music friday: sun records

I'm reading Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips (Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll), and thought I'd turn Music Friday into a Sun Records special.

Here is the first record actually released by Phillips on Sun, Johnny London, "Drivin' Slow" b/w "Flat Tire", from 1952:

From 1953, Rufus Thomas with an "answer record" to "Hound Dog", this one called "Bear Cat" (Joe Hill Louis on guitar). Phillips tried to claim this was a separate song, but he ended up settling, with Leiber/Stoller getting writing credit:

Next, "Mystery Train" by "Little Junior's Blue Flames" (Little Junior Parker), also from 1953 ... this would later be covered by Elvis:

And speaking of Elvis, his first single, from 1954, "That's All Right" b/w "Blue Moon of Kentucky":

 


train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.

 


what i watched last week

By request: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016).

Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (it lost to O.J.: Made in America), I Am Not Your Negro reminds those of us who remember James Baldwin how important he was (and hopefully introduces him to younger viewers). I remember reading The Fire Next Time when I was 10 or 11, and it turned on many lights for me, growing up as I did in a town with no black people. I don’t know that Baldwin’s fame has had the staying power of King, or Malcolm, or the Panthers, perhaps because while he was a vocal advocate, he was primarily a writer, not a speech giver. His autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was still being taught when I was in college. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Baldwin is still remembered as an important figure. In any event, I Am Not Your Negro does a solid job of bringing Baldwin to our attention, using film clips and voice-over narration of his words read by Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively buries himself in the role (it took me awhile to realize it was an actor reading those lines). This is an efficient documentary that speaks to us today, as well as serving as a history lesson. #723 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

Film Fatales #28: Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Billy Crudup heads an impressive cast in a film based on a series of short stories by Denis Johnson. There is a casual realism to the tale of junkies and lo-fi criminals, partly due to the presence of so many characters who are neither junkies nor criminals. It’s a slice-of-life with no apparent agenda. It could use a little more spice ... this isn’t Sid and Nancy. Crudup’s character is named “Fuckhead”, and by his actions and his voice-over narration, I thought “FH” was a bit slow, which I don’t think was the intention. Among the supporting cast, many in what amounts to cameos, are Samantha Morton, “Mike” Shannon, Denis Leary (not as obnoxious as usual), Jack Black, Will Patton, Miranda July, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Carroll from The Leftovers, and Holly Hunter. Maclean deserves credit for a production that clearly had appeal to a lot of actors (this was only her second feature ... she has done a lot of work in television). I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. 6/10. (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Revisiting a favorite. There is a long-standing discussion about whether Nyby actually directed The Thing (an editor, this was his first credited director’s job). Howard Hawks produced ... Nyby had worked with Hawks many times, and when people pointed out how Hawksian The Thing was, Nyby reportedly said that of course Hawks rubbed off on him from all their work together. The film makes an impressive example of the auteur theory as it applied to the studio system ... everyone thinks Hawks directed it because it’s recognizably a lot like many other movies he directed. You can enjoy The Thing without knowing this stuff ... it’s compact, manages to make individual characters out of the stock cast, and is more horror than sci-fi. It’s hardly worth comparing it to the John Carpenter remake ... they are quite different. 9/10.

As we watched it, my wife said the following has always been one of her favorite movie scenes: