Thursday, December 20, 2012

...And that's a Wrap...on 2012.

I thought about reviewing this year for the blog as the last post of the holidays...

And then I thought: The less said, the better.

Here's to seeing you and more pop culture shenanigans in 2013. Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"What's a Joint Like This Doing on a Girl Like You?"

Another round of marital infidelity as I continue my Dino-fication while taking in Billy Wilder's 1964 effort, Kiss Me, Stupid.

The sequel happened in Intercourse, Pennsylvania...
Generally left out of the majors of Wilder's considerable canon (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, among many other greats), Kiss Me Stupid was condemned by the Catholic Legion of decency and was largely considered vulgar by reviewers.  Time, however, has done its usual work at toning down what might have ruffled feathers in 1964.  To me, it stood up well, and was an enjoyable, if farcical, concocted comedy of errors.

In the film, a small town duo of songwriters, Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) and Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond), luck into their first contact with a big star when Vegas sensation, Dino (Dean Martin) rolls through their town on his way to Los Angeles. Barney, who runs the filling station, sabotages Dino's car to keep him around while they pitch the singer their horde of near-miss songs. Orville, an insanely jealous husband, fears having his wife anywhere near the famous lothario, so Barney cooks up a plan to get Zelda (Felicia Farr) out of the house and substitute another woman for her, the pretty barmaid, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak). Despite his best efforts, Orville barely gets his wife out the door before Polly turns up. Of course, hijinks have already ensued from the word go, but at this point they're merely knocked up another dozen notches as Polly ends up falling for Orville rather than Dino, and Zelda ends up passed out in Polly's trailer behind the roadhouse.

Walston's in Nevada after leaving Roswell...but before moving in with Bill Bixby...(look it up)
At this point, I don't want to give too much more away though I've already hinted at the problems the public had with it above. It's sort of hilarious to me that five years before, the public and critics had far less trouble with a pair of musicians going in drag to chase girls...and escape the Some Like it Hot. Naturally, fifty years and movies like Indecent Proposal, have made the elements of Kiss Me, Stupid ludicrously tame. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this movie does a fine job of making marital infidelity quite touching considering the scenario involved.

Wilder is a master, and not just because film history books tell us so. The Austrian-born filmmaker first escaped to France as the Nazis came to power to start making pictures before continuing on to Hollywood. His films have both the meticulous feeling of a powerful hand in charge while still managing to be light and often wildly inventive (I recommend reading about some of the crazier things he wanted to do with Sunset Boulevard, a film that still ended up pretty damned inventive with what he did do with it). And while this one lacks some of the flair and zany fun of a Some Like it Hot, it's still firmly in the master's hands.

Dino's commentary on chianti or lady's footwear?
Ray Walston does a wonderful, if occasionally over-the-top job as Orville. He's a little too archetypal jealous husband, constantly chasing away anything with a Y chromosome, but is still entertaining to watch as he's able to pivot emotional direction on a dime. Felicia Farr as Zelda is very obviously desirable both in terms of looks and personality, but gets a little less of a chance to shine as character in comparison to Kim Novak as Polly. Polly, like Orville, is again a touch too archetypal in the "hooker with a heart of gold vein," but still managed to tug at a few heart strings as the story progressed. The biggest surprise is Dino, who in many respects is presented as playing himself, and it's none too flattering. The film opens with him charming a crowd with song and jokes from the stage, but once in Orville's house he's all "Roman Hands and Russian Fingers" as the saying goes. He comes off as a first class heel, but at least he does it well.

Sexier to Billy: being on set with Kim Novak or writing with Raymond Chandler?
Kiss Me, Stupid may not be the one you choose to show if only allowed to present one Billy Wilder vehicle, but I admit to having a soft spot for interesting if lesser-known works. After all, I'd probably show The Wild Bunch if I could only show one Peckinpah, but I savor the flawed and highly personal Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on a more personal level.  As I mentioned in my review of Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?, I do love the movie world created especially well in older movies, and while Kiss Me, Stupid delivers on that, it's also nice that it has just the right amount of real world honesty.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A New Moon in Nineteen Seventy Nine.

My earliest foray into earning cash was in music stores. Music stores are...perhaps were...a great place to expand one's cultural horizons as all the employees tend to be deep into one type of music or another.  Some stuff they agree on, much they do not. And eventually you find your place in the spectrum.

More or less exactly how I looked in 1995 at my store in Pontiac, MI.
It also does a fine job embittering you to how generally awful and limited the taste of the general public is.  And I don't say that because they didn't like specifically what I liked.  No, they didn't tend to see eye-to-eye with any of my fellow employees on much of anything, and not because we were all elitist (though some definitely were). We all had our guilty pleasures, but the public tended toward the bland chart toppers, the same greatest hits collections,  and whatever was passing for bad dance music at the time.

In any event, at various times, I learned to try it all and give anything a chance if only to see where it fit in. I love not only knowing who influenced the artists I liked, but also who they influenced. Nothing's created in a vacuum, so I like to find the threads in the tapestry. But there are ends I stop short of that usually start with the non-hyperbolic modifier "deep."

Symphonic or Prog rock tends to fall on the "deep" end of the rock spectrum: large, expansive, heavily layered, experimental walls of sound that can frequently be impenetrable.  The cover art usually depicts an otherworldly place that only this music could be the soundtrack to. And like the sci-fi/fantasy worlds it seems to depict, it's usually only there for those who really care to plumb the depths. It's usually not catchy. It's not hooky. It's a twenty minute odyssey that will in no way break the radio play charts. And just because it's symphonic doesn't mean it's melodic.

"On your left you can see Detroit, Michigan...and on your left Fresno..."
There are some exceptions of course, but if you came at a prog fan with only Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues or the couple of pop hits that Yes cranked out, you'd only receive the smug derisive chuckling that the initiate reserves for the outsider.  All the same, I'm not generally a fan of the stuff. Seeking to expand the sound of rock and add weight to it isn't a terrible goal, but considering rock's roots, it was perhaps a bit wrongheaded. Addition and expansion eventually become bloat and pretension, which in this case led to the stripped down distorted roar of punk.

Having said all that, I took a wild stab at a prog album from Japan: 1979's Shingetsu by the band of the same name. Shingetsu, which means "new moon," lasted a mere six years and only produced this one work, but what they did do has been heralded an exalted enough to continue to be dispersed in this modern age. I can't say that I disagree.

Seems like a good place to reaffirm my love for a well done "Alice" tribute
Much of my exposure to Japanese music has fallen into one of three categories: the sugary overload of J-pop, the wild experimentation of the electronic, and the melodic melancholy of the more traditional or musical scores.   Shingetsu doesn't fall into any of those three categories. Though it has moments that have a more pop feel than a fair amount of prog, it certainly doesn't have much of the trite Top 40 Tokyo feel. Though it is certainly experimental with the multiple layers of sound, it's doesn't have some of the rabbit punches of abrasiveness I've come to expect. And while it does have enough of the mood of some of the more traditional stuff, it would be more like the soundtrack to a late 70's animé version of Heavy Metal.

Ok...with just a smidge of Goblin mixed in there at varying points.

Lead vocalist Makoto Kitayama has a gentle, emotional voice with some fine acrobatics to match the highs and lows of the tunes. The band is a sharp set of musicians who are more than capable of spinning a pretty good sound web.  Each song usually features a pretty steady rise and fall in arrangement and tempo making for miniature musical journeys in the framework of the whole.  I can't comment as to the quality of the lyrics as I'm not as well versed in Japanese as I'd like to be. It could be all about Yōkai playing poker while eating pickles atop Mount Fuji while the Lord of the Rings is re-enacted in the various Japanese theater styles below. I don't think it is, but I have just thought of a pretty good theme for my next concept album.

"+2 Vocal abilities...+1 Charisma points...and +4 Snappy Dresser..."
I'll confess that though I'll occasionally still give prog a chance, it rarely talks me into a second listen, either because it's simply too dense for me to get into, too ethereal to make much of an impression, or simply too pretentious a bloated mess for me to care about. Shingetsu, however, has managed to keep me quite well enchanted for the half-dozen spins I've given it thus far. I shall look forward to spinning it again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"You Never Really Get to Know a Person Until They Put Their Clothes On."

In the last decade or so, the obsession with "reality" has infiltrated everything, and has made me all the more conscious of why everyone in the world should now be required to take a media studies class.  After all, the documentary has rarely been as popular on a mass scale, and yet, one has to realize that even a Ken Burns' ten hour series on PBS still can't show every facet of any subject.  And because there's a filmmaker, there's a point of view, and an opinion on the subject. "Reality"shows have come a long way since the obviously contrived excuse to put a bunch or strangers together and see what happens. Now we watch with baited breath, not only for some person that does some dangerous job in some remote region, but we'll watch a bunch of guys buy storage lockers.  I had an uncle who did that...I never found it that fascinating, though, I'll admit that the thought of a surprise inside was alluring.

Even in movies that bring the modern mythos of superheroes to the big screen is still often tethered to reality.  Rather than exist in a sort of alternate world where super-powers are just the norm, we've tried to ground them in the same world we live in.  It's a fool's errand. As comedian Pete Holmes so expertly put it when an audience member decried the unrealistic CGI of the Hulk as being fake, "The Hulk is fake, buddy."

It's where the whole idea of a "movie world" comes in. It's why we love Quentin Tarantino. His movies have increasingly ceased to exist in the world we occupy and have more and more showed that this would be the world QT would create were he God. And it's why I find myself running back to older films: you know it's a set, you know it's too elegant and glamourous, you know everyone's not that quippy, and coincidences just don't happen like that...and those are all the reasons you love it.

This poster fails to feature the requisite innuendo of the Matt Helm Poster Act....
1963's Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? allowed me to slip right into that movie world of glamorous people in an impossible situation, a heightened reality. Also, I wouldn't have thought I'd be able to segue a review of a Dean Martin vehicle with Russ Meyer, but I'll have to get back to that.

The movie tells the story of Jason Steel (Dean Martin), a TV actor who plays a doctor who is much beloved to the ladies, but in Jason's real life, he's getting tired of his job and cold feet about his impending nuptials to girlfriend Melissa (Elizabeth Montgomery) because of his poker buddies' varying shaky relationships with their own wives. Now here's where the contrived part comes in: Because Jason seems so much the perfect man, his friends' wives begin setting up rendez-vous with him to help them with their marital problems, which usually leads to their trying to get cozy with him. Only problem is they're all lovely ladies, and it's making it even harder for Jason to commit to his own relationship.  Meanwhile, Melissa too is tiring of Jason's hot then cold routine, while her friend Stella (Carol Burnett) strives to keep them on their way to the altar.

Here you go, ladies: Mr. Right in his jammies.
Naturally, all this leads to Dino slowly cracking up as he has to keep shuffling all these dames around to keep from getting into trouble with their husbands, his friends. Dean's perfectly cast here. His charm and easy-going attitude make it easy to understand why the ladies love him, although his purposely stiff demeanor in the opening scenes on the set of his show had me laughing from the get go. It was 60's TV acting par excellence. But the situation is, of course, patently absurd, but that's exactly what makes it fun. You never doubt why Dino would be both driven crazy by, and yet totally desire to keep playing the field in the spot he's in. It's not reality. I've never seen any extramarital affairs go like this, but that's exactly the fun of it.

Director Daniel Mann keeps the movie at a brisk, but not labored clip, while orchestrating some great comic sequences.  Elizabeth Montgomery was only a year away from becoming "Samantha Stevens" of Bewitched fame, and she's every part the desirable girlfriend that would make the perfect wife. Dino's buddies' wives are played by a fun group of actress and his buddies by a solid crew of familiar character actors. But the show is nearly completely stolen by Carol Burnett in her debut film performance. She is an absolute joy to watch as the oversexed but gawky Stella...which oddly enough brings me back to my Russ Meyer point from earlier.

I'm not sure what Russ saw in her....
Though the movie had several sequences that had me roaring, there's a late scene in a Mexican nightclub that made the whole movie worth while.  Dino and the girls arrive for a celebration when who should they find entertaining the bars patrons but an oddly uncredited burlesque legend, Tura Satana. Tura actually played a showgirl in two of director Daniel Mann's movies (the other being Our Man Flint!  I managed to tie in that as well!), but she's perhaps best known for playing the busty and booted, go-go dancing killer, Varla, from Russ Meyer's immortal Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  In any event, after her show, Jason has an argument with Melissa and storms out on her and Stella, which leads to the most uproarious segment in the movie as Stella ends up performing her own striptease to pay off the bill!

I only wish I had been on a set that was this fun.
Peeking about the internet, I've seen some reference to the film's "misogyny." Now while it's true that it seems like every woman in the film is a crazy shrew, save Melissa, in the opening minutes of the story, eventually, according to Jason's speech to his therapist friend, they're the most desirable women in the world. The point of the story seems to be that one has to appreciate their spouse and not let their relationship dwindle into the constant fight/ignore territory where the men are all selfish jerks and the women shrieking shrews. And as I mentioned before, this movie obviously represents no reality that I or anyone else has ever lived in.  I don't even have to offer the "it was a different time" defense on this one (ok, maybe a little for some of the somewhat racist moments). Instead, I just wonder whether anyone who honestly thinks that this movie is misogynist enough to comment on it actually enjoys life at all when viewing it through that jaded lens.

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? is simply a delight, which left me with a smile on my face from the time I finished watching it until it was time for me to climb between my own sheets wishing I had some of Dino's problems!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Only Death and Diamonds are Forever

This week saw a return to the superspy genre as I completed yet another of Ian Fleming's original novels on the eternal James Bond. (And no, sadly, I still haven't managed to catch Skyfall.)  This time it was the fourth Bond outing, Diamonds Are Forever (1956).

Learning Courtesy and Etiquette via classic paperback art.
Initially I was hoping to write this review after I'd had a chance to take in the 1971 film again, but that didn't quite work out. Despite being the final canon Bond film to feature Connery in the role (He would of course play Bond once more in Never Say Never Again (1983), the film made during the Thunderball legal loophole over ownership.), Diamonds is generally considered to be the least of the Connery Bond's, and ranks fairly low on most Bond aficionados hierarchies.  It certainly didn't make much of an impression on me as it's one of only a small handful of Bond films that I've only seen once. However, whatever its flaws, it was able to resuscitate the series after flagging box office returns following the smash success of Thunderball (1965).

See how this is all oddly connected?  No?  The major difference between the book and the movie is the book features a pair of gangsters, the Spang brothers as its villains, whereas the movie would see the return of Bond's arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld. Blofeld wouldn't appear in print until five books and five years later in ninth Bond novel Thunderball.  But then that's the danger in adapting the books into movies, or seeing the movies/reading the books out of order: continuity problems. Yes?

Let's continue.  Book only.

Sorry Sean...
A few weeks back I reviewed one of Fleming's non-Bond books, The Diamond Smugglers, and wouldn't you know that elements of that book would appear in Diamonds Are Forever...or rather, the reverse.  In my head, I had worked it out that he'd written the non-fiction book first and used it as research for the Bond novel.  The only problem is that the fiction beat the fact to the newsstand by a year. More's the pity, as in retrospect, the Bond novel makes the research book seem even more dry by comparison.
"Excuse Mr. Fleming...could we see what's in that case?"
The plot sees M. assigning Bond to help stop diamond trafficking from Africa, putting him undercover as a low-level hood looking to act as smuggler to get out of England.  His contact is a beautiful but icy girl named Tiffany Case.  Once in America, Bond tries to work his way further into the criminal underworld when he runs into his old pal, Felix Leiter.  Leiter, severely injured during Live and Let Die (the book), now works for the Pinkerton detectives. The two men foil a fixed horse race, and Bond gets sent on to the Spang brothers' headquarters in Las Vegas. I wouldn't want to ruin the rest, but I will say that casinos, a ghost town, and an antique steam engine figure into Bond's future from here.

Of those I've read, this was certainly the most rapidly paced of the Bond novels, which was both a good and bad thing. Dr. No, for instance, did a pretty good job of balancing movement and stillness...but it also came two books after this one (there's that continuity thing again.)  Diamonds chugs along pretty swiftly until a brief dip just before the finale. Fleming still has a tendency to over-describe superfluous details from time to time, but never enough to mar the enjoyment. Bond's love affair is well intertwined into the plot outside of his usual bed 'em and bolt routine. There's a whole bunch of colorful henchmen and hoodlums of the movie gangster variety.

The book did have the good taste to spare us Charles Gray in did Rocky Horror ironically.
In fact, I'd say the books sole weakness is that it doesn't have a Blofeld. Not that it specifically needed the arch-villain himself, merely that we're not given nearly as good a characterization of the Spang brothers as Dr. No, or Mr. Big, or Goldfinger. They're not totally lifeless, there's just a little less enthusiasm for Bond's going after them as compared to his toppling his more usual big time super-villains. Still and all the other thugs he contends with are at least entertaining enough that it's not terribly noticeable as the story goes.

In all, I would say that Diamonds Are Forever was yet another enjoyable and quick-paced romp in the literary superspy world, a fine getaway for a weekend read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Savior of the Universe...

Like most of my reviews, this one comes well after the release date.  But if you think about some of the movies I've been reviewing, I'm decades late.  And let's not ponder just how I'd zip back to a time before my birth to have caught some of them on opening night.  Or ponder it. Heck, I'm game.

I finally got my hands on the first volume of IDW's new reproduction of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim.  And whoa nelly, it's a beautiful book that was well worth waiting for. Over the years, I've picked up and/or flipped through a number of the reprints of Raymond's seminal space hero only to be let down by one facet of them or another. Now, while we'd all love to see someone track down all the original b&w artwork penned by Raymond for the series, until I'm a bazillionaire who can pull of such a feat, this might be one of the better collections we're going to get.

Alex Raymond (1909-1956) is legendary in the field of comics, not merely for creating Flash (who was originally meant to be competition for the popular Buck Rogers strip) but for creating an elegant, thinly lined realistic style of cartooning. Tragically, his life was cut short in an automobile accident with fellow comic artist Stan Drake (Drake survived.). His professional life and this accident were the intense focus of Dave Sim's otherwise satirical comic Glamourpuss.  Flash, however, continues to thrive and survive and Raymond's other creation, Rip Kirby, outlived its creator by another 40 years.

The introduction does a wonderful job of introducing new readers to Raymond and his work. It also attempts to tackle the controversy regarding long time Flash editor and contributor, Don Moore.  Moore took over writing Flash Gordon after Raymond left the strip to enlist for World War II, but it's often been argued whether he was writing Flash while Raymond drew it, writing additional material, or merely editing Raymond's work. The answer will likely continue to be unknown, but at least that Moore was definitely a part of the Flash and Jungle Jim families receives acknowledgement.

As to the content itself, Flash gets off to a bit of both an abrupt and slightly rough start. Anyone familiar with Raymond's prowess might be surprised just how clunky the earliest of both strips kick off, then how simplistic they become before finally settling into all the flowing line work. I've gone over a number of strip collections and seen the work grow over many years. Raymond, however, moves by leaps and bounds in developing his style...then takes a few steps back...then leaps forward again. If you wanna see an artist grow, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than this book.  The writing too takes a fair bit of time to finally find its legs, but there's never a dull moment as the story rushes headlong forward from the first strip. The only strange part is the weird obsession with characters wanting to marry one another, but you'll have to read them to find out.

I was surprised that the book also featured a warning concerning the racial stereotyping featured in the stories. I'm going to have to say that Jungle Jim, with it's jungle natives and treacherous local guides is far more likely to ruffle feathers.  It certainly doesn't go out of it's way to be offensive like many other works of the time, but it's still offensive. In Flash, on the other hand, it's always surprised me that Ming the Merciless managed to reach a far more neutral place despite his obvious "Yellow Peril" roots. He and his men start as an almost caricature of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. I suppose his escape from stereotype hell has something to do with his being from another planet, and that other than the occasional outfit, there's nothing terribly Asian about him.  In any event, you've been warned.

The book's a good 16" x 12", which might not quite match the newspapers of the day, it's quite generous for a polo-playing space jockey that's nearly eighty years old now. While there's clearly limitations in the source material from one strip to the next, the line work is generally clear and detailed. The colors are well-reproduced, (but...ok, back to my dream project up there...I'd love to see a side by side of the b&w originals paired with the colored version that went to print), but occasionally mask some of the inking beneath. While a few strips looked like they'd had a good washing out, most are probably as crisp if not far crisper than when they saw print in the 1930's. In all, it's a most happy edition to my shelves and a font of inspiration.

(Note: This reproduction's not from this wonderfully printed book...but is hilarious nonetheless.)