Be careful for the danger there, you just might just be unprepared

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Like a lot of people that devote themselves to inordinate amounts of time spent in movie theaters, I have a tendency to equate novelty with accomplishment. Though I maintain a thick enough strain of cynicism to avoid knee-jerk genuflection before hollow material tricked up with self-congratulatory narrative gimmicks (this is where I’d link to a review of Fight Club if I had one), I am absolutely more prone to fall for movies that do something decidedly different, filling the screen before me with something that I’ve never quite seen before. I’d naturally assumed that predilection came from an altogether commonplace impulse to favor originality over all else in evaluating works of art. The new movie Brooklyn suggests a different theory. Maybe I’m less enamored of more familiar cinematic stories because so few modern filmmakers have the discipline and insight to tell them really, really well. Brooklyn effectively makes the case that classically structured cinematic narrative can be just as dazzling as any meta-inflected storytelling loop-de-loops.

Based on a novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn follows an Irishwoman named Ellis (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to the New York borough of the title, early in the nineteen-fifties. Youthful and gentle-souled, Ellis is tagged by her family as worthy of a greater life than her dreary hometown can provide, but the transition to the United States is hardly without its own challenges and miseries. But unlike, say, James Gray’s The Immigrant, the movie refrains from piling on the grotesque abuses until it swells into melodrama. Instead, Brooklyn is focused on the small, far more universal setbacks: homesickness, interpersonal annoyances, feeling uncertain in a dizzying new workplace. Even when the film moves its attention to romance, and then a love triangle, it does so with gentleness, positing that while these things happen they do so largely without blaring fanfare. It is the way lives are lived. Observing it with care is enough to find meaning and craft a story that is deeply moving.

From start to finish, Brooklyn is a lovely piece of filmmaking. Nick Hornby previously wrote the screenplays for An Education and Wild, and this new outing finally proves his skill as an adapter is unassailable. He has a cunning way of finding the soul of a story and investing the characters with wellsprings of unfussy personality. His writing is a gift to actors and those here are sure not to squander it. Ronan is wonderful, showing how Ellis shifts from timid to capable to fully in charge by small but noticeable degrees. There are fine supporting turns throughout, led by Emory Cohen as a genial, adorable suitor and Jessica Walter, snapping off the sort of colorful, brassy, powerful older quasi-matriarch role that’s been her mastered domain since at least 2000’s Billy Elliot. Director John Crowley captures it all with a shrewd balance of tone, an elegant eye, and a lively spirit. His accomplishment isn’t in boldness, but in masterful merging of story and emotion. Brooklyn doesn’t change anything about the way cinema is made. Indeed, it offers evidence that drastic deviation from the classic narrative approach is overrated.

College Countdown: The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart, October 1992, 17 – 14

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17. The Darling Buds, Erotica

I don’t really remember if the Darling Buds ever had a college radio hit, the sort that commands such broad-based and intense affection from kids in broadcast booths coast to coast that it feels intrinsic to the era. They were one of the bands that defined my personal haul as a student deejay, thanks in part to the convenience of the calendar. Their debut release, the glistening Pop Said…, arrived when I was a freshman, and their final effort, Erotica, hit the Heavy Rotation shelf as I embarked on my last year in college, grumpily resigned to the fact that I couldn’t drag my feet on the dreaded launch into the so-called real world all that much longer. At the time, of course, we didn’t know Erotica was destined to be the band’s last album. The most notable thing about the record was that it shared a title with almost concurrently dropped Madonna release, which was sucking up all the entertainment world hype that fall, thanks in no small part to the corresponding book of dirty pictures that helped announce it to the world.

The album presumably also got us talking about the evolution of the band’s sound that took place on it. Their previous records were populated with bright, sharp, brisk pop songs. That shifted a little on their sophomore release, Crawdaddy, but Erotica delivered the most sonically expansive version of the Darling Buds yet. Opening track “One Thing Leads to Another” signals what’s to come: there’s a dandy hook in there, but every time the songs seem to be tightening in around it, the layers of sound push outward instead, swelling with cascading guitars. There are several tracks that hew closer to the established sound of the band, like the single “Sure Thing,” which manages to be both punchy and gently languid, and the firm “Please Yourself.” And much of the music that shifts the band’s footing is plenty strong, such as the slightly intoxicating “Long Day in the Universe” and “Isolation,” which almost sounds like a Belly castoff with its rubbery guitar lines and piercing female vocals singing of embittered discomfort (“Why do you have to be so cruel/ You know what I’m going through/ Can’t think straight these days/ And everything is very strange”). Still, Erotica overall wears the compromise of a transitional record. It just happens the dissolution of the band that recorded it denied listeners the pay-off of a fully-formed new sound the next time out.

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16. Morrissey, Your Arsenal

Only Morrissey should be allowed to begin an album with the lyric “With the world’s fate resting on your shoulders.” The undisputed master of tuneful misery was still fairly early in his solo career in 1992, though he’d already been admirably prolific. Your Arsenal was his third full-length release since the formal dissolution of the Smiths five years earlier. Wonderfully, he was already approaching gentle self-parody, as demonstrated by song titles such as “Seasick, Yet Still Docked,” “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” and, best of all, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” Lest it seem like there’s not quite enough undercutting happening on the album, Morrissey is sure to coo, “Oh…and the songs we sing/ They’re not supposed to mean a thing.” Later in that same song, “We’ll Let You Know,” he sings, “We may seem cold/ Or we may even be/ The most depressing people you’ve ever known.” It’s a mark of how clearly Morrissey was at the peak of his creative powers that the repeated variations of sour appraisals of life miraculously transformed into melodic mission statements of romanticized self-regard never grow old across the album. This can surely be attributed somewhat to the musical variety spread across the album by Alain Whyte, Morrissey’s regular collaborator, but ol’ Stephen Patrick proves equally adept at shrewdly, playfully working variations on a theme. There’s no evident calculation to the album, but it does seem like this was one of the last instances when Morrissey was simultaneously entirely earnest and charmingly in on the joke.

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15. The Sundays, Blind

In my time at the college radio station, I don’t know if there was another instance of so dramatic a let down between a debut release and a sophomore effort as happened with the Sundays. The English band’s 1990 debut, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, was one of the great albums of that year, practically inspirational in its ability to sound fresh and enlivening. The follow-up was beset by a series of little problems that led up to creative cataclysm. The band’s original label, Rough Trade Records, went bankrupt, and the starburst of success that followed their debut dramatically outpaced the ability of band leaders Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin to continue handling all management of the Sundays on their own, something they insisted upon doing. Even with those challenges, it was hardly a Chinese Democracy-level delay on the band’s second outing, with Blind arriving around two-and-a-half years after the debut. The whole album feels arduous, though. The singles, “Love” and “Goodbye,” are inert when compared against the earlier gems. These days, their cover of a Rolling Stones classic is probably the only track that most remember, if only because it seems as if it were chemically perfected to accompany lovelorn supercut videos of teen-centric television shows. So at least the Sundays were forward-thinking in that respect. The band came out with one more album, 1997’s Static & Silence, before calling it quits, largely so Wheeler and Gavurin could concentrate on being parents.

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14. Television, Television

I’d like to report that I understood the full significance of a new album from the band Television showing up in 1992, but I’m confident I did not. I certainly knew of the band. The eager devotion of Rolling Stone magazine to Television’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, saw to that. But I’m betting I hadn’t actually heard a note of their music until I slipped their brand new self-titled effort, the band’s belated third release, into the radio station CD player. At the time, I thought the moody, guitar-driven songs on the album were top-notch, though Television still didn’t become an album that I fully fell for. Now that I’ve got the glorious ins and outs of Marquee Moon practically memorized, Television seems like a mere curiosity, best seen as a reminder to revisit the sounds of the true glory days once again. There have been no further albums, but the band does still play live from time to time.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20-18: Mutiny, Dirty, and Overwhelming Colorfast

From the Archive: Look Who’s Talking Too

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Kirstie Alley’s attitude there seems about right to me. I was thinking about typing out a lament over how much terrible fare came dribbling out during holiday movie seasons of old, but it has always been a mix of the great, fine, and dreadful at this time of the year. The very same weekend Look Who’s Talking Too arrived, so to did the magical Edward Scissorhands and the solidly entertaining Mermaids. I don’t remember a bit of this movie, but I find it a little disconcerting that I offered praise — genuine, unguarded praise at that — for the portion involving Mr. Toilet Man.

Last year, director Amy Heckerling took a TV star, a washed up film star, and cute baby, and Bruce Willis’s voice and created one of the biggest surprise hits of the year: LOOK WHO’S TALKING. No time has been wasted in trying to pull some more money from Mikey’s faithful followers as the sequel, LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO, has hit theaters. The gag of LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO is that Mikey has gotten a little older and is now  big brother. Mikey still has the voice of Bruce Willis, and his new little sister has picked up the vocal cords of Roseanne Barr. The two of them are learning to deal with each other and also have to try help themselves and each other through some family difficulties as the marriage between John Travolta and Kirstie Alley is becoming increasingly strained.

In fact, fans of the first film had best prepare themselves for a somewhat darker effort this time out from director Heckerling. There’s family strife and a misguided attempt to derive humor from a birth complicated by the umbilical cord being wrapped around the baby’s neck. Trying to create jokes to go with that situation was not a wise move on the part of Heckerling. As if trying to make up for these darker moments, the filmmakers make several attempts at pushing the cute levels into the stratosphere. Mikey has acquired a new best friend in a baby voiced by Damon Wayans and there’s a scene of Travolta pulling out his best Saturday Night Fever dance moves with an entire group of kids.

LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO has its clever moments, such as the glimpses of Mikey’s overactive imagination, especially one that brings us Mel Brooks as Mr. Toilet Man, and some funny bits of dialogue for the kids. Bruce Willis is again about to provide a terrific voice characterization for Mikey, Roseanne Barr does a respectable job as baby Julie, and both Travolta and Alley manage to be quite charming. The chief problem is the script. It’s a meandering movie that spends too much time rattling along pointlessly, adding characters like Kirstie Alley’s right wing, gun-toting brother who only gets i the way of the film’s thin plot. The film tries to build toward a thrilling ending with a cute, sentimental moral, but it all seems very anti-climactic, as if they’re holding back for a third installment.

There are some questionable directing choices as well, chiefly one that involves some of the older toddlers apparently trying to lip sync what is being said by the actor alter egos. Little children don’t just walk around moving their mouths and seeing them do it in this movie becomes very grating very quickly. There’s also the feeling that it’s less a movie and more a showcase for Heckerling’s music collection. It seems like almost every scene has a big hit song connected with it. It all seems like padding to make the film last long enough, but all the padding in the world can’t protect this film from it’s own blandness.

1 and 1/2 stars, out of 4.

One for Friday: Venison, “Forward”

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I am still adjusting in my return to my native state of Wisconsin. Certainly spending a day indulging in gluttony while the wind blew briskly outside was a helpful reminder of the cultural terrain of the dairyland to which I’ve boomeranged, especially since we managed to place ourselves within a restaurant that is most accurately reviewed with the phrase “Lots of meat!” There were plenty of things giving me that seems-like-old-times feeling yesterday, from a glass of beer at The Great Dane to Brett Favre in Lambeau Field. And then there’s the blaze orange I’ve seen out an about the past couple weeks, a handy reminder that the real holiday in this state at this time of year is deer season. Living in this state requires at least a little bit of affection for venison. One might even name their punk band after it.

Though Venison was still a going concern the last time I lived in Wisconsin’s state capital, I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with them back then (or at least don’t remember them from that overstuffed era of my life). It was only recently that I had cause to learn about them, as part of the most recently completed College Countdown. Fortuitously, the post that required some research into the nineties-era Wisconsin band came out just as the whirlwind of pending move was spinning to life, my brain only beginning the process of wrapping around the significant change that would somehow feel oh so familiar. As if offering a comforting mosh pit press of reassurance, here came a punk band bounding out of my modest speakers, snarl-singing about toiling in Wisconsin. The song “Forward,” an immediate favorite, even borrowed the state motto. Just like that, I had a much-needed anthem. “Cuz in Wisconsin, we say, ‘Forward.'” Sounds right to me.

Listen or download –>  Venison, “Forward”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, the Venison album Hate is no longer in print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. Some of the band’s music does seem to be available digitally, so please take the sharing of this track as impetus and encouragement to go and snap some of it up. Hell, the sound quality on this transfer isn’t so hot, which should be additional enticement to find some more material on your own. But go to the record store today. There’s good stuff there, and they need your dollars more than the Walton family.)

You know what everything’s about, you had to have a white hot spotlight

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The title of the new film Spotlight refers to a special investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe. Treated as a somewhat separate and fairly autonomous entity within the culture of the venerable newspaper, the reporters in the Spotlight unit take on major stories and dig unimaginably deep into them before a single word is pressed onto newsprint. The film, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, depicts this group’s efforts, beginning in 2001, to expose the machinations undertaken by the Catholic Church to harbor child-molesting priests and cover up their own culpability in the scandal, then still dismissed by too many as the despicable actions of a few bad individuals instead of a pervasive culture of accepted abuse.

The cinematic precedent to which McCarthy clearly aspires is All the President’s Men. The film is measured, serious-minded, and committed to quietly celebrating the noble rigor of reporters striving to unearth the truth, especially in the face of monumental institutional opposition. While Alan J. Pakula benefited from the freshness of the national betrayal in his consideration of the Washington Post‘s Watergate reporting, McCarthy dramatically articulates exactly why confronting the Catholic power structure carried so much weight in the city of Boston. Church structures loom through the film, and there’s a strong sense of the ways in which the specific religion in woven inextricably into the souls of every character that crosses the screen, whether they’re actively practicing or not. It is a news story — timely, troubling, and important — but also a swing at the very foundation of the city’s being. McCarthy makes it clear just how bold it was for the Spotlight crew to pursue their investigation.

Across the board, the actors meet the smartly controlled tone of the film, underplaying their characters, whether they are in pursuit of the story or grappling with the ramifications of it in their personal lives. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci all turn in admirable work, fully resisting any impulse to showboat, to puff up their talky parts with emotionally boisterous maneuvers. Two actors taking different approaches in deep character work epitomize the strength of the film: Mark Ruffalo plays reporter Mike Rezendes with a brutish eagerness that has some echoes of his turns in Zodiac and Foxcatcher, and Liev Schreiber is brilliantly contained as Marty Baron, the editor new to the paper who offers the needed encouragement to dig for the bigger, greater, uglier truths of the story. There’s not a vast divide between the volume levels of the two performances, but taken together they do demonstrate the surprising range that can be found within a deliberately low-key level.

Tempting as it might be to see Spotlight as offering one last desperate celebration of an era of print journalism that could and would expend the time and resources to get a major story perfectly correct rather than rushing forward with frantic clickbait accusations, I don’t think McCarthy is trying to be an aggressive advocate in his filmmaking. Instead, he’s simply following the key mandate of a storyteller: find a tale worth sharing and relay it with integrity.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Five

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#5 — Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

I wouldn’t necessarily term Out of the Past the best film ever made that clearly qualifies as film noir (at least one film above it on this personal tally fits squarely into that cinematic subcategory), but it is without question the work of art that I would project onto a wall to answer any questions about what makes that amazing convergence of shadow, cynicism, and fang-sharp dialogue so enthralling. It slaloms expertly around every last milestone of the form, formulating into a picture that could have been used as a template. It’s sharp enough that even pallid imitators would wind up looking borderline ingenious. The movie itself strides with an amused swagger.

The thrill of it begins with the dialogue. The screenplay was credited to Daniel Mainwaring, adapting his novel with the amazing title Build My Gallows High (which was the name given to the film in some territories outside the United States), and it is a procession of hard-boiled wonders. When I first saw it, I felt the only method available to properly convey the immense pleasures of the film was an eager transcription of some of the devilishly good dialogue, a tactic I’ll cave into again. When Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum, because a film noir cannot be quintessential without Robert Mitchum in it), the former private eye who’s trying to escape the seedy world in which he once ran by serving as the proprietor of an out-of-the way-filling station relates his new chosen lot in life, he explains, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.” He dismisses a disingenuous claim of helplessness by saying, “You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” And then there’s the exchange in the film that remains my favorite: when Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), the woman Jeff’s been courting, meekly stands up for someone by arguing, “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” Jeff’s quick retort is “Well, she comes the closest.” This isn’t how people actually talk, but it damn well should be.

Jacques Tourneur directs the film with a unerring feel for using the shadows to enrich every element of the story: the sexual allure, the threat, the encroaching gloom of bad men doing bad things for bad reasons. Every bit of inky artistry he mastered as one of the most gifted members of horror producer Val Lewton’s stable comes through in the film, with the added heft of the danger coming from the corrosiveness of human nature. It’s hard to argue with the pithy pointedness of the novel’s original title, but the comparatively bland Out of the Past — a title that’s as clear a case of studio timidness as anyone is likely to find — actually works quite well, offering the simple, clear reminder that the most troubling parts of an individual’s history aren’t likely to stay distant and contained. Shadows shift in size and direction, but they’re never fully gone.