Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Is It So Hard?

Firstborn (1984, Michael Apted) & It's My Life (1984, Talk Talk)

As with many of my favorite bands, my introduction to their music was through a film.  In the case of Talk Talk, the film was Michael Apted's Firstborn, released in 1984.  The film is a coming-of-age drama starring Teri Garr, Peter Weller, Christopher Collet (pronounced the French way), Corey Haim, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Robert Downey Jr.  Of course, everyone went onto to further prominence except for nominal star, Collet, who seemingly disappeared after his starring role in 1986's The Manhattan Project.  

In his brief career, Collet accomplished the rare feat of appearing as the love interest of two future Sex and the City stars (Parker in Firstborn and Cynthia Nixon in The Manhattan Project).  In the film, Garr plays the single mother of two teenaged boys (Collet and Haim) who comes under the spell of new beau Weller who, it turns out, deals drugs out of her home and is physically abusive to elder son Collet.  

Up until the action/thriller-oriented climax, Firstborn is a nicely observed suburban drama with some genuine moments between Garr, Collet and Haim, as well as Collet and Parker (when she was still a brunette).  Briton Apted shows a good eye for the details of American suburbia, in this case, New Jersey and New York, which are well showcased.  All of the performances are quite good and it is Collet who anchors it all so it's a mystery as to why his career tailed off so dramatically.

The soundtrack features a good score by the underrated Michael Small, which is very much tied to the era it was produced in (i.e. lots of synths).  Amidst several oldies and some current tunes by lesser-known acts, Apted presciently used Talk Talk's recent hit "It's My Life" and enlisted the band to record a new song for the film, "Why Is It So Hard?"  

The latter song fits very much in the mold of the band's 1984 LP, It's My Life, but for some time it was only available on the soundtrack. It has since appeared on a few Talk Talk compilations.  Over the course of their career, Talk Talk would morph from a New Romantic outfit derisively labeled a Duran Duran clone (they would tour with Duran Duran in 1982) to post-rock pioneers with their last two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Founded by Mark Hollis, Paul Webb, Lee Harris, and Simon Brenner, Talk Talk truly sounded like a completely different band from their beginnings in the early 1980s to their finish about a decade later.  

It's My Life is the band's last album to prominently feature synths, but where the first album, The Party's Over, is truly a synthpop album of the Duran Duran variety, It's My Life features much more complicated arrangements and thematic material (via the collaboration of unofficial member and keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene).  Highlights include the title track, "Such a Shame" (based upon cult novel The Diceman), "Renee," "It's You," "Tomorrow Started," "Call in the Night Boy," and the Beach Boys-inspired "Does Caroline Know?" Although the band would garner further acclaim for their subsequent albums, I still find this, frankly, transitionary album to be a benchmark in the synthpop canon.  While not as artistic or radical as the final two albums, It's My Life is masterful on its own terms.

Hollis has retired from the music scene.  Webb and Harris still collaborate together, and Webb worked with Portishead chanteuse Beth Gibbons as "Rustin Man" on the album Out of Season.  Gwen Stefani and No Doubt got a lot of mileage out of their 2003 cover of "It's My Life."  Collet remains M.I.A. and Paramount has yet to release Firstborn on DVD.  Legend are you listening?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back for More: Gang of Four's "Second Life"

Gang of Four, the band to which this blog owes its name, has released its first new single in thirteen years, "Second Life."  Unfortunately, original drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen have officially left the band once again.  Although Allen was working on the new recordings with Jon King and Andy Gill, I'm not sure if he is a part of the new single.

I haven't heard the new song yet, but here's an early review from the London Mirror and a video for old time's sake:

"Is It Love," 1983:

I Might Like You Better If We Slept Together (Reckless)

Reckless (1984, James Foley)

There's a great scene about halfway through 1984's Reckless (which you can view via the above link) in which Aidan Quinn's Brando-like punk puts on Romeo Void's post-punk anthem "Never Say Never" and struts his stuff with goody goody cheerleader Daryl Hannah.  Nothing else in the film really equals this moment, but it's still a far better film than most critics gave it credit for upon its original release.  You can watch Siskel and Ebert's amusingly scathing review below:

The first feature film from director James Foley, who would next go on to direct one of the best films of the 1980s, At Close Range, Reckless is essentially a 1950s j.d. movie updated for the 80s with the requisite doses of sex, language, and pop music.  That being said, Foley, d.p. Michael Ballhaus, editor Albert Magnoli (who directed Purple Rain), production designer Jeffrey Townsend, and composer Thomas Newman inject enough style and artistry into the proceedings to make up for the deficiencies in neophyte writer Chris Columbus' screenplay. Quinn plays Johnny Rourke, a star football player who's become an angry misfit since his mother deserted he and his father (Kenneth McMillan), a worker in the local steel mill.  Daryl Hannah is Tracey Prescott, a popular cheerleader from the right side of the tracks who has become bored with her jock boyfriend (Adam Baldwin).  Naturally, she gravitates to the dangerous Johnny who just might be open to the idea of taking her with him when he blows town.

Making his film debut, Quinn effectively channels Method heroes Brando and Clift and exudes a potent mixture of toughness, sensitivity, and sexuality as town outcast Johnny. Underestimated by critics throughout most of her career, Hannah is adequate here. She and her character, Tracey, are consistently overwhelmed by the strength of Quinn's performance.  As Tracey, she is appropriately scared of Johnny and what he represents.

However, the screenplay does not afford her character the same weight and roundedness which it does Quinn's Johnny.  Her attraction to Johnny is never quite as convincing or fully explored as it should be.  Despite her misgivings about the role and the nudity involved (which Quinn has elucidated on in at least one interview), Hannah, along with Quinn and Foley, imbue the love scenes with an uncommon level of sensitivity and believability. 

Foley ably directs a stellar supporting cast, which includes McMillan as Johnny's chronically drunk, and, ultimately, tragic, father, Baldwin as Randy, Tracey's jilted boyfriend, Cliff DeYoung as the egomaniacal football coach, Dan Hedaya as Randy's well-meaning father, Lois Smith as Tracey's equally well-meaning mother, Billy Jacoby as Tracey's little brother, Toni Kalem as a a girlfriend of Johnny's, and Jennifer Grey, Pamela Springsteen, and Haviland Morris as Tracey's cheerleader pals.  All manage to leave an impression, with veteran character actor McMillan registering most strongly in spite of the cliched nature of his character.  Along with the aforementioned school dance scene, McMillan's verbal jousts with his rebellious son represent the film's most strongly realized scenes.  

On a side note, Quinn and Hannah would both appear in Hector Babenco's star-studded adaptation of of Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Quinn and Hedaya would reunite years later on the controversial television series The Book of Daniel. Morris (of Sixteen Candles fame) still acts and is also a licensed real estate broker.  You can see her listings page here.

Foley really shines in his utilization of the film's depressed, Rust Belt locations.  Accused at the time of its release, of ripping off the blue collar milieu of 1983's All the Right Moves, Reckless was, in fact, produced in late 1982, before the release of All the Right Moves. Under Foley's direction and Ballhaus' gaze, the towns of Weirton, WV (site of The Deer Hunter) and Steubenville, OH (birthplace of Dean Martin) become strangely alluring in spite of their dead-end qualities and Johnny's never-ending quest to "get out of here!"  Foley, Ballhaus, and production designer Townsend use dramatic lighting, a deliberate red and black color scheme (said to be based on Edvard Munch's palette), some pictorially interesting locales, and a lot of smoke to create a distinct and stylized version of the working class Midwestern environment. Editor Magnoli, who would direct not only Purple Rain, but also a number of seminal 1980s music videos, provides the film with a punchy pace and a particularly effective montage sequence set to INXS' "To Look at You."

This brings us to the music, which is especially strong and stands up much better to the test of time than a lot of other soundtrack-heavy teen-oriented films of the era.  Newman's electronic score (which remains unreleased) is propulsive and appropriately New Wave in tone (which makes sense since Newman was previously keyboardist in California New Wave band The Innocents).  In addition to the score, Newman wrote a great song for the opening of the film, "Understanding Gravity" performed by the Children of 13, which remains unavailable.  It can heard here in the opening sequence of the film, along with Newman's original score:

INXS' 1982 album Shabooh Shoobah plays prominently in the film with three tracks, "The One Thing," "To Look at You," and "Soul Mistake" appearing in the film.  The soundtrack also includes the aforementioned "Never Say Never," Kim Wilde's MTV staple "Kids in America," and Peggy  Lee's "Is That All There Is" (arranged by Newman's famous cousin Randy).  Check out the original videos for "Kids in America," "The One Thing," "Never Say Never," and "To Look at You, below: 

Reckless is an aesthetically strong film, if nothing else, and it's a shame that Warner Home Video has not seen fit to release it on DVD where its photography and compositions could be truly appreciated. As it stands, the out-of-print VHS cassette from MGM is faded and riddled with dirt.  The late 1990s dub I have from HBO comes from a newer master and it is cleaner and the colors are much more vibrant than the VHS.  It has been shown recently on TCM Europe, but the website does not indicate whether these airings were in widescreen. As of now, the American counterpart has no plans to air the film.

It's not a favorite of either Quinn or Hannah (along with Summer Lovers), but Reckless deserves a second look and a decent home video presentation.

Reckless (1984) Complete Songs and Score (Ripped from DVD).  

This is Thomas Newman's first score.   The predominantly electronic score is relatively brief and does a fine job accompanying the New Wave pop songs (INXS, Romeo Void, Kim Wilde). The score melds particularly well with the 3 INXS songs on the soundtrack.  Newman's prior experience in a New Wave band is evident in the score, which is a product of its time, but one that I believe holds up extremely well. Unlike the many generic and lazy electronic scores of the mid to late 1980s, Newman's exhibits a good deal of texture, using a combination of synth and guitar, and effectively captures the angst and restlessness of the film's protagonist.The opening song, "Understanding Gravity" credited to Newman and the Children of 13 has never appeared in any other format. It's not clear if the song even exists in a complete form:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Where are They Now? Update: Sonny Landham

Speaking of 48 Hrs., former actor Sonny Landham who was a rather striking villain in that film, and later appeared to good effect in Predator, has resurfaced as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate in Kentucky.  It isn't the first time that Landham has dabbled in politics and though he's not regarded as a serious contender, he can be a legitimate factor if he can take away significant votes from Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell.  It remains to be seen just how much of a factor Landham's earlier career as a porn actor will affect his candidacy. 

Come out to Play-ay!!!

Though his performance as the psychotic Luther in The Warriors is what he is most well known for, David Patrick Kelly is also a renowned stage actor who has appeared on Broadway and collaborated with celebrated avant garde playwright Richard Foreman on several occasions.  I was fortunate enough to catch a performance of Foreman's Pearls for Pigs starring Kelly in New York about ten years ago.  Almost as memorable as Kelly's manic performance was the presence of a very entertained John Turturro several seats down from me.

Even less well known than Kelly's stage work, is his music career.  Before embarking on his screen career, Kelly performed at legendary New York clubs CBGB and Max's Kansas City during New York punk's mid-1970s heyday.  Now, over thirty years later, Kelly has self-released an album of his music entitled Rip Van Boy Man.  The disc includes new recordings as well as live performances from his 70s club days.  According to Kelly, Warriors director Walter Hill saw him perform in the Studs Terkel Broadway musical Working and liked his singing enough to encourage the actor to adlib the now-famous "Warriors come out to play!" chant.  I remember being shocked many years ago when I could not find this dialogue in the original David Shaber/Walter Hill shooting script.  You can read about this in an exclusive interview with Kelly at Gareth's encyclopedic Warriors site.  To add another CBGB connection, Kelly has stated in other interviews that the inspiration for Luthor's song came from a Bowery vagrant who would taunt Kelly in a similar sing-songy voice--"David, Daaaavid!"

Just as I was about to publish this post, I discovered a lengthy interview with Kelly at the Drunken Severed Head blog, which I've linked to here.

Oh, and Kelly can sing, too.  You can hear samples and download the album at iTunes amongst several other places.

And, even though they serve as prime examples of Hollywood's unfortunate propensity to pigeonhole talented actors, in Kelly's case as "that psycho guy," I must pay tribute to a troika of post-Warriors unhinged villains...

Luther, 48 Hrs. (1982):

Tommy Ray Glatman, Dreamscape (1984):

Sully, Commando (1985):

I'll sign off with Sully's rather ballsy farewell to Arnold in Commando:

"Here's twenty dollars to get some beers in Valverde.  It'll give us all a little more time with your daughter."  I can only imagine that Sully knew that she'd grow up to be Alyssa Milano.

Tribute: Ed Lauter

I remember way back in the early years of my family owning a VCR, we made frequent trips to our local grocery store, Woodmans, which had a burgeoning video rental section. Since I had two sisters their selections were often the prevalent ones that ended up coming home with us. And they often like to re-rent films they'd seen before. One such film that has sort of become a favorite of mine is MIDNIGHT MADNESS. Have seen it many times and have a ridiculous nostalgic affection for it. A few more of their favorites were American Anthem, RAD(I like this one as well) and of course Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

This film was my introduction to Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt, and the immortal Ed Lauter. I would always remember Lauter for his role as Sarah Jessicas conservative ex military dad in the movie every time I would see him in other films. And I saw him a lot. Looking over his career, it is more than impressive the number of memorable and interesting films he has been a part of. I think I personally saw him in Real Genius next, but I have encountered and sought out his films from then until now. You know what, wait, I might remember him next from Death Wish 3 (my favorite of the Death Wish films) as the shady police captain who joins Bronson in the fight with the gangs at the end of the movie. I mean, just check out this list of credits! Let's start with the movies.

And as for his TV career, its ridiculous. He made appearances on Mannix, Cannon, Streets of San Francisco, The Waltons, Kojak, Baretta, Charlie's Angels, The Rockford Files, Bj and the Bear, Hawaii Five-O, St. Elsewhere, Magnum P.I., the A-Team, Crazy Like a Fox, Miami Vice, Murder She Wrote, The Equalizer, Star Trek the Next Generation, Homicide, ER, Law & Order, Charmed, and CSI! Shit, he was even on Manimal!! Most recently he showed up in the movies Talladega Nights, The Number 23, and Seraphim Falls(which I really wanna see). The man is just one of my favorite character actors and I can't recommend enough digging into his filmography and having a bi-monthly "Ed Lauter Night"!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Welcome to the fold, Rupert Pupkin

Those eagle-eyed readers of this still nascent blog will notice a new addition to the cohort...Rupert Pupkin!  Rupert, a beautiful loser on par with one Ned Merrill, will appear here from time to time with his own musings on cinema and other equally important topics.  His report on 1977's The Car can be found a couple of posts down.  Looking forward to hearing more from you, Rupert.  

Rupert's got another forum titled, appropriately enough, Rupert Pupkin Speaks, which can be found here.

Stop in the Name of Love: Baby It's You Redux

Baby It's You has arrived in a batch of new DVD releases from Legend Films, an outfit working off of a new license agreement with Paramount.  The news has already been around in various online forums for some time and, in fact, the titles have been available for several months directly from Legend, although the official release dates are only now upon us. Another favorite of mine, French Postcards, has also been released by Legend.  The good news is that both films appear in their original aspect ratios for the first time on home video.

Unfortunately, however, both Baby It's You and French Postcards retain the altered soundtracks that accompanied earlier home video releases of these films.  (French Postcards is missing several songs including a French version of "Do You Believe in Magic" that plays over the opening credits and Nicolette Larson's "Lotta Love." Baby It's You replaces several sixties-era songs with K-Tel versions including, IIRC, "Baby It's You").  This was confirmed to me in an e-mail I received from Legend VP Maria Mason in early April.  I passed this information onto DVD Savant, who included the message as a footnote to his review.  Contrary to the second reader's message, the Bruce Springsteen tunes have been present in all home video versions of Baby It's You and can be heard on the new DVD.  As disappointed as I am about the soundtrack issues on both films, I will probably eventually add both to my DVD library.  I remain hopeful that Baby It's You will someday appear in a more pure form via the Criterion Collection (per their own partnership with Paramount).  I hold out considerably less hope that French Postcards will appear again on DVD with original soundtrack intact.  

Marc Edward Heuck has told me on the Home Theater Forum that French Postcards first appeared on commercial VHS, most likely with its original soundtrack, on the old Fotomat label (who also released rarities such as American Hot Wax and Fraternity Row) through an agreement with Paramount in the late 1970s.

On a final note, if you look closely at the Legend DVD cover, you will notice that Valerie Quennessen's name has been misspelled "Quennessan."  This type of mistake has always been a pet peeve of mine especially because it can be so easily avoided.  Legend also inexplicably used a different version of the photo used in the original poster so that co-lead David Marshall Grant now appears with a rather dopey expression on his face.  In the future, I hope that Legend retains the original key art on their DVD covers, but they, like most studios, seem tied to second-rate Photoshopped "reimaginings" of the original poster artwork.  On an unrelated note, if you are so inclined, you can say hello to French Postcards co-lead Miles Chapin here. I'm told that he's quite an amiable fellow.

Go to Usarian's page for more information on Valerie.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Get Outta My Dreams....

The Car (1977, Elliot Silverstein)

I don't know what it is about THE CAR.  For some reason, I just love the movie. Also known as DEATHMOBILE, its' director Elliot Silverstein did such classics as Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse. And though he did work on the original Twilight Zone TV series and The Naked City TV series(two obviously great shows), The Car is still my favorite thing he's done.  It's really quite a simple story.  Car, possessed by the devil wreaks havoc on a small town. 

It stars James Brolin(who also deserves a look in Westworld, Capricorn One, Skyjacked and Ted & Venus among many others) as the local sheriff forced to square off against the evil machine. On a tangential note, I just picked up a tv movie Brolin did called Night of the Juggler, which I've heard is quite good as well. The great Ronny Cox(I first remember seeing him as the uptight Police Captain in Beverly Hills Cop and a corporate baddie in Robocop) isn't given much to do but drink and be whiny, but it's still good to have him in the mix. You'll recognize R.G. Armstrong for sure as he's been in a ton of films and John Marley and Kathleen Lloyd have the distinct honor of having both starred in this horror classic AND It Lives Again with Freddy Forrest! I also just noticed that Lloyd starred in Arthur Penn's underrated western The Missouri Breaks the year before. 

Oh and I can't forget that it also features a young Kim Richards who I had first seen in Disney's Escape to Witch Mountain (and its very poor sequel). The year before THE CAR she had starred as Lance Kerwin's little sis in the criminally underseen tv series James at 15 (where's the dvd on this show!). She also had a small role in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (his most direct Rio Bravo ripoff) and would later show up with Spader and Iron Man himself in Tuff Turf in 1985 and Meatballs II before that. I was happy to see her get a small part in 2006's Black Snake Moan and just recently saw her listed in The Race To Witch Mountain (an apparent remake) , also featuring Dwayne Johnson, which is in production right now. 

Anyway, back to the THE CAR! It's really just a Jaws knockoff at its core, but there's a certain breeziness or something to it that keeps me coming back. Maybe its the time it was made, that makes it feel more stripped down than a lot of today's horror films. It's well shot and makes good use of the widescreen format in which it was shot. And let's face it, the car itself is just damned cool lookin! I guess it was designed by the guy who did cars for the original Batman series and the Munsters so there you go! I also have this fascination with films that came out in 1977 and have been subsequently dwarfed by the release of Star Wars that same year(in the case of this film it released a mere couple weeks before the Star Wars phenomenon hit). 

Universal just recently released a new dvd of the film with a better looking widescreen transfer than the former Anchor Bay release(which had gotten quite pricey since going out of print) and it's well worth picking up. Amazon has the new dvd bundled with Spielberg's fantastic Duel, which would actually fill out an enjoyable double bill with this movie.
(thanks to moviegoods for the pic)