One-upping the Dionnes

A teenaged girl, with the improbable name of Kockenloker, who has a thing for soldiers goes out on the town determined to give the boys shipping out a send-off to remember. She gets loaded, and then gets in trouble (remembering nothing of the fateful night) and spends the rest of the movie trying to get a patsy to marry her.

Not the kind of story that comes to mind when you think of WWII, Hays-era American comedies. And yet Preston Sturges pulled it all off in Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. He did by twisting and tweaking the story with details that are barely believable, in fact, probably not meant to be believed. The girl’s actually been drinking lemonade all night, so she’s not drunk. No, she really just klunked her head on a mirror ball at a club, so her euphoric wheeziness and subsequent blackout are the result of a concussion. And actually, she got married before getting into trouble. The only problem is, she can’t remember whom she married; the last name goes something like Trotsky-rotsky and the first name is a complete blank. And there’s no marriage certificate, and she gave a false name, and she can’t really remember if it even happened anyway.

After a lot of screwball wackiness ensues, the movie caps off with a brilliant jab at familial morality. As the event draws near, the Kockenlockers are determined to keep every quiet. But lo! Trudy gives birth to sextuplets and now, with a genuine revenue-producing phenomenon on their hands, everyone up to the governor get involved to re-write the story, falsify the legal documents and trumpet the tale round the world.

Have artists been subverting repressive codes like Hays forever? Perhaps, and it makes sense because artists are, after all the people trained in the art of layering messages and injecting hidden meaning with enough ambiguity to create plausible deniability. Maybe they would make the best lawyers after all. Like most Sturges pictures, this one comes complete with cringe-inducing racism, this time in the form of William Demarest uttering, “That’s mighty white of you.” Twice. Oh, uncle Charlie!

Borat

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan isn’t coming out until November, but the buzz is building. Borat, the fictional TV reporter from Kazakhstan, is one of the triumvirate of characters portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen, the master practitioner of the phony interview. Baron Cohen’s genius lies in his ability to sell these ridiculous characters. There’s something disarmingly lovable about Borat, for example, that when he lets loose with insanely virulent anti-Semitic, misogynist, or homophobic comments, strange things happen. People don’t recoil in horror, they’re just as likely to just laugh, or just stop short of agreeing with him. Which is perhaps why this approach isn’t entirely fair, Borat’s behavior is so bizarre, and he’s so desperate for everyone to like him, that people just roll with him, willingly following wherever he leads. This, in turn, reveals another level of bias: his subjects are willing to believe that foreigners with funny accents from places like Kazakhstan have such backwards notions of life and politics, or they’re willing to believe that someone as dumb as Ali G could be have his own TV talk show in Britain, because, after all, aren’t kids that dumb these days?

John Scofield Trio at the Blue Note

From the “rock-sandwich” department:

“You know, the house is kind of small.” So said the nine-year-old boy sitting two tables away, helping his dad polish off a plate of calamari. The house? How many jazz clubs has this kid been to? The Blue Note seats about 250, in a layout very similar to Dangerfield’s. What we in the industry like to call “intimate”. NAM and I had the good fortune, having arrived more than an hour early for the first set, to be seated in the front table, inches away from where John Scofield was setting up. If I wanted to, I could have detuned his guitar during the set. But if he broke a string, it could have hit me in the eye. Which is scary, you know, because jazzers play those high-guage strings. Scofield scurried off and we patiently layed into a bottle of yellow lable, enjoying the half inch of personal space we had between us and the other club goers. To our left, a friendly man from Guelph, Ontario. (All Canadians look a little bit like Howie Mandel, don’t ask me why. It’s a particularly unnerving trait in our women.) To our right, two Japanese jazz fans, not together. The woman, young and drinking naught but coffee. The man, considerably older–he sat in front of me, ameliorating the exploding string danger–with some kind of VIP pass, tucking into a plate of pasta that smelled horrible. Keep that in mind: do not come to the Blue Note for a nice dinner. Instead, do what we did and go to Mexicana Mamma.

Eight o’clock and the trio hits the stage. Along with Scofield, we have the eminent Steve Swallow on bass and the youngster of the group, Bill Stewart (b. 1966) on the skins. Boom, they launch into a fast post-bop blues. This is awesome, I’m about three feet away from the neck of Scofield’s Ibanez. Hey what’s that? He’s playing an Ibanez. Take that, jazz posers with your twenty-thousand dollar hand-crafted instruments, Scofield plays the guitar equivalent of a Saturn. He’s playing into a nicely cranked Matchless amp. There’s a good amount of distortion. I’m into his playing right away. It’s a hard-edged sound, not jazz, not rock, and certainly not some kind of abominable “fusion”–it’s just a good electric guitar sound. Scofield bobs, weaves, jabs, pokes and stabs, a hard-driving chromatic fury. Stewart is slamming. And Swallow, no timid song-bird, is punching out a relentless bassline that inverts the music as much as it gives it foundation. I could listen to this all night.

And then the next tune starts. It’s a slow, jammy, I-IV-V-I rock construction. What a strange juxtaposition. Hmm. The pattern continues throughout the set. A hard post-bop jazz tune is followed by something rocky and jammy. On the latter tunes, Scofield uses some of the resouces of his pedal board. Mostly, he uses the Boomerang phrase sampler, which lets him build his own backing loops in real time. The set is over pretty quickly, the playing lasts just over an hour. The last tune is another jammer, with a Hendix-like main riff, and plenty of diminished scale (or “octatonic” for you fellow long-hairs out there) soloing. The trio departs. “That last tune was intense!” opines Guelph-guy. Indeed.

2005 Movie Capsule Reviews

Brick ****

Brilliant. The idea of a classic film noir set in a San Clemente high school is both interesting and dangerous. First-time writer/director Rian Johnson masterfully manoeuvres around the landmines, or at least trips over them so lightly that they don’t blow up. Yes, we have the Vice Principal as D.A., yes we have the mom serving corn flakes and OJ after the rec-room shake down. But these don’t derail the story and they aren’t over-played. This is no cutesy Bugsy Mallone. Neither does Johnson clobber us with Noir cliches. Instead, he serves up a complex story with as many twists and turns as The Big Sleep. The kids all know how to underplay their roles. No stars here at all, unless you count the long-haired guy from “Third Rock from the Sun”, or the all-growed-up little boy from Witness. The best movie I’ve seen from 2005.

Match Point **

I was happy to hear that Woody’s back on his game, but maybe not. Certainly it’s better than anything he’s done in years, but in the end, disappointing when compared to his prime work. The basic premise here is to explore the role blind luck plays in shaping our destinies. Which is, what, the single oldest theme in literature? So any interest would be in the execution and the execution here is weak. Wafer-thin characters, no shock, no horror, and not a speck of humor. Has Woody really become so disengaged? Contrast with The Player, which deals with similar themes but has some meat on its bones.

Munich **

Spielberg is courageous for daring to suggest that politically-motivated retribution killings are morally suspect even when it’s the good guys doing the killing. Is that about it? I really shouldn’t say more, because I’m not in the dream worker’s target demography–dumb. My head hurt from all the clobbering Steve gave me. But I will say that this movie has one of the most disgusting sex scenes ever filmed.

V for Vendetta **

One could argue instead that the Wachowskis are courageous for making a pro-terrorism movie in 2005. What drives this picture isn’t so much the ideology as the acting, specifically, Hugo Weaving wearing a mask the whole time. He gets a 10 for difficulty and a 9 for execution.

Keep on Rockin’ in the AARP World

James Gang Rides Again! So said the poster out in front of the Beacon Theatre. It was a Friday night and S.Fo and I were romping about the UWS. I’ve often noticed how once a thing enters your consciousness, you begin to see it expressed everywhere. A year ago, I would have passed the poster by without noticing anything special. And indeed, I had to explain to S.Fo who the heck the James Gang were and are. Eventually, my explanation was whittled down to something like, “They were Joe Walsh’s first band.”

Fast forward a few weeks. As I’m entering the theatre, I turn to the guy behind be and say, “It’s weird, I’m thirty-eaight years old and I’m the youngest guy here.” And it was true, comically true. All around me were the greyed Weebles. (At least they were hippie peacenick Weebles, and not the great Warrior Weebles.) The Beacon is an over-the-top art deco movie house built in 1928. The kind of place that is always referred to as a treasure. 2,800 seats and great sight lines everywhere. I splurged on an orchstra seat, one of the cheapies would have been fine.

The Gang takes the stage and you know immediately why Walsh is a star. He’s got it–but he also projects a wonkily-humored likeability. And he was wearing those damn combat pants. As they crank through the tunes, he’s working hard to show that he’s a great guitarist, too. Jeff Beck is coming to the Beacon in a couple of weeks, maybe Joe felt the need to throw down a bit. Towards the end of their one set–that version of the gang did only 3 albums together–they throw in an extended version of the Yardbirds classic, “Lost Woman”, which only I seemed to get. Joe had been playing humbuckers all night, and when his tech handed him a Strat, I knew what was coming up. “Funk no. 49” blew the roof of the house. Or whatever is the equivalent that three thousand 65-year-olds can muster. Even though the song had nothing to do with the group at all, they ended the night with “Rocky Mountain Way”.

If the James Gang showed me that old folks can still rock, that was nothing compare to the show I caught two weeks later: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. With a 7:30 start time, I thought we had plenty of time to make our way over to the gig. As we enter the house, there’s music playing, and I look at the stage. What? It’s 7:35 and CSNY are already playing. No opening act? So we scurried over to our cheapie seats (having decided to forego the 250-a-pop orchestra section) and settled down for a long night. And I mean long, these guys rocked the house until 11:00, playing for a total of about 3 hours minus the break.

After a few CSNY classics, the group played through most of “Living With War” in the order of the record. The only drawback to our stage right seats was that we missed the video projection onto the back of the stage. The second set started off with some whisper-quiet acoustic numbers. Then the group broke off into little subsections, duos and trios for numbers like Nash’s “Our House” and Neil’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” which was a high-point of the night. Gradually, the full-force rock came back and built up to an amazing three-punch finale: “Let’s Impeach the President”, “Ohio” and finally a 10-minute “Rockin’ in the Free World”.

Wow.