Saturday, November 2, 2013

Neglected Gem #48: Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

Amanda Plummer, John Savage and Diane Lane in Cattle Annie and Little Britches

Hollywood made a brief, lyrical attempt at resurrecting the western in the early 1980s with The Long Riders, Cattle Annie and Little Britches and Barbarosa, but unhappily none of them was a hit and they’ve all been largely forgotten. Cattle Annie, directed by Lamont Johnson, was released in 1981 and remains the most obscure. It had a brief life on VHS but it’s never come out on DVD, and you’d be hard put to find it on television. I was lucky enough to catch a print – faded but not enough to cancel out the pleasures of Larry Pizer’s pastoral cinematography – in a centennial tribute to Burt Lancaster at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square over the summer.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: Who Knew An Apocalypse Could Be So Fun?

Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison star in Fox's Sleepy Hollow

On Monday night, Sleepy Hollow will return from the brief hiatus it took after it aired its fifth episode. With the shadow of Halloween still briefly upon us, this seems as good a time as any to explain why perhaps you should already have been watching Fox's new supernatural thriller. Sleepy Hollow's delightful unpretentious recipe of fantasy, horror, over-the-top melodrama, alternate history and police procedural stands out among the new dramas this fall season. And the light touch the show brings to its subject matter is a welcome respite from our post-Homeland universe of unending, and ever-ramping up, intensity (see: CBS's Hostages) reminding television viewers that sometimes TV can actually be fun.

The series is ostensibly but not really a "modern-day re-telling" of Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Using the name of the 'hero' of "Sleepy Hollow", and some of the setting and the one single memorable detail from Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", Sleepy Hollow takes off from there with gleeful abandon throwing in some unambiguously apocalyptic overtones just for good measure. Imagine if Grimm and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a illegitimate child, and you may have a taste of what Sleepy Hollow often feels like.

One look at the show's pedigree, and none of this would come as any surprise. The résumés of Sleepy Hollow's co-creators, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, reads like a "best of" list of television at its most entertaining, unselfconscious, and downright giddy. Kurtzman and Orci first worked together back in the 1990s on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and even on Jack of All Trades, Bruce Campbell's delightfully irreverent turn as a turn-of-the-19th-century American spy. But the two hit their zenith with Fringe, the Fox series they co-created with J.J. Abrams (before the two joined him on his big-screen Star Trek adventure), and oversaw for 5 remarkable seasons. In many ways, Sleepy Hollow has more in common with those unapologetically B-television Sam Raimi/Rob Tapert shows of the 90s than Fringe and it is all the better for it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Graham Nash: Wild Tales, A Rock and Roll Life

The photographs on the front and back of Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life, Graham Nash’s autobiography, were taken by Nash himself, in mirrors. The front cover shows him circa 1972; the back is more current. In between the two photos is another self-portrait, in words. The story begins with him leaving the place of his birth, walking away from his wife, his band (The Hollies), and his bank account and discovering a new world of music with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, new love (Joni Mitchell) and a new bank account in the USA. The text which tells his story is bracketed by two sentences. He begins “It always comes down to the music,” and concludes, some 345 pages later, “it all comes down to the music.” And that is pretty much Graham Nash’s philosophy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Detente: The Iran Job and Zaytoun

Kevin Sheppard and members of A.S. Shiraz in The Iran Job (2012)

Till Schauder's 2012 picture The Iran Job garnered the award for best documentary entry at this past weekend's Arlington International Film Festival in Massachusetts, and when you watch it you can see why. Schauder gains a rare and privileged look at Iranian life and culture through the most unlikely of perspectives: an American basketball player contracted to play one season for a new team in the country's Super League. The player would be Kevin Sheppard, a gregarious point-guard from St. Croix with an outsized personality and infectious reserve of energy. Having failed to make the NBA out of college, Sheppard followed the route of other athletes in the same position and played professionally in various points abroad. Then, in the fall of 2008, comes an offer from Iran, which (as the movie reminds us with a clip of George W. Bush's “Axis of Evil” speech) is just one of America's most strident opponents on the geopolitical landscape. But, unfazed by the two nations' frozen relationship, Kevin's soon on a plane from the Virgin Islands. The filmmakers follow him to his new digs in the city of Shiraz, where he's to play for the hometown heroes, A.S. Shiraz. And not just play for, but lead to success: he's been brought in (and paid double his Iranian teammates) to take the team out of the cellar where it sits and into the playoffs—something no new team in the league's ever done.

He's got his work cut out for him: his Iranian teammates got no game. They stink up the court so badly during the first scrimmage that a dumbfounded Kevin judges it the worst basketball he's ever participated in. He resolves to turn the team around, but that entails more than improving the Iranians' dribbling and shooting. It means changing their mindset from one that slavishly follows their coach's commands and nothing more, to the open-minded kind that allows for the quick-thinking, free-flowing, improvised play required of exciting basketball. So it is that this narrow narrative focus aptly contains the broader cultural conflict between Western secularization and Iranian theocratic Islam. For the movie's real story is off the court, where Sheppard navigates his way through the unfamiliar terrain of his host country.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Wild Side: Lou Reed vs Frank Zappa

Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (illustration by Chris Grayson) 

It's curious how we recall certain moments only when death intervenes and creates a rent in our day. The sad passing of Lou Reed this past Sunday, at the age of 71, took me immediately to a typical party I attended as a teenager on a Saturday night back in the early Seventies. There's no significant reason to remember this party and I hadn't even thought about it since the night it happened. But that's what death does. It brings dormant moments back to life. On that evening, it was the first time I became aware of Lou Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, just happened to be playing on the turntable and I remember most the nursery rhyme beauty of the opening track, "Sunday Morning," the slashing guitar that droned under the driving beat of "I'm Waiting for the Man," and the pulsating intensity of "Heroin," where John Cale's shrieking violin seemed to create an electric blanket to surround Reed's determined voice and speaking for his heightened nervous system; the sensations brought on by milk-blood flowing in the veins (all of which made Steppenwolf's popular song "The Pusher" seem even sillier and more self-conscious by comparison). I also loved the Celtic melody that underscored "Venus in Furs" while the flattened out timbre of Nico's voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties" made me momentarily forget the party I was attending.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Music, Music, Music: The Most Happy Fella, Merrily We Roll Along and Baritones Unbound

Marnie Parris & Bill Nolte in The Most Happy Fella

Six years passed between Frank Loesser’s hugely successful Guys and Dolls and his next Broadway show, The Most Happy Fella, and the two projects couldn’t have been more different. Guys and Dolls was an effort to find a musical-comedy equivalent for the quirky idiom of Damon Runyon’s stories, where gamblers and gangsters are interchangeable (and basically benign), wear fedoras and pin-stripe suits, and speak without contractions. Loesser’s score is lyrical, but it’s comprised mostly of comic numbers – solos (“Adelaide’s Lament”) duets (“Sue Me,” “Marry the Man Today”) the title song, call-and-response numbers  (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and the two Hot Box showgirl tunes), even a counterpoint trio (“Fugue for Tinhorns”). The Most Happy Fella has a lush romantic score, and there’s so much of it that the original cast recording was released in two versions, a single LP of highlights and a complete three-LP set, in the style of opera recordings. Technically the show is an operetta, since it does contain dialogue sections (which were also written by Loesser). And though it may not be up to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, the two Broadway musicals that are not only extensive enough but also complex enough musically to qualify as operas, it’s extremely ambitious – and surpassingly beautiful. (In fact, the New York City Opera used to keep it in their repertory.) Loesser based it on a 1924 play by Sidney Howard called They Knew What They Wanted – a hit despite that unwieldy title – that starred Richard Bennett and the legendary stage actress Pauline Lord and was filmed three times over the next decade and a half.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

You Say You Wanna Revolution?

It's not too hard to take apart comedian Russell Brand's idea of an egalitarian revolution, which he happily endorsed this week on BBC Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. There are no ideas there; only vague cereal box pronouncements that would make Karl Marx blush. Since Brand had already guest-edited The New Statesman on that very subject of revolution, he was brought on to the show to explain himself. Besides saying that voting only "legitimizes a corrupt system," Brand's dissent was all sound-bite with nothing at stake. But why Brand received so much play on social media isn't so negligible. As Elizabeth Renzetti pointed out in a column in The Globe and Mail yesterday, the political system has so broken faith with its constituents that it has allowed the bromide of a Russell Brand to take hold. "[W]hen the political system looks increasingly absurd – and you need only look to the kindergarten-style scrapping in Canada’s Senate or the tumbleweeds that recently rolled past the monuments in Washington – the absurdists look rational," she writes. "In his interview, Mr. Brand pointed to the fact that the British government is suing the European Union to remove a cap on bankers’ bonuses on the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis – if that isn’t head-spinning farce, what is?" What Brand spoke to is the void left when, as Renzetti puts it, "the web of trust and civic engagement meant to bind a society is fraying." When only 19 per cent of Americans trust their government compared to 75 per cent fifty years ago, Brand comes across as prophetic.   

Forty-five years ago, though, the thought of revolution was something of a fact rather than a whimsical idea. In the early days of 1968, everywhere you looked, real ideals were being put to the test. The Soviet Union had brought a totalitarian chill to the Prague Spring after they invaded Czechoslovakia. The assassination of Martin Luther King in April was followed two months later by the shooting death of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Student upheavals in Paris against the Gaulist government were matched by riots in the United States over the escalation of the Vietnam War. During their various world tours, John Lennon had wanted The Beatles to have more freedom to comment on the political tumult surrounding the group, but Brian Epstein, fearing public reaction, steered Lennon against it. But with Epstein dead by 1968, Lennon knew that there was now no one around to stop him. He immediately went to work on completing a song he first started composing in India. "Revolution" was written in response to the various left-wing organizations that were vying for The Beatles' support for violent revolution. But instead of throwing his hat into the ring, he composed a stern riposte against violence that would create a huge backlash against the group from certain anti-war activists who had counted on The Beatles for support.