From the Archive: Unforgiven

best 1992

As we continue to trek through the favored films I wrote about for the special year-end edition of The Reel Thing, I will now note that we also carved out a few minutes in the episode to discuss the worst films of 1992. Currently blessed with the selectivity of a part-time film critic, I’m decidedly ill-equipped to come up with such a list, but we had no shortage of contenders back then, especially with small-town screens serving as our main source of cinema. So, straight from the script, here’s my list of the worst films of 1992:

worst1992

Look, there’s a Ridley Scott, sharing the top of the bottoms list with the other terrible Christopher Columbus of that year. (The Chris Columbus movie from that year ain’t so hot, either.) Do also note that Sylvester Stallone, weeks away from perhaps winning an acting Oscar (a reasonable choice in this instance, I’ll admit), is also represented. That’s enough of that. As we say in the radio biz, and now on with the countdown…

#3 — UNFORGIVEN

For years now, Clint Eastwood has been balancing his career with commercial crowd pleasers and deeply artistic work. Before releasing his 1988 Charlie Parker biography, BIRD, Eastwood cranked out another Dirty Harry movie. His truly terrific 1990 meditation of a misguided moviemaker, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, was quickly followed by the truly awful buddy-cop movie THE ROOKIE. But in 1992, Eastwood found a way to combine these two disparate brands of filmmaking. He returned to his familiar place in the genre of westerns, only to craft a film that represents his finest work yet and deconstructs the myth that he’s spending his entire career developing. Dusting off an old, stunning script by David Webb Peoples, Eastwood directs and stars in the film UNFORGIVEN, a deep examination of the effects of violence that leaves all preconceptions about Eastwood in dust. He plays a pig farmer who has a past as a fierce killer and is drawn back into gunfighting to collect a bounty on a man who cut up the face of a prostitute. Eastwood gives a terrific performance as a man haunted by the memory of  every person he killed. The supporting cast is equally good, with Morgan Freeman as a companion of Eastwood’s and Richard Harris as an Englishman who shows up to try to collect the bounty, only to have a nasty run-in with the town’s sheriff. And it is the man filling that role who gives the film’s most memorable performance. Gene Hackman gives yet another flawless performance as the nasty lawman who has his own devastating sense of justice. Though the character is essentially a villain, Hackman plays it cool, never lapsing into hysterics or overwrought raving. It is a masterful performance of restrained cruelty. UNFORGIVEN is the film that demonstrates that Clint Eastwood is more than an old action hero. It is nothing short of definitive proof that he is one of Hollywood’s most skilled filmmakers. It is also probably a film that will stand as an enduring classic.

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One for Friday: Sport of Kings, “This City in Darkness”

sport of kings

“This City in Darkness” is one of those tracks in my digital collection that is so obscure I’m not even certain how I found my way to it. To the best of my knowledge, I never played anything from the band Sport of Kings during my radio days, although I suppose it is possible. It seems the band hailed from Chicago, and the entirety of their output was issues only a handful of years before I arrived at my happy bunker with a fully working transmitter. Perhaps I did slip one of their records out of the C Stacks some late night, only to have the experience be fully forgotten years later. I doubt it, though. I’d like to think something infused with such a hearty blast of Joy Division styled goodness would have caught my ear.

Even now, information about Sport of Kings and their music is pretty difficult to track down. It doesn’t help that any search of band’s name with necessary modifiers to point away from horse racing and toward music from the nineteen-eighties is sure to lead to the dead end of a Triumph album. They are simply one of those bands that briefly flared up, made a glancing impression, and then faded into obscurity, picking up the stray diehard fan elated by the random discovery of their music decades down the line. That legacy doesn’t net the guys in the band rock star riches, but it does speak the unlikely endurance of great music. Put it down on record, and it has the possibility of stirring up joy for as long as needles can be dropped and speakers can pulse.

Listen or download –> Sport of Kings, “This City in Darkness”

(Disclaimer: “This City in Darkness” is on the 1981 EP On a Tall Building. Since even the most cursory informational details about Sport of Kings are elusive, I surely can’t find evidence that any of their music remains available for purchase, at least as physical items that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. The track is shared here, then, with the belief that doing so impedes no fair commerce. Even still, I will gladly and promptly remove the music file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Top Ten Movies of 2015 — Number Eight

8 queen

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is spectacularly discombobulating. The bare bones of the plot make it seem as plain and direct as can be: Catherine (Elizabeth Moss), reeling from the death of her father and a recent breakup, goes to spend a week at a lake house with her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston). The broken neediness that Catherine carries with her parallels that of Virginia one year earlier, as does the lack of sympathy in others stirred by that vivid sorrow. The execution of the story, however, is anything but simple, with Perry taking the already strong emotions and elevating them to feverish heights, essentially positioning the film in a freshly formed limbo in between intense psychodrama and full-throttle horror film while somehow keeping proceedings artfully understated. It’s as if Roman Polanski and Dario Argento got together in the late nineteen-seventies to collaborate on a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and the two wacko Davids, Cronenberg and Lynch, sat off to the side solemnly nodding their assent throughout the whole shoot. Most remarkably, Perry’s approach unlocks a purity within the film, eliding indie film tropes to get at the relentless gnashing of the soul that burdens those who are adrift. Moss responds with a grandly fearless performance, paradoxically striking the perfect balance by boldly embracing imbalance.

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The New Releases Shelf: Leave Me Alone

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I adore the way Leave Me Alone, the debut album from Hinds, shuffles to life with a distinct slacker ease, as if it’s trying to establish a code of ripe sonic lassitude. Album opener “Garden” recalls some of the hollowed out retro rock of the Best Coast brigade from a couple years back, but with an added distancing from the rigidity of popcraft. With its trudging backbeat, rickety anti-harmonies, and guitar lines that sound like they’re being played by arms collapsing out of exhaustion, “Garden” is a call to arms from a band choosing not to raise their voice too loud. It is insistent by its methodical withdrawal, urgent because it is in no particular hurry. Even the lyrics are notable for somehow finding emotion in disjointedness: “How many secrets you have that keep you smiling that way?/ You better start to behave/ And how many scars you don’t share, and why do I care?/ Still, I can smell that something failed.” (Those four lines take about thirty seconds.) The music is defined by its fascinating contradictions, at yet it feels genially effortless.

The quartet from Madrid delivers that sort of material across the album, catching the same whiff of dissipated teen spirit that Waxahatchee took to balmy indie acclaim last year. The appropriately title “Easy” calls to mind Liz Phair’s bygone wounded demos, and “San Diego” is the sort of song the Lemonheads might have released in the days before Evan Dando’s scruffy dreamboat status made it evidently more difficult for him to find his way back to downbeat understatement. Perhaps understandably, the slowest songs wind up almost overly spare. “And I Will Send Your Flowers Back” practically evaporates as it goes along. Still, there are more minor miracles than missteps across the album. The unexpected charm of the album is exemplified by “Warts,” its firm lope adding an underscore of empathetic warmness to the lyrics about a woman who casually inflicts damage (“It just started like a friend thing/ It just started with a joke/ She’s pretending to be witty/ But you are laughing with a frown”). The track also deserves extra credit for the lyric “She always burns her warts,” perhaps the finest Dinosaur Jr. line that J. Mascis never got around to writing.

I’m not sure I’d call Leave Me Alone a great album, only because it repels such excited commentary. It should be met where it’s at, with a gentle shrug and a half-formed smile. Sometimes even nodding along to the music seems overly aggressive. Listening to the record demands an embrace of the splendid slump.

(Picture found elsewhere, then modified.)

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Greatish Performances #22

platt bulworth

#22 — Oliver Platt as Dennis Murphy in Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)

Once a film about politics swerves toward satire, there’s a hope and expectation that it will be simultaneously revelatory and prescient, especially if the cinematic endeavor in question comes from one of Hollywood’s more revered figures. The fourth film to formally credit Warren Beatty as director eagerly viewed as precisely that sort of astute, forward-thinking examination of the nation’s ruptured system for identifying worthy public servants. Even at the time of its release, Bulworth seemed to be missing its target, in part because Beatty couldn’t entirely split the narrative away from his own ego, making it deeply unclear whether or not the embattled senator he played was in the midst of a delusional meltdown or a warped visionary epiphany. That uncertainty could be the most fascinating element of the film, if not for the fact that Beatty — serving as director, co-writer, and star — himself couldn’t seem to figure it out.

While Bulworth is muddled (I won’t even get into the clumsy considerations of race), there are flares of insight, most notably in certain performances around the corners of the story. There is no better representation of what the film could have been than the performance of Oliver Platt. Playing Dennis Murphy, the chief strategist in Senator Bulworth’s troubled reelection campaign, Platt conveys the desperate artificiality of U.S politics, as ugly then as it is now, which is turn goes further to explicate the horrid toxicity of the system than all of the more overt bloviating that fills the rest of the film. Arguably the most important piece of Platt’s performance is contained in his earliest scenes, before candidate Bulworth starts on his raucous descent. When all is normal (although a supposedly sure march to reelection is foundering somewhat), Dennis is already in a state of supreme agitation. He barrels into rooms, hyper-vigilant to slights, fraying efficiency, and other signs of minor trouble. Attuned to the anguish and need of politics, Dennis billows with negative energy. He could be said to bracing for the worst, except that he won’t slow down enough to take the hit. No matter how much the train’s wheels screech, they won’t cease their dreaded forward momentum.

Since Dennis carries the burden of signaling to the audience the precise dire level of Bulworth’s transgressions against campaign decorum, Platt spends a significant amount of the film, at least through the first half or so, in a reaction mode. In one of the script’s key conceits, Bulworth’s mental collapse neatly coincides with the presence of a film crew, charged with filming a day of campaigning in what is expected to be a dry civics lesson, drained of drama in true C-SPAN style. That means Platt needs to veil his mounting panic at the disastrous wildness of his candidate, doing his level best to project an air of chipper dullness to counteract the unpredictable bottle rocket Bulworth has become. He’s allowed only the briefest flicker of fearful confusion before needed to shift into a state of public relations vigilance. In the performance, Platt excels at these rapid shifts.

The tension of holding all his disparate emotions and instincts in precarious balance inevitably leads to Dennis’s own destructive swirl. The impeccable balance Platt brings to entire performance remains in evidence, as he somehow indulges in heated emotions while keeping a level of wise control, as if Dennis’s instinct for shrewd oversight provides just enough of a dampening effect. As opposed to his political charge, Dennis bends but does not fully break. Therein lies the film’s most astute political observation: for all the tumult in the field, there is nothing quite as usefully stabilizing as a stalwart survival instinct.
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

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Top Ten Movies of 2015 — Number Nine

9 big

Approaching ten years since the heartless, virulently irresponsible greed of countless Wall Street hooligans decimated the United States housing market, the one part of the nation’s economy thought to be practically bulletproof, and nearly took the entire global financial network down with it, and the repercussions against the perpetrators have been practically nonexistent. Damning journalism and ferocious editorials haven’t shifted the national narrative. Maybe comedy can help.  In adapting Michael Lewis’s the non-fiction book The Big Short, which itself is infused with an apoplectic wryness, filmmaker Adam McKay brings his long history as a boisterously committed comic voice (mostly working with Will Ferrell) to bear on this examination of the havoc wreaked by those who scattered their soiled casino chips all across the roulette table of the corrupted home mortgage system. Most perversely, McKay settles the film’s appreciative focus on those figures who profited enormously by correctly predicting the mountains were going to crumble, a moral dichotomy that provides fascinating friction, largely because it is addressed directly. The film is aswirl with details and stories, occasionally presented in wildly creative ways, and bolstered by a game, engaged cast, led by career-best work from Steve Carell and a stealthily nuanced supporting turn by Christian Bale. The Big Short probably won’t have a transformative effect, but at least it serves as an invaluable cinematic document of the damage that was done and how it happened, proving that comedy can be as scathing as the harshest drama.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 247 – 245

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247. Pretenders, “Message of Love”

Led by the magnetic Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders flared to massive popularity quickly enough in the U.K. that the demand for new music started to outpace the band’s ability to deliver it. Hynde moved to London in the early nineteen-seventies, in part because she saw a greater likelihood of getting involved in the music scene she adored. Before long, she landed a gig with the magazine NME and started connecting with local musicians. The Pretenders formed in 1978, and they were charting U.K. hits by the following year, when their self-titled debut was also released. By 1980, they’d reach the top of the U.K. singles chart, with “Brass in Pocket.” While the United States market was a little more tepid in its collective response, their audience on the other side of the pond was clamoring for more. Luckily, the record store culture there was more amenable to individual singles, a format that had largely fallen out of favor, at least when it came to making purchases, in Hynde’s homeland. “Message of Love,” the second of a pair of singles released between the Pretenders’ first two albums, arrived in February, 1981. Several weeks later, the material from both singles (along with a live version of the debut release’s “Precious”) was pulled together for U.S. record buyers on an EP entitled, clearly enough, Extended Play. Along with its immediate predecessor on the band’s singles discography, “Message of Love” also wound up on Pretenders II, the group’s sophomore release. It was the first song from the Pretenders to make any real headway on U.S. radio, peaking at #5 on Billboard‘s then relatively new Top Rock Tracks chart. By now, it’s one of the group’s signature songs, well known enough that it can provide the name for a San Francisco Pretenders tribute band, proving there are countless ways to measure a song’s lasting influence.

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246. Echo & the Bunnymen, “New Direction”

One of the things that excited me about college radio, arguably all out of proportion to the actual merits of the practice, was the tendency to dig deeper onto albums, effectively declaring a defiant disregard to the official singles pushed by the record labels. In practice, we were plenty prone to sticking with the anointed “hits,” but other cuts could receive generous airplay, too. As far as I can tell, “New Direction” was not one of the three official singles culled from the 1987 self-titled album by Echo & the Bunnymen. Despite that, it obviously caught the attention of enough student programmers to register noticeably on the CMJ charts. Knowing the eager excitement that accompanies figuring out a hook to use in talking about an artist or song on the radio, there were likely more than a few deejays who gravitated to this track because it provide an easy entry to discuss some of the shifts going on within the band, especially if the broadcasters in question were privy to some of the backstory around the recording of the album, including unsettled personnel concerns and growing discontent within the ranks because lead singer Ian McCulloch was increasingly being singled out as the star of the group. Then as now, delivering a self-titled album late in an act’s run — Echo & the Bunnymen is the band’s fifth full-length studio album — was viewed as a statement of beginning anew. Interestingly enough, the song is rife with religious imagery (“All my evils would be blessed/ If to God I did confess/ Wipe the slate and see if I/ Ate the bread and drank the wine”) of the sort that college radio kids inclined towards anti-social pushback didn’t usually embrace. McCulloch’s vocals are nestled fairly deeply into the mix. Maybe the rabble-rousing youth didn’t notice.

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245. Eurythmics, “Missionary Man”

A touch of critical grouchiness dogged the Eurythmics as the second half of the nineteen-eighties unfolded. One of the first bands that jumped from obscurity to sensation in large part from the attention bestowed upon them by upstart cable channel MTV, the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were too restlessly creative to continually, repeatedly deliver exactly what was expected of them. The icy dance pop that earned their fame wasn’t set aside, but it was melded with other sonic preoccupations, most notably Stewart’s interest in the classic R&B sounds of U.S. labels such as Stax Records. That shift significantly informed the band’s 1985 album, Be Yourself Tonight. By the time of Revenge, released the following year, the Eurythmics’ sound was swinging back somewhat to their roots, leading to a fascinating conglomeration of everything they’d created up until that point. The lead single in the United States (and fourth single released from the album in the U.K.), “Missionary Man” has the slinky churn of old school soul and the propulsive drive of early eighties electronic dance music. It also has an uncredited assist from no less than Bob Dylan, who visited Stewart’s home while he was working on the track. Stewart played pieces of the song for Dylan, and the rock legend improvised lyrics. Simultaneously, Stewart wrote his own reactions to Dylan’s words in a notebook, later transforming the material into the final lyrics. “Missionary Man” was the last Eurythmics hit of note in the U.S., peaking at #14 on the Billboard chart.

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.

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February 2016
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