Spending Saturdays revisiting old–sometimes very old–reviews means regular reminders of films I’d completely and totally forgotten about. This goofy sci-fi action flick hasn’t crossed my mind in years. Maybe decades in the more accurate measurement of time. For what it’s worth, my view of Dolph Lundgren’s acting abilities mellowed quite a bit from the scathing assessment below, I think in part from cable viewings of this very film. My archeological commitment to preserving the original writing with only the most superficial changes compels me to keep in a complete atrociously convoluted sentences. I do not stand by them. My original copy of the script tells me this review was included in the seventh episode of The Reel Thing, which aired on October 15, 1990. The next segment included an interview with director Jim Abrahams, promoting Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, a feature that, to the best of my recollection, never actually arrived at the local theaters in the town in which our show aired.

The film I COME IN PEACE is an action-adventure epic with a slight science fiction bend. The film stars Dolph Lundgren as narcotics officer Jack Caine, who finds himself investigating a very strange murder involving some drug dealers who were killed by a magnetic flying compact disc. Okay, that’s not exactly what it is, but it’s sure what it looks like. As is standard movie procedure, Caine finds himself with a new partner he doesn’t like very well when the FBI assigns agent Laurence Smith to the case. Smith is your average annoying movie FBI man, who does everything by the book and insists that he and Caine make daily reports on their progress. He also proves he’s a whiz with definitions when he tells Caine, “Daily…that means every day.” The two eventually discover that the murder was committed by an intergalactic drug dealer who’s been spending his earthly business trip killing people in order to steal endorphins from their body and take them back to his home planet where they’re the drug of choice. This all leads to big guns, car crashes, broken glass, and Dolph Lundgren showing off his latest Jean-Claude Van Damme moves. The film was directed by Craig R. Baxley, who previously made the entertaining action flick ACTION JACKSON. He can occasionally make this one fun to watch as well. His main problem comes from Lundgren, who is so completely devoid of acting ability that a rock could have played Caine in several scenes and there wouldn’t have been that much of a difference. Brian Benben fares better as Agent Smith, in a role meant largely for comic relief, and for realizing that alien blood looks like yogurt that’s gone bad. The film is full of plot inconsistencies and terrible dialogue, but Baxley keeps the pace going quickly, and there’s a fairly interesting story at its core.

2 stars.

I wish my college radio station was well-stocked with Big Star records, but that was sadly not the case. Instead, I often had to settle for their descendants, those happy few who were doing their best to carry forward the banner of power pop. There were few things that got me immediately excited quite like big, buzzing guitars propping up ridiculously catchy hooks. Similarly, when power pop bands turned to ballads–the emotions were the part of the song turned up to eleven–they were crafting exactly the sorts of songs that I wanted when I was doing the late night shift and the clock ticked over to the 1:00 a.m. hour. Unfortunately, most of those albums didn’t have staying power for me. For whatever reason, they tended to fade from the memory. One of the major exceptions was Teenage Symphonies to God, by Velvet Crush.

First of all, there was the utterly irresistible detail that the album title was taken from Brian Wilson’s initial description of the legendary and long-unreleased Pet Sounds follow-up Smile. Then there was the involvement of Matthew Sweet as producer. Sweet was still riding high from his 1991 album, Girlfriend (and still above the clouds but dipping in altitude somewhat following 1993′s Altered Beast), and the sterling sensibility he brought to his own work came through on the Velvet Crush record. The whole release seemed to dispense to musical contents of the 45 tote of my dreams. I was a graduate when the album came out, but I was still volunteering at the radio station. Shift by shift, I tracked through the album, enamored anew with each new song.

Any of the songs could be shared here and call back to a moment when my heart went ping. But, as I noted above, I’m especially partial to the ballads, probably because of obligation to champion anything that calls to mind Big Star’s “Thirteen.” So the link above, which could have been any number of tracks, is “Faster Days.”

Listen or download –> Velvet Crush, “Faster Days”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Velvet Crush’s Teenage Symphonies to God is out of print as a physical object that can be obtained from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. It can be bought digitally, but we all know that doesn’t count. That said, I specifically use the word “appears” up there, since I’ve examined this particular release many times before and always determined that it didn’t meet the “out of print” criterion for this feature. Anyway, I will gladly remove it from the internet if asked to do so by someone with authority to make such a request.)

#39 — Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
As I’ve tried to admit–sheepishly but honestly–throughout the course of this long project, I have certain blind spots when evaluating the history of film. I stand by my opinions and feel they’re reasonable well-informed. Further, despite the assertion of uniform certainty potentially implied by the use of “Top” over, say, “Favorite” in the title above, these are intended to be highly personal lists. I don’t bring this up anew to cast aspersions of the progress of this chart, nor to reargue the purpose of this process. Instead, it’s helpful to illuminate the intensity of my reaction the first time I saw Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. The screening, blessedly, involved the big screen, and a restored print (very likely an anniversary restoration, given the timing). I was just chipping away at French New Wave at the time, and here came another mid-century, European cinematic movement to spin my mind. I’d seen precious little, if any, Italian neorealism by then (shamefully, I think my only exposure to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves can through its usage in Robert Altman’s The Player, a shortcoming that has since been rectified, as this series will demonstrate when we reach the nineteen-forties), and this introduction to it was like a twist ending that make me rethink everything that had come before. In an flickering instant, I had the ancestor to so much of the modern independent cinema that I cherished the most.

Umberto D. had the sort of story that I tend to describe with great affection and admiration as simplicity itself. The title character, played with great tenderness by Carlo Battisti, is struggling to make his way in society, bereft of necessary funds or support. Much of the film circles around his relation with his beloved dog, a canine he tries to find another home for–or, sadly, even another end for–after he’s lost his dwelling. In a deeply evocative way, De Sica zeroes on on the experiences of Umberto, tracking through his setbacks with meticulous and unhurried attention. De Sica essentially refutes the supposed need for a complex plot or rat-a-tat dialogue, revealing instead the pure power of honest, deeply struck emotions. Umberto’s sad tale is moving because of a sedate, assured commitment to the particulars of his life, and his world (De Sica suggests Umberto’s dilemma is a product of a society that discards people rather than some personal misfortune) rather than any overt manipulation.

I can’t necessarily draw a straight line from Umberto D. to favorite independent features of the eighties and nineties, but I can feel some of the same spirit, the resolute belief in quiet over frantic business. I don’t claim Umberto D. was the film that launched that thread of cinematic storytelling, the work that implicitly gave permission to filmmakers that followed to pursue a different course, one that looked like what they saw outside their window, or at least outside their window before their own success and prosperity kicked in. Umberto D. is a wonderful film, under any number of criteria. Part of my own fondness for it does stem, I have to concede, from the revelation I felt at my first experience viewing it, because firsts sometimes belong as much to the watchers as the films.

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

Keith Washington was a soul singer in the nineteen-nineties who regularly landed tracks on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles chart, but had only one of those songs crossover to the regular Billboard Top 40. Not surprisingly, that was his lone chart-topper on the R&B charts, a slow-moving, tender, highly emotive ballad called “Kissing You.” The second single from Washington’s debut album, Make Time for Love, it may have been a modest hit, but it helped elevate his name enough to get him odd sitcom guest appearances, playing himself. His recording career seems to have stalled out after 1998, when he released his third album, kw. He spent at least a little time as a radio deejay after that. Really, that’s about all I got. Not every one of these can be bursting with information.

Previously…
“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers

I was in a creative writing class in college when one of my fellow students asked the professor if it was acceptable for him to write his stories about sports. When the professor was reluctant to agree, my classmate added that his desire was to writer a series of loosely interconnected stories about baseball. As I recall it, the professor settled immediately in the affirmative given the additional information. Baseball, he said, was the one sport that actually merited literary attention.

If I weren’t already inclined in that direction, I’d have to accede the point every time I read one of Roger Angell’s essays on the Grand Old Game. Now in his nineties, Angell is five years older than the magazine that has practically been his lifelong home. His mother, Katherine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor for The New Yorker, a position she held for thirty-five years. Angell himself first wrote for the publication in 1944. His true path was set in 1962, when legendary editor dispatched him to Florida to write about spring training. Angell says says he was a hockey fan prior to that (he occasionally wrote about that sport, too), but something about the National Pastime clearly engaged him. Though Angell might have a certain amount of reluctance about it–with good reason, as he’s written on a multitude of topics over the years–he is as entwined with baseball as any other observer of the past half century. Reading his collected works might not thoroughly cover the history, but it certainly captures the character of the sport, including the way it’s shifted over the decades.

Angell captures the character of the sport precisely because he doesn’t fall into the all too common trap of romanticizing it. He does see the romance that is inherently nestled within it, and taps into it better than most, but he also sees the foolishness, the humor, the weariness (it is a long season), and the mundane, workmanlike quality of it, all of it encapsulated in precise, elegant prose and conveyed with the eye of a born pragmatist. When he wrote about, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks upsetting the hometown Yankees in the 2001 World Series, Angell was able to make me see games that I had watched intently in a new way. He does what all good writers do: he illuminates the familiar with creative insights stated so clearly and plainly that it’s immediately remarkable that they weren’t a completely obvious foregone conclusion. To read Angell on baseball is to see anew a game that is stitched into the fabric of the nation.

Angell still writes for The New Yorker, one the enduring figures on the masthead. Most recently, he turned his attention to the process of aging, elaborating on his deteriorating physicality and spiritual wanderings with clarity and honesty. It wasn’t maudlin, nor wistful. It was simply reporting, just like his recounts of favorite ballgames or even his own past. It was also piercing like few other things I’ve ever read. Best of all, it offered the promise, perhaps somewhat misleading, the born storytellers never lose their capacity to formulate ideas, to capture emotions, to relate tales.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike

#40 — His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1951)
There’s so much messiness to sort through with His Kind of Woman that it makes the inclusion on any sort of best list a bit of a marvel. And of course I’m expressing that assessment on a list of my own devising. Working for Howard Hughes’s RKO Pictures, John Farrow was the director on the project, but what he turned in displeased the big boss. Indeed, it was decried problematic to such a degree that Farrow was removed from it altogether, with Richard Fleischer brought in to rework it, including shooting a batch of completely new scenes. Hughes also pulled together a bunch of the studio scribes to bang away at revised script pages, carrying the film who knows how far from the original, unpublished Gerald Drayson story on which it was based. Capping off the confusion, the film has a title that has practically nothing to do with the actual storyline, instead calling attention to the presence of Hughes’s prized studio asset, Jane Russell, a tactic employed in the same year’s comedy Double Dynamite (anyone familiar with the famed story about Hughes leveling his considerable engineering acumen on development of a special bra for Russell can probably glean exactly what feature of the actress he was trying to highlight with that title). All of this added up to a muddled affair that has been aptly described (by, as best as I can tell, an IMDb commenter) “Six Noir Characters in Search of a Plot.”

And it is exactly that wooliness I respond to, especially the unlikely convergence of all the disparate elements into a film that is unpredictable, and therefore disarming. I tend to think of film noir offerings, probably my most-loved cinematic subgenre, as characterized by Swiss watch plot construction. When I really consider it, though, that’s often not the case. For example, cornerstone Hollywood noir picture The Big Sleep is well known for a plot so convoluted even the filmmakers had to admit they were bamboozled by it. His Kind of Woman basically confirms the paradoxical insignificance of plot architecture in a subgenre so seemingly dependent of the soundness of plot, and compounds its proven theory by operating with a largely lackadaisical approach. Even the characters, led by the indispensable Robert Mitchum’s Dan Milner, proceed as if they’re bored by trying to figure out what’s going on. Instead, the wallow in the splendor of mood, florid emotion, and verbal exchanges that resound like the tolling of some grand clock. There are double-crosses, duplicity, vast sums of money tossed around like battered baseballs, and sexy individuals smoldering for the sheer pleasure of it. What it all sums up to is far less interesting than the pleasure of surveying the multitude of addends.

As noted, Mitchum is fantastic. He owned film noir the way John Wayne owned westerns. They may be no other performers in Hollywood history besides the two of them who can make such definitive claims. The very best performance in the film, however, belongs to Vincent Price, playing hammy movie actor Mark Cardigan. As he becomes more and more engaged in the sort of rough and tumble heroism that’s usually the province of fiction for him, Price takes to scenes with thrilling gusto. He’s a man cracked open to the possibilities of the world, living what he’s previously pantomimed. There’s an according freedom to his emotions, like a kid breathing the summertime air after a winter so long he’d forgotten how the sun baked the oxygen to a different flavor. It exemplifies the whole film, which strikes out with a charming what-the-hell bravado. How much of that is owned by Farrow or Fleischer of any number of Hughes’s cadre of demolitionists and rebuilders is beside the point. Authorship is less important that the elusive alchemy, the surprising movie magic, that can make something like His Kind of Woman come together, against all odds.

18. Weather Report, Mr. Gone

In 1978, the seminal jazz fusion act Weather Report was charged will following up their biggest hit to date, the previous year’s Heavy Weather. This being jazz fusion, blockbuster status was still fairly modest: topping the Billboard Jazz Album charts for the first time and having enough sales to go gold. They also snared a five star review from the influential jazz magazine Down Beat, making them generally celebrated as the standard bearers for this new wrinkle in the classic American music, one that many felt was the true next wave of the art form, as legitimate as, say, hard bop. In some ways, it surely seemed like the one that held the greatest promise to keep the music commercially viable, given the way it operated with some of the same audio textures as prog rock, which of course what all the cool kids were buying and listening. Well, maybe it was just the stoned kids, but jazz had always counted on them, too.

Their 1978 studio album, Mr. Gone, was their ninth overall. While this was considered a strong stretch for the band, thanks in part to the recent addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius to a line-up that also included Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Joe Zawinful, there was also perhaps something of a backlash settling in. Down Beat took a stance on Mr. Gone that was very different from their celebration of its predecessor, slagging it as too commercial and famously (or infamously) leveling a one-star review. It requires someone with a far more intimate knowledge of jazz in the waning years of the the nineteen-seventies than me to weigh in on the validity of that criticism, but Mr. Gone certainly doesn’t sound challenging, innovative, or interesting to my ears. I’ll admit that maybe it’s some three decades of hearing fusion jazz reappropriated for the most generic of soundbeds, but most of the album is dull as can be.

For example, “Young and Fine” sounds to me like it was created with the express intent of providing background to a Sunday morning airing of a largely disinterested television station’s community calendar listings. There certainly must be those who find the airy rapidity and restless intricacy of “Punk Jazz” intriguing, but I mostly thought about how it didn’t really sound like either of the words in the title. And with something like album opener “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat,” it sounds like Weather Report is auditioning to score the latest tepid, confused Hollywood stab at a sci-fi freak out. Some of these avenues may have yielded something interesting had the band rigorously pursued them, but Mr. Gone instead sounds like a series of diversions, a sense only compounded when the odd live track crops up. Maybe Down Bear was right given that the only coherent message of the album was that there was a iron that was sufficiently heated for striking.

In general, Weather Report definitely wasn’t lax about stocking the jazz section in record stores. The group officially lasted less than ten more years, with plenty of line-up tweaks (Wikipedia lists no fewer than twenty-nine people as “Past Members”). In that span, they released six more studio albums and a live album, before heading off to the in perpetuity of vault raiding that jazz artists often enjoy, although their history seems to have been picked over far less than some of their contemporaries. And listen, man, somebody out there still puts on this record, dips their head low, swings to the rhythm, and can’t believe how much this thing grooves.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls

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