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Monday, August 29, 2016

Love

When it comes to '60s-'70s classic rock bands, Love is an example of a group that is respected more than loved. Aging boomers with gray ponytails know who they are, but they've sort of got shuffled out of the deck of great American rockers like Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, whom they inspired. They don't get much play, except for maybe "Little Red Book," which was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the film What's New, Pussycat?, but Love turn it into something that sounds as if it emanated from the coolest kid on the block's garage.

In fact, Love had only two hit singles, so the album I've been listening to for the past couple of week is not called Love's Greatest Hits, but instead The Best of Love, 22 tracks from 1966 to 1969.

Love has one important distinction--they were the first integrated rock band. Arthur Lee, born in Memphis, raised in Los Angeles, was their hard charging lead vocalist. Listen to the way he barks out the words in "Little Red Book" and you hear a master of rock phrasing. Their greatest hit, which peaked at number 33 on the charts, was "Seven and Seven Is," which was an early example of garage rock mixing with psychedelia. It is one of the most blistering rock tracks ever recorded, with nearly frantic vocals by Lee and brilliant guitar work by John Echols.

Later the group eased more into psychedelics, with most of the songs written by Bryan McLean. Songs like "Orange Skies" and "She Comes in Colors" (vaguely reminiscent of the vocal riff in the Rolling Stones "She's Like a Rainbow") made Love the kind of band listened to in rooms of purple shag carpeting, lava lamps, and black lights. But they weren't self-parodying--it was too early for that. Their 1967 album Forever Changes, now a classic, went almost completely unheard, while the Beatles and the San Francisco sound defined the LSD area.

Love may exist as something of a museum piece now, but driving around with the stereo blasting is an enriching experience. As the liner notes point out, the '60s albums that are now hailed were busts back then, like The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and The Zombies Oddisey and Oracle. Remember, number one hits from 1967 included Frank and Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid," Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," and the number one song was Lulu's "To Sir With Love." Hippies weren't the only ones buying records.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Yes in Concert

I've known my girlfriend for over twenty years, but until recently I never knew she loved the band Yes. I kind of like them--I have never bought any of their records, but I certainly know them from years of listening to classic rock radio. So when they played an outdoor concert in downtown Vegas last night, she dragged me along and I had a fine time.

Mostly I was glad that there were empty seats to sit in and it was a balmy evening. The crowd wasn't sparse, but it wasn't packed, either. The crowd was mostly Baby Boomers or Gen X, with a few youngsters thrown in.

It was called an "Album Tour," and that's because the set list played a couple of albums in their entirety. They started with the 1980 album Drama, which was an interesting choice, as it doesn't really have any of their famous songs on it and it was the only album that featured Trevor Horn on vocals. My girlfriend, who knows the hits, was a little disappointed. They did close the first half of the show with the very recognizable "I've Seen All Good People."

The second half of the show played sides 1 and 4 of Tales from Topographic Oceans, a 1973 album that only had one song per side, each clocking in at about twenty minutes (it became a favorite of late-night college DJs who could slap a side on while attending to other things, such as having sex in the studio). This album was the brainchild of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe, and so alienated keyboardist Rick Wakeman that he left the band. It's not a marvelous choice to play live, unless the audience is stoned or on acid. Thus, the crowd was very hushed and several people stood off to the side, talking and drinking beer.

The only time the crowd got up and moved was their first encore, "Roundabout," probably the song most played on classic rock radio. Grateful for something with a beat and recognizable, it was finally a chance to boogie.

The line-up on stage was interesting. The "classic line-up" I know is Howe, Wakeman, Chris Squire, Allen White, and Anderson. Squire is dead, Anderson and Wakeman have formed their own band, and White was wished a speedy recovery from some kind of malady. That left only Howe on stage from the days of the '70s, though keyboardist Geoff Downes has been with the band a long time. The new lead singer is John Davison, who sounds uncannily like Anderson. Howe, now 69, looked the worse for wear after years of hard living, occasionally reminding me of The Crypt Keeper. But he can still play guitar.

Though I think the album concept was wrong (no "Owner of a Lonely Heart?" no "Long Distance Runaround?") it made for a pleasant evening under the stars. Yes, who have long been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (who have something against prog-rock) are a band that ignites debate, as their excesses can remind one of Spinal Tap. But they put on a good show. And my girlfriend enjoyed herself and got a t-shirt.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"I Made That Bitch Famous"

The VMAs, or MTV Video Music Awards, are tomorrow night, and though I won't be watching I am interested to see what is going on in the pop culture world that exists completely beneath my radar. I am either happy or displeased that I have heard of all five artists nominated this year, and had even heard some of the songs.

The most conventional song and video is Adele's "Hello," which I think was impossible to escape hearing this year. It's the kind of song that could have been a hit in any time period, and your mom or even your grandma could like it. The video, directed by Xavier Dolan, is very cinematic, shot in sepia tones with lots of wind effects and Adele standing alone, looking off into the distance. There are some nice shots, such as a phone booth covered in greenery. It's very retro, in a way, right down to Adele using a flip-phone.

Two songs are very catchy and danceable, if unexceptional, and would have earned high ratings on American Bandstand with the comment, "easy to dance to." Justin Bieber's "Sorry," directed and choreographed by Parris Goebel, doesn't feature the handsome face of the pop star, but instead consists of a dance crew that looks like a Benneton ad. It's fine, but nothing about it suggests award-worthy.

Drake is nominated for "Hotline Bling," directed by Director-X, and starts with the world's sexiest call center (all the girls have large butts in tight jeans) and then features Drake in a variety of geometric shapes with some interesting lighting. Again, the song and the video are catchy but not very memorable.

I think the winner should be Beyonce's "Formation." I don't care for the song that much--it tries too hard to be whatever it's trying to be (and I can't figure it out, musically) but the video, directed by Melina Matsoukas, is evocative, starting with Beyonce on top of a police car in a flooded New Orleans. The video is a collage of stereotypes of black women, particularly in the plantation days, as well as an indictment of police brutality. It's very well done.

The most controversial nominee is Kanye West's "Famous." The song and the video have created polarization. Here is the lyric regarding Taylor Swift:

"For all my South Side niggas that know me best
 I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
 Why? I made that bitch famous (Goddamn!)
 I made that bitch famous."

West said that he had her approval, Swift denied it. It all stems from when West interrupted her in accepting a Grammy. I don't much about West or his music--I do like that zing at George W. Bush when during a Katrina fund-raiser he said that the president didn't care about black people--but from what I've gleaned he seems to be a very arrogant, egotistical person who thinks he's the modern-day Mozart or something. The song itself isn't very good, and the video is simply a pan over twelve figures sleeping. West, in the center (to fulfill his identification with Jesus he should have had thirteen people, for there were twelve apostles) and various other celebrities, like Swift, Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, Bush, and Donald Trump, are mannequins. They are also quite naked. Kim Kardashian, West's wife, probably approved, but it seems to be he's on sketchy legal ground to use the likenesses, especially naked ones, of people who he may not have had approval.

In any event, the video, which is over ten minutes long, is artistic but also highly pretentious. The song stops for a few minutes in between, so there's nothing but silence and a good look at Bill Cosby's likeness. For those of you wondering what Taylor Swift's nipples look like, you can wonder how right they got it. I find the video and song misogynistic and values sensation over art. But Werner Herzog liked it a lot. It will probably win. Maybe Swift can interrupt his acceptance speech.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Game of Thrones, Season 2

One of these days I'll catch up with Game of Thrones, since it will end at some point (even before George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, finishes the last book of the series). I just finished Season 2, what could be considered the glory of Peter Dinklage, who, as Tyrion Lannister, further cements himself as one of the greatest actor/character mixtures in TV history. I looked forward to every scene he is in, every line he spoke. In another fifty years when they are ranking TV characters Tyrion, as played by Dinklage, will be near the top.

It had been two years since I watched Season 1, so it took me awhile to get a sense of who everyone was. There are so many young English men with beards! Robb Stark (Richard Madden) led his army against the boy king, Joffrey (Jack Gleason, in one of the most entertainingly over the top performances imaginable). At the same time, Joffrey's uncle Stannis Baraeton (Stephen Dillane) also wants the iron throne, and seeks to attack from the sea. Dinklage is "hand of the king," much to his sister's (Lena Headey) dismay, and outhinks his enemies at almost every turn. Almost.

Up north Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is with the Night Watch. I forgot what they were doing up there, but he ends up captured by the Wildlings. Across the sea, Danaerys Targaryen (what a great name, but it's her title--Khaleesi--that people are naming their children) played by Emilia Clarke, leads her people across the desert, and stumbles across a city called Qarth, full of great riches. She wants a ship to take her and her baby dragons across the water to Westeros so she can claim the throne.

My favorite storyline involved Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy. He was abducted as a boy and raised by the Starks, but he returns home to the Iron Islands, where he is treated contemptuously by his father and sister. To save face, he returns to Winterfell, the Stark home, and since Robb is gone, takes it with only a few men. He then commits some heinous actions, and is a character both evil and pathetic.

This season seems like a holding place between seasons. The major arc is the battle between Baraethon and Lannister, but once again Clarke and her dragons are the climax of the season. There is also the inclusion of magic in this season, as Qarth has a sorceror who can duplicate himself at will, and a character called Melisandre (Candice van Houten) is the inspiration behind Dillane's march to King's Landing, and she uses some sorcery to dispatch one of his rivals.

The best characters are big--literally. I'm sure everyone got a kick out of Gwendolyn Christie as Brienne of Barth, who can beat in combat most men (she easily dispatches three at one point), and Rory McCann as the "Hound," the Lannister's killing machine, who has a surprising lack of loyalty. On the other hand, another favorite character is very small (and I don't mean Dinklage), and that's Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, who is on the lam and ends up as a serving girl to Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance, who now specializes in playing oily, evil men).

This series deserves all of its accolades. I'll have to try to watch more than one season every two years to catch up.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nine Queens

A film that had been sitting in my Netflix queue for years (it's from 2000), Nine Queens is a celebrated film in Argentina, written and directed by Fabian Belinsky and from one of my favorite genres--the con man movie.

Ricardo Darin plays a low-level grifter, who mostly steals money from old ladies. One evening he's in a gas station convenience store and sees a younger man, (Gaston Pauls), pulling a change-making scam on the clerk. He takes him under his wing and the two pull small cons. But then, Darin's sister (Leticia Bredice), even though she can't stand him, reunites him with an old partner, who has a scam worth thousands, and deals with counterfeit stamps--the Nine Queens.

Darin and Pauls make a winning couple, as Darin is pretty much conscienceless and Pauls is too empathetic to make a good criminal. Notably, all of the low-lifes in this film pointedly say they are not thieves, as though that was a place they were unwilling to go within themselves.

As Darin and Pauls try to get the stamps they encounter obstacles, and Pauls is constantly wary of the schemes Darin may be hatching. There are several twists along the way, and though I'm embarrassed to admit it, I didn't see the very big twist coming at the end. There's no way I'm spoiling it, because the main pleasure in watching this film is absorbing the twist and then playing the film backward in your head and realizing how the pieces fit together.

The film was remade in the U.S. as Criminal, which is coming up on my Netflix queue.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

My Kirk Douglas film this week is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney film, personally produced by Walt Disney, that was big hit back in 1954, mostly for its then cutting-edge special effects and sense of adventure. It hasn't dated well, though, as at times the boats look like they belong in bathtubs, and the giant squid attack, for which the film became famous (and inspired a ride at Disneyworld) looks fairly ludicrous.

The year is 1868 and there are reports that a giant sea monster is sinking ships. A research vessel heads out to look for it, including a renowned professor (Paul Lukas), his apprentice (Peter Lorre), and a devil-may-care harpooner (Douglas). Finally they spot the monster and attack, but it turns on them and they sink, leaving the three main characters in the drink. They find the monster, discovering it's actually a submarine.

They are taken aboard, and meet Captain Nemo (James Mason). At first he wants to just toss them overboard, but keeps them alive, mostly because there would be no film without them. Mason is like the world's first Bond villain--he's created a submarine with advanced technology in order to get revenge on the nations of the world for creating war--he sinks ships that are carrying equipment to make ammunition.

There are some back and forth philosophical discussion with Lukas, who for a while takes Mason's side, if only because he wants the secrets of Mason's technology. Douglas, however, just wants to escape.

Based on the classic early science-fiction novel by Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can be fun if viewed in the proper context, but I was frequently bored. The acting, especially by the normally great Douglas, is strained and unconvincing. I have no doubt this was great stuff in 1954 (it won two Oscars, for set design and special effects) but over sixty years later it's only interesting historically.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Oscar 2016: #OscarsMaybeNotSoWhite

Birth of a Nation
When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th, what everyone will be looking for is not necessarily who gets nominated, but what color they are. A third straight year of no people of color being nominated would be a public relations disaster even bigger than last year. Fortunately, there are several films being released later this year that have black themes, and I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that there's about a 99.9 percent chance that one of the twenty performers nominated will be an African-American.

I'll get into that further in my posts on the various acting categories, but I'll start with Best Picture. So far this year the pickings have been slim, and in looking over the slate of films coming out later this year, only a few films jump out at me. Usually I can guess about five out of ten films right (the nominees are anywhere from five to ten films) but I wouldn't put much hope in that this year. This is the kind of year that could be very kind to small indies or to blockbusters. A nomination for Captain America: Civil War? Not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Here, in alphabetical order, are ten films I'm banking on, as of now. Only one has been released.

American Pastoral, Oct. 21, Ewan MacGregor. Although I am somewhat hesitant because this is the first film directed by MacGregor, it should be remembered that because of the large preponderance of actors in the Academy, actors turned directors are treated very kindly. One of two Philip Roth adaptations this year (the other, Indignation, probably won't be nominated in this category, though it may be better), American Pastoral is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on a weighty subject: a successful Jewish businessman's life is turned upside down by the radicalization of his daughter during the 1960s.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Nov. 11, Ang Lee. Lee's films can't be ignored. I loved the book, but as I read it and envisioned it as a film I wondered how it would succeed as a film, since much of its comedy comes from description, not from plot or dialogue. It's about a unit of soldiers who are honored as heroes at a Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving game, and the hypocrisy of it all. I will be interested to see Steve Martin as a Jerry Jones-type owner.

Birth of a Nation, Oct. 7, Nate Parker. This film has been a favorite for an Oscar since it wowed them at Sundance and got purchased by Fox Searchlight for 17.5 million. Purposely co-opting the title of D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece, Parker writes, directs, and stars in this story of the slave rebellion by Nat Turner. Oddly, the film may have hit some trouble with the relevation that Parker was once charged with rape as a college student, but acquitted. Will that stick until Oscar nominations? Hard to tell. A reminder that no person of color has ever won the Best Director Oscar.

Denial, Sep. 30, Mick Jackson. Haven't heard a lot about this film, but after seeing the trailer it hits a lot of Academy buttons. It is the true story of a woman who is sued for libel by a holocaust denier. As the stereotype goes, films about the holocaust, however tangential, strike chords with Academy voters, and this at least seems to be a well-done project. Starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall as David Irving, the denier.

Fences, Dec.16, Denzel Washington. Washington's only other feature as a director, Antwone Fisher, didn't exactly thrill many, but this adaptation of August Wilson's play will provide several opportunities for black actors to be nominated, notably Viola Davis and Washington himself, as a former Negro League ballplayer turned trash collector who is dealing with issues in his own life and the world around. If this is any good at all, it should garner several above the line nominations.

Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears, Aug. 12. The only one of these ten that people can now see, it's a crowd-pleaser about the world's worst singer. Films about entertainers usually do well with the Academy, but this is a twist given she's bad. But it could strike a nerve with actors who secretly may feel that they have no talent. It's a lush period piece, which helps, and while Meryl Streep has not been in as many Best Picture nominees as you might think, (both of her wins for Best Actress were in films not nominated for Best Picture) her performance, as well as the "comeback" of Hugh Grant, should help.

La La Land, Dec. 2, Damien Chazelle. The writer/director of Whiplash is back with another musical film, this time about the relationship between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a waitress (Emma Stone). Hard to know with this one, as an original musical hasn't been nominated for Best Picture since (and check me if I'm wrong) Doctor Dolittle in 1967.

Loving, Nov. 4, Jeff Nichols. While Birth of a Nation has gotten most of the Oscar buzz for black-themed films, it may be this film that sneaks in, and I'm going to make it my ridiculously early pick as winner. Directed by Jeff Nichols, who has made several fine independent films, it details the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 Supreme Court case that tested Virginia's miscegenation laws. I know so many mixed-race couples these days that it may come as a shock to people today that interracial marriage was once outlawed. Look for Ruth Negga, who plays the wife, to be a breakout star.

Manchester by the Sea, Nov.18, Kenneth Lonergan. The Academy has been hit or miss with Lonergan, but this film was another Sundance sensation, being bought by Amazon for 10 million. It stars Casey Affleck as a man returning to his home town to assume legal guardianship for his late brother's son. Said to be almost unrelievedly bleak, maybe too much so to get traction in this category.

Miss Sloane, Dec. 9, John Madden. I'm going with this film, knowing almost nothing about it, as my zeitgeist film. Jessica Chastain is the title character, a lawyer fighting for gun control measures. May not do well in fly-over country, but among the liberals of Hollywood this could strike a nerve--if it's any good.

Other possibilities: The Light Between Oceans, Sep. 2, Derek Cianfrance; Snowden, Sep. 16, Oliver Stone; Sully, Sep. 9, Clint Eastwood; Hell or High Water, Aug. 12, David Mackenzie; and Silence, Martin Scorsese. This last film, about missionaries in Japan, would seem to be prime Oscar bait, but a release date has not been announced. It will probably be released in award-season, but might be pushed to 2017 as well.