Monday, March 28, 2005

Indisputable Classic Time: Serpico

Sidney Lumet received a life achievement Oscar this last February. That he never won a Best Director Trophy seems all the more screwy to me after re-watching one of his finest, Serpico, on DVD over the weekend. Few directors have juggled hot-button issues, pretense-free storytelling, and genuine artistry so adroitly over a career, and in 1973 Serpico found Lumet at the top of his game.

Based on a true story, the film follows Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), an earnest and hard-working New York policeman who rises from beat-cop grunt work up to plainclothes duty. Along his path up the ladder of the force, he's faced with workaday examples of the NYPD's imperfections; smatterings of police brutality, departmental intolerance at his unconventional appearance, and most significantly, fellow officers on the take.

Serpico navigates this minefield of politics and corruption, solving problems on his own terms while keeping himself at arms' length from department misdeeds, until his repeated refusal to accept bribes incurs the scorn of his fellow officers...and worse. Much worse. Faced with overt threats to his life from a greedy and self-serving segment of the police department (and an administration more concerned with covering its ass than cleaning house) Frank finds himself alone and under fire--figuratively and literally from all sides.

Mistrust of government agencies ran high in 1973, so the true story of an honest cop fighting a quixotic battle against the system hit a strong nerve with audiences. But all the button-pushing wouldn't mean squat if the movie serving it weren't rock-solid, and Serpico fulfills that obligation to white-knuckled perfection.

Lumet grew up artistically during the golden age of TV in the fifties, and those roots surface in the best possible way in his best movies. The economic storyline of Serpico charts Frank's path subtly but directly, letting the chinks in the NYPD's shield gradually appear here and there, over a decade or two of onscreen life. Sweeping as the plot is, though, there's not a shot or syllable of dialogue wasted.

What makes Lumet a great film director is his ability to embrace, and transcend, the basic guts of a true story. The director faces all angles of Serpico's moral Gordian Knot openly--including the unsettling notion that this cop's morally straight-shooting inflexibility is a pretty hefty character flaw in its own right--but he continually averts docudrama talkiness. For a story-driven film, Serpico sports some great cinematic moments, both comic (hippie-clad Serpico almost getting accidentally gunned down by some of his fellow flatfoots; Frank wearily shuffling into the station house in full Rabbinical drag) and heart-stoppingly dramatic (the riveting opening hospital scene).

Serpico deliberately sidesteps French Connection-style razzle dazzle in favor of a mounting atmosphere of dread; the atmosphere is so thick with tension you'll likely not notice the fact that there are only two 'traditional' chase scenes in the entire movie. And thanks to Lumet and cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, New York gives as versatile a performance--bursting with life one minute, swallowing cops in physical and metaphoric darkness the next--as any of the actors.

Not that there's a bum performance in the bunch. One ingenious touch in Serpico is its canny use of relative unknowns, all terrific, for most of its principals. Aside from Al Pacino, Tony Roberts (spot-on as one of Frank's few allies in the NYPD), and a few character faces like Emmet Walsh and Hank Garrett, there are no familiar presences on which a viewer can pin comfy pre-conceived notions. Like Serpico, we don't know who to trust, and the unease is palpable.

If you've ever wondered what the hell was so special about Al Pacino, the one-two punch of The Godfather I and II and Serpico should hammer the man's brilliance home sufficiently. His Frank Serpico exists relatively free of on-the-job tough-guy heroics. He's so fully fleshed out, you feel like you've known a variation on him your whole life; the hard-working, emotionally guarded, charming, but ultimately no-bull straight-shooter who's heaven or hell to work with, depending on which side of the fence you're on. When the world starts closing in around this put-upon cop, Pacino's coiled intensity and vulnerability ring completely true at every turn.

In an illuminating interview on the disc, Sidney Lumet and producer Martin Bregman talk frankly about the movie's rapid (five months from pre-production to release) genesis, Waldo Salt's and Norman Wexler's individual contributions to the screenplay, and the real Frank Serpico. Lumet admits that he forged a strong working relationship with Serpico during pre-production, and likely hurt the poor guy's feelings by stating in no uncertain terms that the ex-cop's job ended once shooting began. Not surprisingly, like the real Serpico, being honest has always been paramount in Sidney Lumet's mind, for better or for worse.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Crappy Musical of the Week: The Apple

I'm not entirely positive why bad movie musicals exude such a strange fascination for me. I'm not much of a fan of the genre, as a whole, in the first place.

Maybe the root of my intrigue is that the cinematic musical is fraught with so many potential aesthetic landmines. A musical attempts to convey, in picture and song, essential human emotions in the most candy-coated, outwardly impractical format possible--by having its characters sing their feelings aloud. Such earnest sentimental display has been largely unfashionable since the Vietnam Era.

Creating the Pocket Universe of a musical requires more lavish sets and costumes than most other films, and in addition to appropriate emoting and delivery of spoken lines, actors must sing and dance--no mean feat, as Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood (who had their career clocks cleaned by Guys and Dolls and Paint Your Wagon, respectively) would likely concur.

So the stakes are much, much higher for a musical. If it flops, it doesn't just quietly whimper away; it runs from the public consciousness, howling operatically like a drag queen on fire.

I pride myself in not looking down with condescension at any film, but God help me, I do love a good, grand failure as much as anybody. And a bad movie musical presents about the greatest, grandest failure you can muster.

So, let's talk The Apple. Forget one drag queen on fire; The Apple is a busload of would-be male divas, engulfed in flame and plunging straight into H-E-Double-Hockeystick.

Director Menahem Golan sank a hearty chunk of change into this examination of fame, lust, Satan, hippies, and nose candy. It ran in theaters for one week in 1980 before getting trucked off to the Island of Misfit Toys. Now, through the magic of DVD and a robust cadre of cultists, The Apple rises again to fry the minds of a new generation. Trust me, o ye of little faith and much jadedness; this film earns its (anti) hype.

Saying The Apple is a bad musical about two Canadian kids getting tempted and/or bitch-slapped by musical fame and fortune is like saying Lawrence of Arabia is about a skinny British guy wandering in the desert; you won't understand until you witness it for yourself. And in the case of The Apple, you'll be scratching your head in slack-jawed amazement even after you watch it.

Before you go any further, read Vince Keenan's overview, which covers the movie's delirious appeal with loving fidelity.

Done? Good. Rather than elaborate on Vince's fine bit of cinema analysis, I'll just content myself with summing up my Top Ten Favorite Things about The Apple. Not surprisingly, you'll note some overlap here.

10) It's directed by the guy who produced Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Hospital Massacre, and The Happy Hooker goes to Hollywood.

9) In 1980, when the movie first hit theaters, Seattle PI critic William Arnold proclaimed The Apple the worst film he had seen in his life. I'm sure he wasn't the only one.

8) Straight outta nowhere, a woman who may or may not be Exotica/lounge singer Yma Sumac turns up singing at the beginning of a musical number for about 4 seconds, then vanishes for the rest of the movie. Why? Who cares? Just go with it.

7) The sets and costumes suggest Ed Wood re-shooting Plan Nine from Outer Space in a high school gymnasium, on a juggernaut of a coke binge.

6) The Apple subverts the notion of rock and roll rebellion by making milquetoast balladeer Alfie (George Gilmour) a disruptive force in corporate-enslaved America. If real life followed this horrific template, Barry Manilow would be the musical equivalent of Che Guevara. Now THAT'S twisted genius.

5) In addition to leaving its glittery, smudgy thumbprint on Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, The Apple's vision of Hell exuded an inestimable influence on another indisputable cinematic masterwork: the Saturday Night Fever sequel Stayin' Alive.

4) The deliciously oddball Vladek Sheybal (usually seen in throwaway bits in spy flicks like Casino Royale and From Russia with Love) gives the performance of his life as the demonic Mr. Boogalow. Sheybal devours the rest of the cast like a Russian royal downing caviar. Seriously.

3) The horrid-but-irresistible soundtrack, a mind-boiling cesspool hybrid of disco and glam rock, will have you Doing the BIM 'til the cows come home.

2) The ending. Dear sweet holy Jesus Mary and Joseph, the ending....

and 1) There's not a hint of irony anywhere in The Apple's gold-lame-swaddled frame. Thank God...or Mr. Boogalow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Japanese Rock Invasion!!

OK, I swear I'm not renaming this Blog Japanese Pop Petri Dish, nor am I getting kickbacks from the Japanese music industry.

But, starting last week with the frontal assault of Guitar Wolf, and at several points this week and next, a heap of bands from the Land of the Rising Sun will be rocking the house in this town. And a lot of 'em (the ones I've heard, at least) are good enough to transcend novelty and merit a stand-alone shout out.

Sadly, one of the best of these bands just played Seattle this last Sunday March 20 alongside the Emerald City's own sci-fi nerd/death metal maniacs, Bloodhag. When I saw Okinawan power trio Bleach (aka Bleachmobile) in 2003 as part of a package tour with Japanese indie label Benten Records, they trotted to the stage so quietly you wouldn't have noticed them. Their bassist, a demure and shy girl in her early 20's, strapped on her instrument, gently removed her glasses, then kicked on the amp and began throbbing out rhythms so hard, fast, and furious that she made Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers sound like Lawrence Welk's accompanist. Bleach's brand of metal-infused punk takes no prisoners, and it took a soul-stealing cold to keep me away.

On Wednesday, March 23, the Crocodile Cafe turns Japanese with The Pillows (a Japanese band that's been compared to Weezer and the Pixies: their music appears on the soundtrack of an anime entitled FLCL), Noodles (Japanese all-girl band), Seattle indie pop outfit Stereo Future, and Tomo and Kelly from local band Asahi (SF and Asahi have Japanese members). Much favorable buzz zips 'round all of these ensembles. Noodles (the only ones I've heard) give great pop, with sexy two-part harmonies, melodic-but-crunchy guitars, and a solid backbeat. Their 2003 CD EP, New Wave, is a short, sweet fix of pure pop heaven--think the Breeders fronted by cute Japanese girls. They're playing early on the bill, so be punctual, dammit. Plus, it's only $6!

Just five days later (March 28), the lovely Sunset Tavern in Ballard, Washington hosts Japan Girls Nite,with Petty Booka, The Emeralds, Titan Go Kings, Tsushimamire, and The Buttersprites. Petty Booka are a Japanese girl duo who perform catchy ukelele-accompanied Hawaiian and Country-and-Western songs. Yeah, a cynic could dismiss 'em as a novelty act, but they sing and play with heart; when I saw them a few years back, they played the most earnestly sweet cover of a Ramones song ("I Wanna be your Boyfriend", rewritten as "I Wanna Be your Girlfriend") that I've ever heard.

Warming the set up will be Seattle's own Buttersprites, a stylish gang of pop princesses who play stripped-down new wave with unaffected, unjaded joy. Their terrific cover of Iggy Pop's "Dog Food" sounds like a really bent commercial for Alpo, fronted by a shiny happy Nina Hagen--great, great stuff. The remainder of the bill promises still more variety, with The Emeralds providing rock, Tsushimamire going the indie route, and Titan Go Kings injecting the Punk quotient. Another entertainment bargain at a mere seven bucks.

Finally, Chop Suey--the same club that Guitar Wolf decimated just a week-and-a-half ago--presents Shonen Knife on Thursday, March 31. Their catchy pop ditties entranced no less an icon than Kurt Cobain, who brought the Shonens with Nirvana on tour and helped get them a (sadly short-lived) major-label deal with Virgin Records in the heyday of grunge. Expect songs about kitties getting stoned on catnip, men with tomato heads, flying jelly attacks, and rocket rides, all delivered with great good humor and insidious hooks. Be there, and get the wow.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Live Rundown: Duran Duran and Guitar Wolf

Enclosed please find the rundown on the two live shows I caught a little over a week ago.

Duran Duran marked my first honest-to-God arena show in many, many moons, and the crowd amassed for the occasion looked like (as my fellow attendee Bob Suh eloquently remarked) our twenty-year high-school reunion. Most of them seemed like nice folks taking the night off from work and parenting to relive some long-dormant memories. Seeing a soccer mom doing the Curvy-Armed New Wave Dance to "Union of the Snake" was a beautiful thing.

Refreshingly, the Fab Five put on a tight show with enough energy to dispel a lot of my old-farts-cynically-milking-it preconceptions. The old stuff sounded great (unforgiving arena acoustics excepted), and even the newer material from Astronaut flourished in the live setting. My favorite three moments: one, an immaculately delivered version of "The Chauffeur", replete with clay flute and sleek Euro atmosphere; two, the blindingly cool anime short of DD as weapon-toting warriors slicing and dicing Demon-faced ninjas, Kill Bill-style, while the real band clipped through "Careless Memories"; and third of all, a gloriously cheeky and strutting cover of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines"buoyed by John Taylor's flat-out funky bass.

Sticker shock (nay, a sticker coronary) figured prominently at the merchandise table. T-shirts started at $35, a lousy pen was $12, and the (admittedly cool) Duran Duran Pop-Up Book/Program tipped the scales at 45 smackers. The admission already hurt the old back pocket more than enough, thanks.

On the louder and sweatier side of things, Chop Suey was packed to the gills for Guitar Wolf, and I still didn't see you there, ya idjit.

Once again, the Wolf played for nearly two hours, coaxing so much noise that even industrial-strength earplugs barely fought back tinnitis. Live, they continued to catapult more energy at a crowd than a Key Arena full of Red Bull. At one point about an hour into the band's set, some schmuck set off a fire extinguisher, rendering the air in half the house (including the stage, I'm certain) literally unbreathable. Half the crowd cleared out and it looked like the club was ready to close, but the band kept playing.

Those happy few who stuck it out were treated to an even more frenetic second half. Seiji stood atop the upraised hands of the crowd like a leather-clad gutter punk Jesus at one point, and the band encored with some of their finest songs. The whole glorious wall of sweat and noise almost spun out of control, only to snap back into lethal precision time and again. All other live bands are like the second pressing of the grape, friends.

The joy extended to the merchandise table, where you could get a bitchin' Guitar Wolf T-shirt, the band's two most recent CD's (both released within the last year), or the awesome GW DVD compilation Red Idol, for 10 bucks each. Yep; ten bucks each. God is good.

The fine Seattle public access cable show LiveEye TV taped the show and should be airing the episode sometime in May. Keep an eye out! In the meantime, follow these instructions:

1) Read this interview with the mighty Guitar Wolf on the SF Burning website (discovered by my intrepid wife).

2) Kick yourself profusely for having missed the show last Friday, puny mortals.

3) Repeat. And don't miss Guitar Wolf next time they're in your town, ya idjit.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

S and H Pure Cop Drama: Starsky and Hutch Revisited

Like most refugees of my generation, I ingested an awful lot of '70's TV in my childhood. But, amazingly enough, I managed to largely miss Starsky and Hutch, one of the era's most popular cop shows, as a kid. So, I approached my wife's spanking new Complete First Season on DVD last November with an unbiased eye and no warm nostalgia to fuzz up my perceptions.

Flash forward four months. As of this writing, I've now sucked down the complete First and Second Season, and am well into the Third, which just came out this week. Like Lay's Potato Chips, Starsky and Hutch ain't fine dining (it was executive produced by TV's hack-a-licious dynamos Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling, for cryin' out loud), but there's some tasty snacking to be had. Betcha can't watch just one.

S & H provided another update on the time-honored buddy-cop show. Paul Michael Glaser played wisecracking and pugnacious Dave Starsky, and former Here Come the Brides regular David Soul was his earnest and more thoughtful (but still butt-kicking) partner Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson. Both of these undercover John Laws worked the seamy side of the street, fighting crime by their own rules, blah, blah, etc. Even thirty years ago, such a concept collected cobwebs. But as a time capsule--and most importantly, as entertainment--the show still exudes an irresistable spell.

Starsky and Hutch served as a transitional show between the Dragnets and the NYPD Blues of the genre, bridging the gap between the formulaic staidness of the former and the more highly-regarded dramatics of the latter. The show's creators also looked to then-current police flicks like The French Connection and Serpico, with their unconventional hip policemen and gritty topicality, for further inspiration.

The attempt to reckon old-school and new-school cop dramas proved awkward sometimes; potentially provocative episodes about rape, drug abuse, and psychosis sometimes got short-shrifted to conform to formula and running times, and you'd be under the table in 20 minutes if you made a drinking game out of Spot the Cliche during some episodes. By today's self-important standards, some of this is cheesy stuff, sketched in broad Magic Marker strokes to fit inside the box that was '70's TV programming.

But you gotta give the show props for frequently tackling gritty topics, years before Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley made them palatable to modern television audiences. And if cliche sometimes won out over innovation, it helped that the actors delivering the cliches couldn't have been better. If ever a show flourished because of its cast, it was this one.

Glaser's hyper east coast personality lent perfect yin to Soul's more cerebral yang. The easygoing chemistry between these guys more than carried the show even when the writing lagged. And the other two components of the ensemble--Bernie Hamilton's surly-but-loveable Police Captain Dobie and Antonio Fargas as the iconic informant/enterpreneur/mack daddy Huggy Bear--got plenty of moments of their own.

Viewed today, even the worst episodes move like lightning, and like many dramatic shows of the era, the series offers a veritable fountain of cool Guest Star Sightings. The boys go undercover as stuntmen in a Season Two episode to protect Western veteran Rory Calhoun; one of my favorite screen psychos, Nicholas Worth, shows up in bit roles in a couple of installments; John Saxon plays a ballet teacher-turned-bloodsucking-freak in "Vampire"; tough guy Robert Loggia delivers some major menace in Season One's "The Fix"; and The Love Boat's Lauren Tewes surfaces in Season Two as a devious legal eagle.

Bravura performances lay nestled amongst the many reliable guest spots. Allan Miller's weary and reluctant psychic in a melancholy episode penned by Michael Mann could be the template for Stephen King's Johnny Smith character in The Dead Zone, and anyone who watched the fluffy sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati will flip their collective wig at seeing that series' nice-guy radio programmer, Gary Sandy, deliver a scare-ya-spitless performance as a mentally unhinged thug in "Vendetta", a Season Two highlight.

The two-part Third Season opener transplants Starsky and Hutch to an exotic tropical island to rescue an infirm tycoon from corrupt caregivers. It's a major shark jump (why are two California vice cops performing Bond-style rescue operations in some pseudo-Haitian tropical paradise?), but still a blast. When you've got Don Pedro Colley chewing the scenery as the heinous voodoo priest Papa Theodore, Roscoe Lee Browne as the avuncular island police chief, and Joan Collins playing a sweet but determined photographer looking for her lost dad (you read that right), you know you're in for a tasty bag of TV snacking goodness.

Then again, just four episodes later, "Death in a Different Place" tackles the murder of a closeted homosexual cop with surprising-for-the-time restraint. Aside from the final requisite gunfight, it's a really intelligent installment, and a LOT less strident than a typical episode of the inexplicably-acclaimed Law and Order. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Guitar Wolf will jet rock you to killing crazy!!

Cliffs Notes on today's entry: Guitar Wolf is playing at Chop Suey in Seattle on Friday night, March 11. If you live in this region, have a pulse, and possess any love for real rock and roll, BE THERE. You're an idjit if you ain't.

Yesterday I spent a whole entry justifying my fondness for Duran Duran. I hope that my brave stance won't seem hypocritical in light of this column, which extols the virtues of sweaty, loud, ugly rock, the no-bull variety with a lineage that runs from old-school rockabilly to The Cramps to The Ramones. For real rock and roll is in mighty short supply in these devalued times.

Let's not delude ourselves; rock has become the muzak of this generation. Every car commercial sports a razor-sharp guitar riff; every reality show uses rock as anonymous bumper music while the latest reality TV plebes race, eat worms, or screw. Even great songs get co-opted by The Man (The Ramones in a Pepsi commercial...bluurrgg...), and the kids have confused mallrats like Sum 41 and Good Charlotte for the genuine punk-rock article.

But if you hurled all the rock and roll bands on the planet into one giant red-hot frying pan and broiled the whole shibang 'til all of the poseurs, wusses, and weaklings evaporated, only one band would remain standing, sneering, and pounding out riffs: Japan's mighty Guitar Wolf.

No lie, pard'ner. This trio--guitarist/head screamer Seiji (Guitar Wolf), bassist Billy (Bass Wolf), and drummer Toru (Drum Wolf)--generates the loudest, most knuckle-draggingly primal and insidiously catchy noise this side of the late great Ramones. We're talking two-and-three chord garage rock, played with the kind of full-throttle, go-for-broke energy that only true believers can pull off. Don't write Guitar Wolf off as a novelty act because they sing in Japanese and currently record for an indie label (Narnack Records). This scruffy trio is the real deal.

They're so loud that at least one of their CDs, 1998's Jet Generation, comes with a warning that it will destroy certain types of stereo amplifiers if you play it. The guitars squeal like bandsaws grinding at sheet metal, the bass and drums rumble like Godzilla with indigestion, and the low-fi production makes your average Guitar Wolf CD sound like a giant monster battle being recorded on a cassette recorder by a scared little kid hiding from the carnage in a cardboard box. Miraculously, real riffs and tunes surface amidst the noise. And they look cooler than you or I ever will, puny mortals.

My intro to Guitar Wolf occurred, ironically enough, not in a smoky music venue, but at the Egyptian movie theater in Seattle, where a midnight screening of the trio's starring vehicle Wild Zero blew the top of my head off. Wild Zero weds flesheating zombies, rock and roll, Sam Peckinpah-style action, and grade Z science fiction with un-self-conscious verve and fun. It's the best polyglot B flick I've seen in ages, and the Wolf come off as the coolest bunch of miscreants-turned-world saviors who ever strapped on instruments and stepped in front of a camera (get thee to a DVD retailer and pick up the Synapse Films disc post haste).

And there is no better live band on the planet. The last time they played Seattle, at the Crocodile Cafe in March 2003, they pounded out a two-hour show of blistering energy. Seiji was drenched in sweat within the first seven minutes, and backed by the piledriving rhythm section of his bandmates, his energy never flagged. At one point the frontman climbed to the upper rafters of the Crocodile ceiling, started slashing out power chords like some axe-wielding demon, leapt from the rafters, and landed--hard--on his feet while continuing to pound out chords without missing a beat. It was, as Rita eloquently stated afterwards, a Rock and Roll Religious Experience.

So be there to get some religion. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee will be there--in spirit, anyway.

Monday, March 07, 2005

It's a (not-so) New Religion: Duran Duran, Live

It's very surreal to be old enough to have bands who were popular in my youth break up, reform in truncated fashion, then reunite years later in full original-lineup regalia for reunion tours. Such involved histories only happen to geezers like Crosby Stills and Nash, for God's sake-- not Duran Duran.

But sure enough, this Wednesday March 9, those selfsame Britpop sensations from the Big Hair and Shoulder-Pads-to-Match decade will hit the stage at the Everett Events Center in lovely Everett, Washington for a reunion show. And though I'm normally too much of a jaded music geek to participate in an honest-to-God arena concert, this one promises to be interesting. For one thing, it's the first time in 16 years that the original lineup (vocalist Simon LeBon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and the three unrelated Taylors named John, Andy, and Roger on bass, guitar, and drums respectively) are playing as a group. For another, time has granted DD something critics in the '80's refused to yield; status as elder statesmen, and some belated respect.

Duran Duran were one of the firstNew Wave bands of the '80's to really break through on a big mainstream level to Americans. DD cannily combined elements alien to most US record buyers--British synthesizer music and European disco--with enough familiar touches (slinky,danceable funk rhythms and seamlessly-constructed pop hooks) to become one of the biggest acts on the planet for much of the Reagan era. It also helped that the Fab Five were all abject dreamboats. Their good looks and ambitious music videos (on an upstart cable channel called MTV) made British New Wave androgyny acceptible to stateside listeners, and downright desirable to a whole generation of girls--yours truly's wife was a Simon LeBon/ John Taylor girl herself.

Their first three records, 1981's Duran Duran, Rio (1982), and Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1984) got pooped on pretty relentlessly by the music press upon initial release, but time has vindicated these efforts pretty thoroughly. Unlike a lot of the synth-based UK bands who flooded the market at the time, these guys could really play (John and Roger Taylor provided an impressive, organic rhythm section), and the soaring melodies, spot-on harmonies, and surprising instrumental snap hold up well today. And with a lot of young bands out there co-opting their sound for a new generation of pogoing kids, Duran Duran sound positively daisy-fresh now.

After releasing several albums with a truncated lineup of LeBon, Rhodes, and John Taylor, DD are now touring behind a new CD recorded with the full original lineup in place. Astronaut is a respectable, well-played effort, with LeBon's voice sounding better than ever. But like many releases from reunited veterans getting back into the ring for one last musical bout, it lacks the bold neon hooks and exotic touches that made the old stuff so great. No matter; word has it that the set list will focus heavily on classics like "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Rio", and that the Fab Five are playing the back catalog like champions. That's enough for me. Plus, they still look good, which will make a lot of females in attendance very happy.

When I was a teenager living in a little pimple of a suburb in the '80's, punk and new wave were considered different sides of the same coin. Being male and listening to either the Ramones or Duran Duran got you labelled a faggot. I listened to both. The Ramones provided cathartic, headbanging manic energy for my adolescent anger; DD was a swoonily-exotic, lushly cinematic soundscape for adolescent romance. So, in addition to the academic interest of hearing a seasoned and influential band back in action in a live setting, I'll do a little bit of swoony swaying Wednesday night, too. Don't say a prayer for me now, save it 'til the morning after...

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Petri List: Favorite Screen Villains (this week)

Cinema villains come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and species. When a villain works, he/she/it can make a bad movie tolerable, a good movie great, and a great movie transcendental. So in compiling my list of fave villains I found a surprising number of great characters/performances in so-so (or worse) movies popping into my head. Conversely, I also noted how many decent movies suffered from the lack of a compelling villain in the lead.

For my list, I deliberately eliminated movie monsters. Actual monsters either have decided strains of sympathy in their makeup (Boris Karloff's definitive Frankenstein's Monster, for example, is a large, misunderstood child 'neath his large and lethal exterior) or they're big, mindless killing machines (a la Bruce the Shark or Ridley Scott's aliens). So, in the end, my notion of a screen villain is generally a (usually human) character who actively engineers misfortune for some or all of the other characters in the film; there's really no more poetic definition for it.

Below dwell a few of my absolute favorite screen bad guys, in no particular order. Cue hisses...

1) The Falcon Hunting Collective in The Maltese Falcon (1941): Sydney Greenstreet's urbane but simmeringly evil Casper Gutmann, the lisping serpentine Joel Cairo courtesy of Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook's impotent pouting wannabe thug Wilmer--Christ, any one of these characters in a good noir would be great, but all three in the same flick? An embarassment of riches.

2) Peter Lorre in M (1930): One of the creepiest, most unsettling psychos in film history--all the more so due to Fritz Lang's masterful manipulation of audience sympathies at the movie's end, and Lorre's magnificent juxtaposition of forlorn melancholy and repellant deviance.

3)Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (1974): I saw this when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and it marked the first time I'd encountered a screen villain who would f*** anyone up at ANY TIME, never registering one whit of emotion, remorse, or hesitation, never telegraphing his intentions. Shaw's work in this overlooked thriller still chills me to the marrow.

4) The Duke of New York, Escape from New York (1981): Isaac Hayes IS one bad mutha--shut yo' mouth. And since my sage wife recommended I edit my previous comments lest they incur censorship, let's just say that when the inevitable remake of this cult classic surfaces, that Hayes should still play The Duke, and George W. Bush would be a perfect shoo-in for the Donald Pleasance role...

5) Marjoe Gortner in Earthquake (1975): Disaster movies seldom provide strong villain roles, unless you consider Mother Nature or some a$$hole who's too cheap to install a properly functioning sprinkler system in his high-rise a villain. But tucked away in this ridiculous/fun disaster outing lies a great, finely-tuned performance by former real-life child evangelist Gortner. His simmering and ultimately explosive turn as a sexually-repressed, tightly wound National Guardsman represents equal parts queasy reality (everyone in the 'burbs knew someone like this fatigue-wearing wannabe ServiceFreak) and nigh-operatic histrionics.

6) Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) in Goldfinger (1963): Corpulent, greedy, smart, ruthless...the best of the Bond baddies, in large part because he's one of the most plausible.

7) Richlieu and his cronies in The Three Musketeers (1973): Filmgoers and critics sometimes give the legendary Charlton Heston short shrift thanks to his politics and his occasional tendency to chew the scenery. But when he's on (which is frequent), he's riveting. His work as the cerebral but power-hungry cleric has always been sorta overlooked for its subtle intelligence. Christopher Lee's Rochefort (his aloof exterior barely conceals sublimely tarnished honor), and Faye Dunaway's black widow of a Milady complete the other two points of an effective triumvirate of treachery.

8) Private Eye Visser (Emmet Walsh) in Blood Simple (1986): One of the greatest characters to surface in a modern-day film noir. So sleazy and oily you practically feel like you need to bathe every time he's onscreen.

9)Rene Bellacq (Paul Freeman) and Toht (Ronald Lacey), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Disparate but perfectly complimentary evildoers. Freeman's elegant and charming archaeologist-for-sale could be Paul Henreid gone venal, and Lacey's turn as the cold and hissing snake of a Nazi agent is a loving homage (to the great Peter Lorre) that effervescently transcends imitation. The lack of similarly strong villains in the latter two Indiana Jones movies hobbled both immeasureably.

10) Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner (1982): Kudos to the always-reliable Hauer for managing to make this cruel and cunning renegade-robot-on-the-run achingly human by Blade Runner's end.

11) Bill McKinney and Herb "Cowboy" Coward in Deliverance (1972): Every urbanite's fear of backwoods hillbilly Americana gets vomited up in brilliantly gruesome relief in McKinney and Coward's creepily effective work.

12) Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat (1949): Cagney's deluded and short-fused gangster created the template for pathological cinema miscreants for years to come.

13) Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960): Hitchcock's genius lay in seeing the potential for creepy psychosis under Perkins' awkward and withdrawn exterior, but Perkins had the acting chops (and, yes, subtlety) to make Norman live. Forget the shower scene: Norman Bates' final terrifyingly saturnine glance into the camera at the end of Psycho gets my vote for the most inescapeably terrifying scene in a movie, ever. Period.

14) Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It's a Wonderful Life (1946): Ever get the feeling that Mr. Potter is currently running ClearChannel? Or maybe that he's holding political office about now? Barrymore's hissable-yet-never-over-the-top old greedhead seems more timely now than ever.