I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

‘Round Midnight

Monday, February 27th, 2017

I got the distinct feeling you guys were bored to death when I did a mini-jazz series after LA LA LAND came out (reviewing MO’ BETTER BLUES and THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER). You know, you follow your muse, and sometimes your muse is heading out north when the zeitgeist already got on a plane going south two days ago. But I’m glad I went on that kick if only because it inspired me to finally watch ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986), French director Bertrand Tavernier’s beautiful tribute to the scene of American bebop players transplanted to Paris circa 1959. Real life saxophone legend Dexter Gordon plays fictional saxophone legend Dale Turner as he tries to recapture inspiration and meaning during a stretch of depression near the end of his life.

With his froggy voice, tired eyes and odd sense of humor, sixty-something-year-old Gordon’s is a non-actor performance so compelling he was nominated for the best actor Oscar. Of course he also plays live music all throughout, so Ryan Gosling wouldn’t have been as good in the role.

(The Oscar went to Paul Newman for THE COLOR OF MONEY. Herbie Hancock did win one for ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT’s score, taking out James Horner’s ALIENS and Ennio Morricone’s THE MISSION.) (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Guy and Madeline On a Park Bench

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Before LA LA LAND, before WHIPLASH, before writer/director Damien Chazelle graduated from Harvard Film School, he had already started his first feature, the musical GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. Guy (Jason Palmer) is a young trumpet player, Madeline (Desiree Garcia) is someone he has apparently been dating, and she is looking for a new job and apartment and boyfriend throughout the movie. Another woman, Elena (Sandha Khin, RUNNER RUNNER), gets at least as much screen time. Guy meets her on a subway, but she was not on the park bench so she’s not mentioned in the title, which for reasons unclear to me is only concerned with who was on a park bench. Keep your eye on the ball, title.

Like LA LA LAND this is a tribute to old fashioned musicals and jazz and blossoming romance, but stylistically it’s completely different. Shot in 16mm black and white, it has a nice, timeless look (I would’ve guessed it was earlier than 2009). The cast is all non-actors, the style is cinema verite, none of the dialogue, or even the story, seems at all scripted. It’s just kind of a series of unfolding events and encounters. It’s a while before any of those are actual musical numbers, but we often see Guy playing gigs, and giving Madeline what seems to be a real first trumpet lesson. Later she gets a drum lesson from Chazelle himself. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t go J.K. Simmons on her.) (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Something about this gloomy post-election mood has got me digging out my jazz CDs and records. Actually, it started with the handful of blues albums I own, which makes perfect sense, you can see how Orange Dawn (as I’ve decided to call our new age) would make me feel like listening to “Hell Hound On My Trail.” After that I went to Nuclear War by Sun Ra. Obvious through line there as well. But eventually I moved on to one of the Thelonious Monk albums I’ve latched onto over the years, Underground.

Check out the cover, with Monk hunkered down in a… barn? Bunker? Basement? with a rifle, some grenades, and a tied-up Nazi, makes it seem rebellious. He’s supposed to be part of the French Resistance, it seems. He looks like a jazz guerrilla committing musical sedition.

In general, though, the jazz I like feels more spiritual. It’s a mix of repetitive rhythms and unpredictable melody, spinning around, building momentum, plowing along until it explodes or stops and quietly steps away. Usually there are no words, no subjects. Just moods. Colors. So it’s like a meditation, a prayer in tongues.

All this meditating and praying and then the act of trying to put my love of piano into words to write about LA LA LAND inspired me to pull out the ol’ THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER dvd. This is a beautiful, sad documentary about my favorite pianist. It’s produced by Clint Eastwood and Malpaso, who put up the money to finish the movie when nobody else would. (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Mo’ Better Blues

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

After DO THE RIGHT THING made Spike Lee into a major cultural force, he set his sights on a few subjects he thought were important. Before he made his MALCOLM X movie with Denzel, and before he didn’t make his Jackie Robinson movie with Denzel, he tackled a broader topic: a jazz movie with Denzel.

It was a subject near and dear to Lee’s heart. His father Bill Lee was a jazz bassist and composer for his first four films (this being the last), and he’d befriended Branford Marsalis on DO THE RIGHT THING, so The Branford Marsalis Quartet (plus Terence Blanchard on trumpet) plays the music here. I seem to remember Lee being publicly hostile toward Bertrand Tavernier’s ROUND MIDNIGHT and Clint Eastwood’s BIRD for focusing too much on drug addiction, a complaint possibly aggravated by his annoyance at reporters asking him why DO THE RIGHT THING didn’t deal with drug addiction.

Can you imagine? “Wes Anderson, don’t you have a responsibility to your community to show that rich people use coke?” “Makers of SWEET HOME ALABAMA, where is the meth?” Fuck you. Just for the sake of my blood pressure I’m gonna assume every reporter who asked that has since sent Spike flowers and a card with a long, heartfelt, handwritten letter of apology.

Surprisingly, Lee’s jazz movie just replaces heroin with other vices. Washington’s quintet-leading trumpeter Bleek Gilliam is some kind of womanizer who tries to have two girlfriends at the same time, med student Indigo Downes (Joie Lee) and aspiring singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams in her first role). His childhood friend/terrible manager Giant (Spike himself) has a dangerous addiction to sports gambling and is in debt to his bookie (Ruben Blades, SECUESTRO EXPRESS, COLOR OF NIGHT). But these troubles are kind of woven into a casual and down to earth story about Bleek’s fairly minor struggles doing shows at the Beneath the Underdog jazz club, during a slow-brewing musical and love rivalry with his saxophone player Shadow Henderson (Wesley God Damn Snipes, BLADE). (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

La La Land

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

LA LA LAND is a straight up musical from Damien Chazelle, writer of the music-themed thriller GRAND PIANO, director of the thrilling music movie WHIPLASH. Instead of heart-pounding tension this time he goes for brazen, shameless romance – romance for the idea of falling in love, and for the city of Los Angeles, its history and the potential it represents for aspiring actors and musicians.

I was a little skeptical when it started. The opening, where Los Angelenos temporarily abandon their gridlocked cars for a long-take song and dance number on the freeway overpass that the bus jumped from in SPEED, has a whiff of Old Navy commercial cuteness, and the story of an actress from a small town struggling to make it in big ol’ Hollywood and she’s not looking for a guy but her friends drag her to a party and just when she least expects it… well, it seems a little too straight up exactly the corny old cliche. But as soon as it’s zeroing in on the specific lives and personalities of the two people about to meet and bicker and flirt and fall in love and chase their dreams together and apart, all of that corniness becomes a strength. These two are too charming and funny for you not to kinda fall in movie-love with them yourself, or at least feel a buzz of vicarious courtship. (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Miles Ahead

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

tn_milesaheadad_milesMILES AHEAD is the directorial debut of Don Cheadle, and he stars in it as Miles Davis. I think it didn’t get much attention for the same reason it’s good: it’s a small, odd movie, not fulfilling most expectations of a musician biopic. I’m not sure if it even is a musician biopic. Maybe it’s a little of that mixed with Miles’ guest appearance on Miami Vice. It’s a small time crime story where the lead happens to be Miles Davis and the McMuffin is a reel-to-reel of the only recording session he’s done in years. He wants it for himself but Columbia Records has contractual claim to it, so people are trying to get it.

The story takes place over just a couple of days, with the device of Ewan McGregor as totally fictional Rolling Stone writer Dave Braden barging his way into the “black Howard Hughes” life of Miles, promising to write his “comeback story!” At first Miles gives him many variations of “fuck off, white boy,” but eventually the two are hanging out together. Making this odd couple happen requires deceit and cocaine and puts the reporter in the middle of many tense situations involving guns and/or a fierce insistence on artistic purity. (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Space is the Place

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

tn_spaceistheplace“Equation-wise the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended. We work on the other side of time. We’ll bring them here through either isotope teleportation, trans-molecularization, or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music.”

There’s no way around it: SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974) is a crazy fuckin movie. And not in the common manner of movies that are obviously trying to be weird to get a rise out of you. More like you watch it and wonder who the hell made this movie. Actual crazy people? A UFO cult of some kind? Inmates at an asylum that uses free jazz and guerrilla filmmaking as therapy? The people in question, crazy or not, are Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, the one-of-a-kind cosmically themed avant-garde jazz army from Philadelphia by way of New York by way of Chicago by way of Saturn. They land their space ship in Oakland, California, hang out a while, perform, and try to find ideal new recruits for their all black space colony.

Sun Ra wasn’t always a space man. Early in the movie we see him as Sonny Ray, the piano player at a black Chicago night club circa 1943. The real life Sonny Blount indeed played clubs like this. He was a talented pianist backing up touring musicians and leading his own highly skilled bands, renowned for being able to play in many styles.

(read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

Whiplash

Monday, November 17th, 2014

tn_whiplashWHIPLASH is one of those movies that you hear about playing at Sundance and what not and going over like gangbusters. But you have to take that praise with a grain of salt. You know those festival-goers, they can get excited about seeing something first, something brand new without a bunch of pre-release expectations, with a big audience, usually with the directors and actors there. Sometimes it’s a great movie and they get to call it first, other times nobody really cares as much when the movie comes to the civilian world. Sometimes it’s good but you feel a little let down from all the build up. Sometimes you don’t really know what anybody saw in it at all.

I had none of those problems with WHIPLASH. It would actually be hard to exaggerate how strong its effect was on me. You know how a hyperbolic critic would say they had to catch their breath after a movie? That was literally true for me. When the credits rolled I felt my skin tingling and then I realized I was breathing fast. Honest to God exhilaration from this movie.

The set up and the execution are very simple. Nerdy loner Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller, who I have liked since the remake of FOOTLOOSE) is a student drummer at an elite music conservatory in New York. He idolizes old timey jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and wants to get into the top band at the school, the one conducted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, THE JACKAL). Fletcher is maybe some kind of genius teacher, but for sure a total fucking asshole. I’m not talking a strict teacher, a grouchy curmudgeon, a Joe Clark type guy that’s gonna turn out to have a heart of gold. I’m talking just… you want to punch this fucking guy in the face in the opening scene and I’m pretty sure you’re not gonna love him by the end. One of the most abusive, hateful non-murderers ever put on screen, and not in an endearing Billy Bob Thornton type of way. He doesn’t even give you the usual cinematic satisfaction of going too far and becoming a psycho in the criminal sense. It doesn’t turn into THE STEPFATHER or something. He’s just… a Total Fucking Asshole (TFA). (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

The Aristocats

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

tn_aristocatsFor some reason I am reviewing THE ARISTOCATS. You gotta fuck around and try out different shit sometimes, as my dear grandmother used to say.

THE ARISTOCATS is not one of the better Walt Disney pictures in my opinion. It was the first one they made after Disney’s death, although he’d approved it before he died. It seems to rehash parts of LADY AND THE TRAMP and 101 DALMATIONS without being as good as either. At the beginning a nice old rich lady in Paris is drawing up her will and since she has no living relatives she wants to leave it all to her cat Duchess (Eva Gabor, the same voice as Miss Bianca in THE RESCUERS) and her three kittens. This is upsetting to her human butler, who responds by giving the cats date rape drugs and abandoning them out in the country.

For a second I was thinking I’d already seen this, it was so familiar, but then I realized I was thinking of GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES, which had almost the same plot. But great minds think alike, you know. (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

The Connection

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

tn_connectionLong before Kathryn Bigelow swept the country into a state of frenzied Hurt Lockermania there were other women directors paving their own roads, carving out their own niches, laying their own tracks, mapping out their own nature trails, and other metaphors. One such director was Shirley Clarke.
(That’s not her to the left, that’s a goofy lady that’s in the movie.)

I first heard of Clarke when I saw ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA, a very strange experimental documentary about free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. It’s a mixture of interviews, re-enactments and performances in strange settings. Ornette talks about his life, his work, goes off on tangents about self-castration, geodesic domes, you know the drill. Or maybe not. I guess Clarke was not your everyday director. And not just compared to Penny Marshall or Nancy Meyers. Compared to everybody. (read the rest of this shit…)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.