Now Playing: Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water is about robbery. The more overt way this is true is obvious. The film begins with two men (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), brothers and partners, engaged in armed robbery of a bank, striking early in the morning and only taking smaller, unbundled bills to minimize both the import of the crime and the likelihood they will be caught. But the film is also about the way that bank has robbed them, preying on their family in a manner that ultimately sets the desperate, felonious act into motion. And it is also about the spiritual robbery of grief, brought about either by mourning a death or some other lost fragment of a valued life.

That might sound heady, but it’s not. The film is a wryly entertaining depiction of small-scale criminals and the similarly modestly appointed authorities who hunt them. It’s reminiscent of the hard nugget crime films of the early nineteen-nineties, directed by the likes of Carl Franklin and John Dahl, before Quentin Tarantino came along and exploded the notion of storytelling modesty, especially once he clearly fell in love with the sound of his own needy provocations. Director David Mackenzie guides Hell or High Water with a nicely attentive sense of place, making the whole of West Texas into a ghost town that hasn’t come to terms with its demise, like one of the glum, confused spirits pitied by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

The clearest strength of the film is the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario. While properly focuses on the rigors of his narrative, Sheridan smartly makes room for telling details and little grace notes, especially around the fringes. The film is peppered with fleeting characters who carry entire lives and cultures with them. (There must be some acting award out there that can be bestowed upon Margaret Bowman for her memorable single-scene turn as the no-nonsense waitress of the T-Bone Cafe.) The script is awake to the ways the vagaries of current society would infiltrate the parts of the story that could have otherwise been transplanted whole from an old western. Bank robberies are complicated by cell phones and good old boys taken advantage of their state’s gun-happy laws. Skepticism of authority makes it difficult for the two law enforcement officers on the case (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, who develop a prickly rapport that’s a pleasure to watch).

Admirably, Sheridan doesn’t coast on comfortable expectations about how such stories flow. He honors the basic truths and even the useful tropes, but digs around for useful nuance and presses in new wrinkles. Hell or High Water is occasionally a little heavy-footed in its political points and its foreshadowing. That’s forgivable, arguably even suited to the timeless weariness of its themes. A setting sun casts long shadows. There’s no real cause to hope for them to be downplayed.

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Posted in Film

The Art of the Sell: “The House of the Devil” poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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I have a longstanding appreciation for movie posters, going back to the days when my trips to the theater were sadly infrequent. I’d wander the hallways staring at these vivid promises of cinematic wonders to come, resigned to the knowledge that taking in this one design and promotional statement would likely comprise the totality of my experience with the films in question in the palace of flickering lights where they were best seen. As official movie posters have generally drifted toward a numbing sameness, I’m glad there’s been a bit of an insurgency answering back with towering examples of design work as grand as the movies themselves. The ingenuity of the Mondo folks alone makes up for a long multiplex hallway’s worth of big heads in the mists of the sky.

As I enjoy the afterglow of this summer’s most surprising and endearing new hit series, Stranger Things, I find myself thinking of a favorite film from recent years that trafficked in a similar sort of horror movie nostalgia, albeit without the helpful dilution of Spielbergian childhood scrappiness. Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a splendidly patient film that expertly evokes the horror movies of a certain era, when the downbeat grit of the nineteen-seventies was giving way to the glossier, stackable franchise mentality of the nineteen-eighties. There are a few posters that swim in the same waters, but the one I like best (as the opening paragraph implies) may not really be official. Created by Scott Hopko of Hopko Designs, the poster’s simplicity is an insightful match with the film, which does more with unsettling stillness than with bloody splashes. The unfussy directness of the tagline — listing the tasks associated with an especially unfortunate babysitting gig — is similarly in line with West’s creative sensibility.

In essence, this poster accomplishes precisely what I was after when I tacked countless one sheets to walls of my various dwellings. It captures the very spirit of a film I adore, calling to mind the bountiful merits I found on the screen. It’s less a promotion than a companion. Admittedly, that might mean it’s not doing the most fundamental job of a movie poster. Somehow, that doesn’t trouble me much.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 157 – 155

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157. XTC, “Earn Enough for Us”

Andy Partridge and his cohorts within XTC weren’t exactly renowned for being accommodating with the producers foisted upon them by their label (not were they especially accommodating with their label either), but their combativeness with Todd Rundgren during the recording of the 1986 album Skylarking was especially notorious. They’d chosen Rundgren from a list of names given to them by Virgin Records, delivered with the warning that the band needed to start selling records in the United States. According to all involved, Partridge and Rundgren were viciously at one another from the jump, with the XTC lead singer especially decrying his producer’s cruelty and condescension. Partridge later felt compelled to concede that Rundgren ” did do great things musically. The arrangements were brilliant and I don’t know how he came up with them.” Rundgren was also the one who landed on the notion of shaping the material into a sort of gentle concept album, and he chose the songs for inclusion accordingly. At roughly the time of the album’s release, Partridge noted, “The songs that were picked were picked because they fell into a kind of a continuous category, like a sort of a summer category. I’m awaiting my ‘Honorary Member of the Beach Boys’ shirt.” Of those songs, “Earn Enough For Us” was one of the last added to album, slipping in once “Let’s Make a Den” failed to pass muster. It also represented one of the few instances in which Rundgren didn’t tug the band away from the more jagged, clamorous style that was their prior signature, insisting they keep the final feel of the resulting track close to song’s original demo, which Partridge cheerfully described as “crass.”

 

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156. The Blow Monkeys, “Digging Your Scene”

The Blow Monkeys set forth on a wave of passion and bravado. When they had little more than two singles to their names, the band’s leader, known by the stage name Dr. Robert, was already boasting of their enduring genius. “Because the important thing about the Blow Monkeys is that we have a timeless quality, which is something all great performers have got,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with our ‘sound’ or the way we dress. It’s to do with how we are as people, how I am as the singer out front. That’s what’s going to pull us through.” Despite some continuing, nostalgia-fueled interest, the accuracy of that prediction of timelessness is highly questionable. There was one sizable hit, however, delivered as the second single from their sophomore full-length, Animal Magic, released in 1986. “Digging Your Scene” is a lush, swooning track that housed a stealthy song of celebratory, prideful protest. According to Dr. Robert, the song was the last written for the album. The music was inspired by soul records, especially those by Marvin Gaye. The lyrics had a far less tranquil and affectionate origin. “I’d read an article where Donna Summer said AIDS was God’s revenge on homosexuals, and I disagreed,” Dr. Robert explained. “The song itself was a homage to those gay clubs like Taboo that I used to go to — even though I’m not gay — because the music and the vibe was so good. You would see everyone from Leigh Bowery to Mark E. Smith there.” Presumably, the political underpinnings of the song were lost on the many of the radio programmers who made it into a hit, the band’s sole charting single in the United States, where it peaked at #14 on the Billboard chart.

 

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155. Hüsker Dü, “Could You Be the One?”

According to Bob Mould, “Could You Be the One?” was written to be a single, with no especially intricate meaning behind the lyrics or other motivation to the song. And that’s exactly what happened. Hüsker Dü’s label, Warner Bros., chose it as the first single from Warehouse: Songs and Stories, the 1987 album that would prove to be the band’s last. In making that selection, the label arguably exacerbated a serious rift that already existed, with drummer Grant Hart, the band’s other songwriter and lead singer, growing fiercely disenchanted with Mould’s increasing authority over the band. For a time, Hüsker Dü was everywhere with the song, including ill-fitting platforms like Today and The Late Show with Joan Rivers. In the case of the latter, Mould later recounted the band’s delight that the shows producers had taken great pains to recreate the Warehouse cover for the performance. He also noted how strange it felt to sit for an interview about the band when he was convinced Hüsker Dü would be over within six months. His sense of timing wasn’t precisely correct, but was close enough. The guest spot on Rivers’s talk show was in late April of 1987, and the band played their final show in mid-December of that year, at the Blue Note, in Columbia, Missouri.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: The Shadow and I Know Who Killed Me

We’re taking advantage of the weekend’s gloomy weather to stage a little in-house film festival. The DVR needs clearing, you understand. That got me to thinking about multiple feature nights over the years that have, deliberately, been a little more painful.  

In the past, our Bad Movie Nights have been meticulously constructed double features, which is admittedly pretty easy when Hollywood releases wonderfully rotten volcano movies within weeks of one another. These days we’re more likely to discover some happy disaster on the cable schedule, immediately add it to our DVR and begin hunting, often futilely, for something to pair it with.

Which is how we got the odd pairing depicted in the amateurish logo above. The only thing the films have in common is making a plot point of garish rings of the sort you would usually see nestled inside a decommissioned gumball machine or on the finger of a sophomore thespian portraying a gypsy in a high school stage production of Stephen King’s Thinner. This connection, quite honestly, is good enough for us anyway.

The first film we watched was The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994), a misguided attempt to start a big summer franchise in the wake of the runaway success of Tim Burton’s Batman films. While this came out in the dwindling comet tail of my official movie-reviewing days, I remember very little of how it was received beyond the fact that it was a box office disappointment. Any uncertainty about whether or not this would be appropriate Bad Movie Night selection was eradicated by the opening sequence which found Alec Baldwin with a head of long, stringy hair and overgrown fingernails striding about the Asian palace he rules with despotic fervor by barking out commands in Mandarin. For Bad Movie Night, this is practically the definition of a good beginning.

Turns out it was more of tease. There is ample opportunity to laugh at Baldwin’s performance (this is during the part of career in which a unique brand of smug casualness infected most of his work), the clunky plot, the chintzy special effects (any temptation to forgive them as of the era is hampered by the fact that “the era” is “one year after Jurassic Park“), the casting of Penelope Ann Miller as an alluring femme fatale, the colossal phoniness of the sets…it really goes on and on. But its greatest problem is that it’s hopelessly boring. Even mocking it gets dull. So it joins Motel Hell, Glitter, and (good lord) Raven Hawk on the short list of Bad Movie Night offerings that we gave up on entirely, hitting the stop button well before the conclusion.

That just meant an earlier start time for our main feature, the film that inspired this particular Bad Movie Night: I Know Who Killed Me (Chris Sivertson, 2007) starring Lindsay Lohan. This selection was partially inspired by a shameful but undeniable desire to see how drastically bad Lohan’s choices are getting as she swerves her once-promising career into oncoming traffic, but the howling bad reviews the film got last year, raging about the convoluted plot and flat acting, marked it as the kind of movie that we’ve often loved after already drinking through 90 to 120 minutes of garbage.

It’s impossible to discuss this film without heaping criticism on Lohan. First of all, her appearance is shocking, even distracting. She was about twenty years old when she made this movie, but she looks easily fifteen years older. Her voice is raspy enough to sound like what you’d hear if tree bark could talk and her skin looks like one of those bota bags hippies used to drink wine out of. She’s playing a dual role here, and, to be fair, these qualities arguably work for one of the characters. Unfortunately, she looks equally haggard when playing the whistle-clean suburban teen bound for an ivy league university. She is so detached from everything going on that what she’s doing can barely be called acting. No matter how intense or strange the thing she’s talking about, she uses the same tone of hurried disinterest. She describes fantastical theories like she’s announcing she decided not to go to the mall after all.

The film is a muddled mix of torture porn, psychological trickery and ludicrous paranormal nonsense. Just to make sure it doesn’t get too confusing, director Chris Sivertson sets up a plodding sort of symbolism with red and blue motifs to help differentiate between the two paths a person can take. All it does is leave a big purple bruise on your brain.

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One for Friday: Fetchin Bones, “Stray”

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I would have loved to see any of these shows.

As was projected in this space, I spent a portion of last weekend on the air at my alma mater, my first spin in the air chair in that particular studio in over fifteen years. It was delirious and delightful, a truly joyful experience that had the intense feel of coming home. With only two hours of airtime available to me, I barely got to dig into the history I carry with me from those days, much less the intervening decades of professional life and music fandom informed by my beloved time as a college radio kid. In particular, by largely relying on my strongest touchstone artiists to fill out the playlist, I didn’t devote nearly enough time to he relatively obscure acts. Elvis Costello and XTC probably still get plenty of retrospective attention from college radio programmers. I’m not sure Fetchin Bones does.

I’ve featured the Charlotte, North Carolina band here before. They weren’t a huge act at my radio station, but they were one of the dependable ones: always welcome in the new music rotation and circled back to just often enough by the on-air staff that they were never completely forgotten. Right there in the middle of a set, the voice of Hope Nicholls would roar across the speakers and every track in close proximity seemed a little more sedate because of it.

I could have filled an entire two-hour shift with bands just like Fetchin Bones, those that had brief flares of airplay dominance but are now unfairly neglected. Maybe I should have. There’s always next year, I suppose.

Listen or download –> Fetchin Bones, “Stray”

(Disclaimer: I believe the entirety of the Fetchin Bones catalog to be out of print, at least as physical objects that can procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. This music file is offered in this space, then, with the understanding that the sharing of it doesn’t impede worthy commerce. I will gladly and promptly remove it from my little corner of digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Now Playing: Pete’s Dragon

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In making a film, it takes some industrial strength confidence to include an explicit promise of magic. I don’t mean constructing a story around a boy wizard or some other spinner of spells, fancifully warping reality with the behind the scenes support of special effects technicians. I’m referring to the magic of the soul, the kind that stirs emotions and sets usually stolid hearts atingle. Having a character onscreen speak of such a transporting feeling is roughly akin to making a promise that a fictional piece of art that factors into a film’s narrative — a poem, a painting, a song — is a work of a genius. It is doomed to disappoint. So spare a bit of admiration for the creators behind the new film Pete’s Dragon. Without an evident tremor of hesitation, they have a sage townsman named Meacham (Robert Redford) say the sight of the film’s titular beast brings the sensation of magic. What’s really impressive is that the filmmakers deliver on that striking promise.

Pete’s Dragon is based on the 1977 Disney film of the same name, though only the most basic elements have been carried forward. In this instance, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a boy who was simultaneously orphaned and stranded in the heavily wooded landscape years earlier. Following a car accident, he was almost immediately befriended and protected by a mammoth green dragon, dubbed Elliott by the boy, the name drawn from a lost pooch in a storybook that is one of the few possessions from his prior life. The plot truly kicks in when the boy is discovered by a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), setting off a similar revelation of the majestic creature that had previously been the source of local tall tales and folk songs.

Director David Lowery travels a well-worn path, constructing the screenplay co-credited to Toby Halbrooks around expected elements: the importance of family in all its forms, the villainous figure who wants to exploit the dragon, the importance of hanging onto a sense of wonder in a cynical age. The story may be familiar — and spotted with plot holes for anyone who cares to give it the most casually attentive scrutiny — but it has a gentle, thoughtful, caring tone that is increasingly rare, especially for films pitched at the younger set. Best as I can tell, modern kiddie flicks never stop jabbering, snatching fiercely at attentions mightily prone to distraction. Pete’s Dragon aims for something different. It is committed to tenderness and beauty, opening its heart wide to anyone ready to embrace it. Whether this works for its intended demographic is an open question (there were certainly a lot of restless runts at the packed showing I attended), but I took it in with gratitude.

In particular, Pete’s Dragon has an emotional resonance that lasts beyond its closing credits, growing in strength as it settles in the memory. I suspect that’s attributable to the way Lowery strives for a certain timelessness to the storytelling, setting it in the kind of northwestern logging town that clasps to enduring tradition and carefully developing an unspecified era free of cellphones and other intrusive electronics. Even as the film washes the screen, it feels like a reminiscence made real, with all the warmth built right in.

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My Misspent Youth: Laff-A-Lympics by Mark Evanier and Owen Fitzgerald

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Typically, I devote my reminiscing for this recurring feature to those superhero comic books I devoured through my tween and teen years (and, somewhat sad to type, beyond), with an occasional hat tip to a nineteen-seventies comic that, as the italicizes introduction concedes, I now feel I should have read. Truth is, during the seventies, which was very much my youth, I was collecting comic books with an unstoppable fervor. They just weren’t superhero comics.

I was a devotee of a genre of comic books that are most commonly sorted under the catch-all term “funny animal,” though the offerings of the most prominent publisher of such fare, Harvey Comics, were more likely to feature stylized human beings or, you know, satanic figures. For kids! It was fully in keeping with my adamant devotion to Saturday morning cartoons. And Sunday morning cartoons. And weekday afternoon cartoons. Really, just cartoons whenever and wherever I could find them. So it was a special thrill to me when my absolute favorite cartoon show, Laff-A-Lympics, showed up on the grocery store rack in comic book form.

Launched the year after the 1976 Olympics, Laff-A-Lympics gathered together a bevy of Hanna-Barbera characters to compete against each other in sports events. The older characters were gathered together on a team dubbed the Yogi Yahooeys, the newer ones under the banner of the Scooby Doobies, and the caddish villains of various eras as the perpetually cheating Really Rottens. On Saturday mornings, the storylines generally didn’t get more elaborate than a series of creative competitions. The comic books creators, like writer Mark Evanier and artist Owen Fitzgerald, distinguished their efforts with more varied through lines, such as the issue that found the animated athletes kidnapped and forced to compete on the moon.

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It’s like a weird precursor to Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars. The person doing the abducting is an odd little alien who’s somehow reasoned out that if he can best these cartoon competitors in a series of events, he’ll be granted the right to rule the planet Earth.

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In turn, if the Laff-A-Lympics regulars win, the moon man promises them a fortune in gold.

The moon man helpfully equips his unwilling guests with special belts and then proceeds to engage them in a series of events, each one he manages to dominate.

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This naturally goes on for several pages, with the Laff-A-Lympians growing increasingly dismayed with their inability to best the squat little figure. The whole while, the team members who weren’t snapped up by the aliens tractor beam are watching on a television, because sure they are. They manage to figure out what the imp wanna-be ruler is up to, and they send Yogi Bear’s best pal, Boo Boo, up to the moon in order to save the day at the last moment.

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See, I even learned something all science-y about the moon!

It admittedly wasn’t high art, but it was my art. It was colorful and fun and goofy. And it probably established the weakness that I still have for sprawling crossovers, which has worked out just fine for the major superhero publishers, because they have a weakness for them, too.

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Hat tip to the blog that unwitting provided an assist for this entry.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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August 2016
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