Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson-1958-2009

The world of pop music lost one of its greatest talents yesterday with the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. Sadly, I'm sure that like other eccentrics, his personal life will at least partly overshadow his accomplishments. I don't care about his personal life, and never did. But being almost 26 now, I grew up in the era when Michael ruled the pop music landscape. Sure, Springsteen was a huge superstar, Prince was a mysterious genius, and Madonna was ridiculously popular (for God knows what reason), but Michael was the king of pop music and pop culture.

The news was very surprising to me, as I had just a day or two before been listening to my Michael Jackson mixtape marveling at his vocal dexterity and control, his rhythmic mastery, and his underrated songriting abilities and thinking that I wish Michael could make a comeback to that classic period level of greatness. Michael's deceptively strong voice allowed him to hop genres whenever the mood struck him. I'm listening to "Billie Jean" right now and am again caught up in that simple groove, terrific backing vocals, and Quincy Jones' layered production. That's to go along with the equally tremendous run of great singles like "Off the Wall" "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough", "Wanna Be Startin' Something'" and "Beat It" (with a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, who refused payment, saying it was worth it just to be able to work with Michael), among many other great songs. He also co-wrote (along with Lionel Ritchie) the song "We Are the World", which sold more than 20 million copies just on its own.

That his music succeeds without watching him perform it is another testament to its strength. Arguably, only Elvis has ever been on the same level as a performer that Michael was at. His dance moves are still the standard by which all dancers are measured. Even Fred Astaire once told Michael that he was the greatest dancer in the world. His presence on stage was magnetic, you just couldn't take your eyes off of him, and he always made it worth watching. We rarely see talents like Michael Jackson emerge in the music world. He was just two months short of his 51st birthday, and although he hadn't been a relevant artist in at least 15 years, it still feels like a huge loss to the world of music.


Monday, June 22, 2009

The Adventures of Robin Hood

There are few movies as joyous to watch as Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood. It's gorgeous to look at, the sets, costumes, and cinematography are terrific. Olivia de Havilland, as Maid Marian, is beyond beautiful. And above all, this movie has what no other Robin Hood movie has: Errol Flynn. He's remembered for his incredible physicality, but I can't help but be drawn into his wry sense of humor. When he goes to confront Prince John (a typically terrific Claude Rains), he does it carrying an illegally killed royal deer over his shoulder. When he insults the Prince in an unexpected way, Marian tells him "You speak treason", "Fluently" he retorts. The twinkle in Flynn's eye during the whole movie, but that scene in particular, is infectious. I had a big ole smile on my face for the entire 102 minutes of the movie.

My parents used to have us watch old movies like this when I was a kid. My mom in particular felt it was important for my brother and I to be exposed to the classics of cinema, so we watched things like Miracle on 34th Street and any Hitchcock movie we could find, while I watched things like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Hard Day's Night with my dad (and Monty Python and Mel Brooks later on). I always loved those old movies, and I remember loving this one vividly. I've always loved Robin Hood movies, and this is by far the best. There's no reason to go over the story, we've seen it a million times. But this is the type of movie that always makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, which is Roger Ebert's belief that "a movie is not about what it's about, it's how it's about it." It doesn't matter that we've seen this story so many times, because it's done so perfectly here.

Michael Curtiz must be one of the great underappreciated directors of the movies. Just a quick glance at his filmography, and you'll see not only masterpieces like this one, but Captain Blood (also with Flynn and de Havilland), Angels with Dirty Faces (teaming him with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart), Casablanca (which won him his only Oscar), Yankee Doodle Dandy (which won Cagney his only Oscar), and Mildred Pierce (which won Joan Crawford her only Oscar). He wasn't the original director of The Adventures of Robin Hood, but was brought on when the studio wasn't happy with the footage they were already seeing. With the high amount of stunts, sets, costumes, etc. the movie was to end up being the most expensive movie ever made (at the time, of course). Curtiz was mainly brought in to punch up the action scenes, and he did. The sword fight between Robin and Sir Guy (hateably played by Basil Rathbone) is particularly wonderful, switching between watching the actors do their own sword work, and watching the towering shadows on the wall as the actors move out of frame.

This was not the first Robin Hood movie, and it was certainly not the last. Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Ridley Scott are currently filming a new Robin Hood movie. But I can guarantee you already that they're not going to make anyone forget about Errol Flynn. No actor before or since has made the kind of mark he did on the role, even his green outfit is synonymous with Robin Hood now. He is Robin Hood, everyone else is just trying to be him.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood?

For years I've maintained that 1954's Seven Samurai was my favorite movie from one of my 3 favorite directors, Akira Kurosawa. But the more I think back on his MacBeth adaptation, Throne of Blood, the more I liked it. I'd been meaning to do this for a while, so, I finally decided to watch them back-to-back and see which one I preferred. I started with Seven Samurai, one of the most acclaimed movies ever made.
Kurosawa was already one of the most highly acclaimed directors in the world when he made Seven Samurai. His 1950 masterpiece Rashomon is credited with announcing Japanese cinema to the international community. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably have seen the story of Seven Samurai before, most likely in its inferior American remake The Magnificent Seven. What Kurosawa created was one of the great epics to ever grace the screen. Many people are turned off by the film's 207 minute runtime, but they shouldn't be. Seven Samurai is remarkable for its economy of storytelling. There's basically nothing in the movie that doesn't add to either plot or character. As such, it moves along at a terrific pace. It's also got some tremendous action sequences, including the famous final showdown in the rain.

The two main stars of the movie are the two actors most associated with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Shimura is the oldest samurai, and the leader, Kambei. His performance is full of small subtleties, I particularly like the way he always rubs the back of his head after he shaves off his top knot (one of the signatures of a samurai). His performance is not on the level of his heartbreaking turn in Kurosawa's Ikiru, where he was a man fighting to make a difference in the world before he dies of cancer, but he's quite good. Mifune's performance is somewhat more divisive. Some people feel that he's too over-the-top (a common complaint about Mifune), while others (like myself) find him charming and simply a crass character.

I loved Seven Samurai as much on this watching of it (my 4th, I believe) as I did on my first. I did feel its length, because even with an intermission it's hard not to feel 3 1/2 hours in a chair. But it's such a great movie that I'll never complain.
Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare, but often found him to be "too wordy". So his adaptations of Shakespeare's work are never directly from the text. His first, and best, is his adaptation of MacBeth, 1957's Throne of Blood. Like Ran, his adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa transplants the action to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, hear called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actors voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie (I'm not giving anything away, it's an adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, of course the protagonist dies). Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, that Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan.

Strangely, the choice of which movie I prefer was not as difficult today as I thought it would be. I clearly prefer Throne of Blood. The macabre atmosphere, terrific performances, unforgettable finale, and that damn spirit just draw me to this movie in a more magnetic way than Seven Samurai does. But Seven Samurai is not any less of a masterpiece simply because it's now officially my 2nd favorite Kurosawa. It will always hold a special place in my heart as the first Kurosawa movie I saw, and the one that really opened me up to world cinema. But for right now, Throne of Blood is taking its place in my all-time top ten as the Kurosawa representative. Actually, I really want to re-watch my other Kurosawa favorites now, to see if I react any differently to them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Randy Newman is a brilliant man

I think many people these days only know Randy Newman from his work in movies. Many people have come to associate him with Pixar, after their many collaborations, especially "You've Got a Friend" from Toy Story. But I'm sitting here listening to his 1972 album Sail Away, which is one of my 10 or 15 favorite albums ever made, and I'm always blown away by the way he skirts between genres both musically and lyrically. The album has songs like "Old Man", a sad tale of dying, the anti-religion "God's Song" (partially told from God's point of view, subtly conceding that there just may be a God), and the humorous title song, which is told from the side of a slave trader trying to convince Africans to get on his boat to America. Of course, there are also songs like "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear", which is about exactly what the title says it's about, and "Burn On", about Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire (it was used as the opening song in the baseball movie Major League, which is where I first heard it).

But Sail Away isn't his only brilliant album, there were others like 12 Songs and Good Ole Boys. Good Ole Boys contains one of Newman's most famous satirical songs, "Rednecks". For people that only know Newman from his Pixar work, they might be surprised to hear the chorus, whose lyrics are:

We're Rednecks, we're Rednecks
We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're Rednecks, we're Rednecks
We're keepin' the niggers down

Newman was sort of a 1970's Stephen Colbert, with lyrics like that. And just like Colbert, people often weren't in on the joke. Newman said he had to stop playing his satirical song "Political Science", about an American led nuclear war, after people took it seriously. The opening lines are:

No one likes us, I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

It's one of my favorite songs, and Newman actually performed it on The Colbert Report a couple of years ago. To show just how often his satire is misunderstood, even in Colbert's audience, almost no one laughed at the song. Even later when Newman gives such well thought out reasons for nuclear holocaust as:

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old
Africa is far too hot and Canada's too cold
South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin', too

I really wish more people knew him for his brilliant singer/songwriter stuff like that. I like his movie scores and songs, but not nearly as much as I love his work from that early-mid 70's period. Check it out if you don't know it already. Thank me later.


The other night I watched Superfly for the first time. I didn't really know what to expect. I've loved the soundtrack for years, I'm a huge Curtis Mayfield fan, but hadn't really ever heard anyone talk much about the movie itself. I watched a documentary on the "Blaxploitation" genre, and it made me realize that I'd never seen a lot of those movies, so I decided to check out at least one of them.

I'd heard that Superfly got a lot of flack at the time of its release, 1972, because many members of the black community felt that it glamourized its drug dealing (and addicted) protagonist, thus furthering negative stereotypes of black people and setting bad examples for the children. Seeing it outside of the cultural climate of the times, I can say that it does nothing of the sort. Priest, the main character, is most definitely a drug dealer, but he knows that drugs are a bad scene to be in, and he wants out. The sociological comment that the movie makes, that people seemed to have missed at the time, is that Priest is only supported in his dream to get out by his girlfriend. Every other person in his world tries to keep him in that lifestyle. His partner even telling him "Look, I know it's a rotten game, but it's the only one The Man left us to play." It's his environment that's really poisoned, not him. He's trying to do the right thing by getting out, he just does it by exploiting that poisoned environment. Priest doesn't know what he's qualified to do, or even what he wants to do, in the "real world". But he knows that if he could have half a million dollars in his bank account there'd be no rush to figure it out. So he decides to try and set up the classic "last big score before he retires".

Ron O'Neal was apparently a stage actor in New York, and would be known for this role to most people until he died in 2004. I really wish he'd done more, because he's electrifying as Priest. The script is fairly strong, with some good dialog at least, and O'Neal has total command of the screen every moment he's on it. None of the other actors are anything particularly good, but O'Neal is in pretty much every scene for the entire 93 minutes, so it doesn't really matter. It's far from a perfect movie, there are many technical faults (seeing the camera crew in the window reflection and stuff like that), but they're ultimately forgivable. It's really just a crackling good crime drama with a tremendous lead performance by Ron O'Neal. Oh, and the soundtrack is beyond brilliant. The best in movie history, easily.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


With Up, Pixar has firmly announced itself as the greatest animation studio that we've ever seen. Disney never made so many consistently great movies. Japan's Studio Ghibli is as consistent in quality as Pixar, but I don't think they've made quite as many truly great movies. The thing about Pixar has also been that they're not afraid to be different, to take chances. Up is about Carl (Ed Asner), an old man whose wife has just died. They'd been in love since early childhood, and after her death he takes off on the type of adventure that they'd always dreamed of going on. He does it in a slightly unconventional way though. He was the balloon man at the zoo, and to go off on his journey, he ties thousands of helium filled balloons to his house and flys away to South America. He's joined on his journey by a sweet little Asian-American kid named Russell (Jordan Nagai). Russell is a "Wilderness Explorer" (basically a Boy Scout) who is trying to assist Carl in any way, so that he can achieve his "Assisting the Elderly" badge. The trip isn't quite what Russell had in mind, but he ends up appreciating the adventure more than Carl does.

The opening sequence of a young Carl watching movies about his hero, legendary explorer Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer), meeting a like-minded (and motor-mouthed) young girl named Ellie, is terrific. But it then segues into the most powerful montage I've ever seen. We see Carl and Ellie fall in love, get married, fix up their house, plan for babies that never come, grow old together, and see Ellie's failing health and Carl's devotion to her. Just thinking about this sequences perfection and emotional power makes me tear up a little. It's the best thing that Pixar has ever done. As the plot takes control, the movie doesn't exactly lose steam, but it doesn't come anywhere near the unbelievable greatness of that first section. It does, however, continue to subtly build its characters so that by the time the last act kicks in, we're fully with our heroes and invested in them and their journey.

A lot of movies get labeled negatively as "sentimental". But I've never had a problem with sentimental things, especially when they earn that sentiment. Up earns it, and pulls on your heartstrings with regularity. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and even The Incredibles did the same thing, and it works just as well here. Pixar just knows how to connect with their audience. I think it's because unlike in many "children's movies", Pixar never talks down to their audience, never insults their intelligence by just playing to the lowest common denominator. They don't care that their movies are thought of as "children's movies", they want to make great movies. Period. They actually seem to be consciously moving away from playing to kids with their latest run of movies, and we're all better off as moviegoers because of it. Their movies are still enjoyable for kids, but Pixar knows that the parents are buying the tickets, and if the parents are just as excited to see their movies, it's a win both financially and artistically, because they're not limited to just playing to one part of their audience.

In my mind, Up isn't quite on the level of greatness as Pixar's best, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, but it's definitely great. And the best thing about Pixar's movies is that they're always better upon further viewings. That only means that I love Up, and can't wait to see it again.