and violent ways involving empty swimming pools, runaway hang gliders, etc. With them out of the way, life at school becomes idyllic, for a time. The tormentors have been eliminated. But eventually the formerly oppressed will become oppressors;, the geeks will find their own victims. Is it human (sin) nature? David again watches, his vigilante tendencies again aroused......

MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH is the sort of neglected 70s item that you might find, these days, on an old VHS in a Goodwill store. Even when videocassettes were still the norm, this movie was a bargain basement title, at best. It has not endured as some lost classic, even though an Internet search will lead you to some loyal fansites. I can't really recommend it, as it is a clumsy, poorly produced, directed, edited, and acted film. Just like so many other so-called drive-in films of its era.

But you look at the original ideas of MASSACRE: not just a story of revenge, a satisfying eye-for-an-eye tale that ends with a tight shot on the former victim right after he or she evens the score. There are indications that this film wanted to examine the toxic cycle of vengeance, the danger of playing god. That's what David does, alright. He believes in justice, an old school code of "you get what you give". He feels the need to right the wrongs by destroying those who would terrorize and belittle someone incapable of defending themselves. We spoke of "utopia" in another entry. It cannot exist because of...ourselves. Our self-destructive and greedy hearts will always seek self-preservation. David conversely sees himself above the fray, removed from the sheep of the world, and believes his role to be Engineer. In the end, he will exercise his own power to right another wrong: himself.

All of this sounds different than your average teen horror flick, but distressingly, it plays as badly as any other. Director Rene Daalder penned a thoughtful script, and then promptly filmed it with no regard to pacing or subtlety. Maybe all the T & A was included to get the picture made,to wring the dollars from all those undiscriminating kids who'll hang the speakers on the doors and only pay half attention to the movie anyway. The editing in the film is especially bad: it jumps crudely from scene to scene, eliminating the power of the drama of the murders of several of the characters. It's all presented like a commercial. We're rushed through like consumers at an all-you can eat buffet. Sounds like a film of today, huh? So much to ponder, so many themes, but you'll have to wait until the film is over to digest.

It may also sound like a later film called HEATHERS, which rather liberally lifted plot points from MASSACRE. The latter film was quite a bit better, wisely utilizing a dark sense of humor to tell its tale. MASSACRE is humorless, but its straight-faced narrative does provide lots of unintentional laughs. To both films' credits, a conscience snakes through the lurid events. We're not just presented with colorful murder porn (like perhaps the later HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME or certainly any of the vile FACES OF DEATH series), but rather examinations of this most terrible of cycles.

I was also reminded of DIRTY HARRY and all of the criticism of its alleged facism. David is kinda like Clint Eastwood's character, at least in theory. David takes things much further, of course, a bit like those vigilante cops in the HARRY sequel, MAGNUM FORCE (which seemed like the filmmakers' answer to the critics of the first film).

I have a particular fondness for 70s films, good or bad. I've been delightfully surprised when the expected "bad movie night" brings forth something more ambitious (SMILE, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, others). MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH has very ambitious intentions but is hampered by its shoddy presentation. The fault all seems to lie with the direction and editing, kinda crucial for a flm's success. But the acting is quite giggle-inducing, too. In addition, the theme song "Crossroads of Your Life" is one of the most hysterically awful songs ever recorded. Its MOR stylings and unbelievably cheesy lyrics completely undermine the tone the film was attempting (and it plays during both the opening and closing credits!). I wish I could find a link for you. Actually, you're better off.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Head

Part II, America Lost & Found: The BBS Story

Typically, an artist with ambitions of fame will use all the usual media outlets to draw attention to themselves, to conquer. Madonna comes to mind. In the late 1960s, The Monkees, a musical foursome drafted by director Bob Rafelson and co-horts, had become an overnight success with a silly TV program and some massive record sales and highly charting singles. Maybe not exactly America's answer to The Beatles but still a significant blip on the pop radar. The TV show lasted 2 years, and all concerned wanted the business to be done with. But first, the deconstruction had to begin. That would be the 1968 movie called HEAD.

Deconstruction? Let's first consider the movie's original poster, indeed picturing a head, but it was not that of Monkees Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, or Michael Nesmith. The Criterion disc features a 1/2 hour interview with HEAD director Rafelson who explains that the head belonged to a guy named John Brockman, a literary agent. How "punk rock" (before the genre or term even existed) to do such a thing! This is your starting point for the attitude(s) behind this project. Rafelson also explains the origins of The Monkees, how the first edit of the TV show's pilot was a miserable failure, and how a recut made it a smash. The director then remarks that the experience made him realize how pointless/subjective the idea of "quality" is.

HEAD will put that idea to perhaps its ultimate litmus test for you, invisible audience. The film is not linear, has no A-Z plotline, and is not a happy jaunt like the Beatles' A HARD DAY'S NIGHT or The Dave Clark Five's (remember them?) HAVING A WILD WEEKEND. It is remarked in the supplemental materials that you could switch the reel order and still end up at the same destination at the end of the one and one-half hour running time. The script is the result of a drug fueled round of speaking ideas into a tape recorder. The participants: Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, lost in a marijuana and LSD haze while spouting crazy thoughts in no less than Harry Dean Stanton's basement! Gotta love such trivia.

Altered consciousness begats zizgzag cinema. To wit: HEAD features several scenes of tilted camera angles while those on screen ramble around verbally and physically. Real psychadelia. Solarized footage of band members underwater and assorted hipsters shaking their forms more suggestively than in your typical G-rated movie. What to say also of the fact that the band are sucked out of Hollywood star of yesteryear Victor Mature's hair at one point?! Seems the guys were merely dandruff in the sandal epic legend's mane! This script is whacked, but has some ideas about fame.

We also get various genre spoofs, as our heroes end up in a ring with boxer Sonny Liston, in a foxhole in Vietnam, in the desert (looking much like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) firing tank artillery at stubborn Coca-Cola machines, and so on. The scenes do have a bit of satire, barbs aimed at corporate sponsorship and other targets. Lots of old movie clips are sprinkled among the flights of fancy, and to jolt the audience into sobriety, a scene of Viet Cong brutality (bullet to the head) punctuates an otherwise peppy scene or two. All is not rosy in this celluoid wrecking ball.

Of course there are also concert sequences, the most revealing involving several screaming young girls rushing the stage to attack the band, finding not flesh and blood, but rather breakable mannequins at their fingertips.

The music, by the way, is quite good. I recall from my viewings of the TV show long ago that The Monkees' tunes were typical candy pop of the day ala Herman's Hermits. In HEAD, the songs sound more ominous, and more complex. Carole King and Harry Nilsson penned a couple. The Monkees are almost a precursor for those later caustic Brits in the group 10cc, here. Even the lyrics for The Monkees' theme song get switched around more than a bit:

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.
[...]
You say we're manufactured.
To that we all agree.
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
in never being free!

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
We've said it all before
The money's in, we're made of tin
We're here to give you more!
The money's in, we're made of tin...



Quite a contrast to the original lyrics:


Hey, hey we're the Monkees,
and people say we monkey around.
But we're too busy singing,
to put anybody down.

We're just trying to be friendly,
come watch us sing and play.
We're the young generation,
and we got something to say.




The differing style did not please their fan base ("between the ages of 9-14") and did not help this movie at the box office. The songs are one of the many tools the band and filmmakers use to debunk the rumors of the Monkees' alleged lack of talent. As well, he darker tone of the music may also be their way of setting the entire enterprise on fire. This movie addresses the vortex of sudden fame and notoreity by having Nesmith damn his own birthday party in one extended sequence, and all four retreating to a "black box" periodically, emblematic of what their public was doing to them. The box is also literal, as a similiar room was constructed just for the band during the TV show's filmings.

A mishmash like HEAD is great fun for some, rubbish to others. I'm certain that more than one viewer will tell you that a good hit off of a skull pipe helps one make better sense of it. Others who may not have changed the bong water recently may be just as confused as John Q. Citizen. The Monkees themselves, in a recently recorded commentary for HEAD, explain that you may as well ask Nicholson what he was trying to say. The foursome did not have their ideas interjected into this movie.

You can take in the whole affair as a 90 minute trippy music video, or perhaps as a colorful statement on the themes we discussed above. Even Frank Zappa shows up in HEAD at one point (along with a talking cow) to advise Jones to focus on his music rather than a showy dance routine that we just saw (complete with the sort of jump cut editing commonly seen in French New Wave pics prior and on MTV years later). That brief commentary is evidence further that the Monkees were trying to bring across their frustration on a larger canvas, before they (self) imploded. The movie bombed miserably at the box office, so perhaps they got their wish. Too bad more peeps didn't get to see the destruction.

Ah, but inevitably, after a few network TV airings and later videocassestte releases, a cult formed to reclaim a lost treasure, even long before Criterion gave it the royal treatment. As part of the BBS Series, the HEAD disc kicks off the set with the aforementioned Rafelson interview as well as a fascinating doc on how the trio came to form their film company and its subsequent successes. A good deal of discussion is given to how The Monkees' success on the charts provided the initial start-up cash, and EASY RIDER'S phenomenal performance continued the run before some of the more eccentric BBS titles like A SAFE PLACE slowed things a bit.

The disc also includes a recent, engaging commentary from all 4 Monkees, but they're not all in the same room, so there's no interaction among them. This was also the case for STOP MAKING SENSE. I'm not sure if this is because the former bandmmates aren't on speaking terms, but I like that each of them gets to provide his take uninterrupted. All 4 acknowledge that by the time of HEAD's filming, they had become egomaniacal monsters. Dolenz recalls how veteran thesp Hans Conreid, guest starring on their TV show, "...hated us. I don't blame him. We were such dickheads."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The King's Speech

I read the synopsis for THE KING'S SPEECH several months ago and thought, "Eh, Oscar bait. Pass." Especially since currently a movie night out sets you back ten bucks. I read the reviews and felt I had already seen this movie, perhaps as early as childhood when I watched multiple TV and film treatments of the story of Helen Keller. Additionally, THE KING'S SPEECH seemed positively engineered to win awards, following some formula of illness/attempted treatment/struggle/triumph. Stories like this tend to get the statues. Actors love playing a character with some impairment as it allows them to run a gamut of emotions: calm/anger/scared/nervous/loving/hating, not necessarily in that order. One might say that such roles provide opportunities for the actor to stretch, to display their range. Agreed.

Now, I'm not saying that many of these films aren't worthy. Witness Daniel-Day Lewis in Oscar bait such as MY LEFT FOOT or Michael Keaton in CLEAN AND SOBER. These are good films with more than creditable peformances. I've just seen many of these type and the older and crankier I get, the more I want to be surpised. Not just by scripts, you see, but also performances. I love it when an actor takes what could be a one dimesnional saint or sinner and does something to subvert our expectations. Like real humans do.

Colin Firth, the eventual king of THE KING'S SPEECH, does not really do anything like that. He plays Prince Albert, the Duke of York, son of King George V in Great Britain during a most turbulent time in history: the percolation of what would lead to World War II. But backing up a bit, we see Albert attempt to deliver a live and radio address at Wembley Stadium in the mid 1920s. He doesn't merely stammer, he all but chokes on his attempt at articulation. We learn that it has been a problem for a good deal of his life.

Very supportive wife Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham-Carter, who has not seemed to age since my first awareness of her all those years ago in A ROOM WITH A VIEW), is fed up with the speech therapy Albert receives-one of these experts has the Duke put several marbles in his mouth, a practice dating back to the ancient Greeks. Worse yet, the therapists recommend smoking for throat relaxation. This sort of nonsense would be quite common among caregivers on both sides of the pond in the early-mid 20th century, in fact:I snapped this in the mens' room at a local burger joint. It does sport the prevelant attitudes of its time, methinks.

Elizabeth eventually calls upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a relocated Aussie therapist who is also a wannabe actor with a fondness for Shakespeare. We learn quickly that Logue is a bit unorthodox with his insistence that the treatments be performed in his modest flat rather his Highness's palace (as is customary) and also by his addressing the Duke by an informal pet name. During the first session, Logue has Albert read Hamlet while listening to Mozart on headphones. The Duke reads a few lines but is quickly frustrated and ends the appointment. Logue provides his patient with a recording of the Duke's attempts as a consolation.

Months later, after continued difficulty with his elocution and berratement by his father ("spit it out, boy!"), Albert pulls the record out of its sleeve and is amazed to hear himself read "To be or not to be" and on quite flawlessly. The Duke will call upon Logue again and we are treated to one of those most endurable of movie cliches: the montage. Whether someone is training, learning, rehabilitating, or what have you, filmmakers love to cut a series of quick scenes (often set to appropriately inspiring music) showing our hero or heroine making progress. In THE KING'S SPEECH, we see Logue put Albert through the paces of various abdominal and throat exercises, recited tongue twisters, etc. We also observe Logue as he begins to probe Albert's psyche with a deliberate case history taking. We'll discover how Albert's speech difficulties caused the expected pain during childhood, the cruel words of family and classmmates. The sessions become intense. As a catharsis, Logue encourages his patient to let loose a stream of obscenities, in a very funny scene (the only one that could possibly explain this film's R-rating).

Meanwhile, there is much intrigue with the Royal Family's court. After George V's death, Albert's brother David (Guy Pearce), a playboy, becomes King Edward VIII. But he is plagued by his love for a twice divorced American, enough so to renounce his kingly duties and abdicate to Albert. It was just as well, seeming that David is more concerned with rare wine and parties and such. Albert feels no more qualified for his job than his brother did, and not simply because of his stuttering. He will confide to wife and Logue alike that he does not feel the least bit fit for the task. Logue will step up to not only help the newly appointed King George VI deliver a crucial speech to his countrymen on the outset of certain war (in a beautifully rendered climactic scene), but also to encourage him to achieve some modicum of confidence to do so.

It all sounds so contrived, no? So feel-good. THE KING'S SPEECH is an unabashed audience pleaser. The screenplay by David Seidler largely sidesteps the less savory details of royal family politics. The relationship between Albert and Elizabeth is shown as nothing but positive. You might say the screenplay is just so, British in its politeness and avoidance of unpleasantness. The story is fixed upon Albert and Lionel, their eventual friendship, estrangement, reconciliation, etc. Nothing at all surprising happens at any moment, but director Tom Hooper mounts everything so handsomely I never complained. He briskly paces this oft-told but still entertaining story, all based on real-life events. He even frames some visually inventive vertical shots of the King's palace, with its multi-storied staircases and long walls. The structure itself is the picture of foramility and rigidity. Bit of a chokehold, old boy? The tracking shots at times are almost Kubrickian.

But let's not get carried away. THE KING'S SPEECH, for all of its traditional, safe elements, works so well because it is so precise. It's not a mold breaker. It is an elegant, gleaming piece of cinema that has won deserved raves from cineastes, Oscar voters, and retirees alike. The performances by Firth and Rush are nothing less than excellent, and their scenes together are always compelling, even if neither breaks out of convention.