Sunday, October 26, 2014

Here comes Brand-ee Boo Boo

I watched alleged Comedian and activist Russell Brand on the Lawrence O'Donnell program on MSNBC a week ago and witnessed the unimaginable. The usually shoulder-first O'Donnell looked  overwhelm by the accented stream of Brand's improvised blend of social critique and self-regarding arrogance. O'Donnell that the interview was more fun than he had counted on. It's my suspicion was saying nice things so that Brand,a man with an allergy to combs and shampoos from appearances, wouldn't raise his voice any higher. Stage lights might have shattered his guest gotten any more shrill.Russell grinned, that grin turning into a sneer, and then he slouched in the chair in a ridiculous posture that I am sure he thought made him menacing like the best idealized renderings of Batman, waiting in the shadows to strike at evil doers again, unseen and unheard.

 Yeah ,he's a bright fellow, but Russell Brand is a blithering, blurting idiot who seems constitutionally incapable of having a conversation . His lefty-anarchist talking points are well and good as far it goes, but they are old ideas, old rhetoric , old insights. He reminds of the kind of the sort who reads Ayn Rand at 17 and is convinced that they are a genius being oppressed by collectivists and free loaders ; the sad part is that they never grow out of it. Brand, in his variation of bad manners, is similar because he discovered Marx, Chomsky and  all manner of post-Soviet leftism and used the abstractions to inflate a personality that has the charm of a box of rusty zippers. It's not that I'm not sympathetic to much of what Brand is talking about. I and everyone else, though, have a choice as to who we listen to about issues and solutions for intractable problems. 

For the good of the causes he says he supports, Brand is their worst enemy, a self-regarding brat with a vocabulary who cannot or will not get over himself long enough to test the merits of his notions in honest exchanges. He is manic, perhaps he should be under professional care. The tragedy is that sooner or later his audience will find a new shiny object to distract themselves with and Russell Brand will be consigned to the Hollywood Squares ghetto of used up celebrities. But even that doesn't exist as an option any more. As more people die of disease, gun shot wounds , unnatural disasters and the like, this braying donkey will sicken the audience that deigned to lend him an ear and both eyes. Waiting for this guy to do something really fucked up; an accident will happen here. Watch this space.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gary Moore,Jack Bruce,Gary Husband LONDON 1998. Chelsea



Jack Bruce passed away today at age 71 , too soon for a man of his prodigious musical gifts. He was  a superb vocalist who's stratospheric, soulful singing defined a blues rock tradition that is still emulated today by latter day blues rockers, he was a championship quality  songwriter who had no difficulty  bridging different musical elements together into a seamless, reinvigorated pulse of musical energy, and he was, above all things, the single most important rock and roll bass player , period. This is bound to start arguments all over the various music communities, but I think that what he did with Cream, a furiously improvising power trio with fellow musicians Eric Clapton on guitar and the ever active, insertive, digressive, polyrhythmic Ginger Baker on drums, was to push  what time keeping in a rock format could do. In this live footage featured below, Bruce revisits the songs he performed in Cream with the late guitar master Gary Moore and the fine and alert percussionist Gary Husband. Buce is alive, agile, intuiting Moore's quicksilver asides, fleet riffs and screaming high notes;  he sets the pace, he takes the lead, he wrote the songs, he was, in Cream and in other sessions with Tony Williams and John McLaughlin and in a series of wonderfully musical solo albums , a splendid, brilliant musician. It's not that Jack Bruce will be missed: he already is, desperately missed. Please enjoy the video and marvel at the genius that emerges from this fiery riff session

Bye Bye Boo Boo, but leave the rope here

 "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" , the egregious reality show on TLC concerning the grating hi-jinx of a so-called redneck child beauty pageant and her bucolic clan, has been canceled by the cable network.  The usual reasons prevail, declining viewership and star controversy. The controversy concerns reports that Honey's mom has been dating an alleged child molester. True or not, that will not do  for corporate image. Read about the rhubarb here. 
 
It's been said that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but we must ask in response if the selectively edited and vaguely scripted actions of the low-branch egomaniacs are worth watching. The fact that millions watch Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty in their prime does not answer the question. The audience, I think, is complicit in whatever undoing occurs to the real life participants who , because of the presence of cameras and the knowledge that their shenanigans would be viewed on national television and beyond, ceased to be authentic (or "real") in any sense and instead began to act out for the lens. 

True , the stars of these shows made their choices and were paid what likely seemed like a good sum of money, but I doubt anyone warned them about the cost they'd pay once the audience turned to another channel and the camera crew went home. It's as tragic as Greek drama or Shakespeare at his most unsparing. It also also bitterly comic. Nathaniel West couldn't have conceived a more lacerating variation on how sudden fame makes fools of most of us.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Gone Girl": another masterwork from director David Fincher

New film releases that receive huge hype and a landslide of enthusiastically favorable reviews sound an alarm for me. With the majority of films being mere blockbuster tent pole spectacles and sequels there of intended only to fulfill audience expectation for loud and tech-y distraction, there has been a habit among movie taste makers  to over praise any film that strays from the formulaic norm and  attempts adult subject matter instead. Too often I walk from the theater with a  vaguely disappointment, thinking many greatly praised releases are over rated by cineastes eager to dust off their superlatives and create and create a cinematic event. It is a variation of the media cluster-bang ups where it seems as though there have only been two or three news items worth mentioning in the last month or so.

That said, I report happily that "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clich├ęd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl"’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been laid out.


The casting , as well, highlights a superb ensemble of players. Ben Affleck  fitting vindication for all the fan nastiness that's come his way over the last few years. He is an actor who has a director’s honest estimation of his own talent as an actor; although not the most charismatic or fluidly demonstrative leading man we have in our time, Affleck, as with Clint Eastwood, knows his expressive limits and performs marvelously when he stays within them. We also get a supremely nuanced performance from Rosamund Pike; she has the wherewithal to project the image of an icy prom queen/honors student and the have her character credible into an intellectually inclined problem child who's personality complications arise like boiling water once you get close and have an extended look under the veneer. A big plus here is the presence of Carrie Coon, from HBOs "The Leftovers", who I think as a fantastic, brilliant actress who will be a talent we'll see much amazing work from. Playing Affleck's twin sister in this movie, she is wonderful with characterization of the odd mixture of sibling love and red hot aggravation. Coon does not go for big gestures but rather captures the right expression, raises or lowers her voice to the right dynamic level, reveals body language that is a marvel to watch for its nuance and sense of containment. Coon is essentially evocative in her movements, having, it seems, a cat like control over emotion and reflex; she can see the build of emotion , whether anxiety, lust or rage, and she has the instinct and skill to make the explosions of personality seem perfectly normal. Jarring, yes, but not arbitrary, not compulsive. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

the rebirth of Twin Peaks

 Showtime has announced that it's reviving the trail blazing program Twin Peaks, David Lynch's monumental deconstruction and redefinition of what can be done with a serialized television drama. Interesting news, yes, but I have my doubts.Truthfully, I thought Twin Peaks ran out of gas by the end of the second season. What had started as funny, ironic and genuinely intriguing deconstruction of crime dramas, Lynch and Frost conspicuously lost interest in having their odd narrative trail lead us to Laura Palmer's killer. The odd twists , turns and eccentric personalities became more important; Lynch has always had a had time with sticking to anything resembling a coherent plot, and it was no surprise, really, that his initially appealing manner, quizzical, off kilter, askew, wore out after one season.

By the end of season 2, we had a mess of a series even die hard Lynch fans complained about. The Showtime revival, to be sure, could give us more structure in terms of actual story lines and believable characterizations ; Lynch's penchant for chronic oddness and quirky situations, where the banal meets the sublime and a series of minor epiphanies occur like quiet, low-spark string of fire crackers, might seem to arise from real motivation and emotional turmoil and not a creator's whimsy. I am hoping that we don't have another instance of 2 short lived HBO programs, John from Cincinnati , created by Deadwood auteur David Milch that tried for a combination of surfing, Zen, spiritual lassitude and copious amounts of assorted surf bums, former cops, henchmen, lovers, muggers, thieves and potheads reciting benedictions that would have confused the most learned scholar, with most of its only season taking place in Imperial Beach in San Diego Country and centering around a quizzical stranger who may be the second coming of Christ  or a chirping cretin. At best the show made you think of Beckett and his idea of depicting characters who are, at some point, beyond the delusion that they have free will and find themselves in locations they cannot leave, shuffling through their own set of stylized rationalizations, weighing the consequences of choices they might might, past events and intimacies that have brought to their current stagnation, ritually going about their daily rounds of meals, laundry, loveless marriages, finally able to come to no decision at all and remain as they are, in limbo, numbed and mumbling.

At worst it was an interminable bit of self deluded artiness, laboring under the stray notion that indecipherable dialogue and facile weirdness equals poetry. Much of the worst poetry I ever wrote and most of the worst poetry I ever read was dense, complex, full of striking images and surreal segues, and very little of it was worth reading in full.  Carnivale is the second HBO program. It was a bleak , dusty bit of depression , again playing around with someone who may or maybe not be the new incarnation of the Savior. Nothing could save the show from losing my attention, though. Set in Depression era America, its road show of bearded ladies, strong men, clowns, dwarfs, ratiocinated preachers and pissed off waifs was an attempt to furnish the downside of Kerouac's America; instead of bliss and spiritual revivification as a result of  hitting the road, there was instead in Carnivale equal amounts of psychic  and struggle and a constant state of rock solid resentment among the roster of players.  Even the happenstance of supernatural occurrences and miracles in their midst inspired not awe but a groan instead. Everyone grimaced on the screen and gritted their teeth until there was nothing left but raw nubs. What must be said about the work of David Lynch is that he wisely avoids the convenient despair and bleak outlook readymade in the infrastructure of most existential literature and moves instead in the area of the absurd; when his images work, they work with brilliant effect, as is the case of his masterpiece  Blue Velvet . That had an actual story line going through it, a beginning,middle and end, and was set up in sharp but credible contrasts of tone, wonderfully represented as the young man in that film, investigating the reason by an ear was severed and left for him to find, leaves the confines of a Hardy Boys like adventure and enters a world of pure criminal psychosis and evil. This is a solid premise for Lynch to place his bits of baroque extremism. It serves the task of representing the journey of naive soul who has his concepts of decencies tested as he his threatened , seduced, manipulated by the presence and logic of the pure evil he pursued. Lynch, with Mark Frost, brought that element of grim humor and absurd consequence to the first season of Twin Peaks.

John from Cincinnati and Carnivale  were shows populated by characters who were angry, always angry at something, and who battled one another in agendas that were vague or un-articulated. They were, at best, ponderous,snarling square diets of bad bread, unleavened by wit or humor. Here is hoping that Lynch and Frost have developed a lighter touch and a better sense of where a story needs to go.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"The Equalizer": Equal parts violence and boredom

The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington is a thriller that 's equal parts stylish violence, over- familiar character types in the form of naive victims and idiosyncratic bad guys. And yes, the villains are Russian mobsters, perhaps the last nationality American directors can cast wholesale as evil doers without an excess of complaints from the political sensitive. It is, in essence, the most recent variation of the avenging angel motif that has been a standard part of Hollywood movies since , director Michael Winner's 1974 Charles Bronson effort Death Wish. On that score, we could go as far back as Shane in 1953, George Steven's masterpiece Western about a retired gun fighter who is forced by circumstances he cannot ignore to put his guns back on and ride off to practice his deadly trade once again. It's the kind of often used formula that almost mixes itself once you open the package: gentleman, quiet man, pushed too hard for too long by bad guys, fights back and reveals lethal skills that swift and sure when used. In the end, lots of carnage, gruesome deaths, screaming bad guys and things blowing up and, to be sure, a firm dead pan on the part of the avenging hero serving his curb side justice. 

The Equalizer, based on a fine television program that featured actor Edward Woodward as a black ops spy who , disgusted with his life of gruesome death and deception, quits his espionage employ and puts his special set of skills in the service of those little people who are beset by awful people and circumstances. Odds against you? Call The Equalizer. This a durable premise for a television series.The movie incarnation features Washington as a schleppy worker at a Home Depot like super store who seems, at first , a nice guy , a good friend, a hard worker, but who reveals, when awful things begin to infiltrate his world by the likes of Russian mob bosses and their tattooed goons, sheds the Everyman guise and reveals what he has been all along, a virtuoso of death-dealing, inflicting fair and unambiguous punishment against those who are irredeemably guilty of something. This is all well and good so far as plot particulars, but we are not really engaged by any of this activity. Washington, who can be a superb actor with the presence and gravitas, is in his lazy mode here, seeming not a little bored with the dialogue and the scenes that he happens to be end.

As with Al Pacino at his most unfocused, his voice takes on a mumbling, nasal quality, and comes near to being sing-songy in rhythm. His deadpan stare, so icy and effective in Tony Scott's taut actioner Man on Fire, here suggest that his eyes are glazing over as he struggles to stay awake. Aside from some sweetly nasty death dealing where the former black ops Equalizer treats an assortment fatal conclusions to a swath of thick- necked creeps , the movie drags its feet and scenes lack any feeling of organic development; it's as mechanical a script from a 70s cop show, say Starsky and Hutch or Ironsides. Director Antoine Fuqua cannot energize the material. The most entertaining stretch of the film are those highlighting Martin Csokas as Teddy, an enforcer for the Russian mob boss; tattooed and scarred, this character is sweet extension of the villain who is well spoken, literate, not without charm or a sense of irony, someone who understands beauty and exhibits fine table manners, but someone can without warning and convincingly become a monster, a determined, obsessed , convulsive instrument of malevolence . The screen crackles and scenes get an edge when he enters the room. Csokas' performance is the one I remember. He didn't phone it in; he brought it in person and was in your face, fatally so.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dreams of Milik and Honey

What song is going through my head? An old one, real old, "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force that cannot be withstood.

West, never the most fluid guitarist , had , all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically nasty riffing. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say , with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on it's own truncated terms, or ignore outright. His guitar work was a brick wall you smashed into at a unheard number of miles an hour and, staring up at the sky, you noticed the bloom of a lone flower, not to mention a halo of tweeting birds and la-la music.  There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me , at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin.He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this particular masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a number of my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." 
This is the melodic , repetitive grind I wished life always was, endlessly elegant and stagnant, shall we say, in perfect formation of the senses, hearing,smell , taste, the arousal of dormant genitalia, all big and large and grinding at the gears that sing sweet mechanical song of intense love heavier than any metal beam you might care to bite into. Andy Warhol mused that he liked machines and that he wished he could turn into a machine, producing endlessly perefect things of unchanging design and nebulous purpose, unfailing in their exactness. More power to you, Andy.Machines, however, rust and corrode and fall apart and there is something beautiful in that as well but ,alas, the end result of that is the end waxing poetic. Alas. Sing it, Leslie.

A Walk Among the Tombstones trips over itself

A Walk Among the Tombstones, a thriller based on Lawrence Block's novel , features Liam Neeson as former police detective Matt Scudder, a sober alcoholic now working as an unlicensed investigator of sorts in the dark, wet underbelly of New York City.  The film , steadily directed by  Scott Frank, has a great look to it, dark, neo-noir atmospherics that make the city's architecture express the dual qualities of decay and splendor, and Neeson, displaying a bit more resigned humanity than he has in several films, does a good job  of playing a loose cannon caught between both sides of the law as he tries to locate serial killers who are targeting the wives of drugs dealers. Lots of ethical questions arise, and possible audience complications arise--who deserves a bloody justice that falls outside the law?, who are are we supposed to be in sympathy with?--but there is a sentimentality in the story line that spoils what might have been a first rate, remorseless  crime drama. The introduction of a cute orphan black kid, smart, unctuous, smart mouthed, lovable as a all get out when all is said and concluded, is a conspicuous sympathy play , and it rings false in a film that otherwise has the look of a world where good deeds, gallantry and the best intentions go unnoticed, unremarked  upon and which have no effect in changing the cold heart of things.

That Scudder is an alcoholic who attends AA meetings as a means of keeping his focus, his eyes on the prize, so to speak, is a credible element to the character, but there is a sequence where the  12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are read over a montage as a means of producing an alienating effect of a kind. It's a hokey device, actually, and you're not sure how it's meant to come across, cynical, ironic, hopeful. Who can tell? The 12 Steps , described by AA as being "spiritual in their nature", address the notion that the drunk who wishes to recover needs to rely on a spiritual solution to their malaise , to seek knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out, and to make amends to those who have been harmed. A sensible and simple plan, encouraging good deeds over bad actions and worst results, but the montage the Steps against are a narrative of violence , pure malice and a need to inflict pain and suffering, followed yet again by violence that is revenge, sloppy, crunching, relentless revenge. The juxtaposition is jarring, which would be fine if something had been made of it, but nothing was, and it's a waste of film time  What this film turns out to be is an efficient piece of film making that has a great look and occasionally an effective tone that suddenly goes soft in the heart and soft in the head, not the thing you want for a hard boiled crime story.