Movies Worth Seeing: The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Edgar Wright’s fan-boy documentary about Ron & Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the long-running cult band Sparks, is a worthwhile view for anyone who has been a longtime fan of the band, and worthwhile for someone who has only a vague familiarity with a song or two, or has never heard of them.

The film advertises Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and this sums up a lot of it – they have always been admired and held in awe by people within the music world for decades, largely since Sparks serves as a shining example of a music act that never really sold out commercially – they have changed their sound (somewhat) over the years (though they remain largely a synth rock/pop sound driven by Ron’s keyboards and Russell’s falsetto flourishes) – and whenever they had issued a commercial hit, it often led to them continuing to experiment with different line-ups, producers, or a general approach. Add to that an amazing consistency in clever and often humorous lyrics – decades worth, rivaling Zappa in the “prolific” category if not the genre experimentation category – and you can see why every one of your favorite bands holds them in such esteem. These guys have actually had the art-for-art-sakes career that every musician pines for.

Wright’s film traces the lives and careers of the brothers Mael in great detail, mixing tons of archival footage with present day interviews shot in black and white, as well as some animation. The film will certainly tell you the entire chronology of the band and its ups and downs as far as successful releases, change of record labels, and the different phases of their story.

It’s a fun ride – but Wright is so blinded by his love for the band that the film often becomes repetitive and leaves out a deeper examination of their music. Anyone who has followed the Maels’ career knows that they are very secretive about their personal and private lives, and prefer to present themselves to the public as the quirky-artsy music act they’ve been for all these years. Despite all the narrative we get in a music doc running two and a quarter hours – that’s all we’re STILL left with in the end – and that’s fine – but perhaps in those two and a quarter hours, we might find SOME room for deeper reflection and discussion of their music itself?

We get wisps of songs and videos the band has done – Wright picks most of their best work to showcase here – but he goes through all of it so quickly that we get no anchor, no key window into the ways that Ron writes these songs, or which of those songs he and Russell might have something to say about, in terms of why they got written in the first place. Not one song is presented in its entirety. This is a huge mistake.

Other music docs have run into problems with their subject – Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry doc Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll showcases a fantastic concert of all stars backing up Chuck, but Berry shut down any attempt during interviews that took the narrative into darker places, even if they were true. End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones went to those dark places – celebrating the music of the band and their enormous influence on other bands – but also presented the frustration and interpersonal problems the band went through. There are a lot of similarities in the Ramones’ story and Sparks – both bands never achieved the huge commercial success they had been touted for early on in their careers, but both bands influenced countless other bands and were viewed with awe by fellow musicians. The Ramones wanted that commercial fame – Sparks could care less.

The XTC documentary, This Is Pop, also dealt greatly with the commercial success versus artistic integrity issues and how they can rip a band apart – but the film makers managed to get Andy Partridge on camera discussing his composition method, and how his synaesthesia figures into it – and watching those few minutes suddenly made nearly every one of his songs make sense.

Wright gives us no such insight into what comprises the songwriting of the Maels. A few seconds of a song will be played, and some interviewee will comment on a lyric line or two – and that’s all. I really don’t care what Fred Armisen things of a Sparks lyric. I’d rather hear Ron Mael talk about where it came from. There is one moment when former band members reveal that the music would be written first with nonsense words, and the actual lyrics would come in at the last minute. Why not interview the Maels about this process? Is it the routine, since they prefer routine in their daily lives?

I’d rather hear it from them than the parade of cool-approved personalities telling us how much they love the band – Wright takes up far too much screen time with famous fans of the band all saying basically the same thing. I don’t care how much Patton Oswalt or Amy Sherman-Palladino or Mike Meyers love this band. I also don’t NEED their stamp of approval for me to like them either – and that’s probably the biggest flaw with this film. Wright’s interviews with their former band mates, producers and music industry people offer far more insight into the Sparks’ story than hearing the same “Oh those guys are so cool!” gushing from people we’re supposed to follow the tastes of.

More of the film should be about the music. Granted, 25 albums and hundreds of songs are a lot of ground to cover, but why not have the Maels pick a few of their favorites for closer examination, or find a way to feature those songs in their entirety in the film? Like I said, we get no song in its entirety at all. We’re told over and over again how brilliant this band is – and often by people totally unrelated to the production of music – but we are not allowed to listen to the evidence in depth. And we never get any sort of deeper reflection from the Maels, either via Wright’s interviews or in archival footage, on any of the songs themselves. It’s biggest hole in the film.

And I’ll admit that while I’m always happy to have a band like this out there, it’s not like I own a ton of their records and listen to them all the time. I like these guys a lot, but I’ve always found them to be more of an art-visual act rather than just music alone. Check out some of their videos on their youtube channel I link in a bit to see the totality of it all. Wright’s doc mentions their love of film and their near-misses in getting more involved with movies (although it looks like they have a soundtrack gig coming up). They’re not the obvious “art school band” that Devo or Talking Heads are, but they’ve gotca similar vibe. The synth-pop sound is okay to me, but not my passion – but this movie’s lack of depth for their music DID have me diving deep into youtube, (Here is a link to Sparks’ official youtube channel) listening to the songs of theirs I did remember pretty well, and then discovering their more recent material. And all of it was pretty good. I kept thinking more of it needed to be in the film.

So I recommend the movie on that level – it’s an overly long documentary that somehow manages to make you hungry enough for what it ought to be about.

Movies Worth Seeing: Pig (2021)

It’s been a while since I saw any new films worth recommending. But I’ve seen a couple in the past week worth your while.

First up is “Pig,” featuring Nicolas Cage searching for his stolen truffle pig. The film begins with Cage living a wilderness-man off-the-grid life in some deep woods, digging up truffles with his pig and selling them to someone who starts out looking to us as some yuppie asshole.

Cage is beaten and robbed of the pig later on – and since he has some inkling of who stole her, he treks to the city (Portland) to find her. In this journey, we’re brought into a bizarre underground world of chefs and chi-chi over-fancy Portlandia style overpriced gourmet bullshit as Cage tries to get his pig back.

And what makes the film truly work is that Cage doesn’t care about the truffles. He loves the pig.

The film is a long and slowly revealed character study of Rob (Cage) – little by little, we learn of his backstory and why he was out in those woods in the first place. As he pairs with that truffle buying yuppie asshole Amir (a wonderful Alex Wolff), we learn more about Amir’s backstory as well…. and how it intertwines in significant ways with Rob.

The trailer & some of Cage’s recent films (Mandy, Willy’s Wonderland, etc) would make you think the story would be a violent revenge bloodbath with Cage avenging his stolen pig – but this movie is a quiet and beautifully sad drama, mostly about loss, grief, and the power of memory to trap us into emotions. The ways in which the sensory experience of a wonderful meal can create and trigger such strong emotional memory figures strongly into the plotlines and character exposition. Wonderful interactions between Rob and people of his past, especially a former prep cook now a chef who crumbles under Rob’s brutal honesty, helps us see Rob’s rejection of the entire Portlandia gourmet scene much more clearly. And in those reconnections, we see the devestating toll of loss – not only the loss of a beloved pig pet, but of truth, of hopes and dreams, of plans, and ultimately of all human contact.

Cage plays his role beautifully – with the never ending stream of weird crap the guy makes, it’s always a good thing to be reminded what a great actor he can be. He’s great here – buried under facial wound make-up for the entirety of this film, and slowly building up his verbiage as the film goes on and he adjusts to the city after years alone (well, not really alone… he had his pig) in the woods.

Highly recommended!

No, I Really Don’t Care

No predictions. Won’t be watching. Did not see ANY of the nominees. None. Zero. Zilch.

I may in the future, but a lot of ’em sound pretty yawn-worthy.

It’s an asterisk year.

Okay, one prediction: the awards will be given out largely on the basis on politics more than any other previous year.

Another reason not to bother.

Another GREATEST FILM EVER MADE

Certainly the most ’70s trailer I’ve seen. Just listen to that quasi-porn funk guitar soundtrack. Check out those bleached out colors. How about the car smashups with those old gas guzzling bombers?

Not ’70s enough for you? How about the stiff line readings for whatever dialogue we get, or spotting Richard Jaeckel as most likely cop and Lloyd Bochner clearly as mob boss?

Funny… this morning I was thinking about Bochner’s classic Twilight Zone where the aliens have him on the menu in “To Serve Man.” Then I remembered how be played Pia Zadora’s impotent husband in “The Lonely Lady.”

Ah well. He mostly did TV in the 70s and 80s, like Dynasty and the like. But he’s great in “Point Blank” and on an old Wild Wild West where he plays a demented genius puppeteer with life size puppets.

Jaeckel mostly played sleazebags, due to those wild eyes of his. Not quite Steve Railsback level, but close enough.

But a wheelchair with shotguns in the arms? I’m in! Time to hunt this piece of crap down and put it on my own menu.

I have a feeling that the two minute trailer will be more entertaining than the film itself, but let’s hope I’m wrong. Perhaps some heavy doses of slo-mo martial arts fight scenes and gratuitous nudity will truly make this one a classic.

My Past Continues To Die

A flurry of celebrity deaths of people all connected to the entertainment of my childhood and beyond…

First, producer Gene Reynolds died at a ripe old 96. He’d produced the early seasons of M*A*S*H along with Lou Grant and Hogan’s Heroes, Room 222 and a bunch of other stuff. Especially considering that M*A*S*H’s best years were under his & Larry Gelbart’s supervision, countless hours were spent (and often still are) watching Reynolds’ shows.

Then Orson Bean got hit by two cars while walking in Venice Beach. The first knocked the 91 year old to the ground and the second ran him over. I haven’t read any more about it – I hope it wasn’t some moron on their phone. Bean was a mainstay on game shows like To Tell The Truth back in the day, and more recently was wonderful in Being John Malkovich. Long ago, a friend of mine appeared with Bean in a small theater production out here – a very odd musical about John Cleves Symmes’ attempt in the 19th century to find the hole at the north pole leading to the center of the Earth. I’ll always remember hearing how after the playwright got stone-drunk after witnessing the flop of premiere night, supposedly Bean, playing Symmes’ old professor narrating the tale, came backstage and announced something along the lines of “Looks like we got us here a real bomb, folks!” and everyone erupted in laughter.

For the record, the actors were fine, some set design items were clever… but the script? Ye Gods!

Every backstage story I heard about Bean fit his TV persona.

And then, Robert Conrad died yesterday, star of one of my favorite old shows, The Wild Wild West. Conrad was always reliable for fist fights with his stuntmen buddies in numerous scenes (usually the legendary Red West and Whitey Hughes), and for playing tough guys. He played one of the scuzzier Columbo villains as well, a fitness guru who runs a string of crooked health clubs and murders the guy who discovers the Ponzi scheme behind them. His WW2 TV show got made fun of a lot in its day, but looking back on it in reruns, it’s a decent wartime adventure show with its plots loosely based on the memoirs of Conrad’s role, “Pappy” Boyington.

Conrad had a sense of humor about his image, doing those silly battery ads or losing foot races to Gabe Kaplan on Battle of the Network Stars. Many years ago when Howard Stern’s fans made it their business to phone into the Larry King Live show on CNN and annoy King with endless Stern promotion after King and Stern had some feud, Conrad was on King’s show being interviewed about some project he had coming up, and the Stern-themed calls started rolling in. King kept getting angrier and angrier, but Conrad couldn’t stop laughing and playing along with them.

It’s what Jim West woulda done, with Artie Gordon calling in.

Want more treasured elements of the past to blow up before your eyes? Well, why not start with tonight’s Oscar Awards.

I won’t make any Oscar predictions this year. I just don’t care anymore. I haven’t watched the broadcast in the last couple of years, and I’m not missing anything. I still love movies, but this event no longer has any sort of luster or importance to me at all.

And the WORST of all?

Well, I just got back from running some errands which included a stop at the 99 Cents Only store. And as I browsed the aisles, I noticed more and more items that are NOT 99 cents, but are labeled as supposed “bargains” at 2.99, 3.99, 9.99 and so forth.

They ought to change the name of the store to 99 Cents On Some Stuff, Anyway instead of 99 Cents Only. Amirite?

AND they didn’t have a big plastic pasta strainer to replace the one I have that developed a few cracks. NOR did they have the brand of deodorant I like. THOSE BASTARDS.

But karma – the shopping Gods smiled upon me, and I found a very nice wool winter jacket up the street at Goodwill for only twenty bucks. SO SUCK IT, 99 CENTS FOR WHAT WE BAIT AND SWITCH YOU WITH STORE.

Now I’m home, about to check the math on my friggin taxes. Bah.

Random Thoughts 2/5/20

Item one: Pitchers & catchers haven’t even reported yet, and the Yankees reported today that pitcher James Paxton underwent back surgery to remove a tiny cyst and will be out for TWO TO THREE MONTHS.

Do the months November, December and January exist? Why the hell did they wait until now to do this surgery?

They replaced the pitching and hitting coaches last November. WHEN WILL THEY REPLACE THIS PATHETIC INCOMPETENT MEDICAL AND TRAINING STAFF who can’t prevent injuries?

That team is looking at somewhere around 110 wins if they stay healthy. And those morons are ALREADY messing it up before spring training even begins.

Item Two: Last night, I dreamed that John Wayne told me that he’d been to an educational conference up in Seattle and that Bill Gates kept talking about me and what I could do to help out with school choice. Wayne told me he also thought I was just the guy to do it, and that I had what it took as a man even if I “hung around with nerds,” in his words.

Not sure why I had that particular dream. I hadn’t been watching John Wayne movies, nor have I been in discussions or arguments over school choice issues recently.

Perhaps John Wayne has actually visited me in my dreams from beyond the afterlife, although I’d think he’d have better things do spend eternity on than wonky crap with Bill Gates & then seeking me out as if I’m the anointed one. On the other hand, maybe that’s his way out of purgatory. I’ll try to see if dreaming up a conversation with St. Thomas Aquinas tonight clears up that issue, and as long as I have the saint’s ear, I’ll ask him what the Yankees’ injury prognosis for the 2020 season is.

He probably roots for the Cardinals anyway.

Oh, I just crack myself up.

Item 3: RIP, Kirk Douglas. One of the last great old time movie stars. Here’s hoping you meet up with John Wayne and have some bourbon, come to think of it. Maybe you’ll turn up in my dreams someday, maybe it’ll be about tariffs or infrastructure instead of school choice, or maybe you’ll just ring my doorbell and try to sell me Girl Scout cookies.

Whatever it is, I hope that it’s like what must have been in your contract for countless movies, and you get to take your shirt off and scream at me.

“TRY THE SAMOAS, YOU DEGENERATE SADISTIC OLD MAN! AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL BEFORE I SELL YOU THIN MINTS NOW OR EVER AGAIN!”

To which I’d respond “I’m Spartacus!”

Then I’d tell him not to fight with Von Ellstein and direct “The Proud Land” himself. It’ll be a sure bomb that way.

Good News & Sad News

I’ll start with the GOOD news – one of the greatest awful-yet-entertaining movies of all time is FINALLY getting its DVD release.

Kino-Lorber has announced that The Oscar from 1966 is getting a full 4K restoration, as well as commentary tracks from Patton Oswalt, Erik Nelson and Josh Olsen for Hollywood snark, as well as a track from film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.

I wrote about the wonders of this film several years ago, so please click on the link to read why you NEED to buy this DVD when it’s released in February.

Harlan Ellison is unfortunately not around to add an audio commentary track, but it looks like the Kino people have consulted his widow, Susan, and hopefully got a lot of material to work with.

I think Jill St. John and Tony Bennett are the only surviving cast members.

The sad news? Well, I just went outside to throw some trash out, and sitting next to my recycling trash can was a cute little rat who looked like he was dying. Totally out of it, barely reacted to me, and it looked from the little puddle of dried piss under his butt that he may have been out there a while.

Maybe one of my neighbors put down some rat poison, in which case I’ll have to make sure to throw him in my grass clippings bin once he’s finally dead to avoid anything up the food chain also stroking out.

Or maybe he’s just depressed and giving up on everything, sitting next to my bin and thinking “Oh go ahead, just kill me and eat me, giant monkey boy” when I threw the trash out.

I feel pretty bad about not doing anything for him. My impulse is to help a sick animal, but it’s probably best to just let nature take its course here. No signs of rats in my house or trying to chew their way in, that’s good. Not sure where a food supply for the little bastard would be, either, since my apple tree’s production days are long months ago.

Poor thing.

UPDATE: I have been informed that Elke Sommer is still alive. And I can inform you that the cute little rat (or large mouse… I really can’t tell) finally died and is out of its misery.

Friday Art: The Forest Fire Sequence from “Bambi”(1942)

Another damn natural wind event, another rash of giant fires, none of which are sparked by natural phenomena. It’s faulty power equipment left unrepaired by scuzball utilities squeezing every last dime of profit out of people, out-of-sight/out-of-mind cooking fires by what I actually saw in a news item today referred as “urban campers.”

Gee, I wonder what that fabulous euphemism is a substitute for? And God forbid such “urban campers” cooking food or meth (oh, excuse me, not supposed to say that, bad manners) during windstorms among dry brush are actually CLEARED OUT BY LAW ENFORCEMENT BEFORE WINDS GET GOING.

I forget, they’re super-citizens who don’t answer to any law. They live directly off the land, like Daniel Boone, before they start fires that burn up entire neighborhoods overnight.

And just to make sure California maintains economic diversity and breaks down the barriers of class, the other scumbags starting fires from the electric utilities are all fairly wealthy. So everyone is in on the action.

Or there’s always good ol’ cars backfiring, or arson. We’ve got a full menu.

One of these fires is on the other side of the city from me, a good and hopefully will stay safe 10 plus miles away.

But I am sick of this.

I can address the aforementioned scumbag utility company turning off my electricity during windy weather in order to cover their asses from lawsuits resulting from them not maintaining their equipment by adding a battery backup to my house, which is in progress. But I can’t seem to do anything about the stupid mismanagement of land, of non-existent cutting and brush clearing, of making giant graft-spreading “public” utilities maintain their equipment, or of addressing blatantly obvious sources of trouble like groups of unbalanced and often mentally ill drug addicts fending for themselves in dry washes cooking with open fires left to their own devices instead of being treated/dealt with/sheltered/moved along. I’d like to see attempted arsonists shot on sight. But my vote is outnumbered or ballot-harvested away by countless morons who keep voting in the same corrupt incompetents over and over again.

End of rant.

Did my rant start the fire under Bambi’s ass though? Well, not quite – that amazing sequence from the 1942 film is put together beautifully – the fire and falling embers-into-exploding-flame effects are realistic and truly scary. The color palette for those backgrounds and the fireshadows on the Great Prince and Bambi as they flee the burning forest bring home the heat and danger at every turn.

Disney made his animators go to art school and for Bambi, had them re-train to illustrate forest animals realistically. For background design, they brought in artist Tyrus Wong, a production designer for multiple Hollywood films, as well as mural art around Los Angeles, to get the natural backgrounds of the forest correctly. (And being Disney, fired him right after an animator’s strike.)

Bambi credits David Hand as supervising director along with a number of sequence directors – I cannot find a source giving me the specific sequence director for the forest fire, so I’ll offer my own theory. One of the credited sequence directors is Bill Roberts.

Since Disney had an established practice of trying out visual material in their comic shorts before placing them in features, I’d be pretty sure that Bill Roberts, the director of the Mickey & Pluto short “Society Dog Show” from 1939 definitely had a lot to do with this scene, since the climax of “Society Dog Show” has to do with Pluto rescuing another dog from a fire that breaks out on stage. While the flames look more cartoony here (as do the animals), the camera angles and narrow escapes from fire danger match up quite nicely.

I’m happy to be safe in my home and able to watch cartoons with fires burning elsewhere.

All because man came to the forest, so to speak.

Friday Art: A Photograph Staged To Violate Every Aspect Of The Hays Code by A. L. “Whitey” Schafer, 1934.

I love the thinking behind this photo: “Tell me what I’m not allowed to do, and I’m going to do it just to flip you off.”

And what a great photo! A decade before film noir got going, and possibly what woulda been a fantastic lobby poster for a great sleazy murder story.

The photographer, A. L “Whitey” Schafer is, unfortunately, far lesser known than the more famous studio still photographers who specialized in glamour shots of the contract actresses. George Hurell or Clarence Sinclair Bull. He started out working for Thomas Ince in the early ’20s, moved on to run the photography department at Columbia by 1935, and then took over Paramount’s photo department in 1941. He died in a freak accident aboard a friend’s yacht in 1951. A stove exploded as he attempted to light it.

Schafer explained his technique of staging photos in an article for amateur photographers in Popular Science in 1943. Basically, never photograph anyone against a blank background (unless their outfit’s lines and patterns will draw the eye). Always have something there to frame them, and use those backgrounds to balance and frame the subject.

Here’s his publicity shot of Barbara Stanwyck for Double Indemnity (1944)

He uses that hat/coat rack in back of her, along with that rather loud necklace, to frame the soft shadows of her face. And is she ever in character for this one.

Don’t trust her, Fred MacMurray! Go back to Edward G. Robinson, he’s the true love of your life.

Shadows in the background can also be used for framing, especially when you want to emphasize darkness over light. How about some Marlene Deitrich?

Every now and then, some contemporary celeb will pose for black and white glamour shots like these, but it’s sadly a rarer and rarer art.

But kudos to Schafer, especially on that screw you to the Hays Code. In our current environment of overzealous speech policing, it’d be nice to see more of the same artful defiance from people these days.

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