Saturday, May 28, 2011

Music Reviews-Aretha Franklin, Richard & Linda Thompson, Parliament

Aretha Franklin and King Curtis
Live at the Filmore West
Aretha Franklin needs no introduction. Many people have probably heard these songs or heard shortened versions of them. But this release is the full six set four CD recording of the Queen of Soul's three night stand at the Filmore West in San Francisco in 1971. On the third night's performance there were some audio difficulties and studio overdubs had to be done but outside of that this is completely live. King Curtis acts as Aretha's bandleader and also has sets of his own. Famously, Ray Charles drops in to guest on Spirit in the Dark.
I mean no disrespect to any modern singers but Franklin set a standard here that has yet to be reached and certainly not surpassed. If you like soul or gospel, you probably should have these recordings. No doubt to give the new audience some familiar hits, Franklin and Curtis do versions of Eleanor Rigby, Love the One You're With, Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours), Ode to Billy Joe, Whole Lotta Love, and many more as well as songs like You're all I need to get by, Dr. Feelgood, Don't Play that Song. Great stuff and if you don't have this already you're really missing out.

The band included such luminaries as Billy Preston, Cornell Dupree (who just passed away RIP), Bernard Purdie, The Memphis Horns and Jerry Jemmot.
A Whiter Shade of Pale

Bridge over Troubled Water

Memphis Soul Stew

You're All I Need To Get By

Richard and Linda Thompson
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
Richard Thompson is a British singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He was born in post-war London. Many late sixties era British musicians were heavily influenced by blues and soul and took the popular (and lucrative) route of aping the sounds and styles of Black Americans from Chicago, Mississippi or Texas. Thompson decided that to avoid what he saw as cultural imperialism as well as to seek his own interests he would initially specialize in British folk music. He kept his own accent. Thompson also has a strong jazz (Charlie Parker) influence though this is not always immediately apparent. Although he's famously said he's not much of a blues player, in his own way he's a better blues musician than about 90% of the BB King or SRV wannabees out there today. He can certainly tear up the fretboard when he wants to. Richard Thompson is probably the best guitarist you've never heard of. He's also probably the best Sufi Muslim British musician you've never heard of.

Thompson came to prominence as a member of Fairport Convention  but left soon after to pursue a career with his wife, the singer Linda Thompson. The two were together personally and professionally from 1972 to about 1982. Although Richard has continued on to have a successful and meaningful career post-Linda (Richard being the primary songwriter in the partnership), for my money those early years contain much of his best work. Their first album together was I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Thompson's worldview tended to be rather bleak. He had a strong bent toward irony and sarcasm. Many of his lyrics could have been written by Douglass Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) or the Monty Python group. This limited his appeal a bit but Thompson has never really seemed to be too caught up in the "must make lots of money" mindset. Many of his lyrics are bitterly opposed to that "money above all else" thinking.
If you like this sort of thing and I do, you may enjoy his work. Even if you don't perhaps you will like Linda's voice. I like her singing a lot. She would later have some vocal issues (hysterical dysphonia) caused by their bitter breakup but at this time she was probably the best British female singer.

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Calvary Cross
The Great Valerio

(Night Comes In is actually from a later album Pour Down Like Silver but it is a favorite of mine nonetheless. Lyrically it allegorically combines the love for one's spouse with the love for God. It is typical of Richard and Linda's best work.
Night Comes In

The Early Years
Much like Aretha Franklin, Parliament-Funkadelic needs no introduction. This release features music that was recorded under the Parliament name for the Invictus label, while the same band was recording under the Funkadelic name for the Westbound label. Clinton never was too organized when it came to taking care of business. This would hurt him and his band members in later years but that's life.

Much (but not all) of this music can also be found under the album titled "Osmium" by Invictus. It was not surprising that Clinton recorded for Invictus as Invictus was started by the famed songwriters-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland when they got tired of Berry Gordy's accounting practices. Gordy told them to stop complaining or start their own company and they took the second option. Clinton had also been a songwriter at Motown. He wrote the songs (I Wanna) Testify and I Bet You among others.

This CD is EXTREMELY well recorded, much more than the Funkadelic sides at Westbound. I was really surprised by the clean, bright and yet solid bottom sound. That's not what I expected from P-Funk at this time. It is easily on a par with the best jazz or rock bands of the day and a far cry from the occasionally poorly produced work at Westbound. It's a shame that Invictus didn't last. As is normal for any sort of P-Funk release, the songs range from social commentary, classical music inspired vamps, pure sleaze, dance, to blues, hard rock and country. The song Come In Out of The Rain is still quite relevant today, unfortunately. Bernie Worrell, organist and keyboardist extraordinaire, had just joined the group and immediately altered the sound for the better. Check out his work on Oh Lord.
As far as I'm concerned P-Funk was and is one of the greatest rock and funk bands of all time. If you don't have this, why not?  Come In Out Of The Rain

Moonshine Heather
Oh Lord, Why Lord
Red Hot Mama

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Film Reviews-Harry Brown, Centurion, Dinner for Schmucks, The Killer Inside Me, Supernatural Season One

Harry Brown
One might consider this a British "Death Wish". Michael Caine plays the title character. I recognized some of the other actors/actresses but this is Caine's movie. It could have just as easily been a good movie about the inevitability of death and how we deal with increasing infirmity. I don't know that that movie would have gained the interest this film did.

Brown is a Royal Marines pensioner who lives with his wife in what looks like the UK version of US projects. They call them "estates" or "council estates". Brown's wife dies as the movie opens. Len, Brown's chess/drinking partner and his only living friend, is frightened of the young punks who infest the estate. The police won't help Len. Len comes to Brown for assistance. Len thinks that a Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland might have some ideas but Brown is numb with grief over his wife’s death and just wants to be left alone. Of course Len meets with a nasty end and the police may not be able to catch and/or convict those who did it. At that point, Brown decides enough is enough and we see that a Retired Bada$$ is still a bada$$. 
Caine looked and acted every minute of his 77 years. The movie was much the better for that. At various times he's dealing with back problems, shock or breathing issues. His enemies are some of the worst and most wicked teens ever depicted on screen. It is rather manipulative filmmaking perhaps but very entertaining.

directed by Neil Marshall and starring Michael Fassbender (Quintus Dias), Olga Kurylenko (Etain), Dominic West (General Virulus)

Centurion is a well made but emotionally empty historical drama about the Roman Ninth Legion that disappeared in 2nd century Scotland: Pict country. Obvious parallels can be drawn with Afghanistan. The Picts rarely stand and fight but rely on hit and run guerrilla tactics, assassinations, and nighttime raids. 
Roman Centurion Quintus Dias was captured by the Picts but he escapes. He hooks up with the Ninth Legion. The Legion Commander, General Virulus, has received orders to take the offensive and permanently end the Pict threat. The general is guided across the terrain by a beautiful, sinister and mute Pict woman, Etain. The Roman plan fails spectacularly. Dias and a few desperate and disparate paltry survivors of the shattered Legion (native Romans, Franks, Nubians, Numidians, Syrians, etc) have to make their way south while pursued by a singularly deadly incarnation of Pictish (and female) vengeance.  This film was reminiscent of the movie The Warriors, which was of course itself based on classical sources.
This was shot on location in Scotland which gave a really beautiful backdrop for the movie. The hills, moors, valleys and rivers were magnificent. If nothing else this was a great advertisement to visit. Kurylenko was evidently a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but I don't remember her. She made much more of an impression here.  Fassbender was in 300 and Inglorious Basterds. There was a (deliberate??) reference to Inglorious Basterds where people hide under flooring from someone who would very much like to see them bleed.
The battle scenes are not like 300. They are shot more quickly and would look more natural were it not for the digitized blood. If you like chase movies or historical films, you'll enjoy this. If swords and battle films bore you, pass over this one. Like most good chase movies the film has a Tired of Running scene that works quite effectively. 
The Killer Inside Me
This film is based on a Jim Thompson noir novel (aside- which I couldn't find at my local book store and then they wonder why more people are just ordering books online) and is set in early fifties Texas. Michael Winterbottom directed.
The movie uses voiceover to give us the protagonist's perspective. As the protagonist is an extremely depraved sociopathic deputy sheriff (played by a very young looking Casey Affleck) with a taste for hurting people his POV can be repulsive. There really is no one to root for in this film which presumably was the point.
Jessica Alba plays a prostitute that the local bigshot (Ned Beatty) would like to have run out of town for personal and business reasons. This job comes down to Affleck. He doesn't do as he's told and force her to leave but decides to use her in a complex long awaited revenge plot against Beatty and company (after engaging in a sadistic sexual relationship with her).
Of course blood calls for blood and the Affleck character does more acts of murder and evil in order to stay one step ahead of his increasingly suspicious bosses and a one man Greek chorus of recrimination-Elias Koteas.
This movie was heavily criticized for misogyny. Affleck's character is evil through and through and doesn't really discriminate in who he harms.  I think most viewers regardless of their political or social views are still somewhat taken aback by depicted violence committed against women even as we are neutral or dismissive against fictional harm done against men.  If you do not like filmic violence of any kind or really can't tolerate seeing actresses suffer extended realistic looking violence THIS IS NOT IN ANY WAY the film for you. Do not see it. Initially I thought Affleck was miscast as a Texas deputy sheriff but his slight frame and baby face juxtaposed to what he was doing gives the movie a dissonance that the director may have wanted. I thought on a purely visual level Winterbottom did a good job of capturing what life was like in big empty spaces with heat, lots of dust, not much to do and no air conditioning.
In addition to Affleck, Alba, Koteas and Beatty this film also stars Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman and Tom Bower. With the possible exception of Beatty and Hudson I don't think anyone really tried to pull off a Texas accent.  
Dinner for Schmucks
A would be winner (Paul Rudd) is offered the chance to rise in his corporation by humiliating a hapless loser (Steve Carrell). Three's Company inspired hijinks ensue. These include misunderstandings, switched phones and only hearing the endings of conversations. It’s a pretty silly movie all around and probably only worthwhile if you have absolutely nothing better to do. Of course there is a happy ending. For some reason many films purport to teach us that money and success don't really matter in life. It’s funny how the people in real life that actually HAVE lots of money and success don’t seem to heed that lesson.
Supernatural Season One
Supernatural is about two brothers Dean Winchester ( Jensen Ackles ) and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) who have become estranged and have taken different paths in life. The younger brother Sam, is in college for pre-law. The older brother Dean works with their father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in an initially undisclosed business.
One night Dean shows up uninvited in Sam’s campus apartment, frightening Sam and leering at Sam’s girlfriend. Sam wants nothing to do with his brother and is about to force him to leave until Dean tells Sam “Dad’s gone on a hunting trip. And he hasn’t come back”. At that Sam tells his girlfriend goodbye and joins his brother.
As it turns out the Winchester brothers and their father, John, are modern day exorcists and supernatural experts. This all started long ago when John’s wife Mary (Sam’s and Dean’s mother) was killed in an unexplained paranormal fire (shown in flashback). Since that time John became a believer in the supernatural . He began investigating bizarre activities and strange deaths across the US.  When he found something supernatural he destroyed it or banished it. While Dean was the dutiful son helping his father in these quests, the younger and rebellious Sam had no use for this lifestyle. He deeply resented his father for (as he saw it) stealing his childhood. He’s only going to help one time and after that he intends to go back to school and his girlfriend.
Obviously things don’t work out like that. After the brothers solve a ghost sighting where their father was last seen, Sam insists that Dean drive him back to his apartment. However upon arrival Sam watches in horror as his girlfriend is killed by an unseen demon in exactly the same way his mother was two decades ago. With nothing left to tie him to college, Sam joins his brother in an epic quest across America to find their father, destroy all supernatural beings and pick up babes. Actually the true star of this show is the Winchester boys’ 1967 black Chevy Impala-loaned to them by their missing father. US companies truly do not make cars like that any more and it’s a shame.
Anyway this is an enjoyable show, if somewhat reminiscent of the Friday the 13th series.  Much of the interplay among the Winchesters rings true to life with anyone who has/had occasionally annoying siblings or demanding parents. Dean is a typical older brother bossy know-it-all while Sam is often Mr. Sensitive unless he's in an argument with his (as he sees it) single-minded relatives. But even though the brothers irritate each other, when the chips are down they can count on one another. There's a few comedic elements. The series soundtrack judiciously uses rock classics from the late sixties and seventies to bookend episode intros and endings and comment on the storyline. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Reviews-47th Street Black, The Blade Itself, Armed America, The Scourge of God

47th Street Black
by Bayo Ojikutu
This was a debut novel that I impulsively purchased and read. It won the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Great American Book Contest. I see why it got some acclaim, though in truth it left me wanting a little more. It is a crime novel but it's just as much if not more a literary novel with all the baggage that word implies. It's very quiet and extremely well written but lacks a little emotion in my opinion.

Ojikutu tells the story of two black teens, J.C and Mookie, small time hustlers and would be criminals in 1960's era Chicago. They discover the tortured corpse of the local black crime boss who was not only stupid enough to have had an affair with a Mafia hoodlum's very blonde and very white girlfriend, but also stole money from the gangster as well. Seeing an opportunity to take his place, J.C. and Mookie decide that this is their chance to make the big time. They wheedle/bluff their way into working for the Chicago Outfit.
As time passes they both figuratively and literally get their hands dirty as Mob associates. With social changes the black criminal underworld becomes more assertive and powerful. Mookie and J.C are in an excellent position to play the Outfit and its black subsidiaries against each other for their own benefit. Everything seems to be going well until J.C., by far the more violent of the two, is convicted of a murder that the two men did together and sent to prison for a decade and a half. Mookie rises in power dramatically while J.C. is behind bars. This sets up some unpleasantness upon J.C.'s release. Although the setting is criminal, this story investigates almost everything except organized crime. Well maybe that's an overstatement but in truth this book is just as much about race relations, male friendships, whether age makes you wiser or just more bitter, missed opportunities, the exploitative nature of capitalism,  the nature of life and death, the pointlessness of revenge, and how to be a man as it is about organized crime. Good stuff and much deeper than I expected.

The Blade Itself
by Joe Abercrombie
I liked the First Law Trilogy by British writer Joe Abercrombie.  I reviewed his later work here but thought his debut trilogy deserved a mention. The story takes place in a quasi-medieval setting in a world not dissimilar to our own. But that's where similarities to other writers stop. Abercrombie is one of the more original (and cynical) writers today. His primary interest is in real recognizable characters, not magic or elves. The closest comparison I can think of is what George Martin has done in his "Song of Fire and Ice" series but Abercrombie's writing is more tightly edited. And no one writes better action or battle scenes.
The first book of the Trilogy, "The Blade Itself" introduces most of the main characters. It takes place at a time when the world's oldest empire, The Union, is under attack by enemies from all areas and is falling apart from corruption.
The major characters include:
Inquisitor Glotka, a loyal police functionary of The Union who seeks to ferret out dissent or treachery and has no scruples at how he does this. Years ago during war Glotka was tortured while captured. He now uses on others the same methods he endured. Glotka lives in constant pain and can not even walk without a cane. Glotka used to be quite the dashing Army hero but now looks so horrific that the only joy he gets out of life is watching people pretend not to react to his face. Much of his backstory is related through asides to himself. He is one of the book's funniest characters. Athough Glotka is thoroughly merciless and without much empathy for some reason he is friendly, kind and loyal to..

Colonel West, a Union Army officer, who is lowborn and must navigate the contempt of noble officers who hate taking orders from him. West also is overly protective of his attractive and hardheaded younger sister. West tries to avoid politics and keep his head down but despite his disdain for nobles he is friendly with ..

Captain Jezal, another Army officer who is West's friend but is much more interested in West's sister. Jezal is proudly lazy and only has his position because of noble birth. Jezal's primary motivations in life are women, gambling and drinking, pretty much in that order. Through an unbelievably unfortunate turn of events Jezal discovers he may actually have to work at his job. For this he blames...

Bayaz, a friendly but quick tempered old wizard (or con man) who claims to be the wizard who helped establish The Union centuries ago. Bayaz never seems to tell anyone the full story. But somehow he manages to know a lot more than he should about things and has a tendency to show up where least expected. Bayaz has some very interesting enemies. For some unexplained reason he's taken interest in Jezal's career. Needing help to fulfill a poorly explained quest Bayaz hires...

Logen Ninefingers, aka The Bloody Nine, an aging barbarian leader from the north who's famously killed more men than the plague. Having fallen out with their king and with a price on their heads, Logen and his merry band of killers (think Vikings so dangerous they scare everyone except Logen as he defeated each of them in single combat) head south to offer service to The Union. Somewhere along the way Logen picked up the rudiments of a conscience, which considering his profession wasn't the wisest thing to do. Like William Munny in Unforgiven Logen has done unspeakable things in the past and spends a lot of time denying them, minimizing them or stating he's not like that any more. He honestly seems to regret some things. But you DO NOT want to make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
The book is full of sarcastic asides, black humor and irony.
Abercrombie is a master of misdirection. This is NOT a trilogy where things are nicely sewn up, the good guys all win or people behave in ways that don't make sense. People all behave in their own interest, just like real life. And actions have a cost, not only upon their objects but also on the subject. Violence is shown realistically, not heroically. Again, this is very similar to Unforgiven in its deconstruction of heroic violence. Violence is shown to be very ugly. If you don't like cynicism stay FAR away from this book and trilogy. But if you are at all interested in fantasy or even just good stories, I strongly recommend starting this first book. When an author can make you care about fictional people as much as Abercrombie can, he's got something going.

Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in their homes
by Kyle Cassidy
Many people (gun-owners or not) hold stereotypes about people who do own guns and the reasons that they do. The author and photographer of this book, Kyle Cassidy, was curious about how many people own guns-estimates range from anywhere from 39% to 50% of the population- and WHY they own guns. Thus he set off on a trek across America to photograph willing gun owners and their guns in their home. He was curious about just who these people were. Were they all paranoid white supremacists, black gangsters or men suffering from performance anxiety as often stereotyped in the media?        
Cassidy got a wide sample of gun owners (and their spouses, significant others and children)  to agree to being photographed and interviewed. These people were of every conceivable ethnic/racial background, various ages, of widely varying political or religious beliefs, of both genders and of various sexualities or social groups. He traveled over 15,000 miles for two years asking people why they owned a gun. Cassidy made no follow up question and just let the photographs and the individual answers speak for themselves. Reading the book you might wonder if someone ought to be keeping a closer eye on some of the respondents but most are just as reasonable and cogent as any other citizen. If you want to know why people own guns and who these people are, read this book. Or if you're curious about what your neighbor might be packing and worried that you need to upgrade your arsenal to stay competitive, definitely read this book.

The Scourge of God
by William Dietrich
The Battle of Chalons in 451 AD between the dwindling forces of a dying Western Roman Empire and the Hun invasion army led by Attila was one of the Classical World's bloodiest and fiercest battles. It was so violent that contemporaries spoke of ghosts fighting after they died and men drinking blood from rivers that had turned red. It is considered a turning point of Western history. What's less known about the battle is that it was set off in part by a woman.
The Western Emperor's sister, Honoria, was both promiscuous and deadly. She had plotted with her brother's steward (offering the usual enticements) to have her brother murdered and rule together in his place. The Emperor Valentinian discovered the plot but whether out of kindness or weakness decided he could more easily live without a steward than without a sister. He executed his steward and sent his sister to a nunnery to await an arranged marriage. But Honoria wasn't done plotting. She sent a secret letter seeking marriage to Attila-the baddest Bad Boy of the era. She not only promised herself but half of the Western Empire as dowry. At this time Attila had been raiding and wreaking havoc across Europe, held off from the West only by tributes and Roman allies of quite dubious loyalty, who had their own grievances with Rome. Using the marriage letter as justification Attila launched a full scale invasion of the West.

Dietrich tells the story through the eyes of Jonas, a lowly Greco-Roman diplomat and historian who is sent in a Roman delegation to buy off Attila or failing that to murder him. Of course the assassination attempt fails and Jonas (who knew nothing of this) is taken prisoner by the Huns. While there he learns their ways and falls in love with another Roman captive, a beautiful woman, Illana. Captive or not, Jonas is still loyal to Rome and discovers that Attila possesses a relic of great power which some believe is the key to his successes. Jonas has to decide if he wants to escape with Illana or this relic. That is if he can stay alive long enough among the violent, but harshly honest and fair Huns, for whom he finds himself gaining respect. Over time some of the Huns admit that the previously somewhat non-martial Jonas may not be totally without value either.

I liked this book a lot. Historical fiction can be limiting because you know how the story ends but you're able to see how inventive an author can be in fleshing out historical figures and creating his own true to life characters to give feeling to times long past. There are a few lapses into some "Dances With Wolves" tropes but that aside this was a good book.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Film Reviews-The Fighter, I Spit on Your Grave, A Shock to the System

The Fighter
This is a good biopic of Lowell MA based welterweight boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his boisterously dysfunctional and occasionally violent family. Micky's mother (and manager) Alice (Melissa Leo), a chain smoking tough lady, presides over this group.
Alice evidently prefers her older son, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) to Micky. Dickie is a washed up former boxer who for years has boasted to anyone within earshot of once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard. Dickie, when he is not busy smoking crack or hanging with streetwalkers, is his half-brother's trainer and mentor. George Ward (Jack McGee), Micky's father, runs a roofing/road repair business and tries to avoid setting off his wife's quick temper. Ward's half-sisters, a coven of loud mouthed hard-bitten bleached blondes, often instigate and support their mother's tantrums and guilt trips. 
Wahlberg portrays a passive, almost gentle, Ward. He's got a huge heart inside the ring but not elsewhere. He knows that his career is offtrack. He's getting the wrong fights for low pay and losing too many of them. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a woman whose barfly demeanor, prickly attitude and revealing attire mask a sharp intelligence. Charlene is not a woman to back down from anyone, including Micky's fierce female relatives.
I have never known a crackhead but I have known people with substance abuse issues. The actors and director (David Russell) do a fine job depicting the impact this has on a family-the denial, enabling and co-dependency, the refusal to confront, the whole nine yards. Bale was believable as someone who rarely thinks past his next high. However when he is actually cogent, he is a great older brother who knows a lot about boxing.
Class is also an understated framework for this movie. These are hardworking people that perform physically debilitating jobs. There's some resentment of people with education or ambition. I would have liked to see the film delve a little more deeply into those issues. In some respects the women in this film mirror some of the stereotypical roles that black actresses complain about. They are mostly loud, verbally aggressive, strong women who don't take any s*** off anyone, including relatives. 
Ultimately, this film is about love's healing power. Charlene's love for Micky helps him to confront his family and take ownership of his career. The brothers' love for each other allow them to accept some ugly truths and move past them. Alice's affection for her sons makes her realize that both need attention and appreciation. This occurs organically, understatedly and sometimes violently, not in melodramatic weepy scenes of exposition. The boxing scenes are crisp and somewhat realistic. Unfortunately the movie doesn't depict the savage bouts that Ward had with Arturo Gatti but no film could really capture those. Leo and Bale won Oscars for their roles. This also had a nice little soundtrack.

I Spit on Your Grave(2010)
This is a remake of the 1978 film. Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a young author, visits the country to write. After some minor unpleasantness at the gas station with the local yokels she settles in at her cabin. But the Deliverance types haven't forgotten about her and they have some very unpleasant plans and even more vicious allies.
Jennifer is assaulted and then brutally gang-raped by many men, including two that she trusted. This is very hard to watch. Nasty ugly stuff. Afterwards, while they are debating where to murder her and dump her body she escapes but does so in a manner that her survival is uncertain.
Enough time passes so that the rapists are convinced she's dead. She's not dead. She becomes an avatar of vengeance who seeks to kill each of her rapists in a horrific manner that mirrors the particular method of violation. 
This film is not for everyone. There's not really any character development. Jennifer just reappears after a period of time and starts wreaking havoc. This story would have been more effective if we saw how she survived in the woods. Better yet, how does someone that was close to death, penniless and without clothes, plan and execute several intricate murders, some of which require not only great strength but also working familiarity with physics, machinery, mechanical engineering and chemistry. This film left me numb. If you're looking for the catharsis of a savage bloody revenge film this might be for you. This movie, like Funny Games, is an unpaid advertisement for always having a handgun nearby. Cause you just might need it someday. Again, the rape scenes are EXTREMELY disturbing and the revenge scenes even more so. The similar revenge remake , The Last House on the Left, was much better done and more realistic.

A Shock to the System
Was he your superior?
No. He was my boss.
This is an older film. It didn't really have an A-list cast but if you can find a copy it might be worth your time. Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) is an older ad exec who has been patiently waiting for the promotion that will make him local office chief. Graham is too much of a "nice guy" at work and home. He quietly suffers his materialistic nagging wife Leslie,(Swoosie Kurtz) who thinks his lack of drive/success embarrasses her and doesn't mind telling him so repeatedly. As far as she's concerned, Graham is useless around the house, useless at work, and useless in the bedroom. But this time, if only by process of elimination-most people his age are either cruising to retirement, running their own firms or far above him in the company hierarchy- Graham believes he has a chance to grab the ring.

It doesn't happen of course. Upper management thinks that the courtly Graham is nowhere near mean, aggressive or intelligent enough to take the top spot. So although the office gossip had Graham getting the position, the job goes to one of Graham's subordinates, the excellently unctuous Bob Benham (Peter Riegert), who immediately stops kissing Graham's behind and starts requiring humiliating displays of submission. Graham discovers that Bob wants to remove more and more authority from him, even as he pretends friendship with Graham. Graham's former friends treat him like he has the plague, all except for Stella (Elizabeth McGovern) a young attractive administrative assistant on whom Graham has a serious crush, although he lacks the guts to tell her this.
Coming home after a particularly bad day at the office, Graham is involved in a violent accident. Surprisingly Graham finds that he's not concerned about this. Armed with a new lack of ethics and a disturbingly accurate sense of what an accident should look like, Graham sets out to make some changes in his life and get the girl he wants. Caine carries this film and does a good job of it. His quiet desperation and gradual personality change are a wonder to watch. He does some voiceover that makes this a very sharp black comedy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good and Evil in Art

Let's go beyond that. Let's include all human creativity-music, writing, film, sculpture, painting, dance-everything. I am no hip-hop devotee. I can't discuss rap's current state. Rap music gets blamed for many issues: out of wedlock births, tattoos, "rape culture", acceptance of public profanity, etc.
But rap isn't the first art form to be condemned for vulgarity or anti-social behavior. The people who gleefully sang "I love to play the piano so baby let me bang your box" or "Big Ten Inch" or "That big long sliding thing" weren't rappers. What do people think of "bad thoughts/actions" in other art forms?
  • Do you care that Louis Armstrong appeared in blackface?
  • The rock group Queen toured Apartheid era Sun City.
  • Rock icon Elvis Costello once called Ray Charles a "blind ignorant n*****" and made similar comments about James Brown.
  • Roman Polanski is a pedophile rapist. Polanski is also among the greatest directors of our time. 
  • Some consider The St. John Passion by J.S. Bach to be anti-semitic.
  • Richard Wagner was anti-semitic. He wrote excellent classical music.
  • Leni Riefenstahl never killed anyone. She turned a blind eye to anti-semitism and The Holocaust while cavorting with Nazi officials to advance her career. She too was a film director who greatly improved her chosen field. Triumph of the Will is a (malevolent) masterpiece.
  • The Rolling Stones generally paid proper royalties and gave credit to their black influences. They refused to play apartheid South Africa. They also wrote songs in which they sang "Scarred old slaver know he's doing all right/Hear him whip the women just around midnight" or "Black girls just want to get ***** all night".
  • As much as anyone not named Chuck Berry, Ike Turner was a rock-n-roll founding father. He had a negative relationship with his wife.
  • James Brown allegedly abused his wives and girlfriends. He wasn't above physically abusing his band members, man or woman. Per Fred Wesley, Brown once pistol-whipped Jimmy Nolen.
  • Norman Mailer beat and stabbed his wife. He was a giant of 20th century writing.
  • Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin wrote great music. He also stole a lot of music and spent much of the seventies addicted to heroin and sleeping with 13 yr-old groupies. 
  • Does it bother you that the Detroit NAACP gave an award to Kid Rock, who uses the Confederate Flag in his shows?
  • Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were among the 20th century's greatest fantasy and horror writers, respectively. Both influenced other writers and continue to do so today, some 80 years after their deaths. Both were proud white supremacists, who even for that time (1920's-1930's) stood out for their contempt of non-whites, especially black people. Lovecraft's racism is almost inseparable from his writing.
  • William Burroughs killed his wife and said this made him a writer.
  • Sunshine of Your Love has one of the greatest rock riffs. Eric Clapton brought attention (and royalties) to black blues musicians. He's regularly hired black band members. He's befriended and worked with many different black musicians. Decades ago Clapton also infamously stated that non-whites needed to be forcibly removed from England. He's never retracted that either. In a December 2007 interview with Melvin Bragg, Clapton reiterated his support for Enoch Powell and again denied that Powell's views were racist.
"I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. F******g w***s, man. F****g Saudis taking over London. B****d w***s. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black w***s and c*** and Arabs and f******* Jamaicans and f****** (indecipherable) don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black w***s and c***s living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want f*****g w***s living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for f***'s sake? We need to vote for Enoch Powell, he’s a great man, speaking truth. Vote for Enoch, he’s our man, he’s on our side, he’ll look after us. I want all of you here to vote for Enoch, support him, he’s on our side. Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the ***** out! Keep Britain white!

I love you mate, but don't move next door, ok?
Despicable or problematic individuals can create great art.
Or can they?
This debate won't end. I believe that art must be judged on its aesthetic merits first and foremost. I once limited myself to art created by only those people that fit or at least didn't violate my basic political/moral standards. It wasn't sustainable. I had to accept that if I liked the art, I wouldn't care too much about the artist. But if I already knew the artist was a horrible person, I probably wouldn't investigate his/her work. It's not completely logical but it works for me. I can accept that bad people can create good art.
There are limits. You won't see me at a Lynyrd Sknyrd show anytime soon. But Simple Man is a good song. Is this hypocritical? Yes. But I think it's also completely human.
What do you think? Do you care about an artist's political views?
Do you enjoy work by people with whom you'd have a confrontation if you met them in real life? 
Did you ever enjoy some art and then find out that the creator was a real piece of .."work" ?
Did that change your viewpoint of the art?