From the Archive — The Hard Way and Doc Hollywood

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By now, I’ve shared most of the reviews I still have from my days as the co-host and co-producer of the early-nineteen-nineties radio show The Reel Thing. This represented a rare instance of tying the weekly home video segment into a new movie review, hence the little break between the two, which was home to a music cue.

Michael J. Fox is a performer struggling to break free of his own image. Through his three trips back to the future, as good-natured high school student Marty McFly, and his Emmy-Award-winning portrayal of eternal Republican Alex P. Keaton on TV’s Family Ties, Fox has firmly established himself into American pop culture. Yet, that pleasant persona is just what Fox is taking shots at in the new home video release The Hard Way.

In the film, Fox plays a spoiled movie star who wants to abandon his fantasy-filled, sequel-ready, light-comedy action films, transitioning to motion pictures with more grit and substance. In order to better prepare for a challenging role in a tough police drama, Fox pulls some strings and gets to tag along with a rough-and-tumble New York cop, played by rough-and-tumble James Woods.

Woods hates Fox, and Fox worships Woods, mimicking every movement he makes. Both actors dig in and send up their respective image with hilarious style. And when the script by Lem Dobbs and Daniel Pyne is able to support the actors with solid material, The Hard Way is a delight to watch. But when the script slips into basic and ridiculous action sequences, John Badham’s crisp direction turns leaden and sluggish, and there’s nothing the actors can do but hope for the film to find its way back to the characters.

The Hard Way is a funny film that deserves a bigger audience on home video than it got in theaters. In its springtime release, moviegoing audiences essentially ignored it, leading to speculation that Fox’s career was sliding away into oblivion, a descent that has at least been slowed by….

…his latest release Doc Hollywood, which has slowly but surely become a minor hit. This time out, Fox is playing a young doctor with his aspiration-filled eyes set on a high-paying, low-credibility cosmetic surgery job in Beverly Hills. On his cross-country road trip from Washington, D.C. to California, Fox gets sidetracked in the small town of Grady, South Carolina when he drives his vintage Ferrari into a brand new white picket fence. It turns out the fence is a construct of Grady’s only judge, who sentences Fox to community service at the local hospital while he’s waiting for his car to be repaired.

As usual, Fox’s comic timing is near perfection. He deserves to be mentioned along with the likes of Billy Crystal and Steve Martin when it comes to discussions of the most gifted comic actors working today. And, unlike some of his least notable films, Fox is surrounded by a first rate ensemble cast working at or near the top of their abilities. Woody Harrelson has his best film role to date as a dependable, rough-edged insurance salesman with a marksman’s eye. Frances Sternhagen is suitably terse as the cynical coffee shop owner. Barnard Hughes plays the town’s gruff, ancient doctor with a self-satisfied swagger. And Bridget Fonda is able to elevate her character past a standard Southern belle by lending her a pronounced case of wanderlust that turns into awkward nervousness when she actually gets a taste of big city life. Best of all is David Ogden Stiers as Grady’s friendly, outgoing mayor, who knows better than anyone what a precious jewel the town really is.

He’s probably fully aware what a precious jewel of a film Doc Hollywood is, as well. Just as Grady’s squash festivals and unique residents inevitably win over Fox’s good doctor, so too does this movie win over the viewer as it unwinds its slow, easy charm. The characters may be filled with eccentricities, but that doesn’t keep them from being eminently likable. And Fox’s romance with the town’s ambulance driver, winningly played by newcomer Julie Warner, is often sweet without becoming overly sappy.

The film sometimes tries too hard to turn the oddities of the locals into laugh-a-minute gags and some plot elements seem oddly abandoned at the end, but Doc Hollywood is still generous when it come to handing out smiles.

One for Friday — Grandpaboy, “Psychopharmacology”

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I remember it as a slow, melancholy dimming of the lights for a certain kind of record collecting — or, being precise about the era, CD collecting, I suppose.

Paul Westerberg was just a few years into his solo career, and it already wasn’t going as well as everyone had hoped. The former frontman and chief songwriter for the Replacements wasn’t exactly a hitmaker as part of the beloved, bedraggled Minnesota band, but he was iconic, embodying a certain brand of rock ‘n’ roll mythology that traded in self-sabotage and cool disregard for success. Since he was also an ace crafter of songs (when he allowed himself to be), the thought was that he’d settle into a respectable career when he was toiling under his own name only. Westerberg’s first two solo albums, though, fell a little flat, for both critics and the college radio stations that had once reveled in the Replacements, but now preferred their rock to be tuneless and grinding.

Then, in 1997, rumors started circulating about a clandestine Westerberg release. He’d been under the Warner Bros. umbrella for several years — both with the Replacements and on his own — but there was a new EP by a mysterious artist on a dinky independent label stirring discussion. Westerberg’s name was nowhere to be found in the liner notes, but the the voice on there sure sounded familia, even if the only billing afforded to the credited guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and packaging designer was Grandpaboy.

The self-titled CD was incredibly difficult to find. I remember scouring multiple record stores and puzzled looks or pleas of helplessness when I inquired about its availability. I don’t recall how the coveted disc made it into my collection, but I have warm, foggy memories of listening to it for the first time, enjoying its willful sloppiness after Westerberg had spruced up for his proper solo endeavors. I was a sucker for the lore of the flannel-clad punks making slapdash music, too.

Not long after this instance, the exponential expansion of online resources made similar questing a bygone experience, like changing typewriter ribbon or starting a motor vehicle using a crank on the front. I appreciate immensely that the music I crave is a couple artful clicks away at any given time, but I also miss the grand joy and desperation of the hunt.

Listen or download —> Grandpaboy, “Psychopharmacology”

(Disclaimer: I may have hunted back then, but I barely put any effort into finding out the current availability of the Grandpaboy EP 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 shop and the original artist. Westerberg has explored so many oddball avenues of distributing his own music that you may very well be able to secure a copy by stealthily marking the side of a public mailbox a signal to meet him in the park so he can pass it to you inside a folded up newspaper. Regardless, I mean no fiscal harm to anyone in the fair use sharing of this track, and I will gladly and promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by and individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Laughing Matters — Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on First?”

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.

Recent days have been a wearying scramble for me, so, dismayingly, I only realized midway through the afternoon that today was the day we all collectively emerged from the portion of the sports years that an old friend of mine referred to with solemnity as “The Void.” Opening Day of baseball is here.

In commemoration, I humbly offer up a formidable contender in the contest for Greatest Comedy Routine of All Time.

Greatish Performances #35

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#35 — James Gandolfini as Winston Baldry in The Mexican (Gore Verbinski, 2001)

I wonder if it’s all but inevitable that a proverbial “role of a lifetime” brings with it as many hardships as benefits. No matter the pleasures of the opportunity — fiscal, artistic, or, in the rarest of occasions, both — the resulting elevated notoriety of the performance is its own dire trap. Ahead of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini was the good actor who everyone confused with mediocre actor Tom Sizemore. Already typecast by his imposing figure, Gandolfini delivered acting that completely transformed what could be expected from a television performer and saw his constraints only loosen a bit, from thug to vulnerable thug.

It a measure of Gandolfini’s great talent and actorly ingenuity that he still managed tremendous performances within the narrow range he was usually afforded. On paper, many of his characters are markedly similar to each other, but Gandolfini’s execution was a whole other matter. He tinkered throughtfully with nuance, coming at role from surprising angles and with gentle deftness. At times, he leaned into audience expectations knowing those preconceived notions gave him another tool to construct the unexpected and the deeply humane.

In The Mexican, Winston Baldry begins as the sort of stock character Gandolfini could have spent his entire career playing. He’s a hit man who is hired to abduct Samantha Barzel (Julia Roberts), the combative girlfriend of a goof-up named Jerry (Brad Pitt), who is mixed up with the mob. The many convolutions of the plot place the film squarely in the preferred zone of director Gore Verbinki, a distractible, clumsy maestro of narrative mechanics. The film aims to be a raucous crime comedy, a less profane reverberation in the era of Taratino echoes. It serves that purpose well enough, but it is far more memorable when it slows down and allows Gandolfini’s performance to emerge.

Relatively early in the proceedings, Samantha realizes Winston is gay. He’s not closeted, exactly, but his line of work and typical occupational partners also make open expression of same-sex attraction a potential liability. The connection of unfamiliar truthfulness Winston makes with Samantha — ostensibly his captive, but eventually his cohort — allows him a level of self-expression that is usually denied him. Gandolfini plays his earlier scenes in the film with heavy authority punctuated by moments of sharp impatience when Samatha’s frazzle grows too pronounced. As the story progresses, shades of joy and possibility come into the performance. From the start, Winston is shown to be smart, even wise. The ingenuity of Gandolfini’s turn is showing how that intelligence is turned into a greater acceptance of his inner being, and then the inevitability of ill turns given the professional life he leads.

A sizable amount of Gandolfini’s time in the movie is essentially a two-hander with Roberts, and the pair has marvelous chemistry. The enduring fame of Roberts was built upon romantic comedies in the nineteen-nineties, but the hidden irony is that she rarely connected as strongly with her leading men as she did with other actors in the film, such as Hector Elizondo in Pretty Woman or Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The most resonant romances manifested in the warmth of spirited give-and-take in friendship, a scenario clearly at play in The Mexican. Watching Gandolfini interact with Roberts is as clear as expression of two people falling for one another as can be found in the most profound movie love stories. That actual romance will never come into play between the two characters is incidental, or perhaps what give their giddily enjoyable scenes a touch of the profound.

Giddily enjoyable with a touch of the profound is sort of the Gandolfini way. It’s what can occur in acting when a performer know to hit the entertaining beats of the surface of the material while simultaneously pushing deeper, to find the core truths. By all evidence, Gandolfini couldn’t do it any other way.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic

The Art of the Sell — Tabasco “Mosquito” commercial

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

This commercial includes a remarkably accurate depiction of how I eat pizza. I mean it sincerely when I say that an advertisement has rarely spoken to me so directly as this.

Beers I Have Known — NOLA Brewing Company Revivalists American Pale Ale

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

nola ale

It is probably beyond my command of words — regardless of where I consider it to be, at any given moment, on the spectrum between erudite and inept — to convey the sway over me that is held by the city of New Orleans. My adoration is informed by my exposure to its ramshackle, freewheeling culture, informed by hedonistic impulses. But it’s also because I’ve seen the city when it was desperate close to its lowest point. At that time, I witnessed its enduring grace, which somehow felt like it represented the beautifully foolhardy perseverance of all of humanity, absolutely refusing to give up, no matter how emphatically the universe insisted it was the proper course of action.

And the beer’s good, too.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #960 to #957

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960. Plasticland, Wonder Wonderful Wonderland (1985)

It’s treacherous to draw heavily drawing on distinctive rock subgenres layered with dust. By the time Plasticland formed — as the nineteen-eighties dawned in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — the version of lush, layered psychedelic rock with garage grease smeared upon it was entirely out of the style. But principal band members Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic weren’t borrowing musical approaches from some odd discovery in a thrift store. The pair had played in bands together in the nineteen-sixties, when they were childhood pals. The duo weren’t really reviving anything. They were following the same caramel-coated muse as they always had. It was the rest of the universe that was playing retrospective catch-up.

Wonder Wonderful Wonderland was Plasticland’s second album and first since being signed to Enigma Records (the label rereleased the band’s debut, originally called Color Appreciation, as a self-titled album, in 1985.) Locking in on the paisley haze in Plasticland’s music, Enigma assigned producer Paul Cutler to the recording sessions. He’d recently had success with the Los Angeles band Dream Syndicate, overseeing their debut EP, which was generally seen as the launch of the brief, bedazzled Paisley Underground scene. By all accounts, the band generally ignored every suggestion of Cutler, instead building a record dazzling in its expansiveness.

The sound of the album is obviously backward-looking, but Wonder Wonderful Wonderland never feels stalled in nostalgia. Lead track “No Shine for the Shoes” sets the bar, drawing on psychedelic layering without becoming overly derivative or jokey. There are absolutely instances in which Plasticland offers a treatise on standard psychedelic trapping, as with the melty vocals on “Gloria Night.” And “The Gingerbread House” features the tried and true lyrical practice of wallowing in imagery of sugary foods (“The shingles on the roof are frosted wafers/ With sheets of licorice linings like paper/ Rolling expanses of candy cane archways/ That seemingly go on forever”).

Elsewhere, Plasticland swells the sonic palette. “Fairytale Hysteria” starts with a discordant squall of guitar sounds that sound like the most bedraggled rock ‘n’ roll orchestra tuning up, then the song turns into a beautifully sludgy march forward, the melody moving with serpentine fervor. “Non-Stop Kitchen” introduces nice nice seventies-glam-punk snarl to the mix, and “Process of the Silverness” has the spirited worldly pop reinvention of Camper Van Beethoven.

Enigma Records never quite knew what to do with these trippy titans and the album they delivered. Closer to the band’s original home, they were more warmly regarded. Plasticland were inducted to the Wisconsin Are Music Industry Hall of Fame, in 2015.

 

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959. Eric Clapton, Money and Cigarettes (1983)

Doctors warned Eric Clapton against recording the album Money and Cigarettes. It’s nice to think the physicians were trying to protect the listening public from another bloodless collection of rehashed riffs, but they were instead concerned that the legendary guitarist would compromise the long, hard treatment for alcoholism he’d recently completed, recognizing there’d be triggers aplenty in the process. There’s no question the absence of booze was on Clapton’s mind. He titled the album Money and Cigarettes because he felt that, following rehab, that was all he had left in the world.

Over a decade earlier, Clapton had drawn on wrenching misery to make Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the epic album by Derek and the Dominos that still stands as his one truly unassailable piece of art. If he had any similar sorrow when he ducked into Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, it’s nowhere to be found on Money and Cigarettes. At best, the material is perfunctory, and even those drab peaks are rare. “Ain’t Going Down” sounds like a REO Speedwagon discard played by a still-developing Muddy Waters tribute act, and modest hit single “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart” is one of the least convincing declarations of helpless rebellion ever pressed into grooves.

When Clapton lands on an agreeable riff, he hobbles the song with his dependably dreadful words. “The Shape You’re In” is a decent, little shuffle that moves along briskly, but then the exceedingly dopey lyrics arrive: “Well, my little girl really loves that wine/ Wine will do it to her most every time/ If it’s red or it’s white or it’s in between/ She can drink more wine than I’ve ever seen.” And for those who believe the notorious “Wonderful Night” is the unbeatable champion of trite, treacly Clapton love ballads, know that “Pretty Girl” might very well be worse (“Pretty girl you are the light of my life/ I mean my everything/ You are the one I chose to make my wife/ That’s why you wear my ring”). If only doctor’s orders had stopped it.

 

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958. Scruffy the Cat, Boom Boom Boom Bingo (1987)

Befitting a band that specialized in fantastically raucous music, Scruffy the Cat clearly didn’t sit still. Although their recordings span only three full years — 1986, 1987, and 1988 — they released two full-lengths and pair of EPS, the records often arriving right on top of each other. Boom Boom Boom Bingo was the band’s second release, following High Octane Revival. A continuing introduction to Scruffy the Cat’s rough-hewn charms, it couldn’t be much better.

Boom Boom Boom Bingo is a little looser affair than its immediate predecessor. It features both new studio originals and some live tracks, the latter including a spirited cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Not only were Scruffy the Cat taking a swing at a number that is arguably one of the top five rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, they were announcing an ancestral kinship with a certain musical approach: dark and stealthy, raw but grounded firmly in accomplished musicianship, yearning and bleakly romantic.

Although there’s not much to the EP, everything there is choice. Opening track “You Dirty Rat” is especially good, built around a clean, enlivening pop hook and sizzling with nifty little guitar flourishes. Surely Boom Boom Boom Bingo accomplished its primary goal and left college programmers anxious for more.

 

elo time

957. Electric Light Orchestra, Time (1981)

The desirable convenience of slotting pop music trends into distinct chronological eras often runs afoul of the more slippery realities of discographies held up against calendars. The often embarrassing pomposity of rock concept albums is typically thought of as a product reserved for the nineteen-seventies, with only the rare escapee. Some of the most bizarre entries is that misbegotten canon, though, have copyright dates placing them unmistakably in the nineteen-eighties, when the excesses were further garnished with growing studio slickness and the linger effects of disco and new wave.

I will not claim to have ascertained the plot moving through the thirteen tracks of Time, the ninth studio album by Electric Light Orchestra (in one of the instances in which they are simply billed as ELO), nor am I particularly interested in a deep enough studio to crack open its deeper nuances. The explanation of band leader Jeff Lynne is good enough for me.  The story involves a young man living in the early-eighties who drifts into a dreamlike state that includes time travel to the year 2095. There, he meets an android woman, marvels at the futuristic scenery, and pines his simpler past. That time traveler’s nostalgia is present in the haunted balled “Ticket to the Moon,” which is just longing for a rock opera Broadway musical to call home (“Remember the good old nineteen-eighties/ When things were so uncomplicated/ I wish I could go back there again/ And everything could be the same”).

Of course, the album must opens with a prologue, in this instance announced with studio sounds that suggest a neon strafed electro-pipe-organ gurgling up from murky depths, accompanied by an android voice reciting a stage-setting poetry that’s nearly indecipherable, in every respect (“And as you tread the halls of sanity/ You feel so glad to be, unable to go beyond/ I have a message from another time”). That morphs directly into the shiny disco pop of “Twilight,” suggesting ELO were still nursing a Xanadu hangover.

For all the implied ambition of the concept album approach, Time admirably avoids getting overly bogged down in servicing the through line. If the tracks were tied too imposingly to the central character’s era-spanning woes, after all, a track like “Hold on Tight” could have been almost impenetrable when separated from its cohorts. Instead, it could provide the soundtrack to an odd promotional campaign by the National Coffee Association, which looped in David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, touting among other things, how good the caffeinated beverage is at letting “you calm yourself down.”

Lynne sometimes evidences some creative rambunctiousness in his songwriting, with mixed results. “The Lights Go Down” demonstrates the oddity of melding a loose reggae beat (more “Tide is High” than Peter Tosh, admittedly) with dance floor lite tinkering, and “Another Heart Breaks,” a near-instrumental that is more sleepy than rewardingly intricate. It’s better when Lynne opts for his favorite pastime: trying to create a highly modernized Beatles sound. “Rain is Falling” finds Lynne really tapping into his Lennon-esque soaring etherealness, as does “21st Century Man.”

It’s impossible to know if the songwriter needed the structure of a fellow skipping along centuries to get to the better material on Time. I suppose it didn’t hurt.

 

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs