Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Blackout of ’77 and the Longest Joke



It is now almost 40 years since that fateful night in New York City, the second time the lights went out. The first time this happened, in 1965, I was 10 years old, and it was exciting, unexpected, and there was a prospect of school being canceled. 
12 years later I was out of college, living at home, working in my parent’s restaurant in Rockefeller Center, a musician with no real direction, and without a clue. I bussed tables during the day, then broke out my keyboard to play music in the lounge in the evening. By 9:00 PM we were done…closed and cleaned up. I don’t remember if we had plans that evening, but my friends Geoffrey and Joey were there, Geoffrey was also doing some summer work at the restaurant. Also hanging around was my sister, Gay, and her soon-to-be husband John. 

We were finished cleaning up around 9:15 the night of July 13, 1977, and were waiting outside while my mother, Aunt Billie and Uncle Kermit (yep…really his name) tallied up the receipts. We who smoked, lit cigarettes, and I decided to tell a joke I had heard recently, one I describe as “The Longest Joke Ever Told by Henny Youngman”.

Youngman was famous for his one-liners: “Take my wife….please!” Other classics like “Why do Jewish men die before their wives? They want to!” make him a favorite of many who love old-fashioned comedy. This joke was the exception to his usual routine of economic quickies.

A Jewish boy and his Grandmother are at the beach. The kid goes out swimming, and gets hit by a wave and starts to drown. The Grandmother sees this, and yells at a lifeguard to go out and save her grandson. He is unable to save him, and soon a 2nd and 3rd lifeguard swim out, eventually dragging the child to shore. The boy is not breathing, so they administer CPR, and after 10 minutes, the boy coughs up some seawater and starts to breath again. The Grandmother then turns to the lifeguards and says, “He had a hat.”

My friends and my sister all start laughing, but my brother-in-law, who is from North Carolina. is stone-faced. “I don’t get it”, he says. My sister says, you can’t explain a joke like that, it never works. RIGHT THEN, the lights go out. 

At first we think it’s just a local brown-out type deal, one that “Fun City” had been experiencing for years since the 1965 event. I went down to 6th Ave to see if there were lights on up and down the avenue, but there was nothing. People were yelling, and some were running and freaking out. I walked back to the restaurant, and my entire family was outside. Normally we’d take the subway home, but no way were we going down there! My mother locked the door, and we proceeded to walk home, about 20 blocks. My Aunt and Uncle, went to the garage to get their car, and attempt the drive back to their house in New Rochelle.

Now remember, this is midtown Manhattan, tons of cars and people, no lights except headlights on cars, no TRAFFIC lights at all. It is chaotic, but we aren’t really scared, because most of us remember that blackout in 1965, that was pretty peaceful, except for those poor S.O.B.’s who were stuck in elevators or subway cars. Most of the chaos we see is from the gridlock that had ensued. Cars honking, drivers yelling at each other. This certainly is nothing unusual in the city, but it was pretty amplified by the fact that nobody knew if they would make it home. 

We eventually did make it back unscathed. Our high-rise was pitch black like everything else, and of course the elevators were not running. We proceeded to climb the 14 stories to our apartment. When we got in the door, we turned on the radio to hear what was going on. Our view was still unobstructed in those days, and the totality of this thing quickly became apparent. My view to the south was entirely dark, with the exception of the car headlights down on 3rd Ave. It is an image I will never forget. 

My friends stuck around, since both of them lived much further uptown. We decided to light some candles, which made the almost completely obscured apartment dimly visible. For lack of anything else to do, we proceeded to smoke a joint and play some chess. Just as I finished setting up the candle-lit board, the phone rang. My uncle informed my mother that his car was on a different level in the garage, and, as it is in many New York City garages, the only way to get it out was via an elevator. He will be coming over.  

My mother hung up the phone, and yelled in to me. “Wayne, your uncle and aunt are coming over. Clean up your room!” We all looked at each other in this darkened apartment, speechless. 


My brother-in-law then chimed in; “I get the joke!”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Modern Decor...MY ASS!

I've got a problem. I'm getting older. Yes, I know, we ALL are. Haha, consider the alternative, blah blah blah.
American society has always been youth oriented, but now that us Baby Boomers are nearing retirement, it has really skewed younger. Nothing points to this more clearly than hospitality decor.

A typical modern destination type restaurant has jettisoned the soft, high backed chairs of luxury accommodation and replaced them in most cases with hard metallic stools, or even worse, benches. As a man nearing my 60's, this is almost reason enough for me to not dine at such a place. How can I enjoy my meticulously prepared and presented meal when my ass is screaming for me to get off of it the entire time? "This Muscovy duck breast in a port wine reduction is superb, but OWEEE my aching back!"
Cool looking, but Daikaya's upscale Ramen would be more comforting with a damn CUSHION somewhere!


I know those of you who were trained in Hospitality Management were taught to maximize profits via turnover.
 Yes, turnover- good in restaurants, bad in basketball. It means getting more people in and out faster by serving them fast, and not letting them linger. I'm all for the former, but not much for being shooed out of a nice post-prandial glow and onto the street. I'm certainly more disposed to getting off my butt if it is in extreme discomfort. 
Yet, how good can it be for business if 1/3 of your prospective clientele refuses to even walk in your joint because it looks painful to them? Also the theory that you don’t want an older clientele because they don’t drink (not true!!!), and don’t spend (really not true) falls apart when you remember that we have the expendable income, not those kids struggling to stay afloat and barely making ends meet. There are more of us, and we have the dough. Why cater to the younger ones? 

And while we are discussing pain, how about the decade-long trend of making the audial atmosphere in a restaurant absolutely deafening? Yes I know the common reasoning that works here: If you walk in a place that’s quiet, you think “This place is dead. The food must suck”. If you walk in a place that has activity or at least is loud, then it has the appearance of being busy, even if it’s just 4 tables. There is always a “Playlist” going on, sometimes devised by the owner, sometimes courtesy of satellite radio, and it’s loud and often inappropriate. The walls and ceiling are metal, concrete and glass, and the floors are hardwood or concrete or something else reverberant. There is nothing to absorb the sound, and the result is conversation is only possible when yelled. 

Can you imagine doing this in your home? Serve dinner to family  and or friends, turn the stereo up to top volume, and remove all the rugs and curtains. What a lovely evening that would turn out to be!

This is the audial equivalent to having bright halogen lamps on all over the place, shining directly in your patrons eyes. 

The sad part about all of this, is that now the quality and originality of the food are no longer the determinant factors in where I dine, and before I drop a ton of hard-earned on a night out, I want to make sure that I won’t feel like I’m at disco night in the local penitentiary. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Wayne Train goes on Soul Train


Winter 1981. My girlfriend who is quite ambitious, decides that I am not ambitious enough. She’s right, of course. After all, I am a musician. I’ve been playing bars and such, working at my Mom’s restaurant, doing covers in a rock band, playing standards in piano bars. I want to play jazz, but I live in New York City, and what few jazz piano gigs exist are held down by living masters like Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.

I’ve been working part time at Radio Shack, trying to help pay what pathetic bills we have. I’ve also been gigging with a cover band called “Nightwalk”, wherein my stage name is “Wayne Train”. Don’t ask. My girlfriend has convinced me that now is the time to buy a new telephone answering machine. It’s a pretty major expenditure, but she made the argument that, as an aspiring free-lance musician, this might pay for itself eventually.

So I splurge and buy a machine. Ironically, the first message I get, I mean THE FIRST MESSAGE, is from a guy named Tom McConnell, friends with a Bassist for a recording project in which I am involved. Tommy says that his band, a funk group out of Brooklyn named “Skyy”, is looking for a new keyboard player to replace Larry Greenburg, who had recently either quit or been fired, in one of those “you can’t fire me-- I quit” deals. Tommy says I should call him and arrange an audition with the group’s leader, Solomon Roberts. I ask him how I should prep for the audition, and he says that they have a track that’s playing on the radio and is doing pretty well, called “Call Me”.

The next day, I tell a couple of my African-American colleagues at Radio Shack about my impending audition. One of them nearly has a heart attack; apparently this tune is doing more than “pretty well”, it’s climbing the R&B charts like a skyrocket, and about to cross over to Top 40. She turns the radio to the big R&B station, and within THREE songs, the track plays. So now I’m getting nervous. The song has a killer groove, a lead singer who has a bit of MJ in her sound, and a nice little gimmicky idea of a chick trying to move in on her friend’s squeeze.

Despite my complete ignorance of post-disco funk, I chart out the song as best I can, and go to rehearsal/audition with Skyy to try and play the tune. Their keyboard rig is 5 deep, all I use is a Fender Rhodes and a little cheap ARP imitation, so immediately I am out of my depth. Solomon walks me through the parts and which keyboard does what, and with my cheat sheet taped on the keyboard stand, I’m good to go. Always a quick study, after a couple of runs through, I am starting to lock in. They seem to be pleased, and I get the “we’ll call you”.

A few days later, I actually DO get the call. It turns out that they are not officially handing me the gig, but they need me to go to LA for some promotional stuff and a TV show. I get the idea that I have gotten this chance primarily because the guy I am replacing is white, and they think if I’m dressed like him, nobody will notice. I have yet to see my predecessor, and soon find out that his chosen stage costume is Urban Cowboy. Here I am, a guy who thinks of himself musically as the hip jazz Manhattanite, forced to dress as a freaking COWBOY. After 40 plus years as a musician, I wish this were the worst indignity that has been heaped upon me.

Not even close.

We get on the plane to LA, and I am informed of our schedule. We are going to land at LAX, and go immediately to a large record store to do an “in-store”. Basically, you go and sign autographs and LP’s for an hour or so. Then, we will check into our rooms at the Sunset Marquis, and later do another promo appearance, including a visit to the LA branch of our record company, Salsoul. The next day, we will go to do a TV show in Burbank, a show called “Soul Train”.

“SOUL TRAIN”? They didn’t mention that we were doing THAT show. Am I gonna meet the dancers? Don Cornelius? Is this really happening?

We land at LAX and there are two limos waiting for us. We travel to the in-store, a huge shop in Inglewood. There is a big crowd waiting for us. After some photo ops with the staff, we all sit at a large dais, where we will sign promo photos of ourselves. My first quandary arrives when I realize I will be signing a picture of a guy who doesn’t look like me at all. I also realize, upon looking at the picture, that I am not the only replacement in the group! One of the girls, the short one, is also different from the one in the picture. I ask Tommy what’s up with this, and he explains that the 3 girls in Skyy are all sisters, but that one of them is 6 months pregnant. So this sister is not actually a sister. In fact, other than her size, she also bears little resemblance to the actual band member.

I begin signing my name over Larry’s face, to try and prevent people from recognizing the difference, but to no avail. At least 10 fans ask me where the real guy is. I try to explain that I am just as real as the guy in the picture, convincing nobody.

All the while, the tracks from Skyy’s LP, “Skyyline” are playing. In fact, this is when I realize that when you are touring and promoting, you will not only play your hit 100’s of times, but you will also hear it at least as much. By the time this little sojourn to LA is over, I am already totally sick of “Call Me” and have it memorized note for note.

We check into the Sunset Marquis, always a favorite of the record companies for their visiting bands. It is a very swanky place, bedecked with palm fronds, and I am starting to feel the rock-star vibe coming on. I am rooming with bassist Gerald Lebon, a nice guy who is quiet but with a good sense of humor. The next morning we walk down the Sunset Strip, a place we will be very familiar with by the summer. But this is our first trip, so I am anxious to see it.

After breakfast, the Limos take us out to Burbank, where “Soul Train” is taped. I don’t know what to expect; the last time I did a TV show I was 6 and my Mother made me go on this show I had never seen, and never heard of since, called “The Funny Company”. It was like “Wonderama” but with slightly lower production values. Basically, “Funny Company” was to “Wonderama” what “Troll 2” is to “Avatar”. (By the way, my lovely wife, Lisa was apparently the Alec Baldwin of “Wonderama”, having guested countless times.)

Ironically, “Funny Company” did have a lot in common with “Soul Train” from my perspective. I would have to perform, although I would be lip-syncing to “Call Me”, rather than doing a sing-along to “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leafed Clover”. I would still be playing myself, and I would still be dressed like a cowboy.

We go for make-up, and the typical pancake application. I asked for extra-dark. I figure I will be shown maybe two times, once during the phone call breakdown, and once when they show a full shot of the band, so I am not sweating my look too much. I am getting to see the dancers, and am looking out for that gorgeous Asian girl (you all know which one I mean). It’s not really what I thought it was going to be like. The soundstage is very industrial, the dancers are not interested in the bands at all. We eat some bad crudités, and the next thing I know we are on stage, lip-syncing. Minutes later, the song is over, and I feel I have acquitted myself well. Then I find out that that was a rehearsal for the director and camera team. We run the song again, and this time I think it goes just as well.

Before I know it, Don Cornelius is standing in front of me with a handheld mic and asking me something inaudible. I hesitate, and he says in a much louder voice, “And you are?” Nobody warned me that this would happen! I am slightly panicked. I blurt out “Wayne!!”

Don gives me a look that says, “This ain’t the motherfuckin’ Mickey Mouse Club, fool. Give me your whole name.” When I realize this after what seems like an hour (it is in reality about 2 seconds) I say, “Wilentz-Hi!” I don’t think I could have acted dorkier if I had been channeling Barney Fife. Suddenly, my cowboy outfit seemed very appropriate.

I did eventually get asked to join the band, and stayed with them for 8 years. I did eventually get promo pics with my face on them, and got to wear clothes I might actually wear in real life. I recorded 5 LP’s with Skyy, and was on “Soul Train” 3 times, “Solid Gold” 3 times, “American Bandstand” and “The Merv Griffin Show”. I was also on “Livewire”, a show on the fledgling Nickelodeon Network, which was taped at the Ed Sullivan theatre, and where I met my wife.

About a month later, we all watched that episode of “Soul Train” on the tour bus, and huge laughs were heard when Don Cornelius and I had our little uncomfortable exchange. For at least 2 weeks, I was referred to as “Wilentz-hi”.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA

12/7/10

On a frigid night in early December, one of the great singer/songwriters of American music played a show featuring the entire contents of her first 2 LP’s. For people of a certain age, recordings are meant to be heard this way; in their entirety. Actually, I had these records on cassette, and mostly listened to them on my Walkman while on tour. The second LP, “Pirates” holds a particular place in my personal pantheon. It was one of the few pop records of which I never grew tired. Every listen seemed to offer a new revelation.

Ms. Jones’ influence on pop culture should not be understated. Her look, her drawly singing style, her edgy lyrics and soulful grooves permeated hipster society in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. Street urchin chic, is how I classified it. Musically, she is the offspring of Laura Nyro and Bruce Springsteen, but she is nonetheless her own creation.

The show began with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love”, a clever turn on the grown up tom-boy who hangs with the guys but never gets one. Ms. Jones’ vocals still have the cutting high belt that is her signature, and in this song her unintelligible diction was at it’s most cryptic. The band was nice and groovy right from the start. Remarkable too was the restrained sound level; no earplugs were needed. The material on Rickie Lee’s first LP is much less challenging than “Pirates”, and the band seemed to have an easier time with it. Missing however, were the amazing high harmony parts mostly sung by Ms. Jones on the recordings. Probably not in the financial cards, but a couple of female backup singers would have really helped.

Some of the highlights from the first half of the show were “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, “Coolsville”, which featured the unmistakable cat wail of guitar and vocals, “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on which the band really glowed, and “Company”, a great jazz ballad. Ms. Jones preceded the performance of this song with a disclaimer, mostly about her inability to play along with it. Curiously , she seemed to struggle much more with the vocals on this complex piece. Throughout the show she spent a lot of energy on tempo changing, much to the band’s chagrin. It seemed like someone who has spent a lot of time touring solo, and expecting the band to follow her every whim. During the rubato bridge of “Weasel and The White Boys Cool”, you could tell the band was at sea trying to follow her quixotic phrasing.

As she embarked on “Pirates”, it seemed she was getting a little crabby. After a moving rendition of “We Belong Together”, her most Springsteen-ish work, Ms. Jones berated the audience for being unresponsive, which was far from the truth. “Lackadaisical” was the term used, and it worked, the crowd ratcheted up their response from thereon out. The weakest performance of the night was “Living it Up”, and with good reason. It is a very difficult piece, with multiple groove changes. The original recording is miraculous, I doubt if any live version could be its equal. Rickie Lee grew somewhat angered at the band at this point. I believe “cranky” was the word that sprung to mind. Before a stirring version of what she referred to as the saddest of all songs, "Skeletons", Ms. Jones admitted that she got a bit testy at the piano, blaming it on acid flashbacks and indiscretions of her youth. It seemed a bit like an apology. After "Skeletons", she adjusted the song order to make it more show-like; rather than end with downers like the jazzy but dark "Traces of the Western Slopes" and the quietly reflective "The Returns", Ms. Jones omitted the latter altogether, placing the crowd-pleasing "Woody and Dutch" at the end of the show, and smartly so. The song that launched a hundred Pepsi and McDonald's ads, worked it's magic with the audience, and their rousing response elicited what Ms. Jones said was their first encore of the tour, which turned out to be "Satellites" from the album Flying Cowboys.

The fear that the years, which have been so unkind to many of her generation, would have undone Rickie Lee Jones' sound, style and ability to evoke powerful emotions were quite unfounded. This 2-sider show was immensely moving and entertaining, and Ms. Jones proves why she is still a unique talent, and a treasure of American music.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Top 20 Films of the 00's

My heroes at Filmspotting are doing this, so I figured I'd chip in with my own personal list. My requirements were; a) They had to be a movie I would want to see again, b) They were movies I didn't stop thinking about, c) They were enetertaining and meaningul, d) They were highly original in concept and/or execution.


1) Adaptation: I am a man who loves movies about movies. This is my favorite in how it tricks you into succumbing to formula while ridiculing the process. Brilliant!
2) Capote: The best single performance of the 00's doesn't overshadow the handling of the subject matter, which is beautifully paced and artfully shot. The subject of art and morality is as deep as it gets.
3) Sideways: This film spoke to me about people and relationships in a highly personal way. I can't think of any film that has done it better.
4) No Country For Old Men: Simply put, the reason I love the movies. Memorable scenes, relentless tension.
5) Let The Right One In: The best monster movie I have ever seen.
6) Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind: Inventive, entertaining, heartfelt.
7) Brick: I wasn't expecting this genre-twister, and it completely dazzled me. You don't need to empty Fort Knox to make a great film.
8) Man On Wire: Probably my favorite documentary. Well maybe 2nd to Thin Blue Line.
9) Memento: What an amazing job of reverse story-telling and suspense. Truly one-of-a-kind.
10) Cache: I still can't stop thinking about this film and what it means, or at least what I THINK it means. The only other film that has done that to me I can recall was "2001".
11) A Serious Man: Very personal for me. This is my people they are talking about. I think it will be considered a classic someday.
12) Inglourious Basterds: A couple of flawed scenes prevent this from being number 1. But, damn, it is GOOD.
13) Knocked Up: Just great filmmaking- one of the best rom-coms in memory.
14) Zodiac: So much better than Button or Fight Club, I think it is Fincher's masterpiece.
15) 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days: Not higher on the list because it is excruciating. Amazing, moving, brilliant, but also excruciating.
16) Almost Famous: A bit light-weight for me, but still some of the best scenes in movie history. Plus I have a big problem deifying mediocre rock and roll.
17) City of God: See what I said about "4 Months". Probably the best paced movie I have ever seen.
18) The Lives of Others: A movie that shows the difficulties encountered when one person tries to dehumanize another. Powerful across the board: subject matter, performances, direction.
19) Juno: I hate that this movie's era-specificity now makes it much maligned. It's fun, funny, moving, extremely well-acted and directed.
20) Ghost World: : Unforgettably funny and poignant, it is a treatise on the role of misfits and how they cope.

Honorable Mentions: Synechdoche, NY; The Brothers Bloom, The Visitor, 25th Hour, Talk To Her, 40 Year Old Virgin, Goodbye Solo, Pan's Labyrinth, Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood, High Fidelity, Up, About Schmidt, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up In The Air, Milk, A History of Violence, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, The Station Agent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wayne's Top 10 Movies of 2009

That I've seen, of course!

2009 was a great year for movies. I don't think there was anything that will crack my top 50 all time, but there might be some intruders into the 100.

1) Inglourious Basterds

Are you a film fanatic? Guess what? I am. Same with Tarantino. It shows in his devotion to the B Movie genre, and his love for film referencing in just about everything he writes, directs and acts. Nothing he has made shows more fondness for the cinema than "Basterds". It is a love letter to the medium, a phenomenal pastiche of different influences combining to make an entirely new sub-genre. Riffing on Films, I think I'll call it. It's like listening to Bud Powell, and hearing touches of Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Chopin and Duke Ellington all blending to make a new style of bop piano. You've got; classic WWII melodrama, Hitchcock-ian suspense and bad guys, blaxploitation narration, a revenge plot as over-the-top as "Old Boy". All the performances are brilliant, and the cutting and pacing are expertly handled. Even the presence of Brad Pitt as a comic book platoon leader lends some real toughness and comedy to the proceedings. He does not bring the film down as he did in "Benjamin Button". Melanie Laurent is a find, she is both beautiful and very moving. However, the real star of the film is Christoph Walz, His name seems to be missing some letters, but never mind. His portrayal of the "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa is probably the most complex and interesting evil-doer you will ever see on screen. Hitchcock's bad guys from "Saboteur" and "The 39 Steps" come to mind, but neither are played to the extent that they overtake the good guys in audience fascination. This can only be said for maybe Walz's Landa, and Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight".

2) Up In The Air

The parts may be slightly greater than the sum in this very courant movie. There are some scenes that are bound to become classics, and nothing falls short, except that there really is no message. Well, yes, there is that little thing about how easy the modern world has made it to be happily disconnected from everything, including your loved ones. We are all quite aware of this point, but like global warming, we probably need to be reminded of it from time to time, and to realize just how damaging it has become. Like global warming, this film doesn't offer a solution that is realistic, but that in itself is realism. One of the scenes destined for immortality is the Bogey/Bacall homage in the hotel bar, where the two corporate travelers compare their mileage status with less than subtle sexual overtones. The referenced scene is from Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep", wherein the metaphorical matter is horse-racing. As for the cast, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect, and was probably cast due to her tour-de-force role in the vastly underrated and under-viewed "Rocket Science". But truly the performance of Vera Farmiga is the central stunner in this movie. She more than GETS the character; she creates a deep, subtle and credible presence in a part that could have been something far less. George Clooney is perfectly cast. His chops are improving, and his looks don't get in the way as they did in "Michael Clayton". Jason Reitman is developing into a first-rate actor's director, and his subject matter is beginning to show the signs of an auteur.

3) A Serious Man

AKA "No Country for Jews". Huh? Besides the minds behind them, what possibly can these two films have in common? How about the central message of the random cruelty and the meaninglessness of existence? Obviously the Coens have developed a true auteur's (that word again) visual and editing style. Their films all contain similar acting and dialogue. Yet now the message is becoming part of the ouvre. With their last 4 pictures, the Coens are hitting us hard with 2 central topics;
1) Life sucks, and
2) People are incompetent.
There is a 3rd message emerging; God is not going to help you out. In fact, he might be out to get you, too. That message is pounded home in "A Serious Man", and quite effectively. The movie is very personal for me; I was bar-mitzvahed the same year as Danny Gopnik, 1968. He is listening to the same music I listened to, is obsessed with the show "F Troop" as was I, and his friends remind me of mine. His locale is quite different than mine, I was raised in New York City. My parents had long broken up, whereas his are fragmenting while the story develops. Those differences being noted, he seems blithely indifferent to the central issues, as I am sure was I. In a way, I am both Danny, and his father Larry, in that now, I fully identify with Larry's sense of hopless abandonment, and with the Coen's 2, no 3 major messages. You can't count on people, you can't count on God, you can't really count on anything. So stop counting on stuff. What good is it doing you? I couldn't stop thinking about this movie for a week after seeing it. When the police come for Larry's brother, he yells "But I didn't DO anything!" Ohhhhh, how I identify, Uncle Arthur.
Did I mention how hysterically funny it was? I feel that this is one of those Coen films like "The Big Lebowski", that will go from well-liked up to cult status, and eventually become a classic of modern cinema.
One word about the performances; stellar, from the top down, and Michael Stuhlbarg absolutely nails his role.

4) The Brothers Bloom

I seem to be alone in my reverence for this film, but at least I know my daughter Dana, with whom I saw Bloom, agrees that Rian Johnson has continued with as strong a film as his debut, "Brick". Johnson is a genre deconstruction artist it seems. "Brick" was '40's Film Noir stuck in a contemporary High School, with all the usual characters and dialogue much more at home in the genre than the locus or period. "Bloom" is a con-artist story, but re-imagined and placed inside a contemporary indie/quirky shell. Usually, that shell is many film's undoing. Progenitors of the style, like Wes Anderson, have seen efforts fall flat, "The Royal Tennenbaums" coming to mind. There's got to be laughs and true unpredictability for it to work. Johnson accomplishes both with "Bloom", plus he manages to add suspense and romance to the package. Performances by Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo are fine, but wholly overshadowed by the two main women, Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi. Weisz fully masters a very difficult part; she must be innocent, brainy, sexy, plucky and comic all at the same time. It is, I feel, Oscar-worthy. Kikuchi is given an impish Harpo Marx-like character, challenging enough, but she plays it for laughs perfectly. The cons themselves are well thought out, but if the film has a flaw, it is in the rather soupy ending.

5) The Hurt Locker

Director Kathryn Bigelow seems to understand men on a level that no other female director has. She gets men the way John Sayles gets women, with truth, reverence and perspective. This is her finest film by far. Not only are the pacing and suspense on the very highest level, but also the hand-held camera is used to it's utmost. When the soldiers are looking around to see if there are insurgents lurking, you (the camera, I mean) are also swinging around quickly to scan. It is immensely effective, and makes you feel like you are as much in danger as the soldiers themselves. She doesn't get bogged down in the details of bomb-defusing, in the politics of the war, or even in the inherent goodness or badness of the characters. It's all about courageous men in dangerous situations, the adrenaline rush of it, the pain of loss, the immediate gratification, the competitive urge. Jeremy Renner is amazing in the lead role of bomb-defuser. His performance could have been one-dimensional, and the film would still have been very good. Instead, he is remarkably nuanced, and it elevates the movie to brilliance.

6) Goodbye Solo

I have a friend who found the relationships and motivations in this film unbelievable. The truth is, if you don't buy into the characters, then this is a waste of time. I, on the other hand, found the two lead roles and the performers wholly realistic. Ramin Bahrani is truly an auteur ala the great Rohmer. His subject matter and style are very uniform. The subject matter is the lives of recent American immigrants, the style is hyper-realism. In "Solo", you've got a man nearing the end of his life, filled with hopelessness, and another man at the crucial juncture of his life, still hopeful and trying not to give in to the crush of reality. Solo feels that if he can give this old man a reason to continue on, then he himself will be bolstered in his fight to make it. His motivation is to save his own dreams, which are slowly being eroded. Both lead actors, Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West do a convincing job of turning a unique situation into something that seems very probable. Basically, my friend is an idiot.

7) Moon

I miss this kind of sci-fi. Films and books like "Moon" are what got me interested in the genre. What had recently killed it for me are the huge blockbusters and comic book movies that seem to permeate the medium nowadays. Even when a sci-fi doesn't lean heavily on effects, it feels like there has to be some kind of extra nonsense, like Danny Boyle's "Sunshine", with it's monster movie climax. Suspense, apparently, is not enough to carry a modern space flick. I beg to differ. "Moon" is an example of how to beautifully control pace and tension without bombarding the viewer with big time and big money effects. It works the way Tarkovsky's "Solaris" worked, the way "Alien" worked, the way the original "Day The Earth Stood Still" worked.
Tour de Force acting by Sam Rockwell and a very simple but original plot give a huge boost to this taut effort.Duncan Jones is a major new talent, I am looking forward to future works by him.

8 ) 500 Days of Summer

Here’s the pitch; It’s a romantic comedy, a chick flick, but from the guy’s point of view. He’s got quirky friends, she’s beautiful with a fun sense of humor and style. He’s kind of goofy, but has his good points. Oh yeah, it’s told all out of order, so that things they did that were fun at the beginning of the affair are juxtaposed with the same moments falling flat as the relationship deteriorates. Yes, I am talking about “500 Days of Summer”, but I could also be pitching “Annie Hall”. There are so many similarities between the two films that I stopped counting. I found it curious that neither host Jeff Goldsmith nor Screenwriter Scott Neustatder mentioned the Woody Allen masterwork when discussing “500 Days” on the Creative Screenwriting podcast. There are some great original moments; springing to mind are the Hall and Oates musical scene, and the fantasy vs. reality party scene. It’s stylish, touching, funny and altogether a charming bit of filmmaking. Just like "Annie Hall".

9) Sugar

Here's the pitch....knuckle curveball and a beauty. This may be the finest baseball movie since Bull Durham. It certainly gets so many things right that most baseball flicks miss. It's almost as if Ron Shelton and Ramin Bahrani co-directed. Shelton understood the Minors and the combination of desire and talent that a player needs to make the Bigs. Bahrani understands the lure of capitalism- the promise of success and it's appeal to the 3rd world. There is no get rich quick scheme more appealing than pro sports, and no poorer place that develops pros better than the DR. Sugar (the character) is the embodiment of so many young players in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has talent, but his desire is not tantamount. He bails on his career at the first obstacle, and with good reason. He is not driven, not compelled. Sugar (the film) is at it's best in the camps of the Dominican Republic. The language classes and the scouting combines have an honesty you'd never find on the MLB Network. Can I also mention the fact that these guys really look like they are playing ball. Is that too much to ask? Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the same team that brought us "Half Nelson", "Sugar" is sure to join "Half Nelson" in gaining popularity as it gets showings on cable.

10) Up

For me, it's absolutely the best Pixar. The first 20 minutes are beautifully constructed and told, and the action sequences aren't as stupid and slapsticky as the worst parts of "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille" (both of which I loved, incidentally). The plot of hero worship, and what it means, and how it really isn't that big a deal if you find out that your heroes are actually less than you thought they were, is very appropriate for today's times. As long as there is inspiration, a hero's job is worthwhile. It's only important what YOU do with YOUR life. So if worshipping Tiger Woods makes you a better golfer, then does it really matter if he's got a problem keeping it in his pants? This is by no means a kid's movie, especially considering that last sentence I just wrote. However, what nobody told me is that it IS a dog-lover's movie. The talking dog comedy bits are laugh out loud funny, and the dinner sequence had my sides hurting.

Honorable Mentions;
"Zombieland"
"In The Loop"
"Paper Heart"
"Anvil: The Story of Anvil"
"Adventureland"
"Humpday"

2009 Disappointments;
"Taking Woodstock"
"Star Trek"

I still have yet to see: "Avatar", "Nine" and "Antichrist", all possibilities to crack the Top 10.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Royal Scam LP Show at DAR 11/23

First the bad news. The DAR Constitution Hall is about the worst sounding big hall I have ever heard. The louder the music got, the more muddy it became, and for those of us spoiled by Steely Dan's anal attention to sound quality both recorded and live, it was quite a comedown. Freddy Washington's Bass was pretty much unintelligible throughout the show, and that is truly a drag. The DAR makes my guest bathroom sound like Carnegie Hall.

Now the good news. There was an opening act, The Deep Blue Organ Trio. Out of Chicago, the DBOT is a classic Organ trio, OGD in the tradition of Jimmy Smith and more. The brief set was all swing, played with virtuosity and dynamics. An original blues was followed by a swing cover of Earth, Wind and Fire's "Can't Hide Love", an arrangement I plan to cop asap. They finished with a medium groove on "These Foolish Things", with the Mother of all out-vamps finishing the set.

After a brief reset, the Steely Dan back-up band did a quick rendition of "Teenie's Blues", from the great album "Blues and the Abstract Truth" by Oliver Nelson. Then out came Don &Walt, and the vocalists in their typical deployment. Girls stage right, horns rear and stage left. At the edge of stage right was a small stand with a speaker box turntable. Vocalist Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery ventured to the TT, dropped an LP on the spindle, and placed the tone-arm down. The band immediately kicked in the groove for "Kid Charlemagne", and the LP party was ON. There are few other records I would say would be worth doing this. Obviously Dan's 3 they have done (Scam, Aja and Gaucho) plus any of their other '70's offerings. Dream ideas would be "Rubber Soul", "Revolver", "I Am", "Rags to Rufus", "Sticky Fingers", "The Nightfly", "Native Dancer", "Music of My Mind", "Child is Father to The Man".

"Scam" is a true work of art; a band at its most innovative moment, stretching their own boundaries and surrounding themselves with musicians on the highest level. The lyrics are nonpareil, the grooves are to die for, the arrangements and solos all amongst the best ever put on record. "Caves of Altamira" is my personal favorite song by SD (a close second is "Pixeleen"), and it is a smoker live. Guitarist Jon Herrington kicks off one of Dan's only true rocker songs, "Don't Take Me Alive". Visually, the only thing to look at are the female vocalists, and of course drummer Keith Carlock, more animated than I have ever seen. As the girls do their bg's on the ascending "Mu" chords of the verse, the astoundingly good light show highlights them. In fact, the lights throughout the show were stunning and entertaining. A good thing since Don and Walter are a tad static in stage presence. Next was "Sign In Stranger", which I've never seen live, and it was great. The 'not-Donald' keyboardist, Jim Beard was more than a capable stand in for the original piano part by Victor Feldman. The 1st side ended with "The Fez", possibly the best song ever written about prophylactic use. The girls did all the vocals, Donald went off stage, presumably for a quick nap. Or maybe they took him out for the last 2 minutes before halftime to keep him out of foul trouble.

Carolyn returned to the turntable, lifted the tone-arm, flipped the LP, replaced the tone-arm, and the band fired up Side 2, 1st track Green Earrings, groove entirely intact. Herrington and Walter had some fun trading solos at the end. This was followed by certainly the crowd favorite, "Haitian Divorce". The only time I heard this performed was in Hershey a few years back, and Walter sang lead. Some tunes are fine for the Becker pipes, the Divorce is not one of them. Thankfully, Donald took the lead on the song this time, and it was strained, but very true to the original. No talk box solo by Jon, but the feeling of the recording survived. Then came the only rearrangement of the album part of the show; "Everything You Did", which I renamed "Everything You Did When you Got Home At Last". They changed the groove to the Purdie Shuffle, and it worked beautifully. The album portion of the show ended when they did the title track, and it was glorious just as the lyrics say. Amazing work by Jim Pugh, on the Scammy trombone.

When the recital portion ended, Donald finally addressed the audience. We were now going to hear songs from the entirety of their "illustrious career". In fact, every album was represented except, curiously," Two Against Nature", their Grammy winner. They started with "Hey 19", which, now that I have a 19 year old daughter, and now that Donald is on the other side of 60, I found creepier than ever. Can't Buy a Thrill was represented by "Dirty Work" (sung by the women), and the lone encore, "Reelin' In The Years". Countdown to Ecstasy contributed "My Old School", Pretzel Logic gave us "Show Biz Kids" (which was a bit tired, honestly), Katy Lied was saluted with Walter singing "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City no More", Aja was, as always, well referneced with "Peg", "Josie" and an amazing version of its title track, which had Tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and drummer Carlock blowing the doors off the middle and end vamps. "Godwhacker" was the offering from Everything Must Go.

No solo pieces were played, interestingly enough. So nothing from Morph, Circus Money, Nightfly etc. If you saw Donald's Morph the Cat tour, you got plenty of that stuff.

The crowd was pretty advanced in age, lots of older musician types. At one point during the organ trio part, the crowd started clapping on the 1 and 3, a very anti-jazz thing to do. My friend, drummer George Jones commented on how pathetic white people's sense of rhythm is. My wife countered with, "Actually they are clapping right. It's just the delay from their hearing aids". Nice one! George returned from the Men's room wondering why there were "Flomax" ads down there. Another nice one. Well the boys of irony are getting on in years themselves, but still, the genius of their songs, and the brilliance of the musicianship with which they surround themselves make for an exemplary night of music.