Playing Catch-Up — Keeper of the Flame; A Star is Born; The Front Runner

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Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943). Only the second film to boast the famed pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Keeper of the Flame is a stern, stout-hearted drama that too often has the life knocked out of it by a pummeling seriousness. Tracy plays Stephen O’Malley, a well-regarded war reporter who investigates the car crash death of a beloved political leader. In the process, he becomes acquainted with the man’s widow, Christine Forrest (Hepburn). She’s reticent about sharing details of her life with the departed rabble-rouser, and, naturally, suspicions mount and dark secrets begin to emerge. All of the performances are delivered with a hushed intensity, an approach that become tedious quickly. More problematically, director George Cukor never quite gives the film a solid footing. Sometimes he tilts toward a gloom-filled thriller like Alfred Hitchcock might make with the material, and sometimes a Frank Capra-style fable of oppressive systems impeding the mission of true-hearted citizens seems to be the desired tenor. The film was a passion project of Tracy’s. He felt it dramatized an encroaching fascism in the United States and argued fiercely against it. The mission of the film is noble, but the final product is dreadfully dull, unlikely to rouse spirits to take up any cause.

 

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A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). Officially the second big screen version of A Star is Born and the first to shape the material into the form of a musical, Cukor’s film is a prime example of the resplendent entertainment constructs Hollywood could dish out with startling expertise in the middle of the twentieth century, after the new art form of cinema had properly grown up and before the brilliant, rebellious reinventions of the late-nineteen-sixties and early-seventies. In this version of the movie story that’s been shared and re-shared to point of fable, alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) becomes enamored with Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a singer scuffling on the margins despite her knockout voice. Norman mentors and champions Esther, spurring her to an ascendent career even as his starts to crumble, the opposite trajectories complicating a romance that arises between the two. Cukor’s usual deftness is in full evidence here. He uses elegant, extended takes and astute, meticulous depictions of the worlds the main characters move through to craft a vivid, lived-in, emotionally rich spectacle. Mason and Garland are both marvelous, balancing their characters perfectly on the line between archetype and distinct individual. Garland in particular demonstrates how raw star power can be leveraged into a deep, thoughtful acting.

 

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The Front Runner (Jason Reitman, 2018). Jason Reitman’s film about the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is almost entirely devoid of substance, relying on the most facile observations about the U.S. political process. Hugh Jackman plays Hart with the lightning flash aggrieved offense of a man accustomed to getting his way, but he misses the combination of hefty intellect and forceful charisma that made the senator’s hubris-driven self-immolation into a compelling story rather than a mere footnote. The film’s rote, remote nature means an aces supporting cast — J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, and Kaitlyn Dever among them — is squandered. The most notable performance comes from Sara Paxton, who responds with deep honesty to the script’s small, valuable attempt to give Donna Rice a level of personhood beyond her role as “the other woman” in the scandal that ended Hart’s campaign. Other than that, The Front Runner is more re-creation than drama.

Now Playing — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

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By now, it should be be no surprise that a new Quentin Tarantino film finds the filmmakers shuffling together all his good and bad instincts like the thick, blood-speckled cards of a tarot deck. Then they’re flipped up with a randomness that is reshaped into a semi-logical totality on the fly by the teller, often in direct contrast to what any reasonable intuition might infer. No, no, no, he jabbers insistently, the Death card is actually good!

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, duly pronounced Tarantino’s ninth film in promotional materials, is set in Southern California in 1969. The entertainment industry looms large in the narrative, mostly in the recounting of lonely ballad of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former big screen fixture and star of the TV western Bounty Law who’s slipping into professional irrelevancy, reduced to guest spots as cardboard villains to be dispatched at some point between the last commercial break and the closing credits. There are also Rick’s new neighbors, newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), who represent the ascendancy of the generation that’s pushing the older creative personnel aside. As real figures introduced into Tarantino’s fiction, the couple also provides the impetus for the director to dig into the darker corners of the late-sixties California culture.

To get to the ranch where trouble is fomenting, Tarantino employs a character named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s former stunt double and current jack-of-all-trades aide, driving the actor to and from the set, fixing items around the house, and providing pep talks. Cliff’s curiosity about a live wire hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) eventually puts him within the burbling menace of the community of hollow-eyed young disciples assembled by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who’s courting an especially narrow typecasting dilemma by also playing the insane monster in the upcoming season of Mindhunter). Before the film is complete, the brief connection proves significant.

To Tarantino’s credit, he operates essentially three distinctively story threads in a way that allows them all to be more of less satisfying. He’s not particularly deft in his juggling — his helpless love for languid set pieces essentially forces him to leave pots he’s set to bubbling unattended for longer than is ideal — but he largely makes the sprawling film feel cohesive and admirably, improbably tight. The more significant problem is the period details — in music selection, in art direction, in styling — that have been inserted into the film as delicately as a backhoe drops in a load of gravel. Especially in the first act, when Tarantino is establishing his world, the film can seem less of an exercise in storytelling and more of an excuse for the filmmaker to display the favorite things he acquired after going into a vintage shop and declaring he’d take it all. Very quickly, the material excess shifts from convincingly of the era to pure distraction.

Almost in defiance in its flaws, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood continuously reasserts itself as disarmingly compelling, mostly due to the conviction Tarantino and his collaborators bring to the intoxicating allure of the movies. Propelled by DiCaprio’s multi-layered performance — which, at times, seems to be lightly satirizing the floridness of his turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — the rickety endurance of Rick achieves an unexpected poignancy, and the perplexing underuse of Robbie is very nearly redeemed by the sweetly unguarded joy she conveys in the scene in which Sharon goes to a movie theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino’s obvious and genuine affection for the roiling history of U.S. cinema inserted into his work has previously come across as overly self-satisfied, predatory, and even mildly toxic. This film represents the first time his obsession plays as warm and movingly appreciative.

As has been the case in every movie bearing the director’s signature after the comparative control of Pulp Fiction, the new Tarantino joint is messy. Personal appreciation will depend on how the the filmmaker’s well-established tics registers with the individual viewer. Are they are joy, or are they an irritation? I’ve gradually drifted toward the latter camp, but I recognized the charms of — and was occasionally enthralled by — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Although I found plenty to dislike (mostly the borderline sadism of the grand finale, shaped by Tarantino’s now trademark vindictive revisionism), the more restrained, observant moments — Rick’s tentative pleasure in succeeding on set, Rick and Cliff smack-talking their way through an episode of The F.B.I. — managed to compensate. If nothing else, this film offers the least aggressively mannered dialogue of any Tarantino film, a small yet laudable feat.

I’m long past expecting Tarantino to restrain his oddly lowbrow pretensions enough to let his actual talent catch up. Creatively, he’s a typhoon that swirls up gemstones. Standing in his path mean gets buffeted, but riches are the reward. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be leaner, smarter, kinder, easily a half hour shorter. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, would it?

Laughing Matters — Garfunkel and Oates, “What’s Gonna Happen to Chris”

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.

The Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep yesterday included a nice surprise on the front of the business section. In the space usually reserved for a disheartening trend pieces that unwittingly exposed the unchecked cruelty of modern capitalism or a dreadfully boring profile of puffy CEO there sat a story about the ongoing resistance to female comic voices in the realm of television, despite the colossal need for content. The article took a reasonably broad view of the state of the industry, but it fully won my affection by expending a significant number of column inches on the endless hustling of Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, known together as Garfunkel and Oates.

Among the many pleasures I derived from the article, it called my attention to the most recent Garfunkel and Oates song, which someone escaped my attention when it debuted last November. Employing their usual deft songwriting, the duo aim their satire at the cries of persecution issued by mewling males in response to earnest, long-delayed attempts at redressing inequities in society. They level their feminist ire with thrilled ingenuity and, as a bonus, manage to slip in a deft and rare successful instance of rhyming the word “orange.” The song contains feats aplenty.

Also, the web presence of the Gray Lady now includes a hyperlink to “The Loophole,” as brilliant and filthy of a comedic song as I’ve ever encounter. I think the construction of that particular information superhighway on-ramp is absolutely delightful.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #680 to #677

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680. Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments (1983)

The Principle of Moments, the second solo album by Robert Plant, finds the frontman of the revered, departed Led Zeppelin asserting a new creative identity with greater assurance. His first outing on his own, Pictures at Eleven, was a fairly muddled affair, clearly the work of someone intending to strike out away from a burdensome legacy, but also not quite certain how to accomplish the goal. For his sophomore outing under his own name, Plant deliberate reinvention shows signs of working.

“I was just trying to do stuff that was as far removed from Zeppelin as possible,” Plant said a few years later. “It wasn’t commercial, but I wanted to be commercial — on my terms. I was on some kind of mission to make mildly obscure music but at the same time be a success on the pop platform.”

As before, the shadow of his former band is so long, Plant can’t completely outrun it. Album opener “Other Arms” really does sound like Led Zeppelin with all the power sapped away, an inevitability when the singer remains the same, but ferocious guitarist Jimmy Page and powerhouse drummer John Bonham have been replaced by Robbie Blunt and Phil Collins, respectively. Fine musicians, the new collaborators simply, understandably don’t measure up when the music invites comparisons.

When Plant pushes further away from his familiar ground, the results are better. “In the Mood” is lyrically simple, but effective in its cool insinuation. And “Big Log” justly became Plant’s first solo hit, unfolding with probing guitar lines and a slinky ease. Even the familiar hard rock strut of “Wreckless Love” is bettered by variety, the dab of Middle Eastern melodic bending giving the dynamic just enough alteration. Sometimes Plant and his cohorts still seems to be trying too hard — the overwrought vocalizing on “Horizontal Departure” comes to mind — but The Principle of Moments is mostly a sturdy, satisfying rock record, proving Plant didn’t need to rely on his storied history. He could have a future, too.

 

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679. Big Black, Headache (1987)

When Big Black released the EP Headache, they insisted on having a unique disclaimer affixed to it. A sticker slapped on the front of the record read: “Warning! Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese!” Declaring the new record was inferior to the full-length release from the prior year wasn’t a gag or a bit of arch punk rock posturing. According to guitarist Santiago Durango, the band genuinely felt the material on Headache represented a step down in quality, and they wanted to be upfront with their fans.

Overall, Headache strikes me as perfectly fine, if somewhat forgettable. The plodding, snarling “My Disco” sounds like the opening salvo for a dance party in purgatory, and the industrial churn of “Grinder” is a decent representation of the abrasive music that was starting to take hold in certain pockets of Big Black’s Chicagoland home base. The jittery “Pete, King of All Detectives” is slightly more intriguing, if only because its unmoored energy makes it seem as if it can zip off in any direction at any moment.

Headache was presumably meant to be a new start for Big Black, since it was their first release for Touch and Go Records, the label they’d signed with after a serious falling out with Homestead Records. Instead, all of the band members felt the end was night. To a degree, their disenchantment with the finished product stemmed from a mounting certainty that they were running out of ideas. Besides, other paths beckoned. Before the year was up, Big Black released their final album, Songs About Fucking.

 

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678. The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence (1986)

The Art of Noise undertook the recording of their second full-length studio album, In Visible Silence, as a markedly different group. Acrimony had risen between two factions in the band, leading to a split. Trevor Horn, who also had a renowned career as a producer, and Paul Morley, better known for his work as a music journalist, were excised for the band, leaving the remaining members — Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan — to push on as a trio. One immediate complication was the Art of Noise’s status as a recording artist on ZTT Records, which was run in part by Horn and Morley. That certainly wasn’t going to work out, and so the Art of Noise moved over to China Records.

Part of the tension in the group stemmed from the idea that Horn and Morley favored a headier approach than the others. The approach on In Visible Silence started to show a playfulness that could approach novelty, heard most clearly on the burbling cover of cover of “Peter Gunn” that included Duane Eddy on guitar and resulted in a comedic music video starring Rik Mayall, of The Young Ones. And the electronic noodling of “Paranoimia” became the band’s first U.S. Top 40 hit when the stammering commentary of digitized character Max Headroom, acted by Matt Frewer, was mixed into the version of the song released as a single.

Morley was especially dismissive of the creative direction the Art of Noise took after he and Horn were booted, but at least there’s something distinctive about the goofball interludes. Much of the material on In Visible Silence is technically proficient and fundamentally soulless, all blending together into one extended post-disco nap dream. The space age lounge of “Eye of a Needle,” the floridly epic “Instruments of Darkness,” and hypnotically dull “Camilla: The Old, Old Story” carry no real weight. Sometimes a single element sticks out, such as the oil pump beat on “Slip of the Tongue.” More typically, tracks are simply tepid. A prime example is “The Chameleon’s Dish,” which is like fusion jazz on amphetamines.

Following In Visible Silence, more splintering of the band would come, as would more weird commercial cash-ins. Clearly inspired by their faithful revamping of the Peter Gunn theme song, the Art of Noise were recruited to do the same for the famed opening music for cop show Dragnet, to accompany the 1987 film comedy of the same name that cast Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday’s retrograde nephew and Tom Hanks as his hip new partner, Pep Streebeck. There were worse infractions against good taste. At least the Art of Noise weren’t responsible for Aykroyd and Hanks rapping.

 

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677. The Babys, Head First (1979)

Things got a little messy for the Babys when they were making Head First, their third studio album. The band registered their first top 40 hit, “Isn’t It Time,” from their previous album and were expected to build on that success. But the label took issue with some of the personnel in and around the band, firing the Babys’ manager, Adrian Millar. Not long after, founding band member Michael Corby, who had the strongest relationship with Millar, was also shown the door. Corby would eventually be replaced, but the Head First was finished by the band as a trio.

As a whole, Head First is generic late-nineteen-seventies rock, notable only for lead singer John Waite’s raspy, often over-emotive vocals. They strike through all the expected wickets: a power ballad with “Every Time I Think of You,” a rote, Foreigner-like guitar assault with “Love Don’t Prove I’m Right,” and mid-tempo drippiness on “California.” The title cut is basic, effective pop rock, like the Cars if they had been trying to work out some sort of inferiority complex by toughening up their guitar sound. The lyrics are correspondingly mundane on most of the album, though “White Lightning” seems to be about coming to the realization that LSD isn’t as satisfying as loving God, contradicting a childhood experience with mind-altering substances while in the dentist’s chair (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds/ Oh, it didn’t shine like you Lord”). Whatever is going on in that track, it’s certainly different.

 

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

Outside Reading — The Revolution Will Be Recorded edition

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The Language I Learned From Cassettes by Ben Ratliff

This remembrance of the golden days when cassette tapes were invaluable strikes strikes right at a nostalgic vein that I find irresistible. Ben Ratliff deploys well-chosen details to capture the bygone time, but the real strength of the article is the consideration of the ways the format itself — and the easy, imperfect sharing of tapes —shaped his relationship with music. NPR hosts some tremendous music writing at this website, and this is one of the sharpest that’s showed up there in quite some time.

 

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The Joy of Hatred by Jamelle Bouie

Published by The New York Times, this made the rounds before last week, but I didn’t get to it until it showed up in the Sunday paper. Prompted by the ugliness of the recent Trump rally that created controversy that was too brief, Jamelle Bouie writes about the celebratory nature of the chanted bigotry, the way spitting callous invectives against fellow citizens is a grand night out for the people engaged in the vile behavior. Importantly, Bouie draws a comparison to the “communal racial violence” of lynchings and other vicious punishments exacted in the public square in the nation’s deeply troubled past. The action is different, but the instinct is the same: asserting invented power and superiority as a warning to any suppressed class of people that might dare to believe they also have personal value and dignity. It is astounding how many leaders are currently engaged in active attempts to destroy every good and kind part of the national character.

 

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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I’ve been trying to do a better job of supporting writers I enjoy through commerce, leading to a too-rare instance of procuring and reading a book immediately upon its release. The debut novel from current New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Anker is a wry, wounded comic marvel. The plot launches when the protagonist, a New York City doctor approaching middle age, unexpectedly has his children dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by the woman who is his ex-wife in all but the final legal signatures. Then she ghosts him, setting off the seesawing rage and anxiety stitched firmly into modern entitled masculinity. Brodesser-Akner writes with a briskness and clarity that recalls greats like John Updike and Philip Roth, but without those esteemed predecessors’ increasingly embarrassing buy-in to American male myth-making. There’s a keener eye at work here and a more empathetic sensibility, which then allows Brodesser-Akner to effectively expand the scope of her observations until the book offers a compelling consideration of the pitfalls and grace notes of marriage itself.

This Week’s Model — Tegan and Sara, “I’ll Be Back Someday”

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A glimmering Ring Pop of a single, “I’ll Be Back Someday” could redeem high school poetry. If that task is realistically beyond the scope of any bouncy pop song (or, you know, the abilities of mere mortals), it at least suggests there’s a value to revisiting youthful creativity with properly ripened know-how.

“I’ll Be Back Someday” is the lead single to Tegan and Sara’s forthcoming ninth studio album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, which had its genesis in a mother lode of old cassette tapes stocked with songs the duo wrote and recorded while they were still precocious teens. They decided to take a fresh pass at several of the songs, maintaining their guileless quality and joining it to a vibrant, fully developed sense of studio craft.

The album trailer features a snippet of the original version of “I’ll Be Back Someday,” all raw and clattery. It’s good, in an appealingly brash, amateurish way. The new single, however, makes a strong case for professional polish. I used to pushily proclaim my preference for songs that were drastically pared down, a viewpoint fortified by the emergence of a very strong association between going “unplugged” and artistic authenticity that emerged in the nineteen-nineties. “I’ll Be Back Someday” doesn’t exactly prove my old self wrong, but it makes a counter-argument I don’t care to refute.

 

Playing Catch-Up — It Came from Outer Space; The Fastest Guitar Alive; At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

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It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953). From the boom years of modestly budgeted, big studio science fiction, this tale of space creatures who alight on Earth is based on a story cooked by no less a luminary in the genre than Ray Bradbury. A spacecraft crashes in the Arizona desert and the shuffling, shaggy globules that emerge start body-snatching the locals as they work to repair their vessel. Characterizations are thin, the acting is stiff, and director Jack Arnold stages most scenes with a perfunctory efficiency. The film strives for social commentary on flaring prejudice against outsiders, but screenwriter Harry Essex lacks the acute sense of human psychology and adeptness at layering in moral underpinnings Rod Serling brought to similar storytelling in The Twilight Zone, which launched a few years later. There are definite charms to It Came from Outer Space, but they are entirely dependent on nostalgia. The film plays best as an artifact of a certain style and era.

 

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The Fastest Guitar Alive (Michael D. Moore, 1967). This dippy western likely contributed to Hollywood abandoning the notion of banging out star vehicles for rock ‘n’ roll singers. Roy Orbison plays Johnny Banner, who travels the range with a guitar equipped with a retractable rifle barrel. With his partner, Steve (Sammy Jackson), and a small fleet of dance hall girls, Johnny is on a spy mission for the Confederate Army in the waning waning days of the U.S. Civil War. There are double-crosses and other shenanigans galore, and the film stops dead every few minutes for a musical number, most co-written by Orbison. Predictably, Orbison isn’t a very good in the film (though his gentle urgency and halting cadence calls to mind the delightful William Sanderson at times), but his thespian talents don’t lag all that far behind those of his castmates, who claimed acting as their day jobs. The Fastest Guitar Alive is most painful in its flailing attempts at comedy, notably the downright embarrassing depiction of a Native American tribe that includes comedian Ben Lessy as its befuddled chief.

 

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At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (Erin Lee Carr, 2019). As it should be, this documentary about the abuse of girl gymnasts at the hands of a trusted and  institutionally protected team trainer is a lingering gut punch. The crimes of predator Larry Nassar are duly detailed, but director Erin Lee Carr also provides plenty of space for the raised voices belonging to the survivors of his fiendish manipulations and appalling physical intrusions. And she brings an equally sharp, journalistic attention to the broader culture around the sport of gymnastics, which thrives on abusive power dynamics and borderline abusive coercion of eager girls at its most innocent, pummeling athletes into shape before they’ve reached their teens, obsessively eying future Olympic gold all the while. Carr expertly relies on classic documentary techniques — straight-to-camera interviews, extensive use of dramatic archival footage — and the result is sturdy rather than staid. At the Heart of Gold is agonizing and vital.