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remembering valerie harper: rock rock rock! (will price, 1956)

That'll teach me. I thought I'd watch a movie with Valerie Harper, in memorial so to speak. I don't think I'd ever seen one, so the choice was open. I should have just watched a rerun on Rhoda.

I thought I knew what I was in for. I've seen more than one of these 50s rock and roll movies, most of which feature Alan Freed in some way. Just in 1956, Freed was in Rock Rock Rock!, Don't Knock the Rock, and Rock Around the Clock. They're never any good, but they do offer a chance to see some of the early rockers lip syncing their hits. This was just one of the areas where Rock Rock Rock! failed me.

Which rock and rollers turned up in Rock Rock Rock!? Chuck Berry ... can't go wrong there. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The Moonglows. The Flamingos. The Johnny Burnette Trio. LaVern Baker. Berry did "You Can't Catch Me", a nice choice, although his guitar isn't plugged in. How about the rest? The Moonglows are best known for "Sincerely". They did two songs in this movie ... neither was "Sincerely". The Flamingos are remembered for their immortal cover of "I Only Have Eyes for You". I can't really blame the movie for missing that one, since it wouldn't be released for another couple of years. Instead, they did an obscure non-hit. The Johnny Burnette Trio had a single in 1956 of "The Train Kept a-Rollin'" backed with "Honey Hush". Neither turned up in this movie. LaVern Baker is perhaps best known for "Jim Dandy". Here, she sang that record's B-Side. Lymon and the Teenagers' biggest hit was "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". They got two numbers in Rock Rock Rock! ... neither was that hit, although in fairness, they did do "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent". Those are the biggest stars in the movie, and only two of them gave us one of their hits. Not to mention the other acts who show up in Rock Rock Rock! "Alan Freed's band" did two songs ... Teddy Randazzo got four (he played the male lead ... Randazzo went on to write several classics, like "Goin' Out of My Head", but we got none of his famous songs in this movie, probably because he hadn't written them yet). Finally, there was Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers with two songs, an annoying little squirt named Ivy Schulman backed by The Bowties on one song, and "Cirino" with the same Bowties for another song.

But wait, there's more! The female lead was Tuesday Weld, who got two songs herself ... her songs were dubbed by Connie Francis.

What a mess.

As for Weld, I am a big fan. But this was not her finest hour. She was 13 when the film was released ... depending on how long it took to make it, she might have been 12 during filming. She got to share a kiss with Randazzo, who was 21. She later appeared in some fine movies. David Thomson once wondered if Weld would be more highly regarded if she just used her real first name, Susan. I bring this up so you won't think I'm trashing her. But she is pretty bad in Rock Rock Rock!

And Valerie Harper, the reason I watched this? It was her first movie. She's basically an extra, playing a teenager at a dance, on screen for maybe 3 seconds.

music friday: tedeschi trucks band, layla

Tedeschi Trucks Band makes me wish I was playing in a band. They always seem to be having fun, not in a goofy way, but in an adult way. They are generous with each other's playing, and show real affection for each other. Maybe they're not a family, but a musical community, although with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks being married, there is some family in the mix. They are skillful players. Susan Tedeschi is a great vocalist, and Derek Trucks is one of the best guitarists alive. They work together so well, it makes sense that they played a concert one night where they recreated the set list from Mad Dogs and Englishmen ... as a band, the two ensembles have a lot in common.

I am not a big fan of concerts where the artists play an entire album. I've only been to one such concert, when Bruce Springsteen played The River. But Tedeschi Trucks pulled it off with Mad Dogs, and now they've done it again. Joined by Trey Anastasio of Phish (hello, Broad City Abbi!) and Dolby Bramhall II, they performed the classic Derek and the Dominos album Layla. A bit sacrilegious, although if anyone has the right to do it, it's Trucks, the heir of Duane Allman's stylings.

Here is the entire concert:

And if you just want a quick shot of Susan and Derek, here they are, joined by Derek's Allman Brothers buddy Warren Haynes, playing "I'd Rather Go Blind" for Barack and Michelle Obama:

geezer cinema: angel has fallen (ric roman waugh, 2019)

In 2013, having watched the first movie in the "Has Fallen" franchise, Olympus Has Fallen, I wrote, "Worth watching five years from now when you’re sitting at home, bored, and it shows up on TNT." Make that six years. OK, I wasn't at home, but I figure seeing Angel Has Fallen means I've fulfilled the promise I made in 2013, and I won't have to watch the first one again in five/six years.

There is nothing in these movies you haven't seen before. That was true of the first one, which was reminiscent of Die Hard, and it's true of Angel Has Fallen, which is reminiscent of the first one. You could binge the three movies and not really know when one ended and another began. Oh, there are little things, like Piper Perabo taking over the role of Mrs. Mike Banning from Radha Mitchell, and Morgan Freeman going from Speaker of the House in the first one to Vice-President in the second one to President in this one. If you like car chases and things blowing up, you'll enjoy the two hours you spend watching Angel Has Fallen. But five years from now, you won't remember which one this was.

There is one addition that helps. Nick Nolte turns up as Mike Banning's dad, and he has fun overacting and keeping the audience awake between explosions. Actually, he gets in on the exploding, as well, and has fun doing it. Nolte also appears in the post-credits scene, which for once is entertaining. (And it comes right away, so you don't have to stick around for all the credits.

revisiting attack of the crab monsters (roger corman, 1957)

Watched this for the gazillionth time. Might as well just cut-and-paste from the last time:

Nothing in the movie makes sense, although you can probably guess that from the title. Giant crabs eat humans and absorb their brains, after which they retain the memories and can speak in the humans’ voices, telepathically. Virtually every scene has something completely unbelievable, even without considering the premise. Compared to various other cheapo 1950s monster movies, Attack of the Crab Monsters ranks reasonably well. Every scene has action, an order Corman gave to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith. So the picture moves quickly, and it’s over in 62 minutes, so you don’t really have time while you are watching to consider how dumb it all is. On the other hand, the need to make something happen in every scene is one reason the movie is such a mess: there is no time for logic when each conversation must be quickly interrupted by a rampaging crab monster. Inspirational quote: asked why the brains inside the crabs have turned against their former friends and colleagues, Richard Garland explains, “Preservation of the species. Once they were men. Now they are land crabs.”

film fatales #60: craig's wife (dorothy arzner, 1936)

This is the first film I have watched in a new challenge, "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." The challenge doesn't start until September 8, but I jumped ahead because Craig's Wife is leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of this month. Craig's Wife is from Week 5, "watch a previously unseen film adapted from or based on a stage play."

This is the first Dorothy Arzner film I have seen, so I can't speak to any career-long traits to her directing. While her treatment of Harriet, "Craig's wife", led me to find Harriet unlikable, George Kelly, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which the film is based, apparently disagreed. As Molly Haskell relates,

Kelly was apparently horrified at Arzner's interpretation.

"I imagined Mr Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he," [Arzner] said in the same interview. "I thought Mr Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, 'That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs Craig was an SOB.' He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly."

Harriet is the tragic figure in Craig's Wife ... I just can't tell how sorry we are supposed to feel for her. I wanted her to get her comeuppance, but between Arzner's presentation and the acting of Rosalind Russell, I also felt sympathy for her. Harriet was striving for the only thing she felt was available to her as a woman of her time: security, which is represented by her home (the film could have been called "Craig's Wife's Home"), which she gets by marrying a man with money. She doesn't let her husband or anyone else get in the way of her home/security, which eventually leaves her alone in that home. It served her right and I felt bad for her anyway.

This was Russell's first top billing. I've never thought of myself as a big fan, but she co-stars in one of my favorite movies, His Girl Friday, and it may just be that I haven't seen enough of the movies she made earlier in her career. Billie Burke pops up, and for people of my generation, just hearing her voice brings memories of Glinda the Good Witch.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday: bonnie and rosanne

Back in 1982, we saw Bonnie Raitt for the first time, with Rosanne Cash opening. Here are a few of my favorites of their songs. 

First, three from Bonnie Raitt. This is John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery", from 1976:

"I Can't Make You Love Me", from Luck of the Draw, the first album after Nick of Time and the one that was actually as good as people thought Nick of Time was:

And my all-time favorite Bonnie Raitt song, "Sweet and Shiny Eyes", from the underrated Home Plate:

And Rosanne Cash. First, probably my favorite of hers, "Seven Year Ache", from the album of the same name:

A song of her daddy's, "Tennessee Flat Top Box", from the album King's Record Shop:

And from The Wheel, her own "If There's a God on My Side":

Finally, just because, here is Tedeschi Trucks Band with a medley of "Angel from Montgomery" and "Sugaree":

geezer cinema/film fatales #59: blinded by the light (gurinder chadha, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.

On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.

"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!

And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!

It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.

It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.

I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".

Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.

So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

sleater-kinney, the center won't hold

My review of the new Sleater-Kinney album, The Center Won't Hold, can be found on the Souciant website:

Call the Doctor

"I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'."


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018

revisiting easy rider (dennis hopper, 1969)

I thought to remember Peter Fonda by watching one of his movies, and I had a Blu-ray of Easy Rider on the shelf that I hadn't watched yet, so I decided to revisit that film.

At this point, 50 years on, does it even matter if Easy Rider is any good? If you were teaching a history of cinema, you'd want to include it. If you were teaching U.S. popular culture of the late 60s, you'd include it (although, having taught more than one course like that, I tended to use Wild in the Streets). Easy Rider mattered then, and so it matters now. But I'd argue that its importance never had much to do with whether it was actually any good. It struck a chord with young audiences who made it a box office hit, and that did matter. 

Wikipedia claims that "Critics have praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, visuals, and atmosphere." Well, three out of six ain't bad. Outside of Jack Nicholson, the performances barely exist. The general slack acting and often aimless feel are not a reason for me to praise the directing. And no one has ever been able to ascertain who wrote what, or even if the movie was "written". On the plus side, the music is excellent, and the visuals (hat tip to cinematographer László Kovács) are the best thing about the movie (Thelma and Louise's beautiful travelogue is the most notable of many ways the two movies are connected). As for the atmosphere, it's true that few movies do as good a job of drawing the audience into the milieu of hippies, communes, drugs, etc.

But Easy Rider drags, and while its We Are Martyrs theme is certainly a big reason for its popularity at the time, that theme is not as in-your-face as I remembered (final scene excluded, of course). Jack Nicholson delivers a monologue, Peter Fonda praises "doing your own thing in your own time", and all the southerners act like rednecks. That's it. When Fonda says "We blew it", it comes out of nowhere.

And women? There are the earth mothers at the commune, the teeny boppers in the cafe, and then Karen Black and Toni Basil turn up as whores. This definitely isn't Thelma and Louise, which at least allows for a couple of interesting male characters.

I'm not sorry I watched Easy Rider again, but it wasn't life changing. #414 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Criterion released it in a box set with Head, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens. It's not the worst film in the box.