Amirpour, Asante, Dobkin, Glatzer and Westmoreland, Roskam

Belle (Amma Asante, 2014). Based ever so lightly on real history — the only real source is a 1779 painting — this period drama tells the story of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman who is the offspring of a British naval officer (Matthew Goode) and an African-born slave. She’s raised among the British gentry by her grandparents (Tom Wilkinson and Sarah Gadon), treated as a beloved member of the family but also relegated to diminished status in her own home because of the conventions of the day. If the unconventional story elevates the film a bit past its restrained Masterpiece Theatre trappings, the real pleasure is in watching the performances by Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson, both of them investing their roles with affecting authenticity, even as they operate in slightly different registers (Wilkinson concentrates on intellect while Mbatha-Raw revels in tempered emotion). For those who prefer a little overacting sprinkled into their 18th century moral pondering, there’s Miranda Richardson, playing a version of the imperiously judgmental Maggie Smith role that one might be more likely to find in a production staged on Mars. Asante guides the film with an able but relatively indistinct direction.

The Judge (David Dobkin, 2014). So artless and pat in its storytelling that it can make a viewer long for the potboiler exuberance of the Grisham Age of Hollywood Legal Dramas. Robert Downey, Jr. roots around in his satchel of charming asshole tricks once again to play Hank Palmer, a wealthy, sleazy big-city defense attorney who returns to his humble Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral and winds up staying for a spell when his father, a curmudgeonly local judge (Robert Duvall, giving a performance that’s a dwindling echo of what’s he’s done before), is accused of killing a man he once sent to prison. There’s barely an original thought in the film, and the worst elements — such as one of Hank’s brothers, played in a thankless performance by Jeremy Long, is mentally challenged and alternates unpleasantly between comic relief and easy pathos — transcend cliche only in their level of direness. The film crescendos with a courtroom scene so ludicrous and bereft of verisimilitude that it may as well come equipped with comic sound effects.

Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). It’s a shame that “TV movie” as a derogatory term has largely fallen out of the vernacular, because that’s the ideal shorthand to point out the many ways in which Still Alice is lacking. Tagging it thus is meant to call up the bygone entries in what was accurately referred to as “disease of the week” features, with some attractive, charming middle-aged woman suddenly and sadly beset with some debilitating ailment, easy drama wrenched from the downfall and facts about the medical condition didactically dispensed. Julianne Moore won her overdue Oscar for playing the title character, a linguistics professor humbled by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a worthy performance if not a particularly memorable or inventive one. It’s the rest of the film that is deeply lacking, from the eager but middling supporting cast (led by a staid Alec Baldwin and less-distracted-than-usual Kristen Stewart) to the pedestrian construction of the visuals. Glatzer and Westmoreland do obviously try to get at uncomfortable truths, but the film is too tepid to land the needed emotional blows.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014). On principle alone, I’m inclined to celebrate a black-and-white, Iranian vampire movie written and directed by a woman. The film is so improbable in so many ways that is as uncanny as the creatures of the night it depicts. There is no better description for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that the one offered by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve. Citing Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive, Robinson asserted now “cinephiles can also find out what a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie would have looked like back in 1985, somewhere between Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law.” That’s the exact vibe of the film, and, like those indie lodestars, Amirpour’s runs low on scruffy, downbeat charm before the closing moments arrive. It’s atmospheric and finely grim, showing tremendous promise and a distinctly cinematic point of view. If it’s a little too drowsy, it also seems clear that Amirpour is imbued with a talent that will only grow.

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, 2014). Working from a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (based on one of his short stories and then worked by the author into an adapted novel), Roskam wades right into the seediness of ugly small time crime, with Chechen mobsters skimming from Brooklyn dive bars, including the one formerly owned and still operated by Marv (James Gandolfini). Tom Hardy plays a bartender named Bob, who clearly tries to stay an unbothered innocent on the fringes of all these shady dealings, even though there’s a strong sense of a more dangerous history. The film is solid as a brass knuckle punch, clicking through its harsh crime story with methodical certainty, even if it finds only the barest depth in the proceedings. Hardy excels at these sort of brutish souls with unexpected touches of gentleness, and there’s a nice supporting turn by Noomi Rapace, as the woman who gets drawn towards Bob, beginning with the sad but hopefully discovery of an abandoned pooch.

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

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#42 — The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

“I’ve got some unfinished business with him. I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” That bit of barbed dialogue is hardly unique within the cascade of knotty language that spilled from movie screens throughout the nineteen-forties. Roughly a generation after movies learned to talk, they’d mastered talking sharp and hard. Any number of offerings — especially comedies — cut like hacksaws, the crazy strong ones made for getting through metal. But few of his contemporaries could weld cynicism and downright meanness onto a script and still keep it paradoxically light and fun, primed for the inevitable pivot to the sort of happy (or at least happier) ending audiences craved, like Preston Sturges. The great filmmaker was still fairly early in his brief, brilliant directing career when he turned in his first truly masterful effort, The Lady Eve.

In a typically twisty plot (loosely based on a Monckton Hoffe story), a con artist named Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) points her viewfinder straight at beer company scion Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), certain that his pronounced naivete will make him the perfect target for a lucrative raiding of his family bank account. After some preliminary complications, Jean adopts the identity of Eve Sidwich, using her wiles to continually push her lanky prey into bumbling, sputtering states of lustful bafflement. The chief appeal of the film is watching Stanwyck take full charge of every moment she’s onscreen, portraying Jean as firmly in command and using every tool at her disposal, from her ever-whirring mind to the sultriness that wafts off of her like aroma off the artfully perfumed. And she teeters between malice and affection for Charles with aplomb, demonstrating that Stanwyck was one of the first Hollywood performers who mastered the ambivalence of evoking fiercely battling feelings in a single moment.

Then there is the comic voice of Sturges, itself a marvel of contradiction. Besides the mix of the caustic and caring, the filmmaker operates with instincts that manage to encompass the totality of film comedy up to that point. The script is rife with spectacularly insightful deployment of language, dialogue that smacks with keen intellect without becoming mired in overbearing verboseness, and it also makes room for sudden, clattering slapstick, sending Fonda’s character literally falling for this sardonic version of a femme fatale. For all its breadth of approach, The Lady Eve doesn’t bubble with ambition, pushily announcing itself as some grand expansion of the form. Instead, it has a clear ease, tagging it as a natural extension of its creator. This is, plain and simple, what a film should be.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 62-60

62 lucky62. Moonpools & Caterpillars, Lucky Dumpling

Lucky Dumpling was the one and only major label effort by California band Moonpools & Caterpillars, bookended by a couple of self-released albums. The Fillipino-American band, led by singer Kimmi Ward Encarnacion and guitarist Jay Jay Encarnacion, was supposedly signed to their Elektra Records contract when a label rep saw them opening for a different act that he’d actually shown up to scout. They had some modest success on the college charts, primarily with the single “Hear,” though it wasn’t enough to satisfy their new corporate bosses. Given a taste of the big time (and with bank accounts hopefully boosted by selling their music to soundtracks and commercials), the band didn’t last too much longer. There was evidently enough of a slow burn fan following to merit the occasional reunion gig.

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61. Ben Harper, Fight for Your Mind

Ben Harper is one of those artists who probably deserved better than he got. Admittedly, that assessment may overly diminish his significant professional accomplishments: a long healthy recording career, lucrative worldwide tours, and a trio of Grammy Awards. Yet, for all his success, he’s long seemed like someone who couldn’t quite hit the target for significant commercial success in the United States. Sure, he had four straight number one albums in Italy, but not a single one of his records built up the domestic sales necessary to be certified gold. Indeed, his discography is a listing of European adoration and American disregard. Harper himself offered an explanation to Billboard when he was still touring to support his sophomore release, Fight for Your Mind, noting, “In Europe, people are less concerned with musical genres and will accept the music before the marketing technique.”

Fight for Your Mind offers ample evidence as to how clearly Harper kept himself clear of easy categorization. The albums shifts and slides all over the place, noodling around with material that’s recognizably informed most by aching folk and classic soul but zips all over the globe to add different dashes of sonic seasoning. The liner notes explicitly spell out the broader influences, tagging each song with a symbol that represents a different African nation, from Angola to Uganda. The one song that ventures away from the world’s second-largest continent settles in Jamaica. Naturally, that’s the easygoing paean to marijuana “Burn One Down” (“Let us burn one/ From end to end/ And pass it over/ To me my friend”), a track that perhaps offers key background insight on the drowsy quality across the rest of the album.

“Oppression,” the opening track, has pointed lyrics (“Oppression/ You seek population control/ Oppression/ To divide and to conquer is your goal”), but drifts by with the urgency of a island lullaby delivered from a hammock. Even when Harper expands a song to near-epic length, on the nearly-twelve-minute “God Fearing Man,” the obvious and impressive ambition of the track is undercut by a level of overly pronounced gentleness. It’s as if Harper wants to challenge the listeners without rousing them. That was a flawed strategy in the echoing din of the waning grunge era. A lack of commercial cunning is hardly the most damning quality for a record to have, but when Fight for Your Mind lapses into somnambulant musical meandering, it becomes difficult to champion its restraint.

60 short60. Filter, Short Bus

The creative outlet of Cleveland native Richard Patrick, Filter clanged the bell on top of the carnival’s strength tester with their very first swing of the mallet. “Hey Man Nice Shot,” the lead single from the band’s debut album, Short Bus, became a significant hit on alternative rock radio. In turn, that helped Short Bus to move over a million copies. That wasn’t the end of their success (they notched another platinum record with their sophomore release, Title of Record), but there’s something about that first blast of earned attention that feels very particular to the era, when there was enough primed excitement over any music that had a little plodding aggression to it that a band that was plainly an industrial act — albeit a little less brutal that many of their peers in that genre — could briefly capture wider attention. I might place Filter squarely in the mid-nineties, but they’ve continued cranking out music with only the slightest of breaks, including the release of new albums, one as recently as 2013.

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
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon

From the Archive: Straight Talk

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I have a memory that endures far more than seems reasonable of my colleague of the radio show that feaured this review showing up as the station with a cassingle of “Straight Talk,” the song Dolly Parton released in conjunction with the film of the same name. We always tried to get appropriate music to accompany the reviews, so he now had this item in his collection, and I assure you it’s unlikely it would have arrived there in any other way. 

There are several significant things that can happen to a film when Dolly Parton is cast in it. Every somber scene of heartbreak can be easily punctuated with the slow, sad strum of country-pop song, a certain amount of deep-fried Southern wisdom is bound to slip in, and when the closing credits are crawling by and you see the crew member called “Dolly Grip”…well, you wonder about what that person does a little more than you would with another film. And, if the filmmakers are lucky, Parton will be able to bring some of her sweetness and sassy appeal to the role she’s been asked to fill. In that respect, the makers of STRAIGHT TALK are occasionally quite fortunate.

In the film, Parton has just gotten a receptionist job at a major Chicago talk radio station. When she wanders through the wrong door, she winds up being thrown on the air as psychologist Dr. Shirlee, the host of an afternoon call-in show. Parton doesn’t have any credentials, but she’s a hit by confronting her callers’ problems with good old fashioned common sense. The station’s program director, played by Griffin Dunne, shields her interviews and perpetuates the lie that she’s a qualified therapist. When newspaper reporter James Woods begins investigating her background, he finds himself falling in love with Parton. Their romance is standard and predictable…you can see every twist and turn coming from the very beginning.

More interesting is the film’s attempt, albeit half-hearted, to explore the potential damage in over-the-air psychology. Especially good is the appearance of a woman who claims her marriage was ruined by Parton’s wisdom. Through personifying the downside of flippant advice, Parton’s subsequent monologue on the harm she’s caused in given more heft. Sure, this was all covered before in an episode of “WPRK IN CINCINNATI” that was better and funnier, but STRAIGHT TALK has its moments of insight as well. If it had dug deeper into the issues it raises and avoided the obligatory, mindless romance, the film might have been able to deliver more than it does. As it is, STRAIGHT TALK is a mildly mausing, amiable piece of fluff that squanders its spark of potential.

2 stars, out of 4.

One for Friday: Joe Jackson, “Stranger Than Fiction”

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One of the things I appreciated about my particular era of college radio was the sense that we were still allowed to reclaim artists. I get a sense — perhaps incorrectly — that the denizens on the left end of the dial, few as their number may be these days, no longer view that as part of the mission. Once an artist crosses over to more commercial terrain or otherwise falls out of favor with college radio programmers, they seem to be gone forever. The notion of college radio acts still had just a little lingering wisp of that new car smell roundabout the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineties. There was still a heavy duty radar swipe seeking sell-outs to hit with the nasty barrage of a scorn attack, but affection wasn’t entirely eradicated in the process. And there was a sense that anyone could be welcomed back into the fold if they needed a home.

Truthfully, I can’t say with certainty that Joe Jackson was ever fully shifted off of college radio playlists, even during that brief span when he could claim a Billboard Top 10 hit. Still, there was a sense by the turn of the decade that he was someone who stirred only the barest interest from commercial radio and even the music writers who once piled praise on his intricate, elegant songwriting were starting to check out. Blaze of Glory, his terrific 1989 concept album, received only the most cursory acknowledgments from the music press (as I noted in an earlier One for Friday entry, which took much the same angle as today’s little bit of writing, so kindly ignore my redundancy if you choose to click on that hyperlink). When the follow up, Laughter & Lust, arrived, I and my fellow radio station staffers embraced it whole-heartedly, bolstered by the certainty that we would be among its only champions. And there’s nothing like the feeling of underappreciated nobility to stir a deejay to add certain songs to a playlist.

There were a lot of songs from Laughter & Lust that I played with beaming pleasure back in the day, making the determination of today’s track something of a toss of a coin with many sides. “Stranger Than Fiction” will do nicely.

Listen or download –> Joe Jackson, “Stranger Than Fiction”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Laughter & Lust is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record shop in a way that compensates both the proprietor of said shop and Mr. Jackson himself. As I’m tapping this out, I’m remembering that “Stranger Than Fiction” was a single and could be on some sort of “best of” collection, but I’m well past the point of no return on this post. Besides, I believe in “fair use,” and I believe this qualifies. If “Stranger Than Fiction” is on one of those comps, do go buy it. Jackson is one of those artists who’s actually quite well-represented by his hits and singles. Or just get Look Sharp! That will serve you well. Anyway, I will gladly remove this track if I’m asked to do so by any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

Top 40 Smash Taps: “Two Hearts”

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.

Get ready for some sugary, blipping R&B as only the early-nineteen-eighties could provide. Stephanie Mills first made her name in 1975, when she played Dorothy in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. She was only seventeen years old when the production opened. It got her a Drama Desk nomination, a signature song, and a recording career, although the latter was only fitfully successful. Her first charting single came in 1979, with the title cut to her album What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin’. Her biggest hit arrived a year later when the soft rock classic “Never Knew Love Like This Before” made it all the way to the Top 10. “Two Hearts” was her follow-up, taken from the album Stephanie. The duet pairs her with Teddy Pendergrass. Peaking at #40, it represented his second trip to the Billboard Top 40, and the final appearance there for each of them. Mills continues to record to this day, and had a few other meagerly successful singles through the rest of the eighties, including the theme song for the movie Fletch.

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
“Let It Be Me” by Willie Nelson
“Clones (We’re All)” by Alice Cooper
“The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” by Eddy Arnold

My Misspent Youth: Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell

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.

I acknowledged before that I absolutely craved a veneer legitimacy for the storytelling form I loved so much through my teenage years — and, ahem, beyond — which could and did lead to me developing an outsized enthusiasm for those titles released under the “prestige format” during the latter portion of the nineteen-eighties. These were comics that were printed on heavier, glossier paper and squarebound like a paperback novel (rather than staples together like a thin magazine) and ratcheted up to a higher price point. While there are probably some earlier examples, DC Comics basically inaugurated the format as a means of delivering their more high end, important fare with Frank Miller’s massively influential Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, originally published in 1986. The venerable publisher’s chief competitor took a few stabs at the format, often with decidedly subpar fare that suggested they didn’t really understand that the “prestige” part should probably apply to more than the quality of the paper, but DC really owned it, largely reserving it, at least initially, for projects that felt like they stood apart from the stuff on the regular schedule, one way or another. Easily suckered, I gravitated to many of these limited series — they were always limited series — with the belief that I was dutifully picking up an important piece of comic book history.

I believe the first one I bought as it came out (I went back and secured the Miller Dark Knight comics as pricey back issues) was Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, written and drawn by Mike Grell. The creator had gotten his start at DC, but he spent the years immediately preceding this project working in the realm of independent comics, notably on his own Jon Sable, Freelance which was enough of a well-regarded cult success to serve as source inspiration for a television series well before comics were seen as potential breeding ground for broader pop culture hits. So Grell working for DC was a big deal, and he was intent on elevating a longtime character who was seen as something of an outdated relic, the sort of gimmicky figure from another era, before comics were properly serious. This perception lingered despite the face that Green Arrow was the co-star, along with Green Lantern, of a famed run of socially-conscious stories in the early-seventies that were the foundation for the more mature fate that become commonplace a decade later. Those comics were created by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, two creators Grell cited as key influences in the back pages of his comic.

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The Longbow Hunters found Green Arrow, who devoted viewers of the CW know is really named Oliver Queen, relocated to Seattle, trying to forge a place for himself as his passes into his forties (this “old man” version of the character is younger than I am right now, which hurts a little). He’s there with his longtime love, Dinah Lance, better known as the fishnet-sporting crimefighter Black Canary. Grell wastes not time in established this story is not going to feature the superheros facing down a bevy of similarly-clad, fairly harmless, goofball villains (in the nineteen-sixties, Green Arrow was likely to do battle with, say, the Clock King). It is going to be about vicious murder, heavy-duty drugs, and grown-up misery. And, of course, there’s going to be sex.

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Take note that Dinah is actually a brunette who wears a long blonde wig as part of her disguise when fighting crime. She also chose to wore it to help rev up Oliver’s engine. That can be placed any number of places of respective readers’ creepiness scales.

Naturally, as a maturing fellow who wanted to believe his favorite childhood reading pastime was appropriately calibrated for my supposedly advancing tastes, I thought all of this was fantastic. Why did I need thick, challenging novels that tickled my intellect and stirred my soul? My comics could handle that just fine. Looking back, I recognize the hollowness and sensationalism that is present, a striving to place well-established comic book heroes into a bleak world where they maybe didn’t exactly fit. The Longbow Hunters was part of the initial wave of “grim and gritty” comics that haunted the field for years after, even into today. Seriousness was established not through thoughtful themes or carefully considered treatises on the state of the culture, but by engaging in outright brutality against the characters, typified by the now notorious plot turn that left Dinah tortured (at least) drug peddlers, a progenitor of what Gail Simon later identified as the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon. Especially prevalent at DC, the tendency diminished the various female characters, even the superheroes, by basically making them disposal or, worse yet, handy victims to prove the sadism of the villains.

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That’s Shado overlooking Green Arrow’s rescue of Dinah. Introduced in the limited series, she represented another unfortunately byproduct of the era, a dopey excitement over introducing Japanese characters as uniformly mystical ninjas who traverse the world as dispensers of deep wisdom while also kicking ass. (As I’ve argued before, the acorn that grew the mighty oak of this era of grim and gritty comic book stories is Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine limited series.)

There’s a craftsman’s beauty to Grell’s art that still pleases my eye. Even more than that, I remember enough of the middling material that surround it on comic shop shelves to respect what seems a genuine of flawed attempt to bring some of the smart sensibility of independent comic book storytelling to one of the big publishers. Prestige really was the goal. If I can now see all the ways it fails to live up to its aspirations, I admit that back then I feel right under its gloomy spell.

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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
Magik by Chris Claremont and John Buscema, Sal Buscema, and Ron Frenz
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson

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

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#43 — Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947)

Ted Tetzlaff only directed a handful of movies, but he shot over one hundred. He starting working as a cinematographer in the nineteen-twenties (his handiwork was found in the 1926 films Atta Boy and Sunshine of Paradise), racking up some impressive credits over the course of the next couple of decades. Included in that number is striking, evocative work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Remarkably, his efforts on that film earned him no official accolades (Tetzlaff’s sole Oscar nomination came a few years earlier, for the George Stevens comedy The Talk of the Town), though it did seem to give him the chance to move a little higher on the Hollywood organizational chart. He notched no further director of photography credits, moving permanently to the director’s chair with the following year’s splendid film noir Riff-Raff.

Written by Martin Rackin, the film follows a private investigator named Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien) who lives a scruffy existence in Panama. Trouble flies in when Charles Hasso (Marc Krah) arrives and hired Hammer to serve as his bodyguard, surreptitiously tacking a map to his cluttered bulletin board. That little piece of paper becomes the MacGuffin of the film with all manner of shady characters moving into Hammer’s orbit, and there are others who choose to pay for his services, with increasingly desperate need to get their hands on the map. It may not be the ingredient list for dreams, but it serves the vital purpose of setting a dizzying array of complications in motion, with slippery motivations and shaded truths abounding. In the context of the film, the purpose of the map matters far less than the anxiety it stirs. Tetzlaff knows that, and he expertly keeps all the whirligigs spinning.

What really distinguishes Riff-Raff is its endearingly offbeat tone. It’s hardly novel for a film noir to be infused with a sardonic sense of humor, but O’Brien’s private eye is at a whole different level. He appraises the collapsing calm around him with a bedraggled amusement roughly akin to an imperturbable elder statesman surveying the emotional wreckage of fervent upstarts who haven’t learned to temper their emotions. At time it seems he’s simply choosing to wait out the mayhem so he can casually pick up the useful remaining pieces. More often, he exudes the relaxed pleasure of a person who’s discovered that a massive reckless pageant is playing out before him, as if staged solely for his amusement. Riff-Raff anticipates the genre-blasting caper films of Joel and Ethan Coen, reveling in the many joys of spiraling crime stories well told while simultaneously jerking a thumb at the clattering cacophony and joyfully muttering, “Can you believe this nonsense?” That may not be enough to term Tetzlaff’s film as ahead of its time, but it definitely makes it one of the more surprising and entertaining examples of the film noir sub-genre from the time when the shadow-strewn style was at its peak.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 64 and 63

64 wheel64. Catherine Wheel, Happy Days

Happy Days is the third album by the U.K. band Catherine Wheel and by most measures their most success effort. Riding the surge of interest in any alternative band that built some buzz into their sound, Catherine Wheel broke onto the Billboard albums chart for the first time (though its peak of #163 hardly reaches sensation status) and had a couple modest modern rock radio hits. One of those tracks, “Judy Staring at the Sun,” featured guest vocals from Tanya Donelly during the very thin sliver of time when the Belly frontwoman had enough prominence to nab a Rolling Stone cover, even if the publisher all but disavowed that particular choice when it proved to be a notably unpopular issue on newsstands. Catherine Wheel was slotted into the shoegaze category, which seemed to creatively towards different, more commercially-appealing sounds in an effort to escape the pigeonholing. Beyond little flares, it didn’t seem to work, and they remained one of the also-rans of the new rock alternative boomlet. There were two more albums after Happy Days, then the band announced a hiatus somewhere around 2000. Unlike some of their brethren, they haven’t been back since, though there seems to be occasional water-testing with the odd posh reissue that seems somewhat out of sorts with the band’s actual impact and influence.

63urge

63. Urge Overkill, Exit the Dragon

During the time I was toiling at the commercial alternative station, I didn’t understand why we didn’t play more Urge Overkill. Sure, we indulged in the Neil Diamond cover that was easily the band’s biggest hit (their only song to cross into the Billboard Hot 100) entirely by virtue of its prominent inclusion in the film Pulp Fiction, and the success of that track in turn gave our programmers the wherewithal to go back and retrieve “Sister Havana” from band’s exceptional 1993 album, Saturation. Selfishly, I wanted more, and I was especially disheartened when Exit the Dragon arrived to practically no interest. I quickly resigned myself to the notion that bands I loved would make no headway on our station (that copy of Too Much Joy’s …finally that showed up in 1996 wasn’t going to leave the Music Director’s desk until the fateful moment when it was deemed old and insignificant enough to be transferred to one of the cardboard boxes stuffed full of unloved CDs down in the basement), but Urge Overkill struck me as close enough to the hard rock sound that dominated our airwave that they should have been able to rub shoulders with the likes of Bush. I’ll admit that a fresh listen to Exit the Dragon puts a few dents in my certainty on that topic.

I remember liking Exit the Dragon quite a bit when it came out, but now it sounds a little muddled to me, as if the band wasn’t really sure what direction they wanted to go in but felt compelled to charge ahead anyway. I’m not inclined to fault a band for ambition, trying to expand their sound and explore different avenues, but a lot of the material on Exit the Dragon feels like it needs another pass or two. “The Break” has a nice Stonesy vibe, especially at the beginning, but its lacking the discipline needed to wrangle it into a tight, satisfying track. Similarly, the easygoing groove of “Somebody Else’s Body” is all drift, no charge. Still, there are times when the very qualities that I find lacking indicate the validity of my original point: this should have been a bigger album in 1995, when the plodding pace and grinding whine vocals of “Honesty Flies” make the band sound like Candlebox or someone. It’s a close enough match to the crud that was gunking up our playlists that I’m somewhat surprised Geffen Records didn’t go all in with the track as a single, complete with a music video of Urge Overkill walking around with anguished faces while being shot with heavy sepia-toned filters.

There are places where the band’s sonic meanderings work better, and not always because they stuck with what they traditionally did best. Yes, “Take Me” has just enough glam rock eyeliner smudge to it to make it sound like something that could have been pulled from an earlier album, but “View of the Rain” is a nicely cheesy ballad (“I don’t smile anymore/ Too many smiling faces lie”) that circles around bombastic without ever quite landing there. I don’t recall the band doing anything quite like it on earlier albums. “Last Night/Tomorrow” is even better, riding a splendid varying tempo that makes the song feel like it can veer off in any direction at any time. It’s exactly the right brand of unpredictability for the band, grounded in their established artistic vernacular but invested with a dose of daring.

Exit the Dragon represented the last new music from Urge Overkill for quite some time. Founding member Eddie “King” Roesser left the band and the intention of Nash Kato and Blackie Onassis to carry on as a duo didn’t really pan out. Kato released a solo album in 2000, though the fingerprints of Onassis on several of the tracks suggest it may have started life as a true Urge Overkill project. Kato and Roesser officially reunited a few years later, and a new Urge Overkill album improbably arrived in 2011.

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
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp