Weekend Film Recommendation: True Romance

After making the second best film of all time that deals with the frustrations surrounding homosexuality in inhospitable environments (I’m referring of course to Top Gun (1986); the top prize goes to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) unless someone chooses to correct me), Tony Scott directed his honed craft of concealing a romantic narrative underneath hyper-violent high-stakes capers in this week’s movie recommendation, True Romance (1993).

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.18.35Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, a comic book salesman fluent in the language of cult-pop one liners and nerd irreverence. For his birthday, while attending a Sonny Chiba marathon at the local cinema, Clarence meets a prostitute named Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette. When the two instantaneously fall in love and get hitched the next morning, Clarence resolves to liberate Alabama from her indenture to her pimp Drexl (one of Gary Oldman’s more sinister creations). In doing so, he haplessly makes off with a suitcase that he expects contains Alabama’s effects, but that instead contains rather precious cargo belonging to some powerful associates of Drexl. The rest of the movie follows the couple across the country as they try to dispatch the contents of the suitcase. During their journey they reconnect with an old friend and an estranged father, and they become embroiled with brutal mobsters, enterprising cops, indolent roommates, and some of Hollywood’s most burned-out or talentless wretches.

The story is one of Quentin Tarantino’s first, and his stamp is clearly visible. Among other things, fans of his later work will recognize the self-indulgent fondness for gore, obscure movie references (Sonny Chiba was later cast as the sword-smith Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill), and swipes at the vapidity of Hollywood exec culture. Scott’s ability to harness A-list acting talent is a great foil for Tarantino’s slick script. The cast is so star-studded that they make sense together only in a film as replete with machismo as this: you’ll find cameo appearances by Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Val Kilmer, James Gandolfini, and a slew of other actors all known for their bravado.

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.20.44Three performances in particular are commonly cited as standouts. As the layabout stoner Floyd, Brad Pitt showed that his repertoire extended far beyond traditional ‘effortlessly good-looking’ roles. However, the mesmerizing scene between Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken as the mob boss with an agenda deserves to go down as one of the great master-classes in how to combine nail-biting tension with uproarious comedy. It’s spellbinding.

The film is uncommonly violent, as is Tarantino’s wont, so you’d have to remember the title to recall that it is intended first and foremost as a romance movie. However, as romance movies go… there’s just a tad too much racism, cocaine, death, and violence against women for this to qualify as a good date film. But hey, maybe it’ll work for you.

This is one of my favorite films of all time. Watch it, revel in yet another bit of 90’s fun, and try – just try, I defy you – not to enjoy yourself.

It’s trivia time again, RBC. When True Romance was released, Tarantino’s name didn’t appear in the credits (his contribution was recognized only later). Name other films that followed a similar pattern. I’ll allow films credited to Alan Smithee, even though that technically refers to a rather different sequence of events.

Olympics grinch

There’s plenty to not like about how the Olympics have evolved: nationalism, commercialization, appropriation by vile host regimes…and now we’re going to be biting our fingernails right through February waiting for a terrorist outrage, or a Russian security outrage, or both.  They have become a hot mess, but fortunately that apostle of cool, tasteful elegance in dress, Ralph Lauren, designed the US team uniforms: understated, gracious, and confident, that’s us. Continue reading “Olympics grinch”

Brazilian music 1a: more choro

In my last post in this series, I discussed chorinho, and reader Chameli posted a wonderful long comment in Portuguese, with a hall of fame of choristas.  It’s full of interesting information; I don’t have time to translate it now 🙁 (I will try to get around to it and add it as a post) , but having figured out how to link to Spotify,  I’m going to pick out some of her suggestions and add a few links here: Continue reading “Brazilian music 1a: more choro”

Brazilian music 1: Choro

Let us first establish a basic musicological principle: the best music in the world is made by combining Iberian and West African. I have almost irresponsibly catholic taste in music (or maybe a damaged critical faculty); I like almost everything, and wouldn’t give up any of it, but Nuyorica, and then Miami right down the east side of the Americas to about Porto Alegre is where heaven is. It’s the greatest refutation of the bizarre idea that purity is correlated with excellence since Bach studied Vivaldi, or when Marie de Medici brought Italian cooking to Paris, or when African peanut butter was first put on bread with European jam.

As my friends know, I am particularly besotted by the music of Brazil.  Want to try some? Already know about Tom Jobim and want to know where he came from and who carried on after? I’m starting a series along the lines of Keith’s movie reviews, with some of my favorites that are less widely known outside Brazil but deserve a wider audience, along with a little background. I’ll put in some links, but obviously you can browse Spotify with the names, do the usual Google due diligence, and explore for yourself.

Today, choro. The basic tools are a Spanish acoustic guitar, called a violão, sometimes with a seventh string (violão a 7 cordas); a four-string cavaquinho, the Brazilian member of the ukulele family that the Portuguese sprinkled here and there around the world;  a mandolin (bandolim sometimes with a fifth course); and a truly awesome, varying collection of percussion instruments called a bateria.  This includes practically anything that makes a sound if you hit it, from the surdo bass drum to something you thought was a grade-school toy (pandeiro), or if you rub (cuica) or shake it. Here’s the standard kit cooking at the Clube de Choro.

Choro is analogous to klezmer and jazz manouche: music for family and neighborhood parties, danceable and lively though sometimes lyrical, played on portable instruments, and virtuosic. It goes back early in the 20th century but is still a lively form.  Choro groups often add to the basic ensemble (variously) a flute, clarinet, trombone, or accordion.  If you stop in, for example, at the Bar do Cidão in São Paulo around 11 PM, a bunch of musicians will be jamming in unpredictable assortments.  It is usually instrumental though some choros have lyrics.  The great choro composer is probably Pixinguinha. , and Carinhoso is not only his most famous work, but probably the most famous song in Brazil. This cut is from a wonderful documentary about Paulinho da Viola, called Meu tempo é hoje, (about which more to come); in the movie, da Viola says that if you go into any bar or botequim or joint anywhere in Brazil and start singing it, everyone will know it and join in.

If there has to be an performing hero of the genre it’s Jacob do Bandolim, also an important composer (a lot of Brazilian musicians are named after the instruments they play). Sadly, there is no video of Jacob playing but he has a big discography. His tradition continues with lots of Brazilian masters, like Deo Rian, and Oakland’s own Mike Marshall.  One of my favorite choro events is the classical flautist Paula Robison’s falling-in with a bunch of Brazilian musicians in New York, which generated this wonderful CD. and then this one.   It’s unusual for classical musicians to be able to swing this way.

OK, you’re on your own for the week: fire up Spotify and Youtube, and check out Os Ingenuos, Época de Ouro, some of the names above, and follow branches.  Gostem estes tesouros, and comments are definitely open to share your own favorites.



Of interest to Chicagoans (possibly)

As some of you might know, I was one of a pair of “Dueling [theater] Critics” unceremoniously bounced from Chicago Public Media for being too expert.  (I am not making this up.)  However, you can’t keep a good battle down, and my colleague Jonathan Abarbanel and I have resumed our role as the Bickersons of Chicago theater on a podcast of our own design and creation.  You can hear us on soundcloud every Friday morning and/or subscribe to us on iTunes.

See you at the theater!

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”

Chuchito Valdés and regression towards the mean

Chuchito Valdés is the grandson of the late Bebo and son of Chucho, Cuban jazz royalty.  The short version of my rule for music is that African + Iberian = Proof of God’s Infinite Love, so I listen to a fair amount of this stuff.

Tonight we caught Chuchito at Yoshi’s. I was playing hooky from a talk by Theda Skocpol at our annual Wildavsky Forum, and if all my colleagues had done as I did, it would  have been a Bad Thing, categorical imperative time, but they didn’t, and I got to hear one of those evenings of music I’ll remember all my life. Unfair, I know, but seriously, up there with The Doors live at the Fillmore East on my short list of times.

Valdes had a minimal band (percussion, timbales, bass and a trumpet player whose name I missed), so every note counted and you could hear them all.  He played boleros and son to break your heart, mambos and rhumbas to wake the dead and restart the universe.  In the middle he did a medley of A Train and Satin Doll for which Edward Kennedy Ellington and William Strayhorn came down from heaven and spoke to us in Spanish.  If the horn guy gets the “last trumpet” gig for the apocalypse I want to be in the front row and will die happy, especially because at that time I will also see the wretched Florida Cuban reactionaries and their Republican toadies going to hell for keeping us from this glorious music for decades.

About regression towards the mean?  The statistics lesson for tonight is that the principle, normally sound, apparently has exceptions.

[Free extra, not worth a post by itself: the joropo (Venezuelan/Colombian cowboy music) group Cimarrón has an 2011 self-titled album that I just came upon. If you don’t know them, check it out.]



Weekend Film Recommendation: Once Upon A Time in the West

After Sergio Leone completed the ‘Dollars’ trilogy in 1966, the studios granted him the license to make a Western without fear of studio intervention. The film that resulted, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is this weekend’s movie recommendation.

The film is set in a time of rapid industrialisation, when the railway barons raced to connect the coasts of America with iron track. The prospect held fabulously lucrative promise, and Leone constructs a world in which the laws governing the realisation of that prospect were frighteningly flexible. One such baron is particularly ambitious, and reluctantly hires a henchman with higher designs – ‘Frank,’ played by Henry Fonda – in order to help him get the job done Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.58.42before tuberculosis denies him satisfaction.

Don’t expect to see the moral probity of Juror Eight, Wyatt Earp, or Young Abe Lincoln in Henry Fonda’s performance. Instead, Frank is a terrifying, psychotic character with an appetite for child murder, corruption, and an unquenchable thirst for power. Charles Bronson appears opposite Frank as an enigmatically taciturn gunslinger. He is identified by the only thing about himself he is willing to reveal from his past – his hauntingly played ‘Harmonica.’ Harmonica cherishes his instrument with as much attention as he does his burning desire to kill Frank, for reasons that he’s willing to divulge “only at the point of dying.”

Frank’s and Harmonica’s stories coincide in the town of Flagstone. There, they meet Jill and Cheyenne, played respectively by the stunning Claudia Cardinale and the charismatic Jason Robards. Jill is an ex-prostitute trying to restore her reputation as an honest woman of means, and Cheyenne is keen to clear his name for the murders – perpetrated by Frank – for which he has been framed.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.54.15

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack assigns a stirring leitmotif to each of the principal characters. The music matches each character’s idiosyncrasies beautifully: for Frank, the music is loud and jarring; for Harmonica, it’s un-placeably morose; for Cheyenne, it’s strangely whimsical; for Jill, the melodic soprano seems dissonant in the barren wasteland of Flagstone.

The feature of Leone’s work that I find especially compelling is his ability to construct a believable history for almost every one of his characters. There are very few character ‘props’ without personalities – Frank’s venal henchmen, the licentious bartender, and the exasperated sheriff officiating the auction – all are believable.

Make no mistake: Once Upon a Time in the West is brutally violent. Clocking in at almost three hours, it will also swallow a sizeable chunk of your weekend whole. It is an exhausting experience, but as the pinnacle of the spaghetti Western genre, it is deeply rewarding. Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from: my favourite is the way the camera captures an extreme close-up of piercing eyes appearing from under the hat-brim as the head lifts, but you’ll surely notice countless other examples. Just remember that while they may seem dated, Leone is justly credited with having made them the ice cool hallmarks of dramatic cinema that they are today.

For trivia purposes, I think I’m going to play this one a little differently, given that Once Upon a Time in the West is already such well-trodden turf. I’m going to ask people to contribute instances where they think the film has been directly referenced by other films in the comments section. It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide a long list, especially given the love of Leone’s work by just about every director since (Tarantino in particular is a huge fan). The rules are that you must provide clear information detailing the reference between the new film and what scene or aspect of Once Upon a Time in the West to which it refers. Simply naming a film won’t do. Buona fortuna!

An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables

Based on its vivid colors and exaggerated gestures, one is tempted to dismiss Academy Award Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as a cartoon. But cartoons have clarity of line and a sense of direction, not to mention momentum from frame to frame. This movie is more like the result of dropping the Sunday funnies in a mud-puddle: smeared with detritus and coming apart at the seams.

Start with the source. The musical itself, though much beloved by aficionados of Glee and Smash, takes Victor Hugo’s outraged critique of post-revolutionary France and turns it into a parade. While purporting to address the depredations and degradations of poverty, Cameron Mackintosh’s production was staged so elaborately that it depended on $150 tickets to keep it running. Thus there was the awkward matter of cheering gaunt poor people on the barricades from plush seats in the orchestra.

Happily even overpriced movies like this one cost only $10 or so to see, reducing the contradiction between medium and message. But director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and his collaborators have replaced that one difficulty with a raft of their own: frying pan, meet fire.

Continue reading “An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables”