College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, 84 and 83

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84. The Cranberries, To the Faithful Departed

And now we come to what is arguably the “lingering goodwill” portion of the chart, with a couple of albums that a reasonable observer may conclude garnered airplay less on their own individual merits and more because of admiration for prior works. The Cranberries, for example, were coming off fine albums. Their 1993 debut, Everybody Else is Doing It So Why Can’t We?, and its follow up, 1994’s No Need to Argue, both garnered a lot of appreciative attention, especially the former which was the welcome elegant pop contrast to the bludgeoning grudge that was otherwise dominant. Their third album, To the Faithful Departed, was greeted with similar jubilation. The first single, “Salvation,” went to the top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart. As radio programmers tried to dig deeper into the album, they found that it plainly wasn’t very good. Though a bevy of singles were released from the record, alternative rock radio and college programmers gradually lost interest (they did managed a fairly tepid trip to the Billboard Top 40 with an completely forgettable ballad). The band wound up taking a brief hiatus, and when they returned with 1999’s Bury the Hatchet, college radio was basically over them.

porno
83. Porno for Pyros, Good God’s Urges

In the mid-nineties, much of the appreciation for Perry Farrell emanated from his central role in creating Lollapalooza, the traveling rock show carnival that got high school kids to pay top dollar to see the likes of Sonic Youth and L7 in concert. Farrell was successfully positioned as a tattooed and pierced P.T. Barnum for the waning years of the millennium, and the music he made was increasingly immaterial to his celebrity. After his band Jane’s Addiction broke up, he moved on to a group with the truly terrible name Porno for Pyros. After a self-titled debut album that already aroused skepticism in discerning music fans, the band released their sophomore album, Good God’s Urge, in 1996, just as Farrell was trying to prove he had career legs apart from his famous road show. He split from Lollapalooza that year, in part because Metallica was recruited as one of the headline acts, somewhat in opposition to the tour’s ethos of championing acts further outside the mainstream (Farrell also claimed he didn’t like the macho posturing of their music, although he didn’t have a problem with that sort of thing when Ice-T and Body County played the inaugural edition of the tour). Good God’s Urges could be viewed as a reasonable success, peaking at #20 on the album charts and just missing the Billboard Top 40 with the first single, “Tahitian Moon.” The band was finished a couple years later, without releasing another album, after guitarist Peter DiStefano was diagnosed with cancer, and Farrell kept on with increasingly insignificant projects, eventually grabbing back a hold of the lucrative Lollapalooza brand and participating in especially odd knock-offs. The Porno for Pyros reunion that no one demanded is reportedly in the works for 2013.

Previously…
An Introduction
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm
–88 and 87: No Code and Unplugged
–86 and 85: Greatest Hits Live and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts

Spectrum Check

I had a lot of stuff go up at Spectrum Culture this week, so let’s just tick them off:

–It’s fairly rare that I write for the book section, but it occurred to me late last fall that I just might be able to get myself a review copy of the massive, intimidating and universally adored new outing from Chris Ware, Building Stories. Evidently, I made my request right before our editor-in-chief, inspiring at least a bit of envy. That’s the proper reaction on his part, by the way. This thing is spectacular. In my many reviews for Spectrum, this is only the second time I’ve felt compelled to give something our highest rating, five out of five stars.

–My turn came up in the “Revisit” series on the film side. These are always especially tough for me, as I have a hard time figuring out my angle. Then I was struck by the idea of going back to look at Steven Soderbergh’s first film on the occasion of his announced intention that Side Effects will be his late outing for the big screen.

–I’ve been anxious to see Rodney Ascher’s documentary on film freaks who dive way too deep into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ever since I read about its debut at Sundance a year ago. As I note in the review, there are few things I find more entertaining than the Kubrickian conspiracy theorists that flock to that movie.

–Finally, I wrote the latest entry in our ongoing Oeuvre series, surveying the filmography of Brian De Palma. I wrote on what may be his most disastrous movie, The Bonfire of the Vanities. And I did so at my request, which could reasonable be seen as an act of cinematic masochism. This came out in December of 1990, when The Reel Thing, the radio movie review show I co-hosted, was into its first year. It was a movie I should have seen, but I was lucky enough to go on a family vacation to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, and by the time I got back Bonfire was completely gone, theater owners practically rubbing down their screens with bleach to remove the taint of it. I read Julie Salamon’s terrific book about the making of Bonfire and even interviewed her for the radio show, but still never watched more than a couple minutes of the film itself. I liked the idea of taking this opportunity to rectify that. As expected, I was lucky to have missed it all these years.

One for Friday: Buck Pets, “A Little Murder”

Not to upset any lingering, devoted fan base the band might have, but I feel obligated to admit that the main reason I have affection for the band the Buck Pets is that I once knew a lovely young woman who appropriated their band name so she would have something to call me. She just liked the way it sounded, I think. When she was on the air, she’d play a song from the album and backsell it by sharing, “That one goes out to my little Buck Pet.” We never figured out what “Buck Pet” really meant, what the derivation of the band’s name was (even with the boundless resources of the internet, I still can’t figure it out), but that didn’t really matter. It was simply part of our own secret code of college flirtation and romance.

To be fair, there’s a decent chance I would have played the Buck Pets plenty, even without the swoony inspiration to do so. They were exactly the sort of band that hit the sweet spot for our particular college radio station, clearly emulating the brash, straight-ahead, raw, unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll of the Replacements, our flannel-wearing brethren in the Upper Midwest. Certainly a song like “Little Murder,” easily the best track of the band’s 1989 self-titled debut, was likely to grab my attention. Still, I have very little memory of playing any individual song back then. I think my mind was elsewhere when the Buck Pets were on.

Listen or download –> Buck Pets, “A Little Murder”

(Disclaimer: The debut album from the Buck Pets looks to me like it is out of print as a physical object, the sort of thing you could march down to your favorite local, independently-owned record store and purchase in a way that provides due compensation to both the artist and the proprietor of the shop in question. I certainly mean no harm in sharing this song. It’s done with the understanding that I am not getting in the way of any viable commerce. That noted, I will gladly and promptly remove the track from this little corner of the interweb if I’m contacted by a person or entity making such a request, assuming that person or entity has due authority to make such a request.)

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty-One

#41 — Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)
Though Elmer Gantry was released several years before the MPAA ratings system came into being, it was a bit of a trailblazer when it came to warning potential ticket-buyers of potentially challenging content. Well before filmmakers were concerned about whether their creations were to be labeled with a G, M, R or X (the initial alphabet soup created by the ratings board), the worry was that a film might receive a C from an entirely different body, the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. That meant the body had condemned the film, a designation that could be a deathblow. So United Artists declared the film for “Adults Only” and added a explanatory crawl at the beginning which read, “We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination, that the conduct of some Revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity. We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience. But freedom of religion is not a license to abuse the faith of the people. However, due to its highly controversial nature, we strong urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing this film.” It was a hedge against upsetting the religious power structure, but if the ominous warning also piqued the interest of the public, setting them on the way to the theater to see what all the fuss was about, well, then all the better.

Burt Lancaster plays the title role, a toothsome salesman who signs on to the traveling evangelist show presided over by the gentle and beatific Sister Sharon Falconer, played radiantly by Jean Simmons. Before long, Elmer has taken on a role as a preacher with the group, bounding across tents packed with true believers, plying a suspect faith in the Lord as a tool to get whatever he wants. Lancaster was well into his film career by this point, and he had a well-established persona defined by exuberance, bonhomie and a barrel-chested strength and authority. It was an ideal piece of casting and Lancaster is ferociously engaging in the role, bursting from the pulpit like a firework destined to never burn out. He also knows exactly how to play a man who never quite turns off the manipulative charm, meeting those who doubt his sincerity with a booming laugh meant to short circuit the criticism before it can mount. The skeptics are right, of course. Elmer is in it for the handy prestige and the money that comes with it, thumping the bible as a drumbeat that helped him march straight to the whiskey bottle and the whorehouse.

Despite the opening caveat, the film is an obvious and inspired savaging of the manipulative mavens of religion, using Jesus as a conduit straight to the pocketbook. Director Richard Brooks is careful and cunning in his storytelling, never pressing his thesis when simple remaining true to the different scenarios will get the job done. Elmer Gantry is scathing enough, in fact, that it’s a little difficult to conceive of it being made today without more apologies to the devout built right into the actual text of the film, an interesting measure of the backwards progression in fealty to religious figures that’s been happening at least since the Moral Majority declared itself open for business back in 1979. It’s worth noting that the believers may be the victims of a con in the film, but they’re not the villains of the piece, not by a long shot. Instead, they’re largely well-meaning figures whose innocent belief has been stripped for parts, which is exactly the sort of illuminating commentary the likes of Jerry Falwell were guarding against from the comfort of their well-appointed homes. No wonder Elmer Gantry had that dismal class of individuals agitated enough that the filmmakers had to offer assurances that they meant no harm.

You have to pay the price of admission sometime in your life, somewhere along the line

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The new film Admission differs drastically enough from the source material novel of the same name that original writer Jean Hanff Korelitz was given the opportunity to address it, presumably with the consent of studio p.r. mavens given her willingness to simultaneously extoll her satisfaction with the cinematic version. The main alteration that caught her attention was the acceleration of a key revelation to the main character (which has been largely left out of the promotion for the film, so I’ll also avoid the detail in question), moving it from the back end of the novel to very early in the film, ostensibly affecting a radical change on the dynamics of the story. That may well be the most notable change from page to screen–I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t say for certain, I will admit–but there seems a whole other, more problematic shift lurking at the heart of Admission. There are elements of an interesting, cynically observant movie scratching at the surface of the narrative, trying to assert themselves. That’s the material the feels novelistic, pumping with depth and insight. It all just can’t compete with the tired modern romantic comedy trappings that are the sad lifeblood of the film.

Tina Fey plays Portia, an admissions counselor for Princeton who is feeling particular pressure on recruiting season because of the college’s slip from the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings and the imminent retirement of her boss (Wallace Shawn), the latter meaning that the rare chance for a promotion is theoretically on the line. At around the same time that these dual motivators simultaneously fall into place, Portia is contacted by John (Paul Rudd), the director of an alternative high school. He invites her to the school, in part to pitch the elite institution of higher learning to his counter-culturally-inclined students, but really to connect her with one particular outstanding young man, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Despite some of the unique undercurrents to the story, Admission largely proceeds in predictable fashion. In particular, Portia and John gradually fall in love, not because it makes much sense in any way given the presentation of the characters, but because they’re the two leads and that’s the way this sort of movie works. Both Fey and Rudd have nice enough moments, but there’s no consistency to the characters, and there’s only so much they can do to bind the conflicting fragments together.

Maybe the most problematic aspect of the film is the way it deliberately buffs out all the distinctiveness in favor of an utterly mundane, high gloss feel, an approach that can surely be laid at the feet of director Paul Weitz. He previously crafted a warmly flavorful comedy that hits some similar beats with the Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy, released in 2002, although that one was made in tandem with his brother. That film, whatever its flaws, had a voice and a point of view. Admission bears the unseemly marks of many hands, all of them taking a turn to finesse it into the least offensive finished product possible. They’ve succeeded in that counterproductive task to the point of ending up with something that is completely, sorrowfully bland.

Farrelly and Farrelly, Kazan, Levy, Stoller, Wain

The Three Stooges (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2012). Strangely, this attempt to update the Three Stooges for a modern audience is the most disciplined Farrelly brothers film in years. That doesn’t mean it’s good per se, but the screenplay does have a tightness and care that’s been largely missing from the siblings’ work for at least ten years or so. There’s some genuinely inspired staging to the hyper-violent comic set pieces featuring the trio of orphaned doofuses clumsily beating the hell out of each other which carries over the broader narrative. Not much of it is especially funny or even all that interesting, but it holds together. Similar faint praise can be spread around to the three actors playing the Stooges, especially Chris Diamantopoulos who manages to evoke Moe without just offering an impression.

Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011). An unlikely family-friendly hit that’s neither as ludicrous or shameless as a movie about giant boxing robots should be, Real Steel has a shocking dearth of energy. Part of that is attributable to the entirely by-the-numbers screenplay (based on a Richard Matheson short story, but don’t hold that against his legacy), but Shawn Levy’s lackluster direction merits yawns as well. Hugh Jackman gives his best star power glower as the washed up fighter who bonds with his estranged young son while simultaneously managing some unlikely machinery to championship levels. No matter how game he is, though, the film is ultimately too empty. He can only do so much emoting in a void.

Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012). Director David Wain’s follow up to the surprisingly amusing and enjoyable Role Models is another high concept comedy that depends in part of mocking an insular subculture. In this case, a stressed out married couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) wind up trying out life in an off-the-grid commune after they bomb out in the big city. There’s some standard fish out of water shenanigans along with satiric mockery of the freewheeling hippie ethic, but the whole thing is finally too shaggy, full of iffy character development and digressions for the sake of chasing comedy that completely undo the whole endeavor. The best idea in the whole film is the casting of Alan Alda as the aging founder of the commune who struggles with a blazed out memory, but, like everyone else, he’s essentially given a single joke to play. Even his genial presence gets old.

The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, 2012). Jason Segel’s collaboration with writer-director Nicholas Stoller that began with Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes a turn towards greater depth. Even if it doesn’t wholly work, it’s intriguing to watch them try to stretch their capabilities. Segel plays a man whose plans to marry his girlfriend (Emily Blunt, who really did have a nice 2012) are thwarted by the the false starts of a twentysomething life. There’s a clear interest in exploring the complexities of holding together a relationship while two people are on slightly different tracks, especially as necessary compromises start to wear them down, but too much of the script relies on the laziest conventions of modern romantic comedy storytelling.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955). East of Eden was released just about eight months after On the Waterfront. Though it traffics in some of the same method acting muscularity, in many ways it couldn’t be a more different movie: expansive where Waterfront is tightly contained, florid where its predecessor is lean. Adapted liberally from John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, the film casts James Dean, in his first major screen role, as a conflicted young man whose fruitless efforts to win the favor of his father (a very fine Raymond Massey) leads to impulsive, often self-destructive actions. Of course Dean has charisma to burn, but he hadn’t really figured out how to properly harness it into an artful performance yet. Kazan sometimes seems to be trying too hard to use the wide Cinemascope screen, favoring canted camera angles that eventually lose their impact, except for one especially disconcerting scene where the camera rocks in conflict with the pendulum path of a swing. Despite those reservations, there’s clear heat in the film, probably a result of a wide array of deeply passionate and committed creators coming together, however imperfectly.