Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Film I Always Go Back To: "Big Night"

To join in a little blogathon that Kid in the Front Row started over at his blog (check out his entry if you want), I'll make my entry into the subject of the movie I go back to again and again, like the movie version of comfort food. Well, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's Big Night is my mac and cheese (or meatloaf and mashed potatoes or lasagna or whatever your comfort food favorite is). I've written about it twice before (in 2008 when I first saw it, and again when recounting my favorite movies, where it has since risen a few places), and I went back and revisited just a couple of weeks ago when I was feeling a little down.

The movie came about when Stanley Tucci was working on a movie he didn't enjoy and complaining about how there were no good projects for him to work on. So, he decided to create his own project. As co-writer, co-director, and star of the picture, Tucci is even more flawless than ever in his portrayal of Secondo, an Italian immigrant trying to find love, peace, and financial success alongside his brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub). They look for love in their respective women (Minnie Driver and Allison Janney) and look for some way to make it in a land where a restaurant like Pascal's (Ian Holm) can be packed every night when they serve such abominations to Italian food, or as Primo says "RAPE! RAPE! That's what that man serves every night, the rape of cuisine!" Made even harder by the customers they actually do get, making for scenes like this one:

Spaghetti is its own dish, meatballs are their own dish, each plate should have a starch, but not multiple starches. And Seco is repeatedly disheartened by Primo's refusal to compromise anything with his food. Pascal, on the other hand, tells Seco "The customer doesn't wanna look down at his food and think 'what the fuck is this?' he wants to look down and think 'it's steak... I LIKE steak.' Give them what they want, and then you can start giving them what you want."

What's amazing about the movie is the care given to each and every character. Pascal, who would seem the villain in a normal movie, is given dimension not only by Holm's terrifically over-the-top portrayal, but by the script as well. He's given motivations for how he treats Seco and Primo, continually asking Seco to come work for him (and there are multiple motivations for that as well) and for how he runs his restaurant and his relationship with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). He's not even the second lead in the movie, but he's treated with the care that many movies don't treat their star role with. No one is given short shrift, but I think I keep coming back to the movie for its sibling relationship that hits home to me even though my brother and I don't have the same type of relationship as Primo and Seco, nor are we Italian, nor are we business partners. It's just that indefinable something about the connection they have that is 100% authentic. There are also small moments like this one that the movie lets play out that crack me up every time:

The emotionally affecting, and mostly silent, final scene of Seco making an omelet (high heat, of course, that's how Italians do eggs) the morning after the "big night" of the title, is my very favorite closing scene to a movie for how it answers so many questions without really addressing any of them overtly. I've gone back to this movie over and over again, and I will continue to for a long time. It's a rare creation of deceptive depth and power, and it is most definitely my comfort movie.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Spotlight of the week: The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars are a band I just came across this past week, so they're perfect for a Spotlight. A collaboration between singer/songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams, the duo's indie/folk/blues sound grabbed me right off. Though not a romantic couple (both are married), their voices intertwine in a way rarely seen outside of siblings or longtime partners. The way they sing over and under and alongside each other weaves a stunning web of vocal harmonies and Southern Gothic atmosphere. Generally just White's guitar, with occasional accompaniment from Williams' piano, the group keeps a down home vibe that conjures up images of late night living room jam sessions, or lonely field recordings.

I've found wonderful videos on YouTube of the group performing covers of songs like Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean" Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" (when Williams says "you might recognize this one", White counters with "and if not, then we wrote it"). They show they have a rare musical connection and a sense of humor as well as some varied tastes. All of that just makes me want to see more from them. They'll definitely be a group I'll follow for years to come.

Sidney Lumet - 1924 - 2011

The world of cinema lost one of its great giants today in American director Sidney Lumet. Lumet has been a personal favorite of mine since I was a teenager going through an Al Pacino phase, coming across Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and noticing the same directors name in the credits. Like many of his films, both were New York set, with the city becoming almost a character unto itself. He has often been called one of the directors most associated with the city, even though he was originally from Philadelphia. Lumet's films were nominated for a total of 46 Oscars, including 5 for Lumet himself (one for co-writing 1981's influential cop drama Prince of the City, the others for directing 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict), and he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005. His last movie, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, was one of the first I reviewed on this blog, and is among my favorite movies of the past decade.

Known for his ability to work with actors (17 Oscar nominations and 4 wins under his direction), Lumet also had a reputation as an almost invisible director. He often spoke against any directorial flourishes that would draw attention to the camera placement, or things that looked too unnatural or self-consciously pretty. He is too often overlooked by film fans and scholars due to this, being unable to recognize a distinctive "Lumet" style the way you can identify a Hitchcock or Scorsese or Coen Brothers movie. Lumet felt the directorial style should be dictated by the script and what the story needs, that form should always follow function and not the other way around. Also, due to his preparation and his insistence on weeks of rehearsal before shooting, Lumet was famously able to work quickly and efficiently in regards to his shooting schedule and budget. On his dislike of more than a few takes before moving on to shooting the next scene, his The Verdict star Paul Newman said ""I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man I know who'll double-park in front of a whorehouse." As evidence of his swift style, Lumet released two movies in one year 9 different times.

With such an extensive filmography, one could be overwhelmed if looking to delve into Lumet's 50+ years of work. But if I were to pick a group of his most essential films, I'd list Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Pawnbroker, Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict. He has many others worth checking out, but those are all terrific movies, and a couple of them all out masterpieces. I'd been looking forward to where Lumet would go next, but he had a long and fruitful career and we'll just have to go on appreciating what he gave us. R.I.P.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I'm sorry, but Radiohead is not a good band

I've tried and tried to see what is so great about them, and there's not anything there. They have occasional flashes of great rock song craft and melodic brilliance, on songs like "Creep" "True Love Waits" and "Karma Police", yet they mostly just seem to dabble in creating clusters of uninspiring noise which critics sycophantically praise.

Now, many a Radiohead fan has told me that Thom Yorke's lyrics are what keep them coming back to the band. Fair enough. I'm not a lyrics person, it's the very last thing that I pay attention to from an artist after I've gone through each instrument and how they relate to each other. I've skimmed through some of the lyrics Yorke has churned out over the years and although not finding anything I thought was brilliant, they don't suck either.

As a musician, I need something I can grab onto. It could be a vocal melody, a drum beat, a subtle bass line, guitar lick or whatever, but I need something. This is where Radiohead fails me the most. I've listened to all of their albums (save the one that came out this year) as a whole and as playlists jumbling the songs haphazardly together, and I've come away unimpressed on nearly every aural level. I occasionally enjoy the melodies that Yorke sings, and although I don't expect technical virtuosity from each band member (Radiohead doesn't strike me as a "look what I can do on my instrument" kind of band), I would like something that grabs me as a listener and makes me want to come back for more.

I think a lot of this comes down to my general boredom with the "avante-gard" or "experimental", or whatever you want to call it, genre. It could simply be down to a matter of taste in that they live in places that, musically, I don't give a shit about. Still, when a band is praised as high and as often as Radiohead is, you at least want to give them a chance and see if they're for you. I've tried many times over the years and have come up with the same conclusion each time: I just don't think they're a good band.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spotlight of the week: Hanson's "Shout It Out"

My wife told me early into our relationship that she was a huge Hanson fan. I overlooked such a lapse in judgment because of the fact that Hanson at least always played their own instruments and wrote their own songs and since she would've been one of those 10-year-old girls screaming at the band when they first became famous, naturally she would have some nostalgic attachment to them. She showed me a couple of their "grown up" songs, and I was happily surprised at their lack of suckiness, so her sense of taste may not have been totally misplaced. Then she told me that Hanson had come out with a new album and I absolutely had to buy it for her. Begrudgingly, I did, and what I ended up finding was an incredibly catchy and enjoyable album.

Shout It Out is Hanson giving a big injection of r&b and soul into their immaculately crafted pop sound. Horns, B-3 organs, and soulful guitars abound on the album, and the songs truly shine with the combination. Lead singer Taylor's voice has grown up, there's no trace of the kids who infected us with "Mmmbop" all those years ago. Of course, when Hanson was on tour for this album and came through their hometown of Tulsa, my wife insisted we go. So, still begrudgingly, I took her and I was totally blown away. They had the tightest vocal harmonies I'd ever heard in concert, and I've heard a lot of live vocals over the years. Youngest brother Zac has turned into the best musician of the group, laying down some juicy beats and tasty fills. Guitar playing Isaac looks the most grown up of the three (not surprising, being the oldest), and his restrained playing adds a lot of backbone to Taylor's deliciously hammy frontman tendencies.

I've seen two of the songs from the album on VH1, lead single "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" a few months ago (the video's a parody of the Ray Charles section of The Blues Brothers, watch for Weird Al Yankovic cameo-ing as the tambourine player), and just this past week the dance inducing "Give A Little". Who knows, maybe the boys will stick around a while longer, and if they continue to grow like this, I'll not doubt my wife's tastes anymore. I've had Shout It Out on heavy rotation on my iPod for a while now and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.

"Thinking 'Bout Somethin'"

"Give a Little"

Spotlight of the week

Ok, so I took it upon myself to do the whole "Song of the Week" thing thinking it would force me to write more often (which I want to do, but don't always make time for), and because I seem to always be stuck on a song for about a week, so it'd be a beautiful marriage. Instead, I've slacked off and come up with blanks when trying to think of songs to feature. So, I'll try something else and start simply doing a "Spotlight of the Week" on either a song, or an album, or an actor, or whatever. Hopefully, this will help me achieve my goal of writing more often.