Sunday, March 15, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XIII

In Steven Knight's Locke (2014), which recently came out on DVD and Blu-ray, Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who, the day before he must supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham, learns that a colleague with whom he had a one-night stand with seven months earlier has gone into premature labour with their baby. Despite his huge job responsibilities and his wife and children still awaiting him at home, he decides to drive to London to be with the woman carrying his child.

From the moment Hardy makes a crucial turn in his car onto a highway of his choice, he never veers from its destination despite the demands over the phone from all the important people in his life. For just over 80 minutes, as we stay focused almost entirely in close-up on Hardy's face, he remains steadfast and glued to the road, as if it were a lifeline pulling him towards a liberation that comes at a price. While he fields a never ending series of desperate phone calls, and hears voices that compete with the ones already in his head, Hardy sustains a tightrope act not easy for an actor to pull off in such a minimal dramatic concept. Yet he finds a way to enlarge the confined space of the vehicle by drawing us into his battle with larger worlds outside that car: one world which has defined him, one that has harnessed him, and another that holds a mystery for which there is still no easy conclusion.

Chuck Negron's lead vocals in Three Dog Night were always pitched a little too overdramatic for my tastes on intimate tracks like Nilsson's "One," or way off the mark on Randy Newman's comedy of horror, "Mama Told Me Not to Come," but he hits the right soulful notes on "Easy to be Hard," their cover of a song from the musical, Hair. Their version of "Easy to be Hard" always carried, for me, the notion that perhaps the question of whether people would become heartless was already being feared and anticipated in the performance. You could certainly hear a foreboding prescience when it's played in the opening moments of David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). Over the fireworks of the 4th of July in 1969, as a young couple having an affair are driving to a nightmare conclusion, the song (along with Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man") sets up the decade to follow, where it not only becomes more heartless and cruel, it also became easy to be cold.

How does anyone believe a second of Whiplash? Miles Teller is Andrew Neiman, a first-year jazz drummer at a highly acclaimed conservatory in New York who aspires to be one of the greats. When he is invited to join the studio band of conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he gets subjected to all manner of abuse from physical assault to verbal intimidation. Writer and director Damien Chazelle claims the picture is based on his experiences in the Princeton High School Studio Band, but he never answers the most basic question as to how such a psychopath could teach music students without a whisper of protest. Simmons, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, seems to be channeling the neo-Nazi he once played on Oz. Whiplash gets whatever interest going by the rhythms of Simmons's rapid fire sadism along with the quick cutting that keep the viewer from making any sense of the story. Teller brings some fine comic shadings to his scenes with Melissa Benoist, a young woman he's falling in love with, until he inexplicably breaks up with her so he can live up to Fletcher's idea of artistic perfection. And there's nothing Teller can do to redeem a scene where he emerges from a serious car crash to show up at a band recital without a comment by anyone as he stands there broken and bleeding. (Where are the police in movies when you really need them?) Whiplash is essentially a sadomasochistic military basic training film that believes that a real artist only becomes a genius by being bullied into one. (Would Chazelle claim that it was abuse and racism that made Billie Holiday into a great jazz singer?) It's a repeat of the same stale nonsense of James Bridges' The Paper Chase (1973), or An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), and about as dramatically compelling as an episode of Hell's Kitchen.  

Crossroads (photo by Gilbert Guyonnet).
Critics at Large co-founder David Churchill used to talk about mini-masterpieces that sometimes lurked in mediocre movies. One of my favourite 'mini-masterpieces' happens when Aretha Franklin gets to sing "Think" in John Landis' The Blues Brothers (1980). Albert Goldman in his essay, "She Makes Salvation Seem Erotic" from the New York Times in 1968, describes the full essence of Franklin's art when he writes that she delivers "her feelings with astonishing power and ebullience, [and] releases every tightly creased irony of the blues and dispels the old stale atmosphere of patiently endured female sorrow." That's exactly what you get to hear in this thrilling performance.

"Black Girl" (also known as "In the Pines" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?") is tale of terror that has been told by everyone from Leadbelly to the Louvin Brothers to Nirvana, but this duet featuring Long John Baldry and Maggie Bell is equal to the task. It isn't "Gimme Shelter" exactly, but the song sure makes you want to seek some.

I know it's generally acknowledged that Tommy is The Who's masterpiece, and I do like some of its songs, but I've never been able to cozy up to its grandiloquent themes of divinity that grows out of sadism and masochism. ("I Can't Explain" and "The Kids are Alright" were, for me, much more concise and convincing expressions of alienation and adolescent frustration.) On the other hand, Quadrophenia, despite its own unwieldiness, has always touched a chord in me despite its flaws. Perhaps I found myself stirred more easily to Pete Townshend's ambivalent struggles on this epic album because he not only gets to the roots of what The Who were always all about to him, but in that sojourn, he also speaks to those listeners for whom the band always mattered. The record is essentially about one artist and the group he projected his own fractured ego on. And his exploration of that subject finds a fuller, more passionate expression here. Quadrophenia has passages that are actually quite moving. In particular, in the record's climax, "Love, Reign O'er Me," singer Roger Daltry not only takes the desperate romanticism of Townshend's words and makes them his own, he seems to reach into the depths of where his partner may have sometimes feared to tread.

Author's tour to be announced shortly.....

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on Tommy, which has always struck me as bloated, musically, and self-aggrandizing. As you say, some good songs.