Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17

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Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.

2014: Part 7

Clouds of Sils Maria. Directed by Olivier Assayas. I am ambivalent about this film. Olivier Assayas has conceived of a story that mirrors his own relationship to Juliette Binoche, who had an early breakthrough role in a film he co-wrote, Rendez-vous (1985); in Clouds, Binoche plays Maria Enders, a celebrated actress who had her career-making performance as an 18-year-old character (as well as being an 18-year-old actress) in the play Maloja Snake, written by Wilhelm Melchior, whose recent death affects and shapes all of the events in the film. Now, twenty years later, Binoche’s Maria has been asked to do the play again, but this time as the older of the two main characters, a 40-year-old woman. This is where Chloë Grace Moretz enters the picture: a small but pivotal role as Jo-Ann Ellis, the young superstar who now plays the role that was once Maria’s, a brief but interesting showcase for Moretz, who I think is constantly looking for a film that will allow her to grow as a performer (and not remain stuck doing things like Carrie and If I Stay). But for the most part, the film is centered on Binoche and her assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart. I guess I was particularly interested in seeing Clouds because Stewart has been winning or been nominated for a lot of Best Supporting Actress awards from various critics’ circles during this awards season; I’m not totally disappointed in the performance, but I also feel that the character is more interesting (at least the idea of it) than what the actress playing her necessarily makes of it. “Valentine” works in theory, or perhaps on paper in the screenplay, but there was unrealized potential that might have come to life with a different actress. (I can’t say more without spoiling the film’s plot.)

I am probably most impressed with Binoche – not surprising since she is a wonderful actress – for doing a very good job with a role that is essentially an All About Eve retread. All the expected jealousies and aggravations over aging and celebrity surface in Assayas’s script, but for the most part Binoche pulls off the tired clichés with grace and defiance. The brightest spots are when Binoche encounters an old flame/nemesis, the equally revered actor Henryk Wald (played by Hanns Zischler, whom I loved in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road), and when Maria speaks to Rosa Melchior (Angela Winkler), Wilhelm’s widow. I can see how the spareness is reminiscent of Fassbinder, on whom the Wilhelm Melchior character may have been based, but it also seems to me that Melchior was neither as prolific nor as volatile as Fassbinder, so perhaps the real Fassbinder-esque inspiration is in the stiff, austere mood Assayas creates in the film. (Arguably Kristen Stewart’s stylized flatness is also a Fassbinder touch.) The film does build to a very satisfying moment in the final scene, a culmination of themes that Binoche and Moretz each portray very well, but I also can’t help feeling that Clouds of Sils Maria, for all its artistic hopes and dreams, ends up leaving me empty. The film spends more time than necessary lingering on shots of the title weather formations, and I suppose that’s where the film’s essence resides: drifting in the air rather than standing firmly on the ground.

The Drop. Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. Despite starring heavy-hitting actors Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini, this crime drama is inessential and unexciting. Based on a story by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the screenplay), The Drop hinges on a series of overused stereotypes: Brooklyn as the setting for bad dudes doing bad things, Tom Hardy as a tough-but-sensitive guy, Noomi Rapace as a reformed but still somewhat damaged woman with a murky past, Matthias Schoenaerts as an inexplicably psychotic villain, John Ortiz as a detective who’s almost always a step behind what’s really going on. (I did like Ann Dowd as Gandolfini’s sister, but she has far too little screen time for a woman of her talent. I also didn’t realize until the end credits that another of the supporting roles, one of Schoenaerts’ confrères, was played by James Frecheville from Animal Kingdom.) Why should I think that this story is any more special than a couple hundred others that depict similar or better narratives? And was there a reason why the story had to include all the stuff with the abandoned puppy? Even though the original title, “Animal Rescue,” might seem to be applicable to the human characters as well as the canine ones, there isn’t really a whole lot of salvation. Despite what some ardent fans have said, The Drop is one of those movies that is quickly forgotten after it is seen.

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. This action-packed spy movie has more humor and better-edited action sequences than I was expecting, even if the body count does get ridiculously high and one scene in particular (the church shooting) made me uncomfortable given what happened in the Charleston church massacre a few months after Kingsman came out. Anyway, Taron Egerton does a very good job as our protagonist, “Eggsy,” a kid whose sense of humor, unerring loyalty and gymnastic flexibility make him an ideal candidate for the James Bond-like “Kingsman” spy service. Colin Firth is exceptionally debonair as Egerton’s mentor, a role that fits him like a glove (or, I should say, as well as his tailored suits do), while other good supporting roles go to Samuel L. Jackson as colorfully-dressed criminal mastermind Richmond Valentine, Sofia Boutella as Valentine’s blade-legged henchwoman, Mark Strong as the Kingsman officer in charge of technology and training the potential recruits, Michael Caine as the head of the Kingsman organization (kind of like Caine on autopilot; it’s not a performance that requires much effort), Sophie Cookson as another Kingsman newbie who trains with Egerton (my one quibble: Cookson’s character is not really developed and despite some of the cool stuff she does, she doesn’t get any memorable dialogue and constantly frets over being scared/feeling unprepared compared to the big boys), Jack Davenport as suave Kingsman “Lancelot” and Hanna Alström as Princess Tilde. Still, it’s clearly Taron Egerton’s show; he’s the heart of the movie, the character we care about the most. Without him, Kingsman might have been a very different movie; instead, because of Egerton’s performance, the film is a lot of fun and thanks to the sharp editing by Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris in the fight scenes and the shrewd soundtrack choices (”Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, ”Give It Up” by KC & the Sunshine Band, ”Slave to Love” by Bryan Ferry), Kingsman is definitely more entertaining than I assumed it would be.

Love & Mercy. Directed by Bill Pohlad. While the two halves of this version of Brian Wilson’s story never quite coalesce into a unified whole, Love & Mercy’s greatest success is in featuring five powerful performances: Paul Dano in a major (in terms of Hollywood) standout role as young Wilson (c. 1964-1968); John Cusack, more quietly impactful, as the older Wilson (c. 1986-1992); Elizabeth Banks in a subtle but glowing impressive showcase as Melinda Ledbetter (who later married Wilson in 1995); Paul Giamatti chewing all the scenery as Wilson’s manipulative legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy; and Bill Camp in a small but excellent performance as Wilson’s cold, cruel father, Murry. A lot of people have complained about Dano and Cusack not resembling each other, or not resembling Brian Wilson enough (especially Cusack), but I think the more important thing is that they get at the heart of the character, which is to say they understand the real man and bring that across in their performances. The film probably could have been trimmed in some scenes, as it lags a little at its 120-minute running time, and certain aspects of the plot were probably simplified and/or glossed over, but I’m glad that the film didn’t spend more time than necessary on scenes showing interactions between Wilson and his brothers/other Beach Boys members; it’s a film about the impulses that drove Wilson’s creativity and also his psychological problems and struggles with misunderstood, misdiagnosed mental illness much more than working with the guys in the band. I’m glad that Paul Dano has received the critical attention that he has (particularly the Golden Globe nomination), and if it gets him bigger and better jobs, I’ll be really glad. (Same goes for John Cusack: I hope this film revitalizes his career, which I’m sure most people would agree has been in a kind of weird place for the last decade or so.) And if the film ignites new, or renewed, interest in the music of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, then that’s another coup.

P.S. My three favorite scenes: Paul Dano singing and playing “God Only Knows” on the piano for dad Bill Camp; Dano silently crying in the recording studio as he hears voices in the headphones; Cusack and Banks, later, in the studio, when Banks tries to convince Cusack to leave Giamatti once and for all.

Ride. Directed by Helen Hunt. Ride is what I would call a Triple-P: a Pretty Pleasant Picture, the kind of movie that entertains you for an hour and a half (makes you smile a little, maybe makes you tear up a little too) without ever completely satisfying you. It pains me to say that since I root for Helen Hunt; perhaps that sounds silly since she has a Best Actress Academy Award (what more should she have to prove as a performer?), but that honor, given for As Good as It Gets, was bestowed upon her in 1997, and – in case you needed a reminder of the passage of time – kids who were born in that year are already in college. Helen Hunt was once a megastar, but for some reason or another, she isn’t one anymore. This fact is a shame; Helen Hunt was one the most naturally likeable actresses of the 1990s, high-spirited and adventuresome in the big-budget disaster-genre flick Twister (1996) and funny and charming in the Nancy Meyers-directed romantic comedy What Women Want (2000), as well as doing very good work as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene in the indie drama The Sessions (2012), a performance that was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. But for whatever reason – mostly ageism, I suppose – she no longer has her former high status as a star. It makes sense, then, that she should write and direct a good leading role for herself, which I would imagine isn’t always so easy when you’re a woman in your early fifties and you need to get people to support and eventually produce your idea, in addition to casting bankable names for the rest of the cast.

It’s too bad, then, that Ride is so mediocre. Its by-the-numbers plot concerns an overprotective, high-strung single mother (Helen Hunt) who works in a demanding job as a New Yorker editor and who constantly criticizes her twenty-year-old son (Brenton Thwaites) and his attempts at creative writing. When Thwaites leaves New York City to spend summer vacation with his father in the Los Angeles county area, Hunt follows Thwaites out to the West Coast, abandoning her stressful livelihood in order to keep tabs on her son. When Hunt discovers that one of her son’s passions is surfing, she makes it her mission to learn the art of the waters too, which sets her up with slightly younger surf instructor Ian (Luke Wilson in an endearingly low-key performance). The family story and the meet-cute romance sound like decent components for a comedy, right? Well, that’s the problem: the ingredients are in the pot, but the fire isn’t turned up high enough. Something about the way Hunt writes dialogue doesn’t gel; in the earlier scenes set in NYC, the repartee between her and Thwaites sounds so rehearsed, so obviously written, that it never comes alive with the kind of credibility that a film purporting to be realistic should have. (The dialogue improves when the action moves out west to Santa Monica, sounding more relaxed and comfortable in the beach’s sunny atmosphere, but many lines continue to sound clichéd.) There is also the matter of Helen Hunt’s face, which is my biggest problem with the film. Whatever work she has had done, whether it is Botox or more serious plastic surgery, her skin is so bizarrely stretched in places, her eyes so oddly pulled back and the corners of her mouth drawn downward, that she almost doesn’t resemble herself. This is Ride’s greatest shortcoming: the woman whose character holds the entire narrative together cannot always emote effectively. Hunt acquits herself well in the more dramatic scenes, but in one particular scene that calls on her to laugh uncontrollably, watching her facial muscles refuse to move normally for a woman of her age is almost (because I really hate to say it) terrifying. I do, however, give Hunt credit for making the film herself; an effort was made, even if is ultimately a forgettable one, and she deserves respect for actually getting on the surfboard herself for most, if not all, of the scenes showing her in the ocean.