That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 1

I got treated to the 2017 documentary XTC: This Is Pop via a free promo weekend of Showtime. It’s a solidly made doc following the history of the band from its earlier Helium Kidz incarnations to its 1977 album debut, personnel changes, rise, fall, re-rise, strike, sputtered comeback and eventual demise. It’s a great intro to the band if you’re not at all familiar with them or only know them via “Dear God” or wonder whatever happened to that offbeat sounding band with the odd sounding lead singer who sang “Senses Working Overtime.” Lots of music and old wonderfully cheap-styled circa 1980 rock video is presented, along with interviews with musicians, critics, and principal band members, notably Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding, and Andy Partridge.

The band’s history, song by song, is covered in Neville Farmer’s authorized 1998 band bio XTC Song Stories (a book evidently later trashed by Partridge, can’t say I’m surprised for reasons I’ll go into shortly). A lot of the same material is covered in the film visually, but the film adds one amazing scene that’s a true revelation for longtime fans of the band like me.

Andy Partridge has synethesia, where perceptions get mixed up – colors become tastes, sounds become pictures and so on – and this mixed up/associative way of seeing the world is how he writes songs. He strums a guitar and finds a strange sounding chord he claims he’s never heard before…. starts strumming it… says it makes him think of the color brown, but sad, like a brown puddle… and then comes up with lyrics about a sad brown puddle and it all comes together. And all at once the seemingly limitless styles of arrangements, sounds and tones of the vast catalogue of XTC’s music suddenly made perfect sense to me. This scene alone makes the movie worth seeing.

So I thought I’d go back and listen to it all again, bearing in mind Partridge’s synesthesia and seeing (well, hearing…. I don’t have synesthesia) if I could pick elements of it out of his songs. The Moulding songs? No problem, I’ll go along for the ride with ’em… I always liked his stuff too.

Continue reading “That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 1”
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Friday Art: New York Movie (1939) by Edward Hopper

Hopper’s one of my favorites. His paintings of everyday urban life and the fine line between solitude and loneliness in his figures always ropes me in.

This is one of my favorite Hopper paintings, too. Yeah, probably ‘cus I’m a movie guy, and I also love the way he sets up the mystery in what he’s showing us.

The frame is divided in half by the end of the theater wall, separating what looks like an entrance to the balcony on the right from the lower seats to the left. So we get the juxtaposition of the audience watching the screen on the left to the lone woman leaning against the wall under the bright light off to the side.

The red stripe uniform tells us she’s a bored and/or tired usherette (remember, they had movie theater ushers in 1939). She rests her tired chin on her hand, maybe sighing. She evokes the tired & jaded barmaid of Manet’s Foles Bergere – a lone woman jaded at her job, even though the job is connected to the world of flash and entertainment.

And look at the glimpse of what Hopper offers us on the screen – looks like we can see the top of an actor’s head leaning into what looks like a big movie kiss. Is this the magical cinematic promise/fantasy missing from the reality of the usherette’s life?

Those sorts of themes fit in with the rest of Hopper’s output. I also love the colors in this one – the way he uses the oranges and browns to give us the darkness of the theater, with yellows and greens used for both the movie screen and the brightness of that light, illuminating the reds of the curtains on the balcony stairwell. The texture on the carpet is also a nice touch.

And the year fascinates me – 1939 is known as one of the best years for American film. We got The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Roaring Twenties… all in the same year! Which one of those amazing classic films is the jaded usherette ignoring, I wonder? How jaded must she be to tune out such wonderful movies… unless of course, it’s The Return of Dr. X with Humphrey Bogart as the blood-sucking rabbit-loving mad scientist.

Hey wait, I actually like that one…

I wonder what Hopper’s favorite movies were. I might need to look that up now.

DVR Theater: British Twit Comedy Duo/Hitchapalooza Edition

We’re talkin’ serious OLD SCHOOL British twit comedy duo, too – Charters & Caldicott, the two Cricket-obsessed comedy relief characters first seen in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in 1938, returning in our first film to discuss, Carrol Reed’s Night Train To Munich (1940).

Night Train To Munich comes across as a clear attempt to crib Hitchcock. Never mind the same screenwriters of The Lady Vanishes & the presence of Basil Radford & Naunton Wayne as the aloof self-absorbed Cricket fans caught up in the middle of the action. We also have the identical star Margaret Lockwood as our plucky heroine, ably assisted by a sarcastic and smug Brit charmer who she first hates and then (of course) falls for. In Lady Vanishes, he’s played by Michael Redgrave. In Night Train, it’s Rex Harrison.

Lady Vanishes manages to balance the droll Brit humor with a nice Hitchcock spy plot and twists, with Lockwood getting boinked on the head and then being told that the sweet little old lady who looked after her and shared tea never actually existed once she vanishes. It’s got a lot of the Hitch formula we’d all grow to love even more with later movies – the average person caught up in the international conspiracy, the mystery/suspense, the use of a train in the plot, and so forth.

But Night Train To Munich one-ups Lady Vanishes in some ways by providing us a more complex spy plot – this time with Lockwood as the daughter of a Czech scientist the Nazis are trying to kidnap and return to Germany. Harrison plays the British agent Continue reading “DVR Theater: British Twit Comedy Duo/Hitchapalooza Edition”

DVR Theater: A Pair Of Fine Noirs, Off The Beaten Path

One of the staples of the crime noir material I love so much is that they are, for the most part, stories told from the male point of view. We often have the male narrator telling us how everything went sour, utilized in Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet and others. It was an easy way to reproduce the language of the pulp material the films were based on, many of which were in first person narrative from the main male character who lusted/greeded and lost out big time. We’d only see the femme fatale & her motives through his eyes, and be put into the same position as to wondering what those motives really were.

So that’s what makes Too Late For Tears an interesting little number from 1949. This time, we get the story pretty much via the femme fatale’s point of view, following reliable femme fatale Lizabeth Scott’s efforts to hold onto a bag of money literally thrown into her & her husband’s car one dark night. The well-meaning nebbish hubby (Arthur Kennedy) wants to call the cops, she bullies him into stashing the money and waiting… and then things start to get complicated. The always dependable to play a lowlife Dan Duryea shows up as the true target of the drop, and then Scott plays him like the cheap piano he is. Along for the ride are Continue reading “DVR Theater: A Pair Of Fine Noirs, Off The Beaten Path”

DVR Theater: Sssh! Silent Film Edition

In my guise as Professor Film Boy, I have to admit that one of my weak spots is the silent era. I’ve seen most of the major titles of the era, sure, but every now and then as I’m thumbing through one of the Kevin Brownlow histories or rewatching some old documentary on silents (like the excellent 13 part “Hollywood” series from Thames TV in 1980 and golly gee, it’s ALL ON YOUTUBE and I had NO idea, really I didn’t…..), I’ll come across some title or sets of titles I feel like I ought to go back and watch.

First up was the 1924 adventure The Sea Hawk, not to be confused with the other adventure film The Sea Hawk from 1940 with Errol Flynn basically playing Sir Francis Drake. The silent version, based on the Rafael Sabatini novel, is the story of Elizabethan era Brit hero-of-the-Armada-battle Oliver Tressilian and how he gets sold into galley slavery by his wicked half-brother to cover up a murder. Well, he escapes (of course), renounces Christianity because of the un-Christian cruelty of the Spanish towards their captives, and converts to Islam (I’m assuming his circumcision took place offscreen and then everyone ate rugelah or baklava or whatever) when joining the Moors, changing his name to Sakr-el-Bahr (The Sea Hawk) and becomes the scourge of Spanish Christian boats everywhere. And then… it’s time for some personal revenge, although as the story plays out, much like Sabatini’s other notable works (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) the issues of forgiveness and redemption loom large.

Fast moving & fun throughout, and with a rather interesting resolution – after all, how would a 1924 work out the religious issues raised by the character’s transformation? Funny… I kept thinking throughout the thing how no studio would touch this story now Continue reading “DVR Theater: Sssh! Silent Film Edition”

Movies Worth Seeing: The Death Of Stalin (2018)

Yes, every now and then, I manage to stop watching old movies and catch up on some recent ones.

And this one was great – a real must-see item. Incredibly dark and brutally funny, it depicts the panic and power jockeying that took place immediately after Stalin croaked in 1953. While it takes some license with the actual history of Khruschchev’s rise and Beria’s fall, it doesn’t matter. It would be like arguing the levels of historic accuracy versus license in any of the Monty Python films.

And in fact, this film has the feel of one of those extended Python bits that brought in some politics, like the cycling tour episode or even Life of Brian.

A lot of it has to do with the casting, including Python alum Michael Palin as a nervous yet loyal Stalinist Molotov (and that part IS historically accurate.)

The true standouts in the cast:  Jeffrey Tambor as the mealy-mouthed indecisive Malenkov, barely a few steps above Tambor’s old Hank Kingsley character from Larry Sanders, used as a puppet of sorts by Lavrentiy Beria, the monster who ran Stalin’s secret police, brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale.

Steve Buscemi plays Khruschchev as a fast-talking joke telling cynical realist, probably not too far from the truth, really.

And then as things have been zooming along with painfully hilarious scenes of party conformity and paranoia with many laugh out loud moments, Jason Isaacs shows up as sort of a superhero version of Marshall Zhukov and is just a flat out riot.

Smartly, director Armando Iannucci did not have his cast speak in Russian accents – they speak in the mix of British or American accents they bring to the table, or in the case of Isaacs, using an alternate Brit accent (Yorkish) since he thought it would make him sound tougher.

So with the dialogue sounding contemporary, petty and everyday… it all gets hysterically funny.

The brilliance of this movie is how it manages to depict the horrors of the Soviet regime and the constant waste of individual value and life – while managing to be amazingly funny. It becomes a textbook example of how to successfully pull off dark satire, using some of the darkest realities from history as its source material.

Russia banned it too! So fuck them!

I realize I don’t go to the movies very often anymore for reasons I’ve written about in earlier blog posts & reviews. Back in the day when I’d see 40-50 movies a year in theaters, this would have been one of the movies to make my top handful by the time the year-in-review rolled around. This year I didn’t waste my time with those other 39-49 films this year and saw this one this evening.

And I’ll be recommending it to everyone.

DVR Theater: Don’t Trust Anyone Edition

If I’m watching a movie where the characters keep messing with each others’ minds, I should be enjoying the experience of having my own mind messed with.

I appreciate a movie that can fool me. I’m always trying to outguess them, either solving the mystery halfway through or even predicting a gag here and there.

So the first time through movies like Sleuth or The Usual Suspects or The Last of Sheila are a great joy – because there’s nothing I respect more than the movie that can fool me. Granted, Sleuth & Sheila fooled me when I was a kid and Usual Suspects almost fooled me… yeah, that’s right. There’s a very strong tell about halfway through the movie.

Sometimes the tell can be the casting, if you’re up on the inside jokes. That’s what gave away Dead Again to me.

Games (1967) stars James Caan and Katherine Ross as a rich young art collecting NYC couple who enjoy playing scary practical jokes on people. Simone Signoret inserts herself into their lives and joins in. And then these punkings continue until they get very much out of hand, involving the murder of a creepy grocery boy (Don Stroud), paranoia and the occult.

BUT as with Dead Again, I figured the ending because of the tell. Still not a bad film about no one trusting each other. The one thing that made me doubt the (correct) solution I’d figured about halfway in was a lack of what I felt was a reasonable motive. When the motive was revealed, it still really didn’t add up. I can’t say more without major spoilers, sorry.

Well, maybe one major spoiler for anyone who remembers Simone Signoret in the wonderful French film Diabolique.  Actually, just making the connection is spoiler enough.

Also – an excellent TV remake of Dialbolique starring Joan Hackett, Tuesday Weld (in the Signoret role) and Sam Waterson is on youtube. Reflections of Murder, directed by John Badham. Thumbs up!

Onwards to a very relaxed & realistic Cold War spy drama, a purposeful flipside to the gadget-and-superheroesque Bond/Flint/Matt Helm type stuff filling screens around the same time – The Quiller Memorandum from 1966 features George Segal as an American operative put to work by Alex Guinness in West Berlin to smoke out a nest o’Nazis led by Max Von Sydow while getting involved with eye candy Senta Berger. The striking thing in this one is just how bad Segal is at his job – he gets captured easily, finds himself at the mercy of his enemies repeatedly, and totally misreads the people around him, both friend and foe. The pacing is slow, deliberately, and the affect of everyone is extremely methodical and calm. The screenplay by Harold Pinter is terse, intelligent and direct. I’m so used to seeing Segal in comedy that he seemed miscast, although that makes him the perfect spy, I guess. No one would suspect him.

This one sits on the Cold War spy movie scale as less depressing than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and certainly less ridiculous and silly than ANY of the Bond movies. It’s also better than the Harry Palmer series, since it manages to depict the tedium of intelligence work without taking the self-hatred of the main character so far as to make the audience wonder why they should care either. The cast is great, as well as some wonderful locations in West Berlin used well. And while not approaching the total paranoid nihilism of 1970s spy thrillers like Three Days Of The Condor, Quiller creates a similar cynical atmosphere where our central character really can’t trust anyone around him.

So a thumbs up to Quiller, and a meh to Games, I guess.

DVR Theater: Noir Cops In Love Edition

By random chance or by synchronicity, I watched two old noirs where cops fell in love with the wrong woman (or “dame” as the dialogue would usually put it.) And both of them were directed by the same guy, the prolific Joseph H. Lewis.

First up, a nicely restored print of The Man Who Cheated Himself, a 1950 entry with Lee J. Cobb as the cop secretly in love with socialite Jane Wyatt. He witnesses her panic-shoot her was-gonna-divorce-him husband and helps her cover up the crime. But his newly minted cop detective younger brother, played by John Dall, follows the case and (of course) begins to figure things out.

Some nice photography around San Francisco from the era. You can tell it’s decades ago by the affordable rents, lack of needles and human waste in the streets, etc. But I digress.

Dall makes a good plucky somewhat-innocent cop slowly learning of his big bro’s corruption. I always thought he was an underused actor on film. He’s great as the alpha-closet case killer in Hitchcock’s Rope, and in his earlier work with Joseph Lewis in the excellent cult noir Gun Crazy.

Weird to see Cobb in a dark romantic lead after all the years of seeing him play loudmouth yelling bullies, bigots and thugs, but he’s used well here – basically a scowly old cop impossibly in love with Wyatt as she coldly uses him to get away with her crime. And you thought Spock got his lack of emotion from his dad.

This one is in the public domain and runs on youtube, if you want a quick fix of it.

The Big Combo from 1955 stars Cornel Wilde as the cop, his real-life wife Jean Wallace as the gangster’s good-girl girlfriend looking for escape, and a wonderful Richard Conte as the smooth-talking ass-covering mob boss. Along for the ride are Brian Donlevy as Conte’s former boss now grumbling underling, Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman as their pair of muscle, and assorted wonderful character actors like Jay Adler, John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia sprinkled throughout.

Storywise, this one drags a bit – some elements get overly complicated, but it’s got some great moments. A lot of Conte’s scenes with his smug and smooth confidence are wonderful. The use of sound with Donlevy’s character (I’ll avoid spoilers) is clever.

It’s an okay movie story and pace wise… but Good GOD, the cinematography from longtime noir vet and all around black-and-white GENIUS John Alton is amazing. The uses of light and shadow, of fog effects, of night scenes… you name it. Alton’s at the top of his game here, which is saying something. His textbook on cinematography, a staple of 1960s-1970s film schools, is available online as well. It’s worth a read, not only for the tips on shooting film which can still be applied today in the age of CGI and video, but also as a nice tour through a lot of Alton’s work.

Onwards through the stack…. next up, a pair of 1960s items…

 

Two Silly Dick Powell Movies

In my quest to plow through a fully loaded DVR, I began with a double feature of a pair of light hearted comedies starring Dick Powell that ran on TCM recently.

First up was You Never Can Tell, where Powell plays a murdered German Shepard who returns to Earth as a human hard boiled detective to catch his killer. Along for the ride is a human-ized dead race horse (Joyce Holden) as his gal (filly?) Friday. Powell parodies his Philip Marlowe bit here, acting the tough detective while snacking on dog food, chatting with other dogs and avoiding the revenge of the cat he’d chased in his previous life. A crazy millionaire died and left King the dog all his money, which set him up for murder by a fortune hunter, so the Lion King of the animal afterlife (in a rather bizarre negative-filmed scene) sends him & the filly back to Earth to capture his killer & rescue his former loyal mistress (Peggy Dow) from suspicion of the crime.

I like the concept & a lot of the gags work despite how utterly stupid they are. Powell & Holden are both very good acting like animals annoyed with their human bodies. As usual, we have cat-as-annoyance, however, something that always irks me as crazy cat man. Mostly, though, the ending is good but needed a better pay-off, not only for the come-uppance of the villain (which halfway comes from left field) but also in what is often the central problem in any of the dead-character-comes-back-to-Earth movies like Here Comes Mr. Jordan or Heaven Can Wait: How does the dead character wind up in a happy ending with whoever the love interest is? Do they become a different person? Do they both die and go to heaven? Or are they doomed to be in separate worlds (what a WONDERFUL uplifting ending, eh?)?

You Never Can Tell handles it pretty well, although without giving too much away… it would have worked better if Powell & Dow turned into dogs instead of staying human.

In Christmas In July, Powell got to play his first role away from the string of Warners musicals he’d been contracted to throughout the 1930s. He still plays the likable young man in this one, an aspiring ad man working at a coffee company. He gets tricked into thinking he won $25,000 in a slogan contest and goes on a spending spree before the inevitable denoument. It’s an early Preston Sturges film, in fact based on the play that brought him to Hollywood. It’s got the Sturges touches of snappy dialogue and silly slapstick, as well as the plot of honesty versus cynicism… and it was okay. I always have mixed reactions to Sturges’ stuff. This one keeps things very simple, but I only smiled, never really laughed. I guess that’s something, tho.

I could run through my reactions to all of Sturges’ work… but that’s something for another time.

I have more DVR to plow through.

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