Saturday, January 16, 2010

Living in a Song: Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Besides gospel, there is probably no other musical genre in American culture that is so devoted to the quest for roots, or the deep desire for personal transformation, than country music. So when the boozy, destitute country-and-western singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) in Crazy Heart sings “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else,” he carries in his voice those ghosts on the lost highway that carried singers like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. (Speaking of gospel, Blake may also be carrying the ghost of Thomas A. Dorsey who wrote “Peace in the Valley,” a song about transcendence that drew the interest of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley where, in the song, the singer hopes to “be changed from this creature that I am.”)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Last Orders

From time to time, I will pull down a DVD from my shelf, watch it again and see if it still deserves a place in my permanent collection. I'm starting, ironically, with a DVD that I've owned for two years or more, but have actually never seen, so I have no idea if I even like it. Picked up for next to nothing on the recommendation of my Critics At Large cohort, Kevin Courrier, I just never got around to watching it. So, it is with Last Orders that I begin. Short answer to the most obvious question is yes, it does deserve a place in my permanent collection. You should be able to find it at better DVD rental shops... run don't walk.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power of Big Love (Part Two)

Big Love differs from other cable series in its unpredictable casting. The Sopranos, True Blood, Mad Men and Six Feet Under, for example, generally have cast unfamiliar, even unknown actors, in the leads, so as to avoid viewer preconceptions. (I was barely aware of who Edie Falco (Carmelo Soprano) and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) were when The Sopranos began and didn’t know most of the casts of the other shows.) Big Love has taken the opposite tack by signing on better known actors and setting them down in unlikely roles. I would never have imagined casting American indie actress Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, American Psycho), as the repressed, sexually and otherwise, Nicki, Roman Grant’s daughter, whom Bill married for political reasons, in an attempt to being some rapport between him and his father-in-law, and who finds herself caught between conflicting loyalties to her husband and father. She’s a revelation in that role. Similarly, I never realized how good Jeanne Tripplehorn could be when she had a part worthy of her talent. The actress, who was previously best known for her ordinary roles in bad movies like Basic Instinct and Waterworld, is superb as Bill’s only legally recognized wife, who was never born to the polygamous faith and who has thus never quite reconciled herself to it. (The reasons she agreed to it are revealed at the outset of the show but I won’t spoil that for you.)The same could be said for Bill Paxton (Twister, Apollo 13), who as Bill Henrickson, plumbs the depths of ordinariness, even banality, to get at a multilayered persona beneath, someone who is more like Roman than he can admit. That’s a tour de force performance Paxton never got to give in his competent but one dimensional movie roles.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Power of Big Love (Part One)

It’s just begun its fourth season but HBO’s Big Love, the best show on television, is also the most undeservedly unheralded show currently on the air. I’m not sure why the series, which deals in an entertainingly unique fashion with a polygamist family in Utah, is being virtually ignored by all most TV critics, except that they seem to run in packs, as in pack journalism, expending much ink on The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men and True Blood and comparatively, virtually ignoring Six Feet Under, Rescue Me, United States of Tara and Big Love. In other words, it’s nothing to do with quality but simply copy cats copying what everyone else is writing about. I’d be worried that this terrific show wasn’t garnering enough viewers, because they don’t know it’s even on (airing on The Movie Network in Canada), except that HBO, though not driven by ratings as much as network television, wouldn’t be keeping it on the air if someone wasn’t watching it, unless someone at the cable channel has a soft spot for it and is making sure it keeps on running. It helps, of course, that actor Tom Hanks is one of show’s executive producers but that alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the show on the air, I suspect, if the ratings for Big Love were really low.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Joel Silver's Sherlock Holmes

Guy Richie may be listed as director of Sherlock Holmes, but the most important credit is probably 'Producer: Joel Silver'. Silver - producer of Lethal Weapon (and its sequels), Predator (and its sequel), The Matrix (and its sequels) and Die Hard (and get the idea) - has a reputation for having writers 'design' action sequences for his movies and then, when the script doesn't work and the movie isn't made, stripping those sequences out and using them in ones that end up being produced.

Those thoughts went through my head in the days following my viewing of Sherlock Holmes. This isn't a movie I hated, because the whole cast (except Mark Strong, as the dullish villain) are uniformly ... well, excellent isn't the word. Entertaining, fits better. It's just that after I saw it, I found myself thinking, 'yeah, that was okay', but I just couldn't put my finger on why I wasn't particularly taken with it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Pure Grain of the Voice: Blind Willie Johnson

Walt Whitman once wrote that “a perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.” But I’ve also heard singers who can achieve that same kind of alchemy. They take you past style, technique, even past the song itself, so that you become moved by the pure grain of the voice.

When I was writing about Don Van Vliet (i.e. Captain Beefheart) in my book Trout Mask Replica, which was about his strange and incomparable 1969 album, I was trying to get inside what made his voice, a lascivious growl straight out of the blues, so pure, so compelling. Some people said they heard Howlin’ Wolf, a singer whose power Robyn Hitchcock once compared to a DC3. There were others who insisted that he was possessed by the raucous spirit of Richard Berry (not the Berry of “Louie Louie,” but the sly narrator of the Robins’ hit “Riot on Cell Block #9”). Others detected a little Muddy Waters, maybe a pinch of the attitude of Charley Patton, possibly the jagged rhythms of Robert Pete Williams. Not bad company and not entirely wrong. But, for me, Beefheart’s voice didn’t bring to mind influences as it did of a man inhabited by a spirit. “I was never influenced,” he once said. “Possessed, but never influenced.” Which is why when I was listening to Trout Mask Replica, I heard the soul of the Texas-born gospel/blues singer Blind Willie Johnson haunting the record. Johnson’s voice, possessed of an unearthly power, holds an unfathomable mystery in its texture, as does Beefheart’s singing on Trout Mask.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Better SF: Battlestar Galactica - The Plan

If there was ever a film made 'strictly for the fans', Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is it, because if you have never watched the show, this otherwise fine direct-to-DVD film will make almost no sense.

With the wrap-up this past spring of the revered 2003-2009 series, many of us who became addicted to this thoughtful show were seemingly out of frakking luck. This was compounded by the horrible news that the hack, Glen Larson -- the man who created the 1970s cheeseball version -- was being permitted to do a feature film for Universal that had nothing to do with the new series (with supposedly Bryan Singer directing!). It was a downer on top of the news the show was finished.

The only saving grace is that, if the film actually ever gets made, it can be safely ignored without damaging our memories of the series. We now have one more piece to add to our treasure chest of 'good' Battlestar Galactica. Directed by the show's lead actor, Edward James Olmos, BSG: The Plan rewinds the story to the period just prior to the Cylon's annihilation of humanity (and ending about 290 days later) to tell us the story from the Cylon's point of view.