Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two Faced

We're having a mini-Mitchum festival, starting with Angel Face (1952), an Otto Preminger noir co-starring Jean Simmons.

It starts with Robert Mitchum and a buddy driving their ambulance up to a Beverly Hills mansion, where a woman has almost suffocated when the gas in her fireplace is left on. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) found her in time. As Mitchum is leaving he sees Simmons playing piano, and they have a little scene. She follows him to his late-night diner, and gets him to break a date with his girl, then they go out dancing.

You see, he is a vet with no money and plans to open a racing shop. Simmons is a poor little rich girl whose father is a blocked writer, and her step-mother is a cold bitch who bankrolls them at the expense of their dignity. But she likes Mitchum, and lets him know she can funnel some money his way if he sticks around.

You know how in these noirs, you look at the femmes fatales and think, who would be dumb enough to fall for that? Maybe she's pretty, maybe there's money in it, but you can tell she's evil and you, at least, would not fall for it one bit. Well, Mitchum doesn't fall for it either. This is that great noir where the dupe is completely wised up. He might play along for what he can get, but he never trusts her one bit.

OK, that's enough spoilers. There's a lot that happens here, a lot of it pretty wild. Also, while Mitchum is being Mitchum, Simmons is gorgeous, sophisticated, young, frightened, alone, and utterly mad. I've seen stories that Howard Hughes made this movie to punish her, and got Preminger to mistreat her on set - pretty believable, but they wound up with an amazing document.

Monday, June 29, 2015


One funny thing about Riddick (2013) is that it really is a sequel to Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. So why the generic title?

Pitch Black found Riddick (Vin Diesel) a convicted murderer marooned on a deadly planet. It was done in a simple, stripped down style (and very stylishly). Chronicles was much more baroque (although Riddick was again marooned on a deadly planet), with fancy costumes, political intrique, metaphysical weapons, and wild ideologies. Riddick keeps some of that, but mostly goes back to the style of Pitch Black.

Riddick is marooned alone on a deadly planet - because he got soft. So he takes it as a chance to toughen up. He fights some nasty beasts and in the process acquires a pet hyena dingo-dongo. That's Act I. Finally, he finds an abandoned mercenary outpost and sends out a distress call, letting all the bounty hunters in the universe that a guy with a price on his head is looking for a ride. Two sets of bounty hunters show up. This is Act II.

Riddick leaves the mercs a message: Leave one of the ships and you can get off the planet alive. Since there are 10-20 of them and only one of him, armed only with handmade weapons, this is pretty tempting. But then comes Act III, when a planetary catastrophe makes Riddick come out of hiding to try and join forces.

Riddick is a nice combo of the stripped down style of Pitch Black with a touch of the baroque back-story and fancy uniforms of Chronicles. But mostly it is about the hard-assedness of Diesel/Riddick. Especially in Act III, Riddick is put into horrible situations, from which he casually tells people how and when he is going to kill them - and then he does it.

This is really your basic space adventure story, extreme action style. It isn't anything fancy or special, except that there aren't as many of these made as you might think. So, it's pretty silly, and it might be my favorite Riddick yet.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Her Who Must be Obeyed

Since we've been catching up on SF films of the 2010s starring Scarlett Johansson, we watched Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze. It really stars Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) - the camera almost never leaves his blank, dweeby face.

It takes place about 25-50 years in the future, in a Los Angeles full of skyscrapers. Phoenix is a lonely guy with an R. Crumb mustache who is going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. He has an apartment with floor to ceiling windows and all he does is stare into space, sigh, and play hologram video games. His job is writing deep emotional "handwritten" (computer generated) notes for people who have trouble connecting, which is ironic (I guess). To fill the void, he buys a new OS, the advanced artificially intelligent kind that sounds like Scarlett Johansson.

Of course, the OS learns about Phoenix, Phoenix learns about her, and they fall in love. It's kind of cute when he reveals to friends that the girl he's been seeing is an OS - they just kind of take it in stride. And that's the most annoying thing about this movie. Ms. Spenser noted it particularly: this amazing thing is happening: True artificial intelligence, with keen emotional insight and brilliance far surpassing ours, and all he does is make her a girlfriend? And when it all goes south - of course they don't live happily ever after - he doesn't say, "Hey, you're super intelligent. Help me out here."

But no, Johansson, as the OS, just gets emotional and all breath-catchy. Phoenix even calls her on it: Why do you keep sighing? You don't even breathe. If I didn't know better, I'd think she was being emotionally manipulative on purpose. But maybe that's part of the movie's message: Just like LA has become built up with skyscrapers, and men have become dweebs (see Chris Pratt as Phoenix's nice but inane co-worker), women have become manipulative psychos (at least all the women we see in the movie) and the OS is just trying to fit in.

I've seen a lot about the movie's visual style - considering that one actor is only a voice and the other is wearing a heinous mustache, that's important. It was nice to look at, but there were a lot of scenes of cityscapes, water drops, skies, that just went on and on. It really made the movie drag and it wasn't that beautiful.

Really, this was pretty much the old love story: Boy meets computer, boy loses computer. It's well done for what it is, but why shouldn't it be? Hollywood has experience with this. It just doesn't do anything with its amazing premise, which is too bad.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wreckered Album

The Wrecking Crew (2015) is a documentary about studio musicians, specifically, the musicians that played on almost every hit record that came out of LA. It was made by  Denny Tedesco, son of one of the Crew's guitarists, Tommy Tedesco. He was planning a nice 30-minute interview, but it just grew. It was finished in 2008, but there was one problem: It took 7 more years and a lot of money to clear all the music they needed to tell the story.

It's an amazing story: Imagine if all the great 1960s rock and pop hits were recorded by the same loose group of about 2 dozen musicians - it's pretty much true. LA always had a blot of studio musicians who could read charts and get the perfect take down, and these guys were the best. Phil Spector used them for his "Wall of Sound", but they show up everywhere: The Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, the Righteous Bros., the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, even Frank Zappa used these guys. The movie concentrates on a few, like drummer Hal Blaine (the thunderous drums for "Be My Baby"), Plas Johnson (the sax line for "Pink Panther"), and guitarist Tommy Tedesco (surf, jazz or Spanish acoustic styles a specialty). But I particularly wanted to see bassist Carol Kaye.

She started out playing jazz guitar, but filled in on bass for a recording gig, and made more money than she made in a week playing live. She was the one who talked most about the music, the feel, how it was created, what made it great. How a group would come in with a song and no arrangements. She would develop a funky bass line, just a little something, and that might be all it needed. For example, the bass in "These Boots are Made for Walking", right after "Are you ready boots?" Just a simple descending portamento, but perfect.

Some of the Crew became solo stars. Glenn Campbell was the country's best acoustic rhythm guitarists before he started recording on his own. Leon Russell was a Wrecker, and so was Dr. John, Mac Rebennack. But most of these guys (I think Kaye was the only woman) are pretty much unknown. They worked insane hours (none of them was a very good parent), made a bundle, and faded away into TV theme work, club gigs, or the Gong Show (Tedesco) when the bands started playing their own instruments. But now, you can get to know them a little.

This is a lot like Standing in the Shadow of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and Twenty Feet from Stardom. I love that we get to see the anonymous musicians who make that music that hits so close to the heart. Because this movie was made by the son of one of the musicians, it gets a little closer to the heart. And since his father died before the movie was released, its gets right into the heart. So glad he made this.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Husky and Haggard

It seems that I'm becoming an expert on the filmography of Ferlin Husky. It's strange because I only know about him for his single "On the Wings of a Dove," and because of Goerge Jones' line in "We're Not the Jet Set":
Our Bach and Tschaikovsky
is Haggard and Husky
It's funny he should mention Merle Haggard because he has a couple of cameos in Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). It starts with Ferlin, his "girl singer" Boots Malone (Joi Lansing) and nervous manager Jeepers (Don Bowman) on the road to a Nashville Jamboree in a big white convertible. I'm going to halt the synopsis to comment on this car - it is clearly a Nudie.

You may know about Nudie Cohen as Hollywood's Rodeo Tailor - he made the outrageous embroidery and rhinestone-studded suits favored by artists like Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. But he also liked to customize cars, mostly Pontiac Bonnevilles - he replaced the upholstery with tooled leather, added longhorns to the front, replaced the door handles with pistols, studded the whole think with silver dollars. Now, I haven't been able to find any mention of Nudie and this movie, but this is either an original Nudie, or an amazing replica.

OK, back to the plot. Because Jeepers isn't feeling so hot, and it looks like rain (but only in some shots) and the convertible roof doesn't work, they decide to go stay in a haunted house. But we know that the house is actually the headquarters of a spy ring, lead by dragon lady Linda Ho, but including Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Anatole the Gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man in Robot Monster). As you might imagine, most of these washed-up worthies are never actually in scene with the musical acts.

Of course, the hillbilly side of the film uses any excuse to go into a song, some of them not too bad, like Husky's "Living in a Trance", some of them real stinkers, like Joi Lansing's ode to "Gowns."

After all the hilarity and slapstick of the haunted house, the movie's only about 50 minutes long. So we get 20 minutes of the Nashville Jamboree they were going to in the first scene. Again the songs are not all keepers - for example, "Hello, Shoe" is pretty much a rip-off of "Hello, Walls." The band includes a sleepy bass player, a drummer and guitarist who look like the Schmengie Brothers - they keep looking at the singer like he or she needs help badly - and Red Rhodes on pedal steel.

Again, we stop the exposition for a short lecture on Red Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes played steel guitar on a lot of the classic country rock albums, including the Ventures, the Byrds, the Monkees, James Taylor and others. He was most famous for collaborating on Mike Nesmith's solo projects. He also did a lot of custom amp work, and was famous for his hand-wound pickups, which he called Velvet Hammers.

Then we have Merle Haggard, who is still at it today. In fact, he just released an album with Willy Nelson, Django and Jimmie. One of the songs on this album is the classic "Swinging Doors" and guess what? He does that song in this movie.

So, in conclusion, this is a terrible movie, but you do get a Nudie car, an appearance by Red Rhodes, and Merle Haggard doing "Swinging Doors." Add in some classic horror actors and then decide if you think it's worth it. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

No Regrets for My Youth

I must have missed Real Genius (1985) when it came out because I was out of the demographic - this is a college youth comedy and I'd been out of college 10 years - not long enough for nostalgia to kick in. Or maybe I thought it was just a stupid movie like Young Einstein. But it's not - it's pretty smart.

It stars Gabriel Jarret as a 15-year-old genius, recruited for the laser program at FakeTech College (fictional Caltech, I guess). He discovers his roommate is senior Val Kilmer, who was also recruited at a young age, but burned out. Jarret is naive and a bit dweeby, Kilmer is a kooky slacker, so this looks like the usual odd-couple kook teaches the uptight guy to have fun - and it kind of is. But note that everyone in the dorm is a kooky genius, except for a few stick-in-the-muds.

There's a great scene where Mark Kamiyama as Ick Ikigami covers the dorm floors with ice and everyone has an indoor sledding party. This is the scene where Jarret meets Michelle Meyrink, a Molly Ringwaldesque motor-mouth insomniac genius who is missing some social boundaries. Of course, Jarret falls in love, and so did I.

When I was that age, I was a bit of a genius - not a real genius, but I did go to summer math camp and hang out with them. At college, my frat was kind of like the dorm - just as intellectual, but not so scientific. Our pranks depended more on knowledge of Li Po's poetry or the Albanian monarchy rather than lasers or Ice-9. One thing I always felt was missing from comedies of this type (say, Revenge of the Nerds) is women - it turns out that there were plenty of oddball women with brilliant minds, unconventional life philosophies and quirky socialization. Heck, I married one.

Somehow these comedies are all about awkward boys chasing hot chicks - there's even a scene like that here, where Kilmer sets up a party with girls from the nearby beautician's school. But at least one real geek girl with a personality of her own exists and for that I thank the people who made this movie.

Those people, by the way, seem to be responsible for a bunch of those lame comedies I was complaining about. Director Martha Coolidge also directed Valley Girl and Joy of Sex. The writers, Neal Israel and Pat Proft who did things like Porky's II and Police Academy. So either I'm misjudging their other movies (never seen 'em), or I'm misjudging this one - maybe it just seems smart because it hits my sweet spot.

I've left out a lot in this summary - the odd ghost of a burned out grad student, the whole evil government weapons project, the great final popcorn-related final prank, etc. And I have to say this isn't really a great teen comedy, just better than the usual run. Enjoyable.

In conclusion, I would like to dedicate this review to Lee Hen, Pat McRoyne, The Beautiful but Deadly Melinda Hungeredfor, LaGuerre "Polly" Nomial, Oh Wicked Wanda and all the other women I knew then, most of all, Ms. Spenser.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Balls, Said the Queen

It was pretty obvious that Balls of Fury (2007) was going to be stupid. It's a comedy about the underground world of high-stakes ping-pong. But it's actually stupid in a good way.

It stars Dan Fogler, a chubby, hairy slob who strikes me as the guy to get when you can't get Jack Black. He was a ping-pong prodigy when he lost in the Olympics to an obnoxious German (Thomas Lennon) - due to the shock of seeing his father betting on the game with some Yakuza types. Many years later, he is doing a trick ping-pong act in a cheap Reno casino when the FBI comes to him with an offer. They need to infiltrate the high-stakes world of underground ping-pong to bring down Feng - the very gambler who killed Fogler's father when he lost that game.

After Fogler gets whooped by Patton Oswalt, they decide he needs to get trained by the master. I'm going to pause and rewind here. Yes, cameo Patton Oswalt. FBI agent is played by George Lopez, doing a really good job. But the best part for me is the blind master ping-pong instructor, who is played by James Hong, from Big Trouble in Little China and many others. I watched Kung-Fu Panda just to hear Hong say "We are noodle folk!". Even better, the obligatory beautiful grad-daughter is Maggie Q.

So, pretty strong supporting cast, considering. But I'm burying the lede - Feng is played by Christopher Walken, in outfits that Lopez says were bought at Elton John's yard sale. He is totally having a ball here, not bothering with a Chinese accent, swishing around and generally doing Han from Enter the Dragon.

If you came to this expecting a Dodgeball or Blades of Fury, you will get what you came for. I'd say it's not quite in their league, but it's a game little movie with some good bits and some funny people. My main objection is that Maggie Q has to get all horny over Fogler, which doesn't make sense, although maybe it was supposed to be funny.

So - better than it had to be. Congrats to Dan Fogler.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Steel Crazy

I don't even know why we watched Man of Steel (2013). I guess it was out of respect for director Zach Snyder and the whole comic book movie genre. I don't think I've been a Superman fan since I was around 10, and even then I was more of a Superboy/Teen Titans type. But when I thought of how Batman went from a campy joke to the Dark Knight - well, the last batch of Superman movies were pretty campy, let's see what they can do with Supes.

It starts on Krypton. Usually, I am just bored with the whole Jor-El backstory, even (especially?) when he's played by Marlon Brando. I actually liked this one. Jor-El is Russell Crowe and Lara is Ayelet Zurer (currently on TV in Daredevil). But the design of Krypton is the best part - the art design is a unique mix of organic and Art Deco. Take the levitating robot assistants. They have displays that are made up of tiny silver balls that form 3D shapes, something like those pinbox toys that you press your face into. When it isn't just displaying faces, it uses a graphic style that is distinctly Deco.

But all too soon we leave Krypton for Smallville. The scenes of little Clark learning to shut out the noise and sights that his super-hearing and x-ray vision give him are a bit overwrought, but they make an interesting tie-in to the problems of autistic children with overstimulation. We see Clark being bullied and saving kids without giving away his secret, but it isn't really clear to me why. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) thought the secret was important enough to die for. I don't know how Ma Kent, Diane Lane, ever forgave him for that.

I believe I have spoken about the odd ubiquity of heroes with father issues before.

So Clark grows up to be Henry Cavill (who I get mixed up with Jim Caviezel because they were both in The Count of Monte Cristo) and gets to meet a hologram of Jor-El and gets his uniform (a rather dingy version - more dark and gritty than the primary colored comics version). So when General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his crew come to take over Earth, he's ready to fight.

So far, so drab. Really, up to this point, the movie hasn't really been grabbing me - not bad, more than just watchable, but not great. Now the action really begins to pick up! And up and up and up! And more action - superpeople pile driving each other through skyscrapers! And on and on...

This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long. I think the last fight took up about 20 of those minutes, with about a half hour to the fight before that. It was too much - senseless and boring. But if they had tightened that part up, it would have tilted the movie away from action. Maybe the whole thing needed to be tightened up, a few themes trimmed, and then they could have gotten him in the tights sooner (and they could have cleaned the tights, too).

In conclusion, for better flying people slamming through skyscraper action, see Chronicle.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Krull, Kruller, Krullest

Krull (1983) is one of those movies that I have always been aware of, but never enough to watch it. I think I had it confused with Kull the Conqueror for a while. Anyway, Filmsack used it for their very first episode, and that kind of sealed my determination never to bother to see it. Yet somehow...

Krull is an odd mix of fantasy and science fiction - and a mix of great and lousy special effects, writing, acting and pretty much everything else. It starts with a very nice model of an alien spaceship visiting a planet (apparently the eponymous Krull) - It's shaped like a great, rough mountain. I was right onboard until it lands and a bunch of rubber suit aliens jump out and start shooting up the place.

Meanwhile, a handsome prince, Kenneth Marshall, was marrying his beautiful princess, Lyseth Anthony, in a magical ceremony involving handling flames. The invaders interrupt and steal the princess, leaving the prince to quest after her.

The quest involves a wiseman, thieves, a magician, a cyclopean giant who can see the future, fire mares, a spider-lady and so forth. These adventures are very cool - and kind of lame. Of course, you have to be in the right frame of mind - this is a fantasy like the Sinbad movies or Clash of the Titans (original). And sometimes, that mythical, fairytale feeling would come flowing through. The cyclops, played by Carry On alumnus Bernard Bresslaw, is quite good. He traded one of his eyes to a wizard for the ability to see a future year, but the future that he sees is the year of his death. So he's kind of sad. But for a lot of the time, it's just Marshall princing around, or the gang slogging along on one or another quest through some terrain or other. There's even rock climbing, which Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans know is associated with DEEP HURTING!

The super-weapon known as the Glaive is also rather lame. It is also known as the throwy-flyey-pointy star-shaped thingy.

I wish I could love this movie - there really is a lot to love. If it were considerably shorter, that might help. We took two nights to watch it and fell asleep a lot. Also, maybe it would have helped if I watched it at age 10 for the first time.

Still, glad to have watched it.It was directed by Peter Yates, who did not make any other fantasy or SF films, and written Stanford Sherman, who also wrote Ice Pirates - another movie I wish I liked.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Noir in English

Dear Murderer (1947) was a great find, a sophisticated, noir-tinged mystery, just the kind of thing I was looking for.

It starts when Eric Portman comes home early from a long business trip and finds his wife is out. He pokes around a bit and finds letters from her lover, so he heads over there to do a little murder. He has a fool-proof plan until his wife Greta Glynt and her new lover, Maxwell Reed, walk into the apartment. Then he comes up with an even better plan. He can't kill all her lovers - or can he?

Norwegian born Glynt is glamorous enough to make it look worthwhile to murder for her, and Portman is just the type of cold-fish Englishman to do it. There is an odd little twist with Hazel Court as the sister of the first lover and ex-fiancee of the second. Not sure why she was necessary - maybe her part made more sense before a re-write. Still, she seemed nice. Also, the cop on the case is played by perennial policeman Jack Warner.

At 90 minutes, this is nice and short (longer than some of these cheapies), and full of femme fatales, deep shadows, clever coppers and would-be masterminds. Always great when I find one of these.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Zero Effect

The Zero Theorem (2014) is Terry Gilliam's latest bit of surrealist whimsy and despair. It pretty much follows Brazil and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. So check it out if that's the kind of thing you like.

It stars Christopher Waltz as a bald, somewhat autistic mathematician who lives in ruined cathedral in a not very dystopian future. His name is Qohen Leth, and he refers to himself in the first person plural. The job of mathematician, at least on the corporate level where he works, resembles a somewhat abstract video game - which actually kind of makes sense. His boss is a somewhat Michael-Palinesque David Thewlis: He is brusque and dismissive, but actually seems to care for Waltz. You see, Waltz is anxious that he will miss the Phone Call - the one that will tell him about the meaning of his life. So Thewlis lets him work from home.

That's what I mean by not very dystopian: Although Thewlis is rude to Qohen and pronounces his name "Quinn", even when corrected, he's actually kind of a nice guy. He assigns Qohen to solve the Zero Theorem: To prove that all existence, all meaning, sums to zero. But it's only because Management (Matt Damon in some awesome suits) told him to. Management also sent over his son, Lucas Hedges, to intern or spy on Waltz. Hedges might or might not be called Bob - he calls everyone Bob because it saves time.

Bob is another nice enemy: he's a typically obnoxious teenaged know-it-all genius and hacker, but he orders pizza from the service with the cute delivery girls because he thinks Bob - er, Qohen - will enjoy it. In fact, Qohen does try to get out some at the insistence of his co-workers, and meets a lovely VR camgirl, Melanie Thierry, who does get Qohen to loosen up some. But will it be enough or will the Zero Theorem prove to be true?

The two big selling points to this movie are:
  • The wild surrealistic sets and art direction. I think it is toned down a little, but only compared to other Gilliam movies.
  • Waltz's bald, affectless presence. He is present throughout almost the whole movie and if he doesn't grab you, you won't like it much.
Fortunately, I did like it. I found him touching and interesting. His use of the plural for himself (himselves?) gives his statements a touch of universality: "We are generally, everywhere alone." And Waltz has the gravitas and personality to pull it off.

So, this may not be the deepest philosophical film of the year, but we enjoyed it. Hope you do as well.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Musical Madness

I guess I'll dispatch these two movies in a single post. The theme: music.

First: Salt and Pepper (1968). Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford own a club in swinging London. Davis is Salt, Lawford is Pepper ("Confusing, isn't it?" is the punchline to that gag). When a semi-comatose Asian woman turns up on the floor of Lawford's office, he assumes she's just stoned and makes a date with her. But she winds up dead and they wind up in the middle of a plot to... Wait, I almost remember, something about a nuclear submarine in the middle of a forest... Nope, I can't remember or maybe I never really cared.

Also, Sammy does a few songs and at least one is an attempted rock 'n' roll number, but none of them are very good. Basically, this is sub-Matt Helm stuff. There's one joke about I Spy that reminded me of how much better that show was.This movie was directed by Richard Donner - his first feature. He had directed Get Smart and Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes, but never I Spy.

Next up: Nine (2009), the film adaptation of the musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2. Now, I love 8 1/2, so this is either the best or worst thing for me to watch - maybe best and worst. I suppose you know the original story - a famous Italian director is starting a new film and doesn't have the faintest idea what it is about. All he has is anxieties and fantasies about women.  

Nine starts with one of the climax scenes from 8 1/2: the Revolt of the Women. Our director, Daniel Day-Lewis standing in for Marcello Mastroianni, imagines all the women in his life as totally subservient to him. When they threaten, he beats them back. It makes a lot of sense to stage this as a Vegas-style chorus line, but it is much more dramatic in the original.

Of course, it's hard to beat that original. Take the music: as a musical, Nine is full of songs, mostly interesting pieces of pop artistry. But the original had Nino Rota. Discussion over, Nino Rota wins.

My favorite part of Nine was the women. It's a neat trick - the movie's all about a male chauvinist, but the women that he surrounds himself with are wonderful. They include Marion Clotillard as the wife who knows him too well, Penelope Cruz as his mistress who knows a thing or two as well, Nicole Kidman as the blonde bombshell who is his muse, Fergie as the slut-goddess of his childhood, and of course, Sophia Loren as his late mother. Judi Dench has a role that isn't in the original material, his long-suffering costume designer. They all do a great job. Without them, this movie would not have made much of an impression on me, I'm afraid.

I might need to kind of taper off the musicals.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Vice Squad

I've been a big Tom Pynchon fan since I read Crying of Lot 49 in college. Just a tip if you're thinking of checking him out, Crying is a very short, very finishable novel that is nonetheless just a crazy as anything he's written. But I even finished Gravity's Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson made Inherent Vice (2014) from Pynchon's latest - it's also one of the most accessible, and mostly optimisitic, and maybe my favorite.

It takes place in Gordita Beach, early 70s. Joaquin Phoenix is doper detective Doc Sportello. He is just staring at the wall when into his life walks Shasta Fay, his ex-old-lady. She's played by Katherine Masterson, a free-spirit hippie chick who cut her hair and hooked up with a real-estate guy, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Doc, on the other hand, is true to the spirit of the 60s, with Neil Young muttonchops and messy hair that he spends a lot of time on - bell-bottoms and bare-feet, sticky with beach tar.

So Doc has to find Wolfman, and an unrelated (?) junkie surf-band sax player (Owen Wilson), probably deceased. He also meets a very nice Asian masseuse and finds out who is behind the Golden Fang (or does he? (Yes (it's Martin Short.))).

That kind of recursive, elusive, paranoid conspiracy vision is what Pynchon is all about. I don't think Anderson was quite able to capture the whole density of secrets, agendas, hidden messages that the books get across. For example, in the book, the Owen Wilson character seems mythical - a rumor, a shape in the shadows, a ghost, maybe even the resurrected Christ. Anderson puts him into a last supper scene, but doesn't manage to get the mystic dimensions. I haven't seen any of his other movies (funny, huh?), but I suspect he's too much of a literalist. Maybe Wes Anderson would have had more luck.

But PTA does a great job with the actors. Phoenix makes a great Sportello, and Masterson sells the hippie femme fatale, which cant have been an easy job. But my favorite is Josh Brolin as Detective Bigfoot Bjornson. Every private eye needs a cop who is part nemesis, part buddy, and Bigfoot is Doc's Lestrade. He is loud, violent, and ultraconservative, although he plays a hippie on TV. He is also pretty funny - a lot of the time you might otherwise forget that this is really a comedy.

So, I'm sorry that PTA couldn't quite get the woozy stoned feeling I was hoping for - the closest he comes is some odd framing choices, where a new character is introduced but the camera keeps cutting his head off. Still, I had fun watching this and hope it leads to a Pynchon movie craze, like the one for Philip K. Dick.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Shattered Shoulder

It had to happen sooner or later: I broke my first bones. After a lifelong policy of skeletal integrity, I ran my bicycle into a temporary roadsign in the bike lane, fell and broke my collarbone and a rib. So, typing is a bit slow - of course, it was my left arm, and I'm a lefty. But I still wanted to blog about what I've been drinking lately.

I know, don't mix Vicodin and alcohol - But I can alternate, right?

It was a combination of things: a friend gave me some homemade lemon syrup, and I got the urge to drink gin cocktails. So I made a variety of drinks based on Tanqueray (on sale at a very nice price), lemon or lime juice and lemon syrup. As I understand it, gin, lemon and syrup is a gin sour, with lime, it is a gimlet (Rose's lime is popular but wrong), and with soda, it's a rickey. I made all of these, plus the Fitzgerald: a gin sour with some bitters (homemade grapefruit bitters in my case).

But the real fun came when I got a bag of frozen raspberries for a fruit salad. Add 5-6 to a gin sour, and you've got a lovely drink. Of course, you can do the same to a margarita or daiquiri if you prefer tequila or rum to gin, but I think the sweet/tart berries match the bitter/botanical gin very nicely. The color is lovely too. Just for fun, I'll call this raspberry gin sour the Shattered Shoulder:

2 oz. gin
1 oz. lemon (or lime) juice
1 oz. simple syrup (or lemon syrup, or even triple sec)
5-6 frozen raspberries (or fresh, why not?)

Shake hard with ice to muddle up the berries. Serve in rocks glass.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Bus Came by and I Got On

I might have mentioned that I'm a fan of the Grateful Dead. Not a Deadhead, because I rarely went to more than one of their shows a year, even when they were playing just down the street from me. But I'm enough of a fan to know quite a bit about the band members - I've read bios or autobios about Jerry, Mickey and Phil. I used to tend to think of rhythm guitarist Bob Weir as a pretty boy without the musical depth of the rest of the band. If I hadn't gotten over that already, The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2015) would have set me straight.

The movie does a great visual on the Weir-meets-Garcia story: I knew they met when young Weir was wandering around Palo Alto early on New Year's Eve, looking for a club that would let him and a friend in. They were in the alley behind a music store when they heard a banjo playing. It turned out to be Jerry, waiting for his music students to show up, which wasn't happening because it was New Year's Eve - which he had overlooked. Weir acted this all out in the much-changed Palo Alto alley where it all started. I hadn't realized that he was 16 at the time.

It actually helps that I had already heard that story - he kind of skims over it. Same with how he wrote the line "The heat came round and busted me for smilin' on a cloudy day." It's a true story, but he kind of leaves out some details, like how the cop knew who threw the water balloon.

We get some fun stuff about how Bobby got all the girls, and how he settled down with his wife. We find out about the couple that adopted him, and how they reacted to him joining a psychedelic rock band at 17. We get some sad stuff about Jerry and smack, and how helpless the band was. But mostly, when he was with Jerry, they were laughing.

One thing, though. There is considerable discussion about Weir's unique style of rhythm guitar - the chord voicings and stuff. People like Sammy Hagar and Thurston Moore talk about this, but the movie doesn't really show it. they show Bobby playing solo or in a small group, but I really wanted them to show him playing  with the Dead, then isolate his channel and show you what he was doing.

Well, it just isn't that kind of a documentary. For one thing, it's more personal, not so musicological. For another, it's short - around 80 minutes. Also, it was co-produced by Justin Kreutzmann, son of Dead drummer Bill. So the connection goes deep. And, credit where due, Netflix funded this. I generally don't care for Netflix making original content - stick to making existing content available. In this case, Ill make an exception.