Friday, January 29, 2010

Jay Reatard: 1980 - 2010

One of the best concerts I've ever attended was a spur of the moment decision last July. I sure am glad I made it out that night to the Jay Reatard performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The prolific garage-punk musician and his band banged through an appropriately brief, rocking set drawing from his many singles (compiled on 2 superb 2008 compilations) and first LP proper (released by Matador). The encore, however, was truly a case of saving the best for last. Ancient--in punk terms--T.V. Smith (former frontman of the Adverts and opening act) joined Reatard on stage for an amazing medley of classic Adverts tracks. Reatard's music definitely evoked memories of the Adverts so this was a fitting passing of the torch.

Reatard was found dead in his bed on January 13 and I missed the initial headlines so I'm belatedly noting his tragic passing. I can't say I was on the Reatard bandwagon from the beginning so I'm grateful I had the chance to see him live that one time. As someone who loves the Adverts, the Buzzcocks, the Dead Boys, the Stooges, and the like, I felt like Reatard channeled that music into his own without it seeming derivative. On the contrary, this was invigorating stuff. A gifted songwriter and exciting performer who becomes another "what might have been..."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

But I Might Die Tonight

My good friend Brian (aka bigbobfreelander) was able to interview Cult Movies and Guide for the Film Fanatic author Danny Peary last week for an upcoming magazine piece. Since Peary is a personal hero for both of us, and we are all UW-Madison alums, it was quite a thrill when Brian sent me an MP3 of the freshly recorded interview. Peary hasn't published a film-related book in nearly 20 years. Instead, he's focused on his other passion--baseball (which, as it happens, is my 2nd love after cinema). Tim McCarver's never been a favorite of mine, but he rises several notches in my personal rankings for having Peary as the writer of his nationally syndicated show.

I won't reveal too much before Brian's interview is published, but one of the most illuminating moments came when Peary discussed the way some of his pieces, particularly from the Cult Movies books, have followed him all these years later. Take Jerzy Skolimowksi's Deep End, for instance, a film I first learned of when I read its entry in the inaugural Cult Movies volume. The film has never been available on home video in the U.S. and tv screenings are rare. I finally saw it for the first time about a month ago when Brian sent me a bootleg. It turns out that quite a few other people were introduced to Deep End by Peary's article as well. When TCM aired the movie for the first time ever a couple weeks ago, Peary's e-mailbox and Facebook account were filled with messages from readers excited about the TCM broadcast of the film and crediting him with alerting them to the film.

The good news about Deep End doesn't end there. While TCM's print was very ragged, Bavaria, has restored the film and it will be coming to DVD from a variety of labels, including BFI and, hopefully, Criterion. In addition, Paramount, acting on the demand of several repertory programmers, struck a new print of the film in 2008, which is still making the rounds. Bavaria promises extra, previously unseen vault materials--I hope this means the alternate ending mentioned in a 1992 Scarlet Street interview with star John Moulder-Brown. I can't wait to see Skolimowski and d.p Charly Steinberger's vivid use of colors, particularly red, in HD (unless that new 35 print shows up in my neighborhood first).

Skolimowski's tale of a young bathhouse worker (Moulder-Brown) in London who becomes obsessed with his slightly older, beautiful colleague (Jane Asher) lived up to the expectations I had built up over the years, based on reviews like Peary's and how much I enjoyed the other Skolimowski films I had seen (The Shout, Moonlighting). This one begins as a coming-of-age story, but it becomes a lot more disturbing as it goes along and ultimately resists many of the conventions of the genre.

It goes without saying that Cat Stevens' "But I Might Die Tonight," used as Deep End's theme, will stay lodged in your head for days afterward in the same way that the Cat Stevens soundtrack from another famous 1971 Paramount film does and, if you're at all like me (read: possessing a weakness for stylish beauties, particularly French or British, of the mid-late '60s), you will have Jane Asher on the brain while you hum that tune.

And, just for the record, in my scorebook, Deep End continues the winning streak of films utilizing the music of Can or members of Can. Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt contributed one of my favorite electronic scores to one of my favorite New German Cinema films, Knife in the Head. Can, inexplicably credited as "The Can" in Deep End's credits (similar to Goblin's "The Goblins" credit in Dawn of the Dead), contributes the spacey, guitar-dominated 14+ minute "Mother Sky" to one of the film's most memorable sequences.

You can hear the film version of "But I Might Die Tonight," outside of the film, here. One fan's valuable Film Fanatic resource is here.

Diane Dors, in a state we probably did not need to see her in, contributes one of the funniest and most cringe-inducing scenes of the film.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Connective Tissue

I'm sure I'm not the only cinema-obsessed fool who seems to find bizarre movie connections or coincidences in his daily life. I'm not sure I can really explain, but I'll give you the latest example, which occurred last night. I opened up a package of two movies I received from Amazon, True Romance (Blu-ray) and Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting. My rationale for ordering these two films was that the former was on sale for under $10 and the latter is a budget-priced DVD I've been meaning to pick up for awhile now, the purchase of which was spurred on by my recent viewing of the director's Deep End.

Well, the coincidence happened when I put Moonlighting in to spot-check the disc and saw via the opening credits that Hans Zimmer assisted veteran composer Stanley Myers with "electronic effects." The coincidence? Zimmer would go on to become a prominent composer for big-budget Hollywood films, one of which was True Romance.
The Moonlighting disc, which I had avoided for awhile because I feared the low-priced disc was of dubious quality, is actually quite impressive visually (16x9 widescreen) and also includes a theatrical trailer. Originally distributed by Universal, Moonlighting is owned by Goldcrest Films International who licensed it to Trinity Home Entertainment. I had never heard of the latter and was put off by the Photoshop-style cover--I think the still of Irons is from another film altogether because of the different hairstyle and his mustache looks airbrushed--and $5 price-tag. For those who were on the fence as I was, consider it a smart purchase.

What the Song Didn't Tell You the Movie Will

Inspired by an old post I started at the MHVF forums. I'd love to hear about more of these. Don't know if I'd like to watch them all. Country tunes seem to work best. Maybe the studios should go back to this well rather than continuing to remake the John Carpenter catalog and old television shows.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"I used to like her early stuff. Borderline."

I was reminded of the dearly-departed Eddie Bunker's great line at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs as "Borderline" came on my shuffle on the commute home tonight and I hit repeat 2 times. Bunker's sentiments nearly echo my feelings on one Madonna Louise Ciccone. For me, nothing really tops the "Jellybean" Benitez collaboration and "Borderline" is my personal favorite of that batch of singles. I hadn't actually watched this scene, which opens Reservoir Dogs, or the film itself in about 15 years. But, I got the Blu-ray super-cheap from Amazon a couple months back and was prompted to crack it open tonight to refresh my memory of the scene.

Aside from chuckling again at the irony of old Bunker, nearing 60 at the time, chiming in on Madonna, I got a big kick out of one of the lines that precedes it, spoken by the dearly-departed Chris Penn, forever to be remembered by the masses as "Sean Penn's little brother." But, the man was a fine actor in his own right, as anyone who sees him in Short Cuts, The Funeral, Reservoir Dogs, and any number of his other numerous roles can attest to. Even being a longtime fan of Sean Penn, I somehow never caught, or had forgotten, the in-joke that Tarantino fit into the scene for Chris Penn to play off. When Tim Roth's Mr. Orange reveals that he is unfamiliar with Madonna's "True Blue," Penn's Nice Guy Eddie replies incredulously, "Oh, you ain't heard "True Blue"? It was a big-ass hit for Madonna. I don't even follow that Top 10 pop shit, and even I've heard of "True Blue.""

I knew that this song was written and released in the middle of Sean and Madonna's tempestuous relationship and I figured this might have been one of the ones written "for Sean." Sure enough, upon checking that most trustworthy source, Wikipedia, my hunch was confirmed. Not only the song, but the entire album of the same name, was dedicated to Sean, "the coolest guy in the universe." Now, I'm wondering how Sean, not known for his sense of humor, felt about his brother poking a little fun, at his (then recent) ex-wife and the song characterized as an "unabashed valentine" to him.

Original paparrazzo Ron Galella snapped a thinner than thin Christopher Penn and his date (and Wild Life co-star) Sherilyn Fenn at a May 24, 1984 production of Nine.

"Leone says my music is better than Morricone's!"

Janus Films has acquired Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 cult horror/supernatural/teenage girl coming-of-age tale Hausu and it's playing theatrical engagements before the inevitable Criterion DVD. However, if at all possible, I urge you to see this one in a theater with an audience. One of the raves for this film says something to the effect of impressing even those most jaded filmgoers who think they have seen it all. By no means do I think I have seen it all, but I have seen a lot and this movie is like nothing else I've ever seen--I do admit to being a neophyte when it comes to Japanese genre and horror films of the '70s. It's best to go in with little to no knowledge of what's to come so I won't spoil things here, but on a technical level I was really impressed with all of the pre-CGI optical effects used throughout the film and some of the most gorgeous painted studio backgrounds outside of Technicolor Hollywood musicals. It goes without saying that a ride like this one is best enjoyed in the company of other appreciative filmgoers so do try to see this one in 35mm if you can.

FYI, if you're in the Chicago area, you're in luck because my friend Mimi who programs the calendar at the Block Museum of Art has included Hausu in her super cool "The Teen Screen" retrospective. This includes some great new titles like Fish Tank and some extremely rare films such as Seventeen. And, I must credit Mimi with alerting me to Hausu in the first place.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeremy (1973, Arthur Barron)

Arthur Barron's Jeremy is an uncomplicated, universal story of first love. A "little movie." But, it's one that gets me every time I watch it. I first read about it in Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic when I was in high school, but it was late to home video and I didn't see it until it debuted on VHS in the late '90s. I just caught up with it again on DVD. I was and remain struck by the film's very mature, honest portrayal of the first time two people fall in love, perfectly capturing just how life-changing and important a moment it is for those involved. At the same time, it shows how fleeting and painfully abrupt these events can be. Like some of the best films of its era, it's somewhat gritty and, within the coming-of-age genre, it's more authentic than those of the next generation--the young actors here look like real kids and not the overly pretty young things that have populated most teen films and tv shows of the last two decades.

Jeremy is a gifted young cellist and sophomore at a New York performing arts high school. He's a shy kid, a little goofy, sensitive, and socially awkward. Susan is a transplant from Detroit. A dancer, she's pretty, independent, has a wisdom beyond her years, and a palpable sadness due to the loss of her mother when she was a young child. Jeremy is smitten the moment he sets eyes on her.

The film was shot in 16mm and mostly hand-held giving it an admirable level of docu-realism. At times, though, the limitations of budget and the filmmakers' lack of experience, reveal themselves in the form of some ragged cinematography and abrupt editing. Some of the writing and supporting performances strike me as tv-movie caliber. While so many current American films overstay their welcome, Jeremy feels a little rushed at times, particularly in its conclusion.

However, I think the movie more than overcomes these shortcomings. Major credit must be given to young stars Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor who actually were the age of the characters they portrayed and became a real-life couple for a time. They clearly believe in the material. Fresh, uninhibited, mature, winning, charming. These are superlatives casually tossed about by fawning critics, but they really do apply to the performances here of Benson and O'Connor. Benson has never been taken very seriously as an actor, but he perfectly plays the awkwardness, uncertainty, and discomfort inherent in Jeremy when he tries to talk to Susan for the first time and even after their relationship has progressed. It's easy to root for this kid to win the affections of Susan. O'Connor's Susan is adorable, speaks her mind with assurance, and has an innate sweetness; it's no wonder that Jeremy would fall for her and that O'Connor would go on to fame as a teen star throughout the rest of the '70s.

There is a good amount of humor sprinkled throughout the film, but writer-director Barron and his young stars treat the courting and love scenes seriously and with an appropriate level of earnestness. To its credit, the film doesn't hold back in showing Jeremy and Susan consummate their love, something I don't think would fly in a PG movie these days.

Benson and O'Connor even sing the film's love themes on the soundtrack--"Blue Balloon (The Hourglass Song) and "Jeremy"--something today's young audiences would probably scoff at and one of the aspects that place this film firmly in the early '70s. Being a fan of pop songsters of the era like Paul Williams (who later provided music for Benson's One on One and O'Connor's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble), I love these heartfelt ballads and the way the film uses them to underscore the feelings of Jeremy and Susan. Lee Holdridge's catchy score perfectly accompanies the montage scenes of Jeremy and Susan together in the city.

Interestingly, but not entirely surprisingly, Jeremy became an object of study for noted behavioral scientist Brian Gilmartin who has done extensive work on a form of shyness he calls love-shyness. Gilmartin's research showed that most love-shy men become pre-occupied or obsessed with one particular film or actress--Jeremy has the distinction of being the most watched film by love-shy men.

Barron didn't direct anything else of note before his death in 2000. Benson and O'Connor would go on to star together in Ode to Billy Joe and separately in several other high-profile feature and television teen romantic dramas throughout the decade and into the early '80s. Both continue to work today, Benson mostly as a director for television and O'Connor in television guest spots. I wrote a tribute to O'Connor here. Benson was the subject of an enlightening Los Angeles Times profile in 2008. Unfortunately, much of their other work is hard to find, i.e. not on DVD. Jeremy is, however, and it's a wonderful showcase for the talents of these two performers.