Music

Are you paranoid enough? The Odessa File

My latest vintage film purchase is John Voight's The Odessa File, which is a well-crafted tale about Nazis hiding in plain sight during the 1960s.

The titular "Odessa" is actually an acronym for veterans of the SS who managed to keep a low profile after the initial war crimes trials and used their wartime connections to achieve positions of power and influence.

Voight is an idealistic journalist who pursues a seemingly pointless story through the usual wilderness of mirrors. 

The film itself was made in the 1970s but set ten years earlier, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's soundtrack carries a number of precursors to his score for Evita.  It's based on a book and is not entirely fiction -  certain elements in the story are historically accurate. 

The upshot is that in a time when there's even less reason to trust government than in 1974, it's fascinating that this genre hasn't made more of a comeback.

One thing I'll say for Voight - he actually does a good job of being German.  I'm not talking about the accent, I mean the facial expressions and mannerisms.  Germans are not a particularly vivacious people - they don't get all animated like Italians talking with their hands.  Voight places his role well, by which I mean he frowns a lot, which is something Germans do.  Dated?  Sure, but quite enjoyable.


Returning to the stadium

After a three-year hiatus, tomorrow I will join the remaining alumni and once more take the field in Spartan Stadium.

The reunion of 2019, so soon after my near-death experience, brought me profound spiritual healing.  I do not know how tomorrow will go, but I look forward to see the old sights and play the old songs once more.

Tradition is a powerful force in culture.  As Americans, we are less rooted than other societies, but we still feel its pull.  That is why we have our own unique rituals - largely secular, but mystical in their power to comfort us and create a sense of continuity.

The 2019 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan State Bands, and 900 seasoned musicians took the field in a major show of strength.  Tomorrow less than half of that will show up, no doubt in part because so many older people have succumbed to illness.

And yet the tradition continues, and another link is added to the chain because it was ever so.


The Rise and Fall of Miami Vice

Some TV shows hit the airwaves and have an immediate impact.  There's no need to find an audience or for the actors to settle into their characters, it's full-throttle from the series premier.
 
Miami Vice is one of those shows.  The look, the scene, the cars and above all the music made it immediately compelling to watch.  Sure, there were some rough edges in the first season, particularly in the way they loaded down Don Johnson's character with a ton of quirks.  His Sonny Crockett (alias Barnett) not only has to balance work with raising his son and save a troubled marriage, he is also a former Florida State football player and a Vietnam veteran and he lives part-time on a sailboat with a pet alligator named Elvis.  Almost immediately writers decide to forget the football thing, Vietnam will fade and his wife will divorce and move away.  Elvis also fades into obscuring within a couple of seasons.
 
As a writer, I get why they loaded him up.  By 1985, the market was saturated with cop and detective shows.  The format allows for lots of guest stars, but mostly it boils down to "solve the case of the week," and so the only way to achieve separation is to have quirky characters.
 
Turns out, Miami Vice didn't need that - at least not at first.  While the format was familiar, the setting and approach was unprecedented.  Michael Mann didn't just mix in some new elements, he created a unified aesthetic that combined color, music and aesthetic in an unprecedented way.  Miami Vice wasn't a show so much as a mood.  He also balanced Johnson's quirk-laden Crockett with Philip Michael Thomas' more traditional Rico Tubbs, a New York detective who has a more old-school approach.  Johnson set a fashion trend by combining Armani suits with pastel t-shirts and stubble.  His weapon of choice was a Bren Ten carried with spare magazines in a shoulder holster - about the most firepower one can feasibly conceal.  Thomas was more traditionally dapper and his weapon was the tried and true snub-nosed revolver (sometimes backed up with a short-barreled shotgun).
 
Their partnership was iconic and within a few episodes, they're a solid team.  The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly after Edward James Olmos joins the team four episodes into its run.  His Lt. Castillo is quiet and stoic, the perfect foil to the flash and energy Crockett and Tubbs (and he naturally uses a traditional patrolman's revolver).
 
Of course, no dicussion of Miami Vice is complete with looking at the peerless music that was incorporated into the show.  Jan Hammer provided both the main title theme as well as incidental music during the show itself.  In addition to Hammer, Miami Vice featured some of the hottest musical acts of the time and incorporated the sound and lyrics with what was happening on screen.  It was like an hour-long music video. 
 
Actually, it was more than that.  Especially in the early seasons, musicians actually appeared as characters in the show.  Episode 16 featured Glenn Frey as a drug smuggling pilot.  The episode was titled "Smuggler's Blues" and featured his song of the same name, which was the leitmotif of the episode.
 
This was typical of the early seasons, and Phil Collins, Frank Zappa and countless other singers got roles that also featured their work.
 
Everyone who was anyone got involved.  Lee Iacocca and G. Gordon Liddy got prominent parts.
 
Thus, the show started out strong, refined itself to become even stronger, and then inevitably began to decline.
 
The first step was the departure of Michael Mann.  Without him as producer, his vision inevitably was compromised.  He had strict rules about the color palette of the show that were no longer enforced.  Even so, the show did immediately decline.
 
I'd place the hinge point after the third season.  By that point the formula was starting to get stale and even the cast was losing interest.  John Diehl, who played a supporting role as Larry Zito, got so bored that he had his character killed off mid-season and no one replaced him.  Diehl and Michael Talbott (who play his partner Stan Switek), had gotten some interesting (and funny) sub-plots in the first two seasons but the show was starting to take itself seriously, and they were relegated to the background.  It probably did not help matters that the female cast (Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown) got much better treatment by the writers, often having entire episodes built around their characters.
 
It was really the fourth season where things started to go downhill.  By this point the writers were starting to recycle material and resorting to gimmicky celebrity appearances (such as Sheena Easton doing five episodes as Crockett's romantic interest).
 
The romance angle was particularly troublesome.  No one expects the show to shift into a relationship drama, but there were better ways of handing some of the romantic plots for the various characters.  For example, and obvious one would be a recurring role as an old flame in an on-again, off-again relationship.  Instead, the writers mostly kill off the detectives' girlfriends, which quickly loses its shock value and becomes yet another trope.
 
Probably the final straw was the cliffhanger at the end of season 4 where Crockett suffers a traumatic brain injury and becomes his drug-dealing alter ego.  It's an interesting take on the usual amnesia plot, but it's also a desperation move, and when the three-episode arc ended, the show seemed creatively exhausted.  Even the music was of lower quality.
 
One of the only bright spots of the last two seasons was Martin Ferrero's portrayal of Izzy Moreno, a street informant who always manages to steal whatever scene his is in.  Ferrero was involved from the start of the show, and turns up whenever information is needed, but is always involved in some con.  As the show deteriorated, these became more amusing, but also more improbable.  Miami Vice was alternately grim or silly, which is impossible to sustain.
 
As a viewer, I'd stick to the first three seasons.  There's no real story arc, so the best approach is to enjoy the ride at its wildest and then get off before things get boring.

Miami Vice at the halfway point

As part of my return to the shows of my youth and teenage years, I'm going through the entirety of the iconic Miami Vice.

It's an interesting contrast to Magnum p.i.  There are a number of obvious similarities.

Both take place in a gorgeous tropical setting, both of the lead characters are Vietnam veterans who drie expensive sports cars and the plots revolve around weekly guest stars.    In Magnum, they were clients and sometimes villains; in Miami Vice, they're usually criminals.

Of course one was a detective show, the other a cop drama, so the conventions are similar but also different.  Magnum's goal is to solve the case, not get the bust.

Chronologically the shows overlapped each other for a couple of years, and by that time, Magnum had evolved quite a bit.  These were the final seasons, which shook off the show's lethargy and moved forward with multi-episode plots and also a sense of purpose.

Like Magnum, Vice came out of the gate strong, and at this point in its shorter run, things are still moving briskly.  We're getting recurring minor characters and villains.  The first season experimented with some low comedy involving secondary characters, but that did not happen during the subsequent season.  The focus is squarely on Crockett and Tubbs, and when supporting characters get time, it's done is a more serious way.

I will say that the most striking difference is in the soundtrack.  Magnum's soundtrack is great, but it is largely a reprise of the main title or some character-specific leitmotifs.

Vice uses contemporary music, so much so that it times it feels like an extended music video.  The latter show was never the smash ratings success that Magnum achieved, partly because it aired on Friday night, which has smaller audiences.  In fact, I rarely saw it for that reason - as a high school student, there were football games and parties and such.

Still, there's no question that Vice impacted the culture, and watching it is an immersive experience - everything is contemporary, right down to political jokes and issues of the day.  The Drug War was spiraling out of control with street violence reaching its peak in 1990 before beginning a long, gradual decline.  The Cold War was also nearing its culmination, leading to a toxic mix of politics and money.

The show captures this moment brilliantly.  I'm going to be sad when I've finished.

 


Philosophy without God: Dark City - the original and director's cut

A quarter-century ago, I used to go the movies quite frequently.  I was one of those people who watched the trailers to see what was coming out soon rather than just enduring them.

I recall quite clearly that the trailer for Dark City immediately caught my attention and when I came out, I loved the film, bought the soundtrack and eventually the DVD.

I'd classify the film as sci-fi noir, a somewhat niche category it shares with Blade Runner.

I did not know there was a 'director's cut' available, and found out only by chance.  A friend of mine bought one of the many DVD compilation sets flooding the market.

I have to say that this is one of the few good things about the present age: buying movies has never been cheaper.  Not only that, they come in very compact packaging, easing storage. 

There's a strange paradox at work, too.  If you buy the single movie you really want, it will cost around $30.  If you a two-disc combo, $15.  Three discs might be even less.

True, you might get some stinkers mixed in, but you're still saving money by purchasing the collection and - as long-time readers may have noticed, I'm seeing films that I never would have bought on their own.

Anyhow, the new version if Dark City is better.  Not a lot better, but better all the same.  It dispenses with the intro voiceover which acts as a spoiler and there are some subtle changes elsewhere.  I guess the special effects were upgraded and - though I can't find proof of this - I think it uses Jennifer Connelly's own voice during the night club scenes rather than dubbing another artist.  I say this because I've listened to the soundtrack version frequently as part of a mix I use while painting miniatures, and that is not the same voice.

Something that I missed at the time but now stands out glaringly is the lack of God in the film.  I'm noticing that more and more these days.  Religion has always been something of a blind spot (if not an object of hate) for Hollywood and Dark City's musings on what it is to have a soul and how much it can be manipulated by false memories ignores the spirit realm entirely.

This is interesting because it has the same director as The Crow, which is of course a profoundly Catholic movie.   Then again, I've also noticed that lots of religious references and themes seem to happen by accident.

As the Lord of Spirits podcast likes to joke, our 19th Century German friends have a lot to answer for in terms of corrupting religion and the world in general.  For all of human history to that point, people accepted that the supernatural was real and that people had distinct spiritual needs.  The rise of the hyper-rational school of philosophy not only broke this relationship, it left us too blind to appreciate it.

Whenever something miraculous happens, the immediate Western response (even among religious people!) is to try to find "a rational explanation."  It's not just blindness, it's intentional blindness, and it takes years to unlearn that habit.  I'm trying to teach my kids to see the world outside of secular "logical" lenses, but it is pervasive in the culture.

Dark City is still a great movie, wonderful soundtrack and mood, compelling performances and the late Roger Ebert loved it so much he did a full commentary track on it. 

I'm not a huge fan of his work, but the guy had considerable influence in critical circles, and it's unusual for a critic to become that much of a fanboy, so it speaks well of the film.

Unlike Blade Runner, I think both cuts work.  I will give the nod to the director's version but I'm not into it enough to pay for it.


How to make an action movie boring: Mad Max Fury Road

Okay, I have to take back some of my criticisms of The Road Warrior.  For all its flaws, that is a far better film than Mad Max Fury Road.

I approached this film with an open mind, but right from the start it set my teeth on edge.

Apparently, George Miller has the same problem as George Lucas: given an unlimited budget and three decades to think over an iconic series, both of them have no idea what actually made the things work.

Thus: Miller 'reimagines' Mad Max as a guy who is emotionally crippled but physically invulnerable.   What this means is that at crucial moments where Max can solve a problem, he will fail due to a flashback but that's okay because he's so unrealistically tough that he will get through it just fine.

This in turn destroys dramatic tension because nothing is at stake and so all one has left is to watch a very long special effects demo reel.

This brings us to the other problem: totally uninteresting characters.  I'm trying to think of any time where the cast has to make a decision about something, a moment where there's a non-event driven discussion (i.e. it isn't sandwiched in an F/X sequence).  I can't come up with one.

While the earlier movies have cool action scenes, they also feature actual drama, where the characters talk to each other and debate what they should do without driving or shooting or whatever.  These sequences give the audience a chance to get to know the cast and also serve to heighten the dramatic tension since we can now anticipate some action.

Fury Road has zero character development.  Charlize Theron's character is completely uninteresting.  She literally is reduced (like so many characters these days) into the standard-issue "diversity points" of being female and having a prosthetic hand.

That's it.  No personality to speak of because by 2015, checking the diversity boxes was considered enough.

Ironically, in 1985 that wasn't enough.  Tina Turner isn't just an "empowered black woman," she's fascinating to watch.  Her lair, her manner of speech and the fact that she has a court blues sax player - all of these make her much more interesting than Theron's character.

The other issue with the film is that it's just completely improbable in terms of the scale and type of facilities the bad guys use.  Where does the water come from?  How do they pump it up and out of those pipes with such pressure?  What do the bucket people do when it doesn't flow, just sit there and be thirsty?

Also: who maintains these roads in the middle of nowhere?  A big sandstorm would completely cover them and there are no markers so that they can be dug out afterwards.

Another sour note: they finally put religion into a Mad Max film and it's some oddball Norse crap that serves as the opiate of the masses.  So predictable.

These may seem pedantic complaints, but the more fantastic one makes a setting, the less investment people have in it - especially when the characters are so bland.

Finally, I have an issue with the whole Handmaid's Tale thing, which is supposed to empower women, except when it wants them wearing flimsy, transparent clothes that leave nothing to the imagination.  They are fleeing across the desert.  Maybe extra clothes could have been included?  Just throwing that out there.

Taken as a whole, I was pretty bored by the end.  Even the soundtrack was bland.

 

 


Last stand against the 70s: The Thomas Crown Affair

We tend to think in terms of decades because they offer a shorthand way of describing the look, sound and style of a particular period. 

The truth, however, is that time moves in uneven increments.  The late 80s have very different feel from the early 80s, for example.

Probably the starkest peacetime shift in culture happened during the 1960s.  Compare the stylish, sauve, Henry Mancini-themed films of the early 60s with the long-haired look at the end of the decade.

The Thomas Crown Affair is one of those films that takes place at the frontier of two differing eras.  Steve McQueen is generally dapper, a man of means who dressed the part of the establishment type, but under his fitted shirts he's also wearing a gold chain with a large medallion - a very 70s stereotype.

Faye Dunaway is more nuanced, with her outfit conjuring both early 60s business style and the later bra-less 70s look - complete with slightly flared slacks.

This seems like a long digression for a movie review, but it's important because The Thomas Crown Affair is very much a piece of a specific time.  The "perfect" bank caper is dependent on the technology of the time, and the sums of money stolen will - after the end of the gold standard and a decade of stagflation - seem ludicrously small.

Indeed, bank robberies still happen, but it's no longer possible to for a the same type of profit because money is worth so much less.  In a world where nice homes cost $20,000, getting away with $100,000 is quite an achievement. 

The heart of the The Thomas Crown Affair is the dueling match between McQueen and Dunaway, and there are few actors today who could pull it off.  The interplay is a joy to watch.

Another fun part of the film is its experimentation with various split screens, which sometimes gets annoying, but is absolutely a part of the time.  I recall the Disney revival of The Love Bug used this to great effect.

The transition from 60s to 70s was before my time, and as someone who regards 70s fashion as an unmitigated disaster (well, except for the bra-less thing), movies like this are fun to watch.


Roadhouse: a movie mostly about Patrick Swayze's butt

Today's nostalgia offering is Roadhouse, another Patrick Swayze vehicle from 1989.

It falls into the odd intersection of revenge fantasy/bar film, but what truly sets it apart is Patrick Swayze's butt.

Actually, it features just about every part of the man on screen, which is an amusing juxtaposition with the usual "boobs and butts" (also rendered as "tits and ass") content of the era.

I take an increasingly dim view of that sort of thing, but at least Roadhouse is an equal opportunity offender.  By this point, Swayze was at the top of his game as a box-office draw, and seeing him as the super-cool elite bouncer who also dances with the lovely women and regularly dispenses with the need for clothing shows just how much masculinity has changed in the decades since then.

In a plot twist reminiscent of Days of Thunder, Swayze falls for the very attractive emergency room doctor who treats his knife wound.  Naturally, she falls for him because look at that glorious bod!

The soundtrack is familiar to fans of Dirty Dancing, and it alternates between 80s compositions and classic 60s tunes designed to set the mood.

There is something like a plot involving a greedy local businessman who tries to run Swayze out of town, but it's one of those tropes that allow the minimum acceptable level of character development.  Like so many movies of this type, the plot can only proceed because none of the protagonists are carrying a revolver, which would have resolved the thing in half the run time.

I've touched on that before, but there is a long-standing trope about good guys being painfully reluctant to act, which in turn allows the bad guys to inflict maximum carnage on the innocent until the hero reaches the breaking point.

From a modern informed legal perspective, in almost every case, the provocations are well across the line of reasonable self-defense.  When I watch these with my friends, we like to call out the moment where the good guy (or gal) could legally plug the bad guy.

Anyway, if one wants to see an almost entirely naked Patrick Swayze (and also some almost entirely naked women), this is the film for you.


Formulaic 80s sports films: Youngblood

My wife is a fan of the late Patrick Swayze's work and as a surprise decided to get her a DVD of Roadhouse.  The best deal was a double-disk set with Youngblood which neither of us had ever heard of.

Last night we watched it.

It's not very good.  As I told her last night, I'll likely never watch it again unless I'm making fun of it with friends.

It is, however, a marvelous example of formulaic mid-80s filmmaking.  The star is Rob Lowe, who plays the titular Youngblood - obviously that's his name, but he's also a rising sports star, a "young blood," as it were.  Hah.

The sport in question is hockey, which makes it a little more interesting.  Patrick Swayze plays an older team member who first torments but then helped Lowe.  All is when, and then tragedy strikes, Swayze is injured, and Lowe must doing a synth-heavy training montage to save the team.

Oh, and there's a cute girl who likely thought this would be her breakthrough film but I never heard of her.  She does a topless love scene with Lowe, which adds to the lingering sense of disappointment I felt for her.

As I've gotten older, I find such displays really distasteful.  Given the attitudes of the time, they were widely regarded as normal verging on naughty, but in retrospect, that was just the avalanche of immorality in its early stage.  That's probably fodder for a series of posts, so I'll just note that I'd have preferred the film without it.

In addition to Swayze and Lowe, Keanu Reeves has a bit part as a French-Canadian player, which I found amusing.


The cynical optimism of St. Elmo's Fire vs The Big Chill

I did not see a lot of movies when I was growing up.  There was a time when my father would take me on our weekends together, but once he got remarried, I spent more time watching VHS tapes - usually of things I had already seen.

However, I listened to the radio constantly.  It woke me up in the morning.  When I got home from school, it kept me company.  When I played wargames, it was the soundtrack.  At the end of the day, I listened to it as I fell asleep.

All of which is to say that while I missed the theatrical run of White Nights or St. Elmo's Fire, I vividly recall the music.

Thus, seeing St. Elmo's Fire for the first time was oddly familiar.  I knew the cast of course, having grown up on The Breakfast Club and other Brat Pack films.

I have also recently viewed The Big Chill, and though different in mood, the films have many similarities.

For one thing, both have ensemble casts composed of core group of seven friends (split between four males and three females) with an additional secondary female to round out the story.

Both are "small stories" centered around relationships and maturation and both feature a meandering plot that derives its intensity and meaning from the chemistry and acting skill of the cast.

However, there are some significant differences.

Structurally, The Bill Chill takes place over a single weekend reunion in the aftermath of a funeral.  The action is compressed as long-separated friends catch up with one another and explore where they are in their lives.  The cast is also older, more settled and more disquieted.  They are filled with disillusionment as the idealism of their youth has collapsed before harsh reality.

St. Elmo's Fire is less compressed temporally, with weeks passing as its story unfolds.  The cast is much younger - recent college grads who still know people at their old school.

The attitude that pervades St. Elmo's Fire is much less bleak, thanks in large part to the experience of the elder generation.  The movies were filmed only two years apart, yet they seem to be from different eras.  This effect is heightened by the settings - a fine Southern mansion during the fall vs bustling Georgetown during the zenith of the Reagan era.

The older film looks to the past with its musical selections while eponymous main title of St. Elmo's Fire (subtitled "Man in Motion") is clearly about seizing opportunity.

This  makes it more upbeat and while there are bleak elements to the story (the troubled life of Demi Moore's Jules in particular), the overall tone is one of hope and promise.

This is largely because of the failures outlined in The Big Chill.  The idealism of the 1960s was always completely unrealistic (particularly the type coming out of the University of Michigan), so there was never any possibility of it working.  The despair of that revelation in turn led to a focus on reaping material rewards, and instead of deriving comfort from faith and family, career advancement became the measure of personal success.

Kevin Cline and Glenn Close have arguably the most successful characters in their film.  They have a superlative house, good local reputation and are raising their children in an idyllic community.  Kline even tends meticulously to his physical fitness, in the process reminding others to do likewise.

Yet there is an emptiness to all of it.  The marriage is a hollow shell and none of their accomplishments bring them fulfillment.  It is true that this seems to find resolution during the course of the film, but as I noted in my earlier piece, that development seemed both nihilistic and unrealistic.  It was the product not of organic character growth but the writer's sentimental hope for a happy ending.

By contrast, the characters in St. Elmo's Fire have a much clearer understanding of how the world works.  They are younger than their counterparts, but their youth is also less sheltered.  As already noted, Demi Moore's character epitomizes the pervasive divorce culture that blossomed during the 1970s and the corrosive impact it had on children.

Rob Lowe's character is one of the more intriguing, representing as he does the same sort of immaturity that drives the older generation's actions.  Alone of the group he is a husband and a father, but he is a failure at both.

However, he matures throughout the film.  When we learn that his wife is planning to remarry, he decides that being a "weekend dad" would be unfair to his infant child.  Better to give the gift of a stable family.  Coming in 1985, this is a profoundly thoughtful decision.

In fact, one can argue that that theme of both films is the need to grow up and accept life as it is and that the younger cast is simply a decade ahead of their elders in this realization.