Playing Catch-Up — An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn; Straight Outta Compton; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

beverly

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (Jim Hosking, 2018). I’m sure there’s an easier, more lucrative career path to follow than the road chosen by Aubrey Plaza since the end of Parks and Recreation, which makes her spirited commitment to the oddest projects imaginable all the more laudatory. In An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Plaza plays Lulu Danger, a disenchanted diner waitress who flees from her life to stalk the mysterious performer Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) when he’s booked for a gig at a nearby posh hotel. Director Jim Hosking’s comic style is flatfooted absurdity, which is amusing when Jemaine Clement (as a hired thug who becomes an accomplice to Lulu) is muttering mildly startled oddities and far less so it’s time for the fart jokes and other scattershot lowbrow riffing. Some of the performances are deliberately amateurish, and then there’s Emile Hirsch as Lulu’s jilted husband, demonstrating this is trademark fuming rigidness isn’t improved by the appropriation of Jack Black’s bombast. It’s Plaza who nearly holds the whole thing together. She has a remarkable capability to lend a thread of the genuine to the most ludicrous scenarios.

 

straight

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015). This depiction of the rise, fall, and lasting influence of N.W.A. proves that even gangsta rappers can fit tidily into the well-used template of the pop music biopic. The first portion of the film is strongest. Director F. Gary Gray builds a winning energy as he traces the group’s formation and creative development. These scenes have an astuteness that properly conveys the impact of N.W.A. Some of the details away from the clubs and studios — including the real problem of police harassment in underprivileged communities — are rendered in a style that’s too heavy-handed, blunting the effectiveness. The grows slack as N.W.A. experiences success and splinters apart, as the dividing of the narrative plays less like admirable scope and more as an inability to determine which story is most interesting. That isn’t even a tricky dilemma. It’s clearly Eazy-E who the film should stick with most closely, if for no other reason than Jason Mitchell is outstanding in the role.

 

film stars

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017). Based on the memoir by Peter Turner (portrayed by Jamie Bell in the film), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool covers the later years of Gloria Grahame, an Academy Award winner (famed in Oscar lore for her notably brief acceptance speech when claiming her trophy), who endured indignities sadly common for older actresses. Annette Bening plays Grahame with insight and grace, adopting the actress’s whispery voice, but otherwise not lapsing into overt impersonation. She concentrates on the emotion of the piece. It’s a fine performance, though well down the list of essential Bening turns. Paul McGuigam offers a workmanlike directing job, plodding around with no evident feel for nuance, the sort of quality that could have given the film real depth of feeling beyond its human interest reportorial plainness.

From the Archive — The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Steve-Carell-Kelly-Clarkson

One of the cute celebrity stories that made the rounds this week was Steve Carell’s talk show tale of meeting Kelly Clarkson, more than a decade after he shouted her name while getting his chest hair waxed off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It’s not much of a story, but anything mildly interesting enough to briefly disrupt the news cycle of constant misery is always welcome. And if Carell can find a reason to bring up The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I suppose I can, too. This review was written for my former online home, and it was one of the very first instances of me reviving my old film critic tendencies for digital disbursement. I was still figuring out if tapping out my reactions to new cinematic releases was something I wanted to undertake again on a regular basis. Thirteen years later, I guess it was.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin has gotten attention for its dirty-ish premise and as part of the “trend” of R-rated comedies coming back into fashion. It should be getting attention because it’s a very funny movie that actually has a few things to say. Not only does Steve Carell play the title character, Andy Stitzer, with a lot of dignity, but he plays him as something more than a vehicle for jokes, the main downfall of all his cohorts in the Anchorman/Dodgeball/Elf brigade.

While the film developed from an old Second City bit that Carell cooked up, he’s actually thought through and developed the character and the story into something wise and a little moving. As the character notes at one point, the only reason he’s really reached this point is that he “eventually stopped trying.” He’s a little socially backwards, but he’s not some of outcast held up for ridicule.

The ridicule is reserved for the hyper-sexualized culture that we live in, and all of the supposedly sexy things that are out there to entice us, from pornography to seductive behavior to Tijuana floor shows. All of these things are called out as at best embarrassing and at worst downright scary. It’s actually reminiscent of a great and kinda daring episode of Freaks and Geeks, the television series that stands as the high water mark for Judd Apatow (well, okay, maybe it’s tied for the career peak), making his directorial debut here. The Freaks and Geeks squad get a few shout-outs here, with a couple teachers from McKinley High making cameo appearances and old “Ken Miller” faring nicely in a supporting role. More importantly, the film shares that late series’ compassionate but unyielding scrutiny of the foibles of life.

Besides, the whole movie really boils down to an argument that falling in love with Catherine Keener is a good thing, and I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

One for Friday — Scruffy the Cat, “Moons of Jupiter”

scruffy

Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988. Scruffy the Cat released their second and final full-length album, Moons of Jupiter. Raucous rockers with a touch of roots styling to their music, the band had a prime place in a Boston scene that accommodated a thrilling range of off-kilter practitioners. They churned out new studio and live releases at a breakneck pace through the mid-eighties. In a manner entirely consistent with times for living on the left end of the radio dial, Scruffy the Cat aggressively fed the new content into the machine, presumably in an effort to keep student programmers from drifting off to some new favorite. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but in college radio it instead makes the ever-shifting on-air staff oblivious to the great music in the stacks.

Moons of Jupiter connected Scruffy the Cat with producer Jim Dickinson, a fine musician in his own right who inspired a reverence in certain quarters for his place behind the boards on Big Star’s Third. The previous year, he’d overseen the Replacements’ great Pleased to Meet Me, which some brave, foolhardy souls consider their very best record. (The brave, foolhardy soul I have in mind is me.) Without sacrificing agreeable roughness, Dickinson brought a useful discipline to the Minneapolis hooligans. Scruffy the Cat didn’t require the same wrangling, but there’s an unmistakably similarity between the two records in smeary polish.

As I was assimilating to the strange, intoxicating atmosphere of college radio during my first semester at my humble, Midwestern station, Moons of Jupiter was precisely the sort of gateway I needed. It was a clear relative to the album rock that dominated my high school indoctrination into music fandom, but there was clearly a looser vibe, built on freedom and ingenuity, that differentiated the material.  There was a secret language to this new realm I was in, and Moons of Jupiter was one of my most valuable decoder rings.

Listen or download —> Scruffy the Cat, “Moons of Jupiter”

(Disclaimer: I believe much of the Scruffy the Cat catalog is out of print, at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. The official Scruffy the Cat website does tout the availability of a hefty compilation in digital form, so presumably the band gets a reasonable chunk of any money changing accounts for purchase of those files. So the sharing of the cut above should be seen as encouragement to go and get more of their music. Or maybe buy a t-shirt. I believe I am operating under the legal principle of fair use here, but I will still gladly and promptly remove this song from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so be any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The Unwatchables — The Counselor

counselor

I don’t inherently have a problem with films that go a little bonkers. And I can muster up an appreciation whether the offerings in question are good or bad. Bong Joon-ho devising brilliant storytelling around dystopian science fiction taking place almost entirely within a locomotive endlessly circling the planet? Yes, please! Neil Labute disastrously fumbling with a limp gothic horror remake in which Nicolas Cage overacts his way through fisticuffs while wearing a ratty bear costume and torture by bee helmet? I’ll take seconds and lick that plate clean!

Maybe the real problem in when a film the tilts toward lunacy lands somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, marked by neither inspiration nor ineptness. What happens when material that is relentlessly nutso is handled with dull competence?

The Counselor happens, that’s what.

Directed by Ridley Scott, The Counselor assembles a first-rate cast and sets them wandering aimlessly across a plot of creeping criminality and addled sexual intrigue. I’d like to provide a little more detail on the mechanics of that story, but I could barely discern what was going on besides the different characters — led by the title attorney, played by Michael Fassbender — slipping in and out of each other’s orbits to deliver coyly menacing dialogue. The gears of the story don’t connect. They just spin and spin.

The most notable name in the opening credits is revered novelist Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor is his first produced original screenplay, following adaptations of his books that include one flat-out classic and many more big screen works that implicitly, inadvertently argue that his distinct brand of terse, tense prose doesn’t travel well when moved from the page. In this instance, there’s no condemning the translation. McCarthy presumably believed these lines could be spoken aloud and sound like human communication. But actors imbued with boundless talent straight from the heavens couldn’t pull off a moment such as the one in which Javier Bardem reacts to a grim comment from Cameron Diaz by asking her, “You don’t think that’s a bit cold?,” and she responds, “I think truth has no temperature.” And then there’s Fassbender’s cooing to Penélope Cruz, “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.” It one of the grossest approximations of seductive romance I’ve encountered in a film in quite some time.

The above litany doesn’t even start digging into the nutty plot points: the bikini pool party with a leopard sedately hanging out, the intricate highway beheading that mystically stirs an incarcerated woman (Rosie Perez) awake, the scene of Diaz mounting — in both the dictionary and pornographic definitions of the word — a sports car windshield as Bardem gazes up in confusion. Scott films all this with an odd placidness bordering on dull-eyed indifference. It’s an exercise in riled perversion presented as a chain of plainly framed close-ups, like a TV movie from decades ago. Decadence has rarely seemed so dull.

I made it approximately halfway through The Counselor.

 

Previously in The Unwatchables
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “How Can I Forget”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

marvin gaye

Marvin Gaye was one of the stalwart artists in the Motown galaxy of stars throughout the nineteen-sixties, but he was growing disillusioned by the end of the decade. His mood was likely darkened by the grave ailments suffered by his regular duet partner Tammi Terrell, who collapsed into his arms during a 1967. Doctors discovered a brain tumor, evidence of the cancer that claimed her life three years later.

But Gaye was also weary of what he viewed as constant manipulation by Berry Gordy, the head of Motown and associated labels. The singer notched his first chart-topper in 1968, with his cover of the Gladys Knight and the Pips hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but he took little joy in the accomplishment, feeling it represented an uncomfortable acquiescence to the Motown machine. Gaye was an artist at heart, and continually recycling entries in the well-worn Hitsville U.S.A. songbook was getting old.

Norman Whitfield was producing most of Gaye’s records at the time, and it was a highly contentious relationship.

“Norman and I came within a fraction of an inch of fighting,” Gaye later recalled. “He thought I was a prick because I wasn’t about to be intimidated by him. We clashed. He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge.”

The 1970 album That’s the Way Love Is was representative of Whitfield’s approach with Gaye. It was comprised almost entirely of songs previously recorded by other artists, including four different tracks that were first the property of the Temptations. One of those, “How Can I Forget,” was released as a single. It was a middling performer on the pop charts, just missing the Top 40.

After That’s the Way Love Is, Gaye insisted on forging his own creative path. For his next studio album, he wrote or co-wrote all of the songs and served as the sole credited producer. Released in 1971, What’s Going On was a major hit, yielding three Top 10 singles and quickly rising in status to stand as one of the unquestioned artistic pinnacles in all of pop music.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Stan Lee, 1922 – 2018

stanlee

When I started reading superhero comic books with a fierce devotion, nearly every issue I purchased had the same phrase on the opening page: “STAN LEE PRESENTS.” Stan Lee wasn’t writing many comics by the time I was plunking down my nickels to get the latest installments of altruistic Marvel Comics titans grappling with evildoers to serve and protect the citizenry, nor was he much involved with the day to day of the publishing, having long since ceded editorial responsibilities to eager creative professionals who grew up deeply enamored of the sprawling, interconnected story that truly got underway with Fantastic Four #1, in 1961. But I quickly learned to cherish that promise of distant authorship in the regular credit. The comics may not have held his words any longer, and there were some disputes about how many of the company’s many character could really be viewed as products of his personal invention. I don’t think there’s much doubt — or there wasn’t much for me — that his everlasting spirit defined these rocket blast stories that were colorful, bombastic, and yet grounded in immediately recognizable human behaviors.

Recruited into the company that would become the House of Ideas as a young man, the scribe born Stanley Martin Lieber was one of the rare people who genuinely changed everything about a form of media and, as the influence of the characters he co-created continues to spread, arguably at least a second. The lore holds that Lee was deep into his tenure as a comic book creator — in an era when that didn’t stir a whit of respect — and lamenting his frustrated ambitions, pining for dwindling dreams of typing out the Great American, when his wife, Joan, challenged him. If he was so unfulfilled, write the story he wanted to see in comic book form. The thrown gauntlet roughly converged with his boss’s instruction to take a stab at reviving the discarded superhero part of the line, inspired by the surprising success of DC Comics’ surprise hit Justice League of America.

Working with kingly artist Jack Kirby, Lee co-created The Fantastic Four, a squabbling family of pulchritudinously powered figures who broke all sorts of rules about how superhero character were supposed to work. The innovation the best represents Lee, though, arrived on the third issue, which boasted Fantastic Four was “THE GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD!” Revised one issue later to “THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE!,” the howling hyperbole was emblazoned across the title with sincerity for decades to come. Lee was a writer, but he was mostly a showman, enthusing about the comics he created (or created under his imprimatur) with the breathless enthusiasm of the truest of believers. In his rendering, Marvel Comics itself was a character, populated by craftspeople with chummy nicknames and genially squabbling personalities. Every story was promised to be the most thrilling ever witness, every ending a jaw-dropper. The comics on which he was credited as a writer were terrific, but the parallel epic of artisans wrestling miracles out of their pencils were perhaps even more accomplished. To a degree, the comics were fun because Lee convinced us they were.

And Lee admirably used his prominence to advocate for causes on the correct side of history. There was a clear liberal mindset to Lee’s storytelling — exemplified by the civil rights corollary found in the pages of X-Men — but it was quite another think to devote a monthly column ostensibly meant for little more than brisk promotion to directly challenging bigotry and the erosion of respectful discourse.

stans soapbox

Digging deep into Lee’s legacy unearths some controversy, particularly around creators’ rights, long a blemish on the comics industry. Although he advocated publicly and passionately for creators, Lee often didn’t do much for them in his many positions of power. It’s an open debate as to whether it’s better or worse that his inaction seemed motivated by obliviousness rather than malice. By most accounts of Marcel’s rise, Lee didn’t understand that his huckster charm had it’s limits, that those left out of the bounty he was raking in might be resentful about their emptier pockets.

Whatever his flaws, Lee was an effusive champion of the zippy comic stories that shaped me and helped define my sensibility as a cultural consumer. He didn’t just help concoct the worlds I loved, he told the world he loved them, too. Even when I saw that enthusiasm as pure salesmanship, it still made me feel validated, like it was a noble calling to be a true believer.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #828 to #825

gang entertainment

828. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)

“We were trying to invent a new kind of music, a new kind of language,” Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill once told Rolling Stone. “We were using the building blocks of ‘rock music,’ ‘funk music,’ and ‘pop music,’ dismantling them to see what was there and using what we felt like using.”

Gill was referencing Entertainment!, the scintillating debut album from the English post-punk powerhouses. Recorded among contentious battles within the band, the album is friction made musical, passion with a ferocious beat. Cranking to life with “Ether,” the sound is set: burbling bass, slicing guitar lines, Jon King’s vocals pitched to a probing tension, and a production as clean and unadorned as fresh barbed wire. “Natural’s Not in It” stalks like a predator, and “Not Great Men” pulses with seething energy. And all that’s before “Damaged Goods,” a track of sonic invention and brazen lyrical candor (“Your kiss so sweet/ Your sweat so sour/ Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you/ But I know it’s only lust”) that draws the blueprint for much of the punk-influenced rock that would follow in the next decade.

The album includes the political agitation of “Guns Before Butter” and the mighty swipes at atrophying citizenry on “At Home He’s a Tourist” and “5:45.” There’s a blazing sense of purpose to the whole endeavor, like Gang of Four is bashing out an entire musical future across two sides of vinyl, perhaps skeptical that they’ll have another chance to make such a statement.

 

 

debbie koo

827. Debbie Harry, KooKoo (1981)

I have a vague recollection of a weekly television program that was attempted in the early nineteen-eighties, serving as a sort of Rolling Stone or Creem for broadcast syndication. It included a panel of rock critics weighing in on major new releases, and my one semi-sharp memory of watching was the forlorn reactions the assembled music scribes had when offering their respective reactions to KooKoo, the debut solo album from Debbie Harry. There was nothing gleeful about their ire for the record. To a person, they felt regretful that their honest reaction to the album was dislike.

When KooKoo was released, Harry’s band Blondie was taking a break, and the woman who commanded the spotlight as lead singer of the group was fervently committed to establishing her own persona. She didn’t completely shun her more high profile gig (her bandmate Chris Stein figures prominently in the songwriting credits and plays guitar on KooKoo), but there’s a clear, concerted effort to forge a different sound, most evident in the hiring of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, of Chic, to produce the album. Harry may have hoped for a more grinding sort of funk — and portions of the album suggest that very goal — but the actual result is dreadfully drab pop, illuminating some of the shortcomings in the creative approach of Harry and her collaborators that was usually obscured by the new wave verve of Blondie.

Lead track “Jump Jump” opens with the sort of very high-tech syntho-sequencey type thing that mike make someone exclaim, “That’s the news!” and proceeds to the greater misfortune of sounding like it was designed strictly for use in aerobics classes. The chintzy keyboard sounds resurface on “The Jam Was Moving” and “Oasis,” which sounds like it’s meant to be the soundtrack for a disco harem. “Surrender” at least showcases the snapping personality often found in Harry’s vocals. Otherwise, the cuts are more likely to rely on lyrical oddities, such as the weirdo pop crime story “Under Story.” And much as Harry wanted to break free off expectations, comparisons are inevitable. “Backfired” uses some similar structural tricks as “Rapture,” though with far less compelling lyrics (“You were polished slick, really thick/ Wasting time dropping lines like ‘I could get you into movies’/ But we would up at HoJo’s for hamburgers to go!”).

Those rock critics weren’t the only ones unimpressed with KooKoo. The album was a middling success, at best, more notable for the unsettling H.R. Giger cover art than any of the music behind the sleeve. Harry was back with Blondie before too long, but the magic was draining away there, too. The band’s album The Hunter, released the following year, was widely considered a bomb. It would be the band’s final album until reunion dollars beckoned many years in the future.

 

 

tull storm

826. Jethro Tull, Stormwatch (1979)

The story begins on the front cover, delivered in small print beneath the image of a bearded fellow staring through binoculars, lightning reflected in the lens. It reads: “Lines join in faint discord and the Stormwatch brews a concert of kings as the white sea snaps at the heels of a soft prayer whispered.” I haven’t the foggiest clue what that means, nor the inclination to seek out clarifying commentary from band members. Stormwatch falls right in line with other Jethro Tull records of the era, lacing together prog rock expansiveness with folky preciousness. The song “Orion” is typical, lead singer Ian Anderson intoning, “Orion, won’t you give me your star sign/ Orion, get up on the sky-line.” It is a chore.

“Dark Ages” is fussy and antic, like a number in a Rocky Horror Picture Show knockoff set in the next kingdom over from Hobbiton. “Flying Dutchman” sounds like an Elton John song tricked out with prog rock trappings, including, of course, some heavy duty flute playing, and the instrumental “Warm Sporran” is the band’s pass at disco-tinged fusion jazz. It’s not all bad. Even I need to admit there’s a fine fettle to Ian Anderson’s vocals on the cavorting “Old Ghosts.” Mostly, though, its another example of that long, lingering hangover of nineteen-seventies FM longueur that college radio experienced before they found their own set of artists to seek speakers rattling.

 

 

sonic nation

825. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988)

Daydream Nation showed up at my college radio station in the autumn of 1988, during my very first semester, and no one knew what to do with it. Our broadcast outpost was more conservative than many of our national peers, reflecting the fact that we served a portion of Central Wisconsin that wasn’t really looking for music of anxious disruption. The Sonic Youth album proved highly contentious, with various members of the station’s leadership team taking adamant stances in direct opposition when weighing the question of whether we should be playing it at all. In the end, Daydream Nation stayed locked in the cabinet, deemed too abrasive for the tender ears of our listeners.

I offer the above story to provide some insight as to how challenging Daydream Nation, a major artistic and commercial breakthrough for Sonic Youth, sounded at the time of its release, at least to some. Listening to it now, it of course seems safe as can be. “Teen Age Riot,” the album’s lead single, has punching drums and buzzy guitar lines, but it’s also tuneful and eager to engage. It’s not just the way grunge bands freely appropriated from Sonic Youth to craft major hits just a few years later that gives the track a retroactive coziness. It’s craft is impeccable, strong as steel and yet smoothed of splintering edges. How could we ever have been scared?

“The Sprawl” is like a tour through the Sonic Youth showroom, with sounds both bombastic and ethereal, Kim Gordon’s vocals offering warm disaffection. “Hey Joni” is like Minutemen on pep pills, and the album-closing trilogy suite bends the band’s music into a especially gnarled pretzel. Every cut is a proper statement on its own, a contribution to a strong whole, and an announcement of the relentless invention to come.

As for my station, we were fully onboard by the time of Sonic Youth’s proper follow-up, Goo, released in 1990. We were rattled, but clearly intrigued. We just needed a little time to acclimate, it seems.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs