Saturday, June 8, 2013

Re-Discovering Excitement in the Movies: Sleeping Car to Trieste

What’s happened to excitement in the movies? By that I don’t just mean the obvious, where you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. I am talking about that undercurrent in a movie when a director is trying something new or making something old seem new and you don’t know where the film is going or where it will end up. That’s pretty rare these days at the cinema. In fact, I’ve only seen a handful of films in the last year that actually evoked that feeling in me, and two of them were almost 40 and 65 years old, respectively.

The only recent thrilling movies for me have been Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), a French movie that I called deliriously inventive in my review for Critics at Large, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) (2012), which deserved the rave review it received from Critics at Large’s Steve Vineberg. The former was a tale of a man riding through the streets of Paris as he carries out mysterious assignments that zig-zagged in an unpredictable and never contrived fashion; the latter contained strong undercurrents of drama and tension in its tale of prisoners staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I actually didn’t want either of them to end. Otherwise, it was only last year’s stunning digital re-release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), only the wunderkind’s second feature, and the 1948 British movie Sleeping Car to Trieste, that were genuinely and viscerally exciting.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A New Canon: Joshua Redman's Walking Shadows

In 1949, bebop legend Charlie Parker wanted a change. After years of intensive one-nighters playing jazz, Parker wanted to record an album of ballads but support it with a string section. It was a creative risk to take at the time, but Parker did have the support of producer Norman Granz who recorded most of Bird’s best sides for the Verve label. His choice wasn't as revolutionary as the music he and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were playing, but it was unexpected. Could a hard bopping jazz player merge the discipline of his music with "legit" string arrangements? What would his audience think? The result was Bird with Strings (Verve), six standards recorded by Norman Granz and released in 1950. It was a hit, so a second volume followed it up later in the year.

Since that day, major jazz musicians have made records with an orchestra or string section supporting their performance. Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis and Stan Getz, to name three, have all taken up the challenge with mixed results. In many ways Parker broke down the stigma and chauvinism of the so-called legit players who looked down on jazz as a poor man's game with no artistic value. Fortunately, the public knew better and easily accepted the notion that a hard-bopping innovator such as Charlie Parker could play ballads with an orchestra and not sound corny or wimpy in the process. Charlie Parker with Strings on CD continues to be one of the most popular and best selling albums in jazz.

Which brings us to a new release by Joshua Redman called Walking Shadows (Nonesuch), released May 7, and produced by long-time associate Brad Mehldau who also plays piano on the record along with Brian Blade, drums and Larry Grenadier, bass. Now willing to take a calculated risk, Redman has wisely surrounded himself with musicians he first booked in his quartet over twenty years ago.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

No Hands: Her Master's Voice

In Christopher Guest’s HBO series Family Tree, the British ventriloquist Nina Conti plays the hero’s sister who began using a hand puppet as a therapeutic tool after experiencing a childhood trauma. She is now an adult who still has a piece of monkey-shaped felt draped over her hand, using it to express her forbidden and transgressive thoughts. If there’s a popular attitude toward ventriloquism that places it at the bottom of the show business barrel, lumping it in with card tricks and pretending to be trapped inside an imaginary box, there’s a corresponding attitude that sees it as a black art disguised as children’s entertainment, a way for timid people to uncork their inner demons. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mystery and Melancholia: The Wallander Television Adaptations

Krister Henriksson in Henning Mankell's Wallander

The international acclaim for Henning Mankell's Inspector Kurt Wallander mystery novels invariably led to television adaptions. The first television series, which adapted the first nine Wallander novels, was produced between 1994 and 2007 with Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard in the title role. Apart from selections found on YouTube, these episodes are not readily available. The one exception that can be seen in its entirety is "Pyramid," which is loosely based on the fifth and longest story from the book of the same name which features a younger Wallander over a twenty-year period before the debut of the novels in 1991. This film has the distinction of being the only dramatization of "Pyramid." I like that the filmmakers have used flashbacks to provide insight into the challenges faced by the newly minted idealistic graduate of the police academy, a device that helps us to understand the disillusioned senior investigator he would later become. We first notice that the young Wallander is fit and lean before drink, malnourishment and diabetes transformed him into a shambling, unhealthy middle-aged homicide detective. As the older Wallander, Lassgard’s natural rotundity helps him to look the part. In "Pyramid," we are reminded that from his earliest experiences, Wallander took every case personally and deeply-etched memories of them still burn within him several years later. Wallander was willing to put his principles above expediency, a quality that he demonstrates over the course of the novels and stories. Finally, the young Wallander’s reluctance to fire his gun is sustained throughout the novels and film adaptations. Over the course of his career, he rarely shoots anyone. When he does, it is a memorable moment for either the guilt that ensues or, at least in one instance, for the relief that it brings.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Critic's Notes & Frames, Part V

Late last year, I included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that others have posted and that I've commented on:

On "Let's Get Together For Awhile," Brian Wilson tries his hand at pleasingly relaxed and cool instrumental music for the pad. Think Burt Bacharach on happy chemicals.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Whips and Walt

James Graham’s This House, screened last month in the NT Live series at the end of its run at London’s National Theatre, focuses on the English Parliament of 1974-1979, when the Labour Party found itself thrust unexpectedly into power in a minority government for a brief interval before Margaret Thatcher took the reins. Graham’s idea is that government is drama and that within the larger theatre of Parliament is a smaller one, the interaction of the whips on both sides who make the deals and fight the battle to retain – or win back – control of the House of Commons. This House takes place mainly in the offices of the majority and minority whips, beginning with the switch-over, when Labour whip Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) and his chief deputy, Walter Harrison (Philip Glenister), usurp the offices that formerly belonged to Tory whip Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham) and his deputy, Jack Weatherill (Charles Edwards). The Labour contingent – which includes one woman in her mid-twenties, Ann Taylor (Lauren O’Neil), who is conscious that she’s crashing a men’s club – greet each other with cheerful surprise and glad-handing jocularity, rough-and-ready working-class battlers who act like they’ve just put one over and managed to sneak into a fancy reception in spite of the fact that their names aren’t on the list at the front gate. The Tories play it cool (noblesse oblige) but among themselves they bitch about the cut-rate furniture in their new digs.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Shell Shocked: A Tortoise and Hare Story

A turtle. It was the most harmless pet you could get, and your mother would probably fall for it… once. It didn’t do much, snapped at some lettuce, rolled over a bit, maybe, sunned itself on a rock. Kinda boring. So why would a cool bunch of rock’n’rollers name themselves after these dull critters? Maybe because The Turtles weren’t that exciting either. They had a fat guy with crazy curly hair and glasses who, together with a slightly slimmer guy sang all the songs, and some other guys whose names I never really knew. And I had a whole pile of their records. 

The Turtles
One of them was even produced by Ray Davies of The Kinks. That was cool… but it didn’t make The Turtles cool for some reason. Maybe they sang too pretty. “Elenore, gee I think you’re swell!” Goofy, but gorgeous. “Happy Together!” Instantly memorable. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a whole lot of other TV shows like The Smothers Brothers, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, these adult-oriented talk shows were the only place a teenager could get a glimpse of rock’n’roll back in the day. You’d watch dancing bears, jugglers, maybe an interview with Talullah Bankhead or a song by Sophie Tucker and then The Turtles would sing “She’d Rather Be With Me”. Still, these guys didn’t look very cool… they looked more like… ME!

Their songs were written, at the beginning at least, by the songwriting partnership of Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner. “Happy Together “ knocked The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” out of the #1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and was named one of the Top 50 songs of the 20th Century by BMI after generating over 5,000,000 performances on American radio. And still The Turtles were not cool. They had more hits, some written by Kaylan and Volman, some by other writers. Then The Turtles broke up, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (the two hefty singers) were on their own. They were forbidden from using The Turtles as a group name, and in fact they couldn’t even use their own legal names due to a law suit. They chose the nicknames The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie and sang backup for any number of top recording stars. Frank Zappa invited them to add vocals in The Mothers. All of a sudden they were cool.