Tormented (1960)

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No one will ever have you! Jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) lives on the beach in Cape Cod and is preparing to marry Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders) when old flame Vi Mason (Juli Reding) turns up to stop him and falls to her death from the local lighthouse when he refuses to lend her a hand as the railing breaks.  Wet footprints turn up on his mat, a hand reaches out to him, Vi’s voice haunts him and he starts behaving strangely particularly in front of Meg’s little sister Sandy (Susan Gordon).  Blind landlady Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) explains to him that similarly supernatural stuff happened when someone else died in the area. Then the beatnik ferry captain Nick (Joe Turkel)  who took Vi to the island to see Tom appears and starts getting suspicious that she never returned particularly when wedding bells are in the air … I’m going to live my life again and stop running. With a pedigree crew – director Bert I. Gordon co-wrote with regular collaborator George Worthing Yates – who did the screenplays for some great pirate movies and sci fis including Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which starred Hugh Marlowe, frequently mistaken for Richard Carlson – you’d be expecting a class act. And it’s a good story hampered by a minuscule budget which gives off a different kind of aroma. The effects are hilarious – particularly good is some woman’s hand entering frame when Tom is in young Sandy’s company and he hits it and runs off.  Sandy sees nothing, of course. My favourite moment is when Vi’s disembodied head appears and Tom reaches out and enjoys a tussle with a blonde wig which he then wraps in paper and throws down a step only to have it picked up by his blackmailer and opens it only to find dead flowers. Despite Carlson’s character mutating into a murderous beast and his ex spinning a Monroe-esque vibe, and the hilarious hey-daddy-o exchanges with the beatnik boatman (whom you’ll recognise as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining), by far the most complex performance comes from young Gordon (the director’s wonderfully talented daughter). The ending is satisfying indeed if you like really proper ghost stories. However if you think you’re going to hear some decent jazz, well, it’s hardly a priority in a camp outing such as this. This was Sanders’ last film in a strangely brief career.  She’s a perfume, she’s a footprint, she’s a hand, she’s a space in a picture

Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

Andre Previn 6th April 1929 – 28th February 2019

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The man immortalised as André Preview by Morecambe and Wise to a generation of children who grew up with BBC TV, has died today, aged 89. A formidable and versatile wunderkind, he made his name composing and arranging film scores with MGM musicals and in partnership with filmmakers as diverse and demanding as Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder, but was equally at home on Broadway, conducting orchestras, composing concertos or playing jazz. So preternaturally gifted was he that he scored Holiday in Mexico while still at high school – a film mostly memorable for featuring Fidel Castro as an extra! He is the last of his kind. Rest in peace. And thank you for the music. I’m just very pleased to be a musician. MM#2250

Green Book (2018)

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Travelling while black.  Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who lives above Carnegie Hall in NYC and is about to embark on a concert tour starting in Pittsburgh and then taking a hard left to the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx who needs work while the Copacabana nightclub is closed for renovations. This is the best offer of a job otherwise he’ll be cornered into working for local hoodlums. Despite the stark differences in their origins and outlook, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting danger in an era of segregation, with Don helping Tony write letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and Tony displaying a unique approach to the threats and racism they encounter en route … The world’s full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.  Inspired by the real-life experience of Copacabana maître’d Tony Vallelonga and renowned pianist Don Shirley and based on personal letters from Tony to his wife and the Negro Motorist Green Book a guide book for midcentury black people needing safe places to stay, this is a bullet-proof comedy drama. It isn’t just a black and white film:  it takes a half hour for the odd couple to hit the road and Shirley plays with a trio, one of whom is Russian and whom Tony repeatedly mistakes for German – not his favourite nationality after serving in WW2. The opening section principally introduces Tony and his background as a bouncer with a BS radar that irritates people and gets him fired a lot. When we first meet him he’s beating bloody a hood with Mafia connections. The point is that this also examines perceptions of Italian America too, and not just racist attitudes – his are perfectly evident when he trashes two water glasses after black workmen have fixed the kitchen sink for his wife in their rented home.  It’s about how they live and talk and do business and look after each other when they’re out of work and the pressure to take and do favours for gangsters and it’s about what they eat – because this is also a film concerned with food: an array of the stuff that will have you gnawing your hand when you see platefuls of spaghetti and clams and meatballs and pizza. This has a nice corollary when Tony introduces Shirley to the joys of fried chicken. Perhaps there’s an issue for a black audience having this dignified, gifted multi-lingual virtuoso being educated in blackness through take out KFC and music stations on the car radio (he doesn’t recognise Aretha Franklin or any black popular singer – maybe) but it’s done with such warmth and with such a magnificent payoff in the final sequence after Don has taken enough from the Southern racists that only a condescending curmudgeon could get angry. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?  What flips the dramatic situation is when Tony is asked about the origins of his name after they’re pulled over by the police in Alabama.  When he says he’s Italian he’s accused of being a nigger – a common epithet used against Italians – and he reacts by punching out a cop landing both men in the slammer. This is how he reacts to being accused of being black – with violence. It’s the lesson of the film because he urges Don to stand up for himself like he does, but in a nice touch (with the metaphor of their mutual imprisonment in their attitudes intact) it’s Shirley’s connection with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that proves to be their Get Out of Jail Free card. Sometimes playing for rich white people in Park Avenue apartments and keeping schtum works.  Sometimes. When Don is caught with his pants down in the YMCA with another man, Tony pays off the cops and shrugs it off, because he’s seen it all before in his job at that showbiz mecca, the Copa:  things get complicated, he says and fuhgeddsaboutit. Indeed for a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and declaratively hits hot-button topics about representation of race, sex and class without becoming mired in anything other than common live-and-let-live humanity, it’s an unobjectionable, balanced, remarkable and rather generous piece of work, a prism into the Sixties that throws today’s experiences into relief. Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.  The two leads are note-perfect in performances of great scope from a screenplay by director Peter Farrelly, Vallelonga’s son Nick and Brian Hayes Currie. Beautifully shot by Sean Porter, this is scored by Kris Bowers and has some wonderful interpretations of work by jazz greats. Has Mortensen ever been better in this heartwarming story that’s so well told? No wonder it’s awards catnip. Geography isn’t really important

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

All Night Long (1962)

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Oh, I belong to that new minority group: white American jazz musicians. They’re going to hold a mass meeting in a phone booth.  Up-and-coming jazz drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) wants to start his own band, but he needs a singer. He attempts to court Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a famous singer who’s retired now but when it’s clear that Delia won’t perform with him, he tries to convince Delia’s husband African-American band leader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) that she is cheating on him with road  manager Cass (Keith Michell). His attempts to end their marriage may well cost Johnny his own over the course of a very eventful night … Practically the embodiment of cult, this reworking of Othello is notable not just for being a screenplay co-written by HUAC-blacklisted Paul Jarrico (under the name of Peter Achilles) with Nel King, but for its outstanding array of notable jazz figures – Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Mingus, Tubby Hayes – in an atmospheric and melodramatic tale that features mixed-race marriage and drug-taking. There’s marvellous dockside action and tasty East End scene-setting with McGoohan giving one of his best performances pre-The Prisoner in his take on the malevolent Iago and some good support from Keith Michell, Betsy Blair and Richard Attenborough’s role as a hipster millionaire is certainly memorable. Definitely one for music fans with some sensational tunes. Look fast for Carol White. Produced by that reliable team of progressives, producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden. Be seeing you.

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.

 

Nina (2016)

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Take me to the water. It’s 1988. Singer Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) is financially unsound, mentally unstable and an alcoholic with her performing and activist heyday far behind her. After threatening a lawyer with a gun, she is committed in a psychiatric hold to an LA hospital. She hires nursing orderly Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) as an assistant. He accompanies her back to her home in the south of France where she continues drinking heavily and declining to take medication for her bipolar condition. She is confrontational and verbally abusive and uses Clifton to procure men for one-night stands. He returns to the US. Meanwhile she has a biopsy which requires treatment. She turns up at Clifton’s family home in Chicago and asks him to manage her. Clifton attempts to book shows in France, but nearly no one wants to deal with Nina’s difficult behavior. Nonetheless, his efforts eventually pay off and she performs successfully at a gig. He gets a studio and she begins recording new music. It is implied that they begin a sexual relationship. Worried about her health, he convinces her to undergo surgery for her cancer. Once recovered, Nina returns to America for a live performance in Central Park. A crowd flocks to see her and she opens her concert with Feeling Good… The very capable Zoe Saldana is a thirtysomething woman playing a woman in her sixties. She performs the songs herself – and while she has a voice, it is not Simone’s voice. Her casting was criticised by Simone’s daughter on the grounds that she’s not black enough – and that is a horrifying criticism even if it’s true and she’s much too thin and pretty and sports the kind of prosthetics that got Nicole Kidman an Oscar but even that’s not the problem. Albeit it is frankly strange to understand why a black woman needs to black up to play another black woman.  (Pardon me if I don’t understand the politics of blackness…) The issue is the narrative by writer/director Cynthia Mort and how the casting of Saldana might have been better utilised to portray an earlier phase in Simone’s life – as it was, Simone actually stated she wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play her some day and you can’t help thinking of that as you watch this unspool through untruthfulness. Clifton’s homosexuality is coyly if crudely referenced. The concert in Central Park? Never happened. What did happen was that when Nick Cave once curated an event at which Simone was performing she had two items on her rider – cocaine and sausages.  Mississippi Goddam!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.