From The Archive: Burn After Reading

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This is a thing I wrote a while ago that’s never been published in this space before. (I’m very ill, so the pithy retrospective commentary is truncated this week.)

I doubt there was a single knowing film fan out there who figured that Joel and Ethan Coen would view their gold-plated induction into Hollywood’s upper echelon as impetus to start making bloodless (in every sense of the word), serious work which telegraphs it’s supposed importance with every dewy frame. Still, it’s oddly gratifying to find the follow-up to the extraordinary, justly awarded No Country For Old Men is such a unabashedly goofy lark. How perfect that the filmmakers that began their career with the lean noir of Blood Simple followed by the cartoonish comedy of Raising Arizona are repeating that sort of freewheeling genre-hopping some twenty years later.

The new film, Burn After Reading, is unmistakably a Coen brothers product. If the world were ever stripped of all its dolts and criminals, the Coens would be at the loosest of ends. Here they draw their favorite sorts of characters together in a simple story of a misplaced CD of data pulled from a former government agent’s computer. It becomes wildly complicated when the interlocking relationships of the characters and the accompanying collection of poor decisions begins to wreak their influence. In fact, it gets so complicated that the two most uproarious scenes contain little more than a CIA agent recounting the various twists to his increasingly aggravated superior. Quiet miracle worker J.K. Simmons plays the boss, which helps immensely in elevating these simple back-and-forth scenes to high hilarity.

All this happy praise acknowledged, I tend to find the Coen comedies agreeable-but-lesser works, and Burn is finally no exception. The tangles of the plot occasionally devolve into somewhat dull shagginess. These films are also where the Coens’ tendency towards overly broad elements come most jarringly into play. They’ve largely excised that tic from their visual repertoire, but it still shows up in the character construction and the performances. Sometimes that works (as it does with Brad Pitt’s blackmailing trainer, but then Pitt is usually most vividly engaged onscreen when he’s playing someone who’s not particularly bright) and sometimes it doesn’t (sadly, Frances McDormand’s performance is the film’s weakest). John Malkovich fits into the Coen aesthetic so snugly that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for him to be drafted into their troupe.

There were some worries before No Country For Old Men that the Coens had run their artistic course, not just because their previous couple of films were not well regarded, but because for the first time the Coens weren’t filming original material, relying on a found script and an adaptation. In fact, Burn is the first wholly original screenplay from the brothers since 2001’s underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There. The new film may not deserve mention with their best work, but it certainly ratifies the promise No Country made that the first underwhelming stretch of their joint career was a road bump rather than a permanent downturn. The dark, devious Coen sensibility is plenty healthy and the film landscape is all the better for it.

One for Friday: The BellRays, “Pinball City”

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My favorite story about the BellRays doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to my friend Jon. As I remember it, he was attending one of the rare but wondrous music festival catering to trashy garage rock and rockabilly-tinged punk that were a little more prevalent a decade or two ago, when the concept of a band like Southern Culture on the Skids having a minor radio hit wasn’t entirely absurd. As one does at festivals, my friend wandered a bit, a little aimlessly and a little attuned to finding the good beer on what was surely a hot day. He had acts that he definitely wanted to see, but much of the time involved browsing. In his wanderings he came upon a stage whereupon a blistering band was fronted by a powerhouse singer, like something out of a fantasy world where a biker babe version of Aretha Franklin handled lead vocal duties for one of the best garage rock bands of all time. He got to see about a half a song before the band left the stage for good. That’s when he realized he’d made a huge mistake by not getting there earlier.

I had my own dashed opportunities to see the band live, but nothing quite as heartbreaking as what my friend experienced. I had to settle for the albums, which were strong but always felt a little like they were a few photocopies away from the striking original. Still, if they were delivering a full-on blast of fiery rock goodness that happened to be about my favorite barroom pastime, it was going to tickle my primal music-lover pleasure centers just fine. “Pinball City”? Yes, I want to go to there.

The BellRays seem to officially still be a going concern, though its now been a couple years since their most recent activity. In the meantime, anyone wanting the avoid the near-miss experienced by my friend Jon should check future festival rosters for a band called Lisa & the Lips.

Listen or download –> The BellRays, “Pinball City”

(Disclaimer: I am under the impression that a sizable part of the BellRays catalogue is officially out of print, at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a way that compensates both the proprietor of said shop and the band. Since “Pinball City” is drawn from a collection of stray bits and B-sides, that unavailability is even more likely. In general, there’s not much chatter about or attention given to the BellRays music. Raw Collection has only four reviews on Amazon, and this is considered the best one:

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I am simply doing my humble best to try and fill the emptiness with a little more praise. I mean help, not harm. Still, I will gladly remove the track from the internet if asked to do so by any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Seven

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#47 — The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1948)

Even though he was consistently billed as James Stewart, we call him Jimmy. He is one of the classic movie actors who represents a nostalgic view of America as a land of benevolent geniality. In the collective imagination he is stalwart and kind, always prone to doing the right thing, even when terrible beset by circumstance. It’s part of the reason his overtly twisted turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is heaped with praise; critics are eager to reward Stewart for playing against type. While Stewart’s placement on a pinnacle of sepia-tinted cinematic Americana isn’t without cause, the truth is, as ever, a little more complicated. Well before he started accepting paychecks to appear in Hitchcock’s thrillers, Stewart tended to lace his portrayals with shades of desperation, anger, even viciousness. He beamed like the most endearing of movie stars, but the nuances beneath the charm suggested a troubled pulse. Though it doesn’t often make its way into the plentiful clip packages celebrating Stewart’s career, there was darkness there.

In The Shop Around the Corner, Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, a skilled salesman at a gift shop in Budapest. His aspirations to a greater position at the store impact the plot, but this is mainly a love story. Klalik has fallen for a mysterious woman with whom he’s been corresponding, though they haven’t yet met. He has the opposite impression of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a new coworker at the store who stirs his ire like no other. As is undoubtedly clear to anyone whose seen one of the dozens of movies that The Shop Around the Corner has heavily influenced, Klalik’s foe and beloved are one and the same. The film represents one of the supreme tests of Stewart’s ability to thread the needle of likability, heaping verbal abuse on Klara and other coworkers while still remaining a figure that inspires the audience to root for him. Stewart is breaking the rules of how a Hollywood protagonist is built well before such inverted tactics became the norm.

Of course, it’s not just Stewart who makes the contradictions of The Shop Around the Corner work. The film represents one of the most adept balancing acts of a filmmaker who was know for tonal deftness that it’s extremely rare to read any assessment of his work that doesn’t include an admiring reference to the “touch” that bears his name. Ernst Lubitsch has a remarkable ability, arguably unparalleled at the time, to present viewers with fraught, highly charged, fiercely complicated material and make it seem light and jubilant. Bore down into the details of The Shop Around the Corner and it is filled with challenging elements — devastating infidelity, a suicide attempt, colleagues constantly and angrily at odds with each other — yet the film itself is warm and funny, standing as one of the foundational romantic comedies. Modern filmmakers usually content to crank out by the numbers comedies of swooning buffoons would benefit immeasurably from studying the inner workings of The Shop Around the Corner. The friction between the surface expectations and the inner truth of the work elevates it, transforming the film into something special and unique. The flawed imitators that followed help prove that.

Top 40 Smash Taps: “Let It Be Me”

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.

Okay, acknowledging that Wikipedia is a shaky source, here goes: Over the course of a music career that began with “No Place For Me,” recorded when he was working as a disk jockey, Willie Nelson has released over one hundred singles, including five last year. While the red-headed stranger has had an abundance of huge hits on country radio and is at least as famous as any of his format contemporaries, he’s crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 remarkably few times. By my count, only four of the singles billed solely to Nelson made it into the Top 40. (Famous duets with Waylon Jennings and Julio Iglesias accounted for two more visits.) “Let It Be Me,” Nelson’s final solo single to appear in the Top 40 and the one that peaked at that magic number, was the follow-up to his highest-charting effort: “Always on My Mind.” That hit, from the album of the same name, is widely considered a Nelson song, but his recording arrived ten years after the first passes at it, with both Gwen McRae and Brenda Lee releasing versions in 1972. Before Nelson, Elvis Presley crooned it into the Top 20, in 1972. It was a country chart-topper for Nelson and got to #5 on the Hot 100, staying there for three weeks. “Let It Be Me” was another cover. The song was originally known as “Je t’appartiens.” It was co-written and recorded by French performer Gilbert Bécaud, becoming a major hit is his homeland in 1955. An English language version with new lyrics first appeared in 1957, performed by Jill Corey. Three years later, the Everly Brothers made it one of their twelve Top 10 singles. That’s surely the one Nelson was thinking of when he went into the recording studio. There was one more single released from Always on My Mind. It had the perfect country song title: “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning.” Accordingly, it climbed high on the country charts and didn’t get a glimmer of attention from pop radio.

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
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes
“Call Me Lightning” by the Who
“Ain’t It True” by Andy Williams
“Lazy Elsie Molly” and “Let’s Do the Freddie” by Chubby Checker
“Second Fiddle” by Kay Starr
“1999” by Prince
“I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield
“Oh Happy Day” by Glen Campbell
“I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After
“Friends” and “Married Men” by Bette Midler
“Spice of Life” by the Manhattan Transfer
“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” by Roger Miller
“Don’t Pity Me” by Dion and the Belmonts
“Ask Me No Questions” by B.B. King
“Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone” by Ciara
“All I Really Want to Do” by the Byrds

My Misspent Youth: Magik by Chris Claremont and John Buscema, Ron Frenz, and Sal Buscema

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Like a lot of teenaged comic book fans in the nineteen-eighties, I was a helpless devotee of the uncanny X-Men, the group formally tagged as “Marvel’s Merry Mutants” but far more angsty and melodramatic in their iteration two decades in to their publishing history. (They weren’t really all that merry in the nineteen-sixties either, but Stan Lee loved alliteration.) They’d been shepherded from a group perpetually on the brink of publishing extinction to a true sensation by writer Chris Claremont, who became a star creator in the process. The X-Men had so clearly become the line’s prime commodity and Claremont the fan-recognized guardian of their stories that the scribe was basically allowed to do whatever he wanted, as long as it involved mutants. So if he wanted to write a four-issue limited series that plunged a pre-teen girl into a variant on Hell where she encounters alternate universe versions of the X-Men, battles a demonic king, learns dark arts magic, and generally struggles for years with a gothy, horror-fantasy existence before returning to her home dimension, the Marvel powers-that-be were just going to say, “Yes.”

To be accurate, I don’t know for certain that it was Claremont’s idea to create Magik as a stand-alone limited series. By 1983, Marvel was scrambling to get more and more students and alumni of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the spinner rack. They’d already given Wolverine his first stab at a solo title and launched The New MutantsIt’s very possible that Marvel came rushing up to Claremont and demanded that he come up with something new they could foist on the hungry masses, waving a copy of The Uncanny X-Men #160 in his face, urging him to take advantage of the storytelling opportunity contained in its pages. In the pulse-pounding tale, the X-Men battle Belasco, the ruler of Limbo who first appeared in, of all places, Ka-Zar the Savage #11. During the conflict, Belasco grabs ahold of Illyana Rasputin, seven year old sister of Piotr Rasputin, better known as Colossus. Moments later she reappears, but she is now six years older and clearly traumatized by whatever she’s been through. Around a year and half later, Magik tells the story of what she’s been through.

For one thing, she had to adjust to completely different versions of the X-Men she knew from visiting her brother at school, notably Ororo Munroe (a.k.a. Storm) and Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. a lot of terrible superhero names that never took so everyone pretty much sticks with “Kitty Pryde”).

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Kitty has clearly gotten more intense since she started wearing throwing stars on the arm of her leather dominatrix outfit. That is a natural trajectory given the fashion choice.

Belasco is trying to groom Illyana for some role by his side in Limbo, or as his successor maybe. Or queen. I’m not entirely sure. Mostly the series seems to be in place for little reason beyond giving Claremont a chance to play with the sort of sword and sorcery mumbo jumbo that didn’t really fit in to the superhero comics he was writing (but he did constantly insert that sort of thing into them anyway). It also gave him a weird enough platform to continue tweaking Cerebus creator Dave Sim with a purple beastie who vaguely resembled a certain aardvark barbarian.

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S’ym was also introduced in The Uncanny X-Men #160, reportedly as payback for Sim’s spoofing of Claremont in an issue of Cerebus. Interestingly, right before Magik was released, Sim spent three issues savagely mocking Wolverine, a move that made Marvel angry enough to sic their lawyers on him.

As I noted, I was helpless before this stuff, and I was riveted to the series even though I could barely make sense of it. I was also dopily enamored by alternative reality stories (I bought way too many issues of What If? as past and future installments of “My Misspent Youth” indicate) so seeing the gruesome end Colossus had come to in this different timeline was enough to keep me satisfied. And I did impose nonexistent profundity on Claremont’s florid writing.

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Of course I did. I was a kid, and I had this misplaced notion that my comic habit represented maturity, probably because I’d graduated from Richie Rich to superficially dark tales wherein the tween heroine snaps ones of her friend’s necks. I mean, that’s like reading War and Peace or something, right? Magick looks cheesy and haphazard to me now. It feels like an afterthought, a sensation compounded by the fact that three different pencillers worked on the four-issue series. And I doubt any of them would have been inclined to hold these pages up as pinnacles of their work. Back then, these flaws didn’t bother me, as I suspect they didn’t bother most of the other enthralled folks who plunked down their sixty cents every month. I think that’s what Marvel and Claremont were counting on.

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Previously…

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson
Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #5 by Alan Kupperberg and Pablo Marcos
Web of Spider-Man by Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque
Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall
What If? #31 by Rich Margopoulos and Bob Budiansky
Fantastic Four by Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis

The Sound of Oscars

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Those with whom I watch the Academy Awards, both virtually and sharing the same couch, were a little worried about me last night. My praise for the remarkable achievement of Boyhood has evidently been effusive enough that there were nationwide predictions of dire thoughts overtaking me when it became clear the night was turning against Richard Linklater’s film. But I like Birdman, too. (There are some critics out there this morning undoubtedly feeling far angrier about this outcome.) If it had been a night about venerating the dreadful The Imitation Game, exactly the sort of prestige pablum the Academy might have found entirely irresistible a generation or two ago, I might have needed to crack open the Scotch. I may not always agree completely with the outcome, but the Academy gets it right enough often enough that I don’t see much point in complaining about the slight differences from my preferences. I think Julianne Moore’s work in Still Alice is minor compared to what she did in Boogie Nights and Far From Heaven (and what Rosamund Pike did in Gone Girl or Reese Witherspoon did in Wild), but a world in which Julianne Moore is an Oscar-winning actress is a world in balance.

The show itself is another matter. Produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, their third straight year at the helm, the ceremony continued its recent trend of courting irrelevance through its tepidness. Neil Patrick Harris was predictably charming and game, showing a special gift for delivering his most scathing lines in a disarmingly gentle way (disguising them as a Freudian slips, as he did with “the best and the whitest” or the Edward Snowden line, is one of his favorite tricks). He understands what it means to be a host, making the night about the awards rather reveling too much in his own ability to deploy cheeky showstoppers. So much of how Meron and Zadan approach the show, however, suggests they’d prefer it if the boring old awards were just out of the way. There’s almost nothing present conveying why the Oscars is different than all the precursors leading up to it or even anything that communicates why the awarded work is so exemplary, the best of the year. What I wouldn’t give to go back to the method of presenting the acting awards that was introduced by Bill Condon and Laurence Mark when they produced the show, stacking the stage with prior winners who actually talked about the nominated work with some meaning and appreciation. It served to both emphasize the significance of the award (here’s the company you’re joining) and celebrate the art (and here’s why you deserve to join this company). I think it was partially scrapped because of the perception that it lengthened an already overlong show, but Condon and Mark’s Oscar telecast was twelve minutes shorter than last night’s endurance test.

Instead, I worry that the developing preference is to skew the Oscar more towards the direction of the Grammys, where the actually handing out of trophies is basically treated as a nuisance between big musical numbers. I’m sympathetic to the value in having the spectacle of big musical numbers as part of the show. The powerhouse performance of “Glory” was one of the true highlights of the show and itself argument enough for the song’s deserving Oscar win minutes later. Similarly, Lady Gaga belting out a Sound of Music medley isn’t my thing, but Harris was correct when he alluded to it as the Oscar moment everyone would be talking about the next day. And it was worth it just to hear Julie Andrews say, “Lady Gaga.” It’s more problematic when the annual “In Memoriam” segment is treated as mere preamble to Jennifer Hudson (Oscar winner!) coming on stage to sing a diva-sized song from the wisely disregarded television program Smash, a series not coincidentally produced by Meron and Zadan. It transformed what is traditionally among the most poignant moments into any Oscars telecast to one of unforgivably egotistical crassness.

The approach of recent years diminishes the possibility of those memorable moments that can’t be staged. “Glory” was great, but the subsequent acceptance speech by Common and John Legend was even more powerful. And there was nothing last night as purely thrilling as watching Meryl Streep fiercely cheer Patricia Arquette’s call of equal pay for women.

If both Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana are both going to be presenters anyway, why not assign the galaxy guardians to the same category and hope a little charmed camaraderie shows through? Instead, the producers orchestrated a parade of presenter pairings with no apparent rhyme nor reason making movie stars look about as comfortable as middle schoolers in the opening minutes of a blind date,

Plain and simple, there are better ways to run this show, ways that tap into all the reasons the Oscars still matter more than all the others. Whether or not I agree with the names and titles engraved into the base of the statues matters less to me than the show itself. I want the Oscars show to be worthy of its legacy. I know it can happen.

From the Archive: Goodfellas

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Since I invoked Goodfellas as a comparison point for excellence in writing about my clear choice for the best film of 2014, it seems appropriately to reach back to when I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s masterful film for the edition of 90FM’s The Reel Thing that looked back at the top cinematic efforts of 1990. This was my first chance to write about the film (my cohort on the show drew Goodfellas when we originally reviewed it), but it wouldn’t be the last. Though I keep trying, I suspect I’ll never fully do it justice. This is a mediocre piece of writing (sure wish I hadn’t used “unquestionable” twice, or even once, for that matter) but my outsized admiration for the film comes through. 

1990 was overall a weak year for movies. Most of the product that the various major and independent studios were pushing this year was either fair or downright awful. Throughout the show tonight, Steve and I have told you about the slect few that distinguished themselves this year, but none of the very fine films we’ve talked about could even come close to touching this year’s best film, a motion picture that was unquestionably great and put everything else in this already shaky year to shame. That film is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. No other film in 1990 could claim to be as solidly riveting, captivating, shockingly humorous, or engrossing as this one. Looking at the film in a narrow sense, it relates the story of Henry Hill as he becomes part of the New York mob. It is about his rise and fall. But that is ultimately a short-sighted view. Goodfellas is about the world of organized crime, how it works on the inside and how its members interact. It is about what draws these men to become a part of it and what makes their loved ones withstand the abuse and pain. It makes everything about these people understandable, even when they seem hopelessly complex. And it makes their world seem strangely appealing, without sugarcoating it or disguising it with operatic pretensions. Martin Scorsese has turned to an incredible cast and coaxed from them some of the year’s finest performances. Paul Sorvino is a wall of unquestionable, quiet menace as the mob family’s head. Robert De Niro turns in another of his solid performances as Jimmy Conway. Lorraine Bracco is a bundle of wildly swerving emotions as Henry Hill’s wife, who find her world alternately disgusting, frightening, and appealing. Ray Liotta gives one of the year’s most underrated performances as Henry Hill. The sotry requires him to wear the greatest range of emotions, from jubilant energy to mind-numbing fear to emotional and physical weariness. The film has an even better performance from Joe Pesci, who injects tough guy Tommy DeVito with sharp angles of unmerciful power. It is the year’s best piece of acting. Martin Scorsese’s direction is also the year’s best, making even the most simple and unassuming scenes become important and unflinchingly powerful. He has created a film that has no shortage of incredible scenes as moments and that is so filled with energy and raw power that it takes several viewings to absorb it all. This year and almost any other year in recent memory there has been no film better than Goodfellas.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 73 and 72

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73. Grant McLennan, Horsebreaker Star

By the time Grant McLennan released the album Horsebreaker Star, there were a healthy number of years that had passed since the demise of his band the Go-Betweens. Between the formal break-up, in December 1989, and this album, McLennan released two other solo outings, so there’s no real reason to characterize Horsebreaker Star as some unique statement of purpose, an announcement about his determination for enduring creative relevance. And yet that’s exactly what the record seems like, both in its content and through a few more superficial indicators (it’s the first solo album on which he’s billed as Grant McLennan rather than G.W. McLennan, and it’s a double disc release). The album also commits fully to the style of smart, finely crafted pop that the performer had perfected with his cohorts in the Go-Betweens, and nothing could have been more out of step with the prevailed, grunge-soaked sound of mid-nineties alternative music.

McLennan’s label seemed to know what a hard sell they had. Though constructed as a double album — and a double album in the era when artists were overjoyed to utilize every extra minute afforded them by CD releases, still fairly new as the standard for music — Atlantic knocked about a half-dozen songs of the stateside release, so certain tracks, such as the jaunty “Late Afternoon in Early August,” never would have crossed the 90FM airwaves at the time. (They also omitted McLennan’s take on “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which is odd considering the labels loved pitching covers, especially quasi-ironic ones, at college radio.) The pruning doesn’t seem especially strategic. Surely it was little more than queasiness over trying to market such an overstuffed album from a marginally known performer that motivated the choices.

The promotion gurus probably didn’t know what to do with this anyway. “What Went Wrong” opens with a yearning melody that makes it sound like a Fleetwood Mac song is about to break out (the recurring lyrics “Lovers/ Livin’ on what went wrong” also make it seem like the lost mission statement for Rumours), and “Race Day Rag,” a plunky little instrumental that’s the very definition of “amiable.” McLennan’s style might be exemplified by the moving ease of “Coming Up for Air,” (“I know that I can get sentimental, my friend/ But I just listened to those songs you sent/ Really loved the one about those L.A. freaks/ Did it take a day to write or was it weeks?”), which comes across the songwriter relaxing into his existence like it’s an easy chair. It’s smart and lovely and almost impossible to imagine pressed up against Eddie Vedder’s chronic over-singing on the radio.

Then again, what does it matter if McLennan was following his muse instead of playing the game. The Go-Betweens made great albums, but they weren’t trendy either. The strongest tracks on the album are justification enough. “Dropping You” turns the breakup song into a declaration of triumph (“The best thing I ever did/ Was dropping you”) and “I’ll Call You Wild” anticipates the regionally-driven ruminations of Father John Misty, albeit with the wistfulness in place of the later performer’s savagely sardonic cynicism. Then there’s “Keep My Word,” which agreeably sounds like a first pass at “Finding You,” the great song from the final Go-Betweens album (they reunited, because of course they did) that stands as one of the most beautiful compositions McLennan ever signed his name to.

McLennan died in 2006, succumbing to a heart attack. He was forty-eight. He left a tremendous body of work, with the Go-Betweens and on his own. Horsebreaker Star is as good a introduction to his artistry as any.

72 house 72. A House, Wild-Eyed and Ignorant

I like to think the solid showing of this album on the chart is a remnant of my own time at the station. More specifically, it’s a hangover from the stretch when my dear friend and roommate’s enduring pride in his Irish heritage meant that every band hailing from the Emerald Isle got a little heartier push at the station. That was especially true when he was the Music Director, but enough of his peers (myself included) were always happy to seek out those group for generous spins out of solidarity. A House had a major hit at the station during my first year there, with the song “Call Me Blue.” It remained a longtime go-to for deejays with mediocre time management skills who needed something short and energizing to help them time up to AP Network News at the top of the house. Wide-Eyed and Ignorant was the band’s fourth album. The lead single, “Here Come the Good Times,” was apparently repurposed a few years later as a rallying anthem for the Republic of Ireland national football team in the lead-up to the 2002 World Cup.

Previously…

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom

One for Friday: Cyndi Lauper, “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)”

vibes

There were only three nominees in the Best Original Song category at the 61st Academy Awards, presented to films released in 1988. This was the first time I can recall hearing the argument that it was time to eliminate the category altogether, the proposal accompanied by the insistence that it was a relic of the time when Hollywood was still cranking out original musicals on a regular basis. Even though the nineteen-eighties were boom years for soundtracks, there was a sense that the process of assembling a batch of pop songs that could be slapped onto cassettes (that was the music delivery system of choice those days, kids) was an achievement of marketing departments and partnered record labels rather than filmmakers. The inability of the Academy to find the typical five contenders was a sure sign that a reconsideration of the category was due.

Now had they really tried, the musicians probably could have found a couple more options. Certainly the Academy’s predilection for pop stars as they begin the downslope of their career had a chance to make an invite to Cyndi Lauper at least a little appealing. She didn’t write “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China),” but she was the performer of the track included in the film Vibes, which also served as her first attempt at turning into a full-fledged film actor. Now, there was probably no way the Academy was going to let the film Vibes, one of the true artistic and box office disasters of the year, show up anywhere on their nominations list, even though the Best Original Song category in surrounding years was able to make room for such reviled titles as Mannequin, Chances Are, and Young Guns II.

I can’t personally speak to the quality of Vibes, though I’ve seen just enough to trust that the brutal reviews are accurate (I once popped it into the VCR at one of the video stores I worked at in the late-eighties and early-nineties and found it dreadful even under those circumstances of high distraction). The song’s pretty fun, though, at least on par with mediocre winner and a certainly better than the wispy songs from Phil Collins and the film Baghdad Cafe that officially competed. But really what does Lauper care? She’s got a Tony.

Finally, any discussion of the 61st Academy Awards absolutely requires that I include a link to its most notorious element.

Listen or download –> Cyndi Lauper, “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)”

(Disclaimer: Let’s be real. The Vibes soundtrack is out of print. I went be surprised if it went out of print about a month after it was released. The whole thing was a serious disaster. I checked through about four different Cyndi Lauper “best of” releases without finding it on the individual track listings before I finally gave up. It’s possible that it’s available for purchase from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that duly compensates the proprietor of said store, the artist, and the songwriter, but I can’t find proof of that. Go buy the original Broadway cast recording for Kinky Boots. Lauper would probably prefer that anyway. Despite my conviction that sharing the track her does no real harm, I will gladly remove it from the Internet if asked to do so by anyone with due authority to make such a request.)

Twenty Performances, or The Unexpected Virtue of Birdman

oscar

As per usual, the capper to the staggered countdown of the best films of the year is a listing of the names I would have scratched into an Academy Award nominating ballot for the acting branch had it somehow landed in my hands. Obviously I think these are all terrific performances, but I feel a little less fervor for the acting this year than is typical for me. Interestingly, the film represented most across these four categories didn’t make my top ten for the year (though it was a strong runner-up). With resolute honesty — about opposed to giving in to the tactical temptation to arrange my ballot to favor those performances I suspected needed a little more help to make the official list of nominees — this is the group I would have submitted.

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Essie Davis, The Babadook
5. Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant

I initially had this category ordered a little differently, until I took a hard look at it and determined that the somewhat unconventional choice is also the best choice. Slate really is marvelous in Obvious Child, investing the performance with personality that masks and then illuminates the conflicted emotions of the character. I’ll admit that I’m rounding up on the Cotillard performance out of regret for missing Two Days, One Night during its brief run in my town. As for the Oscars, I’m certain this is Julianne Moore’s category with the win representing a de facto career achievement award mixed with a sorry-it-took-us-so-long apology. At least her work in Still Alice is worthy, sidestepping the sort of egregious choice that elevated overdue Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman over deeply deserving Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. That noted, even Moore knows which film she really should have won for.

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. David Oyelowo, Selma
4. Miles Teller, Whiplash
5. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

While I join everyone else feeling outrage over Oyelowo’s omission from the Oscar list, I’m even more perplexed that Fiennes never got more awards traction for a film that everyone clearly loved. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sprawling cast, but Fiennes is the clear center and the performance is a comic marvel. I also wish that the people knocking each other over to heap plaudits on J.K. Simmons found some room to celebrate Teller’s even stronger work in a more complicated role. I’m holding out hope that Keaton pulls off the upset on Sunday night, but I think all the precursor awards pointing towards The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne as the likely winner accurately predict the Academy haven’t fully shaken off their predilection for physical affliction. Besides, seven of the last ten Best Actor wins have gone to performers in biopics. Indeed, the last time all four acting trophies went to entirely fictional characters was the Oscars presented for the 1997 film year.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Emma Stone, Birdman
3. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
4. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
5. Kim Dickens. Gone Girl

As I noted above, I think this is a year of relative parity instead of one dominated by a few stunning performances. This helps lead to a phrase I once thought I’d never type: Patricia Arquette delivered the best performance of the year, regardless of category. She’s utterly marvelous in Linklater’s film and will deservedly win on Sunday night. It’s a shame that Gone Girl faded so much from the awards discussion. There was a time, however brief, when Coon seemed a sure fire and very deserving nominee.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Edward Norton, Birdman
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
4. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
5. Stephan James, Selma

For a long time, I insisted that Simmons, the sure Oscar winner in this category, was actually a co-lead with Teller. I’ve given in and placed him here, in part because he helps me fill out a fairly soft category. There’s a part of me that would love to crunch together about five names next to the title Selma as my fifth nominee, but I know that’s cheating. James benefits from playing a particularly formidable figure in future congressman John Lewis. I give this to Norton by the slimmest of margins, thanks in no small part to the extra gleam he brings to a performance that sends up his own problematic reputation.