Playing Catch-Up — Citizen Jane: Battle for the City; Concussion; The Debt

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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (Matt Tyrnauer, 2017). This documentary is the sort of non-fiction filmmaking that willingly, happily tips toward hagiographic agitprop, treating its central figure as a beam of inspiring light rather than a complicated person. As is usually the case with such endeavors, mileage will vary. My own political inclinations make me inclined to appreciate the spirited rabble-rousing of Jane Jacobs, who picked up her lance in the nineteen-sixties and tilted at the windmill of Robert Moses, the figure who spent decades controlling most urban planning efforts in New York City. Her story is that of democracy in its most boisterous, hardscrabble form, fighting callous or indifferent power with the shield and sword of collective refusal to bend. Tyrnauer tell the story effectively, interlacing archival footage and modern-day interview testimonials to give the impression that Jacobs almost single-handedly kept some of the most disruptive projects from moving forward. And Moses makes for a fine villain, repeatedly meeting news cameras with caustic dismissals of impoverished citizens that could have been put in the mouth a sneering silent movie fiend. All his missing is a oily, curled mustache and a looming top hat. I think Citizen Jane would be a better film if Tyrnauer were more even-handed in his appraisal of the skirmishes between Jacobs and the Moses-led system. But even if he’s made more of a heated editorial than a film, at least it’s soundly convincing.

 

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Concussion (Peter Landesman, 2015). As the recent blockbuster article from The New York Times proved, the problem of players hobbled later in life by the long-lasting effects of multiple concussions isn’t going away for the NFL anytime soon. This drama depicts one of the key starting point to the rumbling scandal. A Pittsburgh-area pathologist (Will Smith) is called upon to perform the autopsy on a former Steelers great (David Morse) who died in a decrepit state, alone in a pickup truck. Through his research, he discovers evidence of enduring and escalating brain damage, evidently caused by years of hard hits on the gridiron. In showing the uphill battle to bring to light unpleasant truths about a fixture of U.S. culture, the film recalls Michael Mann’s The Insider. As a cinematic stylist, though, writer-director Peter Landesman lacks both Mann’s intensity and panache. The film is too pedestrian to be fully compelling, even if its driving purpose is noble. Smith does a nice job as the doctor, taking care to prevent him from becoming too much of a cardboard crusader. The supporting performers face more of a struggle with roles that fall into overly familiar patterns. Albert Brooks and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have their moments, but poor Mike O’Malley is left to bark our lines of implausibly heightened hostility as a coworker of Smith’s doctor. He’s then to provide a first-act obstacle and nothing more.

 

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The Debt (John Madden, 2011). A remake of the Israeli film Ha-Hov (which translates to The Debt) this drama follows a trio of Mossad operatives dispatched in the mid-nineteen-sixties to capture an East Berlin doctor (Jesper Christensen) who is suspected of being a Nazi war criminal nicknamed “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” Told both in modern day and in flashback, the film takes what initially seems to be a fairly simple story and injects it with some slippery morality. The script and direction both sometimes get a little tedious. This is a plot that cries out for potboiler energy, but all involved are clearly more inclined to keep it all at an inoffensive simmer. The primary appeal is archival, since it contains an early performance by Jessica Chastain. The film made the film festival rounds in 2010, but didn’t see theatrical release until the following year, when Chastain rocketed from an unknown to an ubiquitous figure in prestige film fare. She’s still finding her way, but is already vividly present in a way that sets her apart from everyone else onscreen, including greats such as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 13 – 11

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13. The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

It’s probably fair to say that “Alex Chilton” remains the most iconic song ever delivered by the Minneapolis band the Replacements. There is probably comparable safety in declaring that the song would not be nearly as enduring had it maintained its working title: “George from Outer Space.” By the time Paul Westerberg, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, determined the song wasn’t working, he found himself fortuitously toying around with a different idea. “I just thought it would be fun to write a song about a living person,” Westerberg said. He found inspiration in Alex Chilton, the former leader of the cult hero Memphis band Big Star, even cribbing from his first encounter with mini-legend to find some of the key lyrics. When Westerberg first met Chilton, at CBGB in 1984, he fumbled in trying to name his favorite Big Star song, saying something to the effect of “I’m in love with that one song of yours — what’s that song?” Westerberg remained uncertain about “Alex Chilton” as a song, but bandmates Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson offered encouragement. In the end, Westerberg confirmed his reticence was a good omen. “If there’s a sense of ‘Oh God, what if this is looked on as being stupid of weird?’ — that’s usually a tip-off that its worth doing,” he explained. “Those are generally the best songs, and I had that feeling about ‘Alex Chilton.'” The track was released as a single from the band’s 1987 album, Pleased to Meet Me. Westerberg even learned to embrace the embedded advocacy in the song. “We want people to know who Alex is,” he said. “He doesn’t need our help, he doesn’t want our help, but, dammit, he’s gonna get it, whether he likes it or not.” As for what Chilton actually thought, his response was mildly combative and a little muddled (and surely Westerberg and other true blue Chilton fans wouldn’t have it any other way.) “Uh well, I didn’t feel any way about it,” he told Buzz magazine, in 1987. “I mean I’m so used to having these kind of fawning, imbecilic fans you know. To have it take on some coherence is refreshing.”

 

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12. Talking Heads, “And She Was”

Leave it to David Byrne to prove that songs about transcendent drug trips weren’t the sole province of psychedelic bands slumping through the late-nineteen sixties. For the lead track and third single from Talking Heads’ 1985 album, Little Creatures, Byrne took his songwriting inspiration from a tripping acquaintance. “I used to know a blissed-out hippie-chick in Baltimore,” Byrne wrote in the liner notes to the greatest hits compilation Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. “She once told me that she used to do acid (the drug, not music) and lay down on the field by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory. Flying out of her body, etc, etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence… but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it, too.” Since this was the mid-eighties, it was understood that an eye-catching video was necessary, a priority that fully aligned with Byrne’s growing multi-media sensibility. For the video to “And She Was,” Byrne recruited Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield, who’d sent the Talking Heads leader one of his short films utilizing an animation technique termed Xerography. Although Byrne providing some initial sketches, he let Blashfield take the creative lead on the clip. And it was a painstaking process. “Basically, you can see the black and white sequences for David’s lip synch — those are shot on 16mm film,” explained Blashfield. “But all the rest were photographs. I’d set up a still photograph, like when David holds his head up. I’d take a picture, then we’d do another pose, so we’d do about ten pictures of his head moving. Then we’d take those slides, put them in the photocopy machine, actually going down to the photocopy place, and bring those back, and we had people cut them out with X-ACTO knives.” The resulting video became an MTV mainstay, helping “And She Was” become the only single from Little Creatures to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

 

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11. Tears for Fears, “Shout”

The members of Tears for Fears made no secret of the ways in which Arthur Janov’s primal therapy technique inspired and fed into much of their creativity, including the band’s very name and a huge chunk of the material on their debut album, The Hurting. So it was only logical that most attributed their 1984 single “Shout” to the same inspiration source, especially since primal screaming was arguably the most famous of Janov’s innovations. According to Roland Orzabal, that assumption is faulty. “It is actually more concerned with political protest,” he said. “It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest.” Orzabal said the bulk of the song was written in his home with a synthesizer and a drum machine, with the initial version built around a mantra-like repetitiveness. he also conceded that the backbone of the song was borrowed from the Talking Heads track “Listening Wind.” The instrumental bridge and the rhythm — we sort of put in a Linn drum, and then wrote ‘Shout,'” said Orzabal. “Some elements of that we kept, but sort of made it slightly heavier and a little bit more hip-hop.” In much of the world, “Shout” was the lead single from the album Songs from the Big Chair, but label execs decided U.S. audiences needed a different introduction to Tears for Fears, opting for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” over the band’s objections. Regardless of the dispute, everything worked out well. Both songs went to the top of the U.S. singles chart, with “Shout” spending three weeks in the position.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive: Midnight Run

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And so we come to the fourth and final piece I wrote for theMovies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of 90FM’s The Reel Thing, back in June 1991. At this point, I suspect Midnight Run is considered a minor classic or at least one the quintessential can’t-turn-it-off movies when encountered while scrolling through the cable programming grid. When it was released in 1988 — so just three years before I wrote the following — it was basically a box office dud, further proof that of the conventional wisdom at the time that Robert De Niro, for all his acclaim, couldn’t sell tickets. It opened in fifth place at the box office, which did make it the biggest official debut of that weekend (ahead of Big Top Pee-wee and Caddyshack II), but it was well behind the holdover hits. It had the misfortune of competing against Die Hard in its first wide weekend of wide release, following a word-of-mouth twenty-one-screen rollout one week earlier. Now it seems a little odd to presenting the argument “People should like this more!” about Midnight Run, but I swear it made sense at the time.

As a piece of writing, I will concede this is mediocre at best. I did a much better job when I wrote about Midnight Run as part of one of my exercises in counting backwards.  

My final selection is from the summer of 1988 and is most notable for the impressive performances by the two lead actors. Midnight Run stars stars Robert De Niro as a bail bondsman who has to bring an accountant, played by Charles Grodin, across the country to Los Angeles in order to face embezzlement charges. Standing in his way are mobsters, a rival bail bondsman, and the FBI. And there’s also Grodin, who will stop at no deceit or maneuver in order to free himself from De Niro. Watching these two actors create a fierce, complex, frustrated relationship with one another is a true marvel. They match one another stride for stride with solid, funny performances.

The film mixes high excitement action scenes with quieter moments that are equally effective. Simple conversations between the two actors or De Niro’s few moments with a daughter he hasn’t seen in years are just as good as the high-speed chases and helicopter explosions. That’s not something one can usually say about a film that falls into the buddy-action genre.

One for Friday: The Rainmakers, “Spend It on Love”

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I mean it with complete sincerity and accompanying appreciation when I insist that the Rainmakers were the perfect band for the student-run radio station where I spent my collegiate years. While I and my cohorts were committed to the rebellion of carrying our playlists away from the straitlaced material found elsewhere on the dial, we weren’t really prepared to run that far.

The band from Kansas City, Missouri operated with a Midwestern earnestness that we could relate to in our little Wisconsin college town. The songs were earthy but polished, pointed but jaunty. They had a way with a hook and wrote lyrics that detailed the travails of modern existence with a plain spoken quality that easily stirred knowing nods.

The lack of fuss in their approach allowed the band to get away with the occasional sentiment that I think we may have otherwise found unbearably cheesy. While the Rainmakers exhibited a raucous sense of humor from time to time, irony wasn’t part of their arsenal. So when “Spend It on Love” was released as the lead single from their 1989 album, The Good News and the Bad News, we took it at face value.

I took to the message of “Spend It on Love,” contrary to my more typical instinct when I was hovering around the age of twenty. (It surely helped that the lyrics direct some ire at the U.S. government’s tendency to appropriate dollars to militaristic endeavors rather than the sort of programs that help the neediest member of the citizenry, so there was a little fight-the-power to the song.) As I get older — and we trudge through a new mini-era of weaponized bigotry — I find even greater value in what the Rainmakers are saying here. And I marvel that the assertion of offering love and support can be so radical as to be genuine protest rock.

Listen or download –> The Rainmakers, “Spend It on Love”

(Disclaimer: I believe most of the Rainmakers’ catalog to be out of print, at least as physical items that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop, even if the band is one of many from that timeframe that have reunited to once again operate as a going concern. I submit this track with the belief that doing so should fall under the principle of fair use, but also as encouragement to explore the music of the Rainmakers and, for those who chose to, support the band fiscally in whatever way makes sense to you. Maybe pay band leader Bob Walkenhorst to come play in your living room. Regardless of the lack of malice in my intentions, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with authority to make such a request.)

That Championship Season: Agent Carter, Season Two

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Dominant as Marvel Studios have been on the movie landscape the past decade or so — without a doubt, the success of their model of narrative interconnectivity has completely transformed how most of commercial filmmaking works — their ride has been far more wobbly on the television side. The entertainment conglomerate’s first true foray into small screen fare, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., may be heading —shockingly — into its fifth season, but no one mistakes it for a sensation or anything more than a modest success, artistically or in terms of its ratings. Similarly, the bevy of Netflix shows mining the comic book publisher’s stable of darker, more street-level heroes have met with a decidedly mixed reception.

A major contributor to the problem is a sense of undue seriousness, which primarily manifests as an overt commitment to heaping melodrama. Most of the series give off an aura of ponderous gloom, even when delivering some snappy moments and appealing characters. As they stretch on, those qualities are further burdened by compounding convolution, which make the various storylines instantly exhausting.

There is one Marvel live-action show that strayed from this norm, becoming, in my eyes anyway, the studio’s clearest creative success in the series format. Of course, it’s also the one ongoing series that has officially faced the dreaded judgment of cancellation.

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Although Agent Carter aped the origin of Agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. in spinning off directly from the Marvel movies, it was different in every other substantive way. The show picked up with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it was set in the years immediately following World War II. It followed her as she began work with the Strategic Scientific Reserve — the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. — facing down adversaries fighting for the forces of evil even as she had to contend will colleagues who caused a whole other set of hardships through their era-appropriate withering sexism.

Agent Carter was flawed in its first season, but it had its strengths, chief among them the performance of Atwell. She took a character who sometimes struggled to transcend the plucky love interest trope in her film introduction and made her into a layered figure, strong-willed but also vulnerable, all without succumbing to cliche. And the series had a point of view. Underneath the eager cash-in motivation, it was gratifyingly purposeful.

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In the second season, the creators of Agent Carter expertly retained what was already strong in the show and showed they’d been paying close attention to what they’d be. They downplayed the more muddled through lines and accentuated the smaller portions that proved winning. This working methodology practically bangs pans together and announces itself as the most logical approach for any showrunners to employ as a series progresses, but its amazing how often the opposite tack is taken, including, it must be said, by many of the other Marvel outings.

Peggy was liberated from the more dour environs of the first season’s New York City setting and whisked off to sunny California, a shift orchestrated with the ease of giving her a West Coast case to work. Since the Marvel movie mythos had already established Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) as a Howard Hughes avatar, it was similarly simple to wind Peggy’s exploits into the land of Hollywood, setting her against a megalomaniacal movie star named Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett).

The change of scenery was already enough to give Atwell more zingy moments to play, letting her be loose and charming as well as strident and strong. To further facilitate that, the second season gave plenty of screen time to Peggy’s interactions with Jarvis (James D’Arcy), devoted butler to Howard Stark. Again, this was no flailing attempt at ginning up some choice material. Atwell and D’Arcy demonstrated marvelous chemistry in their comparatively limited interactions in the first season. Collaborative showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess recognized and exploited a good thing.

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In the earlier season, Agent Carter could feel a little bound to its period setting without fully taking advantage of its possibilities. After the retro sets were built and the smashing costumes draped over the actors, there was little else to truly distinguish it as a piece of a fine fictional past. That’s also corrected in the second season, as the old Hollywood glamor is further stirred up by bullish gangsters straight of the film noir gems of the era. The show embraced and adapted the more stylish sensibility of the earlier creative era, giving it more texture, even if the obvious budget limitations meant there could only be so much panache to the visuals. Still, the tribute was pure and warm, as best exemplified by a dream sequence dance number that played out the various conflicts Peggy was going through.

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That willingness to play around — to upend expectations just slightly, as if inviting the audience in on the joke rather than trying to leave them rattled — was fully representative of one of the most vital qualities elevating the whole season. Agent Carter operated with a crackling joy at dressing up boundless imagination with just enough plausibility. In other words, the show felt like a really great old school Marvel comic book, right down to the jaunty pseudo-science built around goofy, imposing contraptions.

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Once more acknowledging that I’m about to deliver a compliment that indicates more creator thinking that should be commonplace but is actually somewhat revolutionary, the second season of Agent Carter committed itself to being fun. It is striking and a little sad that such a mindset qualifies as novel, but there it is. At nearly every turn — the bittersweet romantic entanglements, the mounting mania of the villains, the clever incorporation of first season villain Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) into various schemes — the storytelling is sure-footed and inviting.

Reminiscent of some of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, the second season of Agent Carter serves it corporate obligations while simultaneously  — maybe miraculously — coming across as an earnest realization of the more personal aspirations of those assembled for the singular project, as if every question that began “Wouldn’t it be great if…” was met with a resounding and cheerful, “Let’s do it!”

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One
Braindead, Season One
Community, Season Two

The New Releases Shelf — Something to Tell You

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Image from the Music Box Twitter account.

I’m glad there’s a place in the pop universe for the music made by Haim. There is no claim being made here that the trio of sisters from Los Angeles are delivering something wildly transgressive or otherwise deviously edgy in its sun-dappled simplicity. Nor do I believe that they are deploying some sort of cunning scheme to cut against the thudding insistence of most tracks that make headway on the charts. Perhaps it’s naïveté on my part, but I believe the eleven tracks on Something to Tell You, the group’s sophomore effort, are free of calculation. This is exactly who Haim is, and this is exactly who Haim wants to be.

Their debut, Days Are Gone, was comprised of artful nineteen-seventies pop — think Fleetwood Mac, Rickie Lee Jones, and the like — hit with a nineteen-nineties gentle production sheen, settled in gracefully like one of the more discrete Instagram filters. I found it charming as can be, though I’ll readily concede that results may vary. The new album is recognizably — unmistakably, really — a product of the same band, but with maybe a little more assurance. They’re not drawing from influences so much as nicely coming into their own.

As it should, lead single and album opener “I Want You Back” tells the story. There are lithe harmonies, lyrics of lovelorn regret, and a rhythm that ambles then skips then ambles again. It’s a blithe act of seduction with the pining for reconciliation sounding more wistful than pained, like its meant for the last ferris wheel ride of night, taken as other lights across the fairground are flickering off.

It is arguably the entrenchment in the offhand sadness of dashed romance that most clearly instills a strong sense of classic pop stylings to the album. On “Kept Me Crying,” the lyrics chime out “I was your lover/ I was your friend/ Now I’m only just someone you call/ When it’s late enough to forget,” nestled against a trotting melody.  And “Right Now” offers the following lines: “Gave you my love, you gave me nothing/ Said what I gave wasn’t enough/ You had me feeling I was foolish for ever thinking/ This could be the one.” As if aware some of the sentiments aren’t especially inventive — and if Haim has a recurring flaw, it’s a repetitiveness that can test even the mightiest hooks — the band and their chief producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, adorn the track with little details around the fringes such as a nifty sonic squall in the middle which suggests the sound of a breaking heart fed through a misfiring synthesizer. Similarly, while others might blanch at the echoing spoken word bits, but they strike me as just right. When so much of an album is meticulously Crayola-ed in, it’s nice to see a few streaks of color the spike outside the lines.

“Little of Your Love” zings with a cheery tang that recalls the best of Juice Newton, and “Ready for You” has a touch of airy, aspirational funk that endearingly calls attention to just how far away Haim is from being well-suited to join one of George Clinton’s crews. Those songs are indicative of the whole album’s vibe. Indeed, the fact that I’m using the word “vibe” may be the most telling element of this review. I can’t say I was clamoring for an album that prompted me to excavate that word from my vocabulary, but Something to Tell You makes a good argument that maybe I should have been.

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “A Few Good Scouts”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

For reasons that are probably obvious, a certain sketch from The Ben Stiller Show has been on my mind today.

Since I have previously written about precisely why this sketch — and everything from the one and only season of The Ben Stiller Show — delights me so, I will let the splendid parody speak for itself.