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America’s Greatest Music: You’re a Sweet Little Headache September 12, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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In a slight change of pace, this particular tune does not merit itself into the Great American Songbook.  Nevertheless, it is a lovely little ditty, one that a few bands recorded during the Swing Era.  The main reason we highlight this tune right now is because it was recorded on this day (Sept. 12) 75 years ago.

One thing is for certain, and that is that Benny Goodman’s “sound” certainly did the tune justice.  An uptempo “businessman’s bounce” — something at which Benny’s band excelled — this record is also a good example of the lilting tone effect heard in Goodman’s woodwind section, something he practically perfected that year.

While Benny Goodman did not have a monopoly on this song, his is arguably the definitive version, what with his aforementioned sound, combined with his gutsy style of play.  Martha Tilton’s vocals make for a very nice addition, too.  With all that said, other prominent recording stars took their stab at this song around the same time, including RCA stablemate Artie Shaw (who recorded it with Helen Forrest singing the lyrics that same year [1938])*, and even Bing Crosby lent his vocal talents to the ditty in question the following year.

A more modern pop cultural reference to this recording can be heard in the ever-popular film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” during the apartment scene in Venice, where one can hear the Elsa Schneider character play the tune on an acoustic phonograph (making the recording sound 10-15 years older than it actually was!).

So while the lyrics do not rate the song itself as highly as a good Cole Porter or Irving Berlin standard, it nevertheless merits our attention as a solid record during the golden age of American popular culture — enjoy!

*The Artie Shaw version one can briefly heard in the very underrated 1991 Disney Film “The Rocketeer,” which also takes place in 1938.

Oz recalls its glorious past April 19, 2013

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oz-the-great-and-powerful-poster-1(Warning:  a few subtle spoilers herein.)
One hallmark of a great prequel is that it shows/explains how something well-known came to be.  For example, just how did X-Man Dr. Hank McCoy, a.k.a., “Beast,” become, well, so blue?  You find out in “X-Men:  First Class.”  Just how did Indiana Jones develop a pathological aversion to snakes?  You find out during the prequel segment of “Last Crusade.”  So it goes for the Oz canon.  Just how did this so-called wizard make his way from Kansas in a balloon to this famous, enchanted land?  Just how was the relationship between the sister witches?  All of that and more is explained in this movie.

By now, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has been released in theaters for over a month, so it’s likely that most readers have seen the film.  As a Johnny-come-lately to the party, it’s hard to say anything that has not been said already about this film, but I nevertheless feel strongly compelled to try.  The reason I do is simple:  there is so much to like about this film that it is hard to know where to begin.

Why not start with the actors’ portrayals of the main characters?  James Franco delivers as the protagonist; sure, a number of others could pull it off just as well, but his portrayal of the so-called “Wizard” of Oz — in reality, a traveling circus magician/con man/womanizer — is quite satisfactory, and gives you a plausible origin of how the whole Wizard myth began.  When circumstances take him to a place that most certainly is NOT Kansas, he encounters not one, not two, but three witches, and eventually learns that the combined encounter is a family power struggle in which he is now ensnared.  Oops!  The first witch he meets, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, ends up taking character development to the extreme.  We the audience first meet her as a young, naive, pretty young lady, almost exuding Meg-like innocence (she provides the voice of Meg in “Family Guy”*).  Nobody would consider a witch, though she is, and moreover, she later undergoes a metamorphosis, shedding her naive facade and afterwards remains, shall we say, jaded, both inside and out.  Soon, though, Oz meets her sister, Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, who, as the story unfolds, seems to be channeling her inner Famke Janssen-as-Xenia Onatopp (you fellow James Bond aficionados know what I mean!) both in terms of appearance/attractiveness (Giggity!* — although that changes at the end of the film) and in terms of which side of good/evil she truly has chosen.  Not until Oz meets the third witch, Glinda, that he becomes enlightened as to who is actually good and who is actually — queue the Mike Myers voice — evil (/puts pinky finger to side of mouth).  Speaking of Glinda, her portrayal by Michelle Williams is superbly charming.  Any man with a pulse would jump at the chance to make her queen of his kingdom.

The secondary roles are more than ably filled, too.  Tony Cox, whose image as the foul-mouthed, sawed-off sidekick in “Bad Santa” is forever humorously etched in my mind, is extremely well-suited for his role as an irascible munchkin.  Bill Cobbs as a jack-of-all-trades tinkerer practically brings a smile to your face, too.  Other key characters are brought to you via the wonders of modern film-making magic.  Indeed, the biggest reason we the movie-going public were never treated to a big-time, big-budget adaptation of, say, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was that the things described in that story were so fantastical, the special effects technology simply was not there until the middle of the last decade to finally do it justice on the big screen.  Same things goes for this film in question in many respects, one being two of the characters that become part of Oz’s group as he finds himself on a mission in a land that coincidentally bears his name.  Only the latest in special effects could properly portray a flying monkey dressed like a ritzy hotel bellhop, or a young girl who is a walking, talking china doll.  The latter character brings much to the proverbial table, as some of the interactions between her and Oz are the most tender scenes in the whole film.

But what I loved most about the film was all the special efforts made in recalling the original 1939 masterpiece to which this movie is a prequel.  Start with the treatment they give to the opening segment of the film.  In the 1939 original, everything is in black and white.  Only when Dorothy’s house crashes into Oz, thus sending the Wicked Witch of the East to an early albeit timely demise, does the film turn to color.  Keep in mind that color films in the late 1930s were few and far between. Color alone would have amazed the audience, but the Technicolor that MGM employed was exceptionally vivid.  Same thing goes for this new film.  The opening, “real-world” segment of the story is also depicted in sepia, and only after the protagonist survives his ordeal of a journey into the magical land does the eye-popping color open up before the audience’s eyes.

But that is just for starters.  The start of the Yellow Brick Road as a spiral directly recalls MGM’s standard-bearing predecessor, as does the physical setting of the Emerald City.  One can see its sparkling skyline in the distance behind fields of ultra-colorful poppies, which in turn run up to the edge of a dark forest.  Speaking of the city’s skyline, it also recalls the original from ’39; maybe not as art deco, sadly, but it makes up for it with its realistic imagery, not just a large painting on the wall of a sound stage.  Even the way the curtains drape in the throne room and in the hallway leading up to it seem to recall the timeless classic.  Better yet, Glinda’s memorable arrival in a magical bubble is recalled in fashion more splendid than ever before.  Speaking of memorable entrances, one of the witches making a scary entrance with red fire is a fitting nod to how that character did the same thing in the [much] earlier film.  Moreover, though the story obviously predates the rest of the dramatis personae (Dorothy et al.), it does well in making oblique references to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.  Even the turban that Franco’s Oz wears on his head while an illusionist with the traveling circus in Kansas recalls that atop Frank Morgan‘s head as Professor Marvel.  Let us also not forget the parallel characters in the protagonist’s life between Kansas and Oz.

Regarding the explanation of how things come to be, not only is the origin of the Wizard’s throne room act of smoke and bombast cleverly explained, what is even more clever is the scenario that first necessitated it.  Plenty of other things about the film recommend it, though, in addition to the wonderful references to the 1939 classic.  When Oz finds himself in this strange yet beautiful world, part of the incredible scenery he takes in are various exotic plants making music; such is a classic, vintage Disney touch, right out of “Fantasia” or “Alice in Wonderland.”  Ol’ Walt would have been proud of these touches, and indeed of the whole film.

*See?  Even when talking about the Wizard of Oz and Disney, we can still make Family Guy references!  And who’da thought that Meg could so effectively channel her inner Margaret Hamilton?

Cowboys and Aliens: An awesome film August 14, 2011

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Many reviews have not been the most flattering about the recently released film Cowboys & Aliens.  The average rating has been around 2 stars — not terrible (“turable,” if you’re Charles Barkley), but not necessarily good, either.  After seeing the film, my conclusion is that the 2-star treatment is an error, for it merits a better assessment than that.

Full confession time:  I had actually been anticipating the release of this movie for most of the year, practically since I first saw the posters for it around December or January.  The title itself sounded intriguing — aliens in a wild west setting.  Then I found out the top-billed cast, and it hit me.  Director Jon Favreau came up with the right ingredients that when combined — at least, on paper — would make for one of the coolest ideas for a movie in recent memory.

What are the ingredients?  The setting, the top cast, and the story itself.  The setting is obvious, and has already been covered.  What about the cast?  The two big names are Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  What is Daniel Craig known for playing these days?  Why, he’s the latest James Bond, with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace already under his belt, and Bond 23 due to be released in 2012.  What is Harrison Ford best known for playing?  Puh-leaze:  Indiana Jones!

With all of this in mind, how do things add up?  As mentioned previously, it adds up — again, on paper — to the coolest idea in recent memory:  James Bond and Indiana Jones team up to fight aliens in the old west.  Can a movie idea get any more awesome?  I submit ‘no.’

From there, things can only go in two directions:  either the movie lives up to such expectations of awesomeness, or it flops completely.  Usually, a film that potentially cool sounds too good to be true, and that was my primary concern going in to see it.  The concern was alleviated within the first minute.  Craig definitely brings his swagger and brutality that he used to portray Bond, and Harrison Ford brings his A-game as well.  One scene was particularly tantalizing in that it made many a movie buff wonder ‘what if James Bond did try to take on Indiana Jones?’  Craig plays a desperado trying to remember who he is and what he was doing.  His fighting style and cowboy tough guy talk definitely remind folks ‘in the know’ of 007.  Meanwhile, there certainly are times where Ford’s occasional glances and smirks are as if he inadvertantly let Indy seep into this role of Civil War army officer-turned-tyrannical town overlord (think Indiana Jones with a dark side).

So why the relatively low reviews?  Lots of critics expect every film they see to have the dramatic value of MacBeth or Death of Salesman, and when it does not deliver under such a false premise, then the film is to be panned.  Moreover, lots of critics do not understand some of the pre-requisites of westerns.  The beauty of the film is that it is a western first, a sci-fi flick second (albeit a close second).  As a western, you know going in that there are going to be cliches, and heaven knows, the film is rife with them.  If that bothers any would-be viewer, then he or she is apt to detract a star or two from their own personal rating.  But if they are of no consequence to others, then the others will be more apt not to be distracted from the film’s overall awesomeness.

As a western, it also delivers satisfaction.  A lone stranger with a more-than-checkered past comes into town.  The town’s overlord dislikes him, to say the least (Why, you ask?  Watch the film!), until all hell breaks loose, well, you get the rest.  Like most westerns, the emphasis is on actions, not words, though to be sure, the film is not without the occasionally choice dialog.

The object of the story is even somewhat cliche, that of disparate forces having to band together to overcome a foe with a host of advantages.  The action sequences are pure awesomeness, and the ending is very satisfactory, as is the character development taking place throughout the film.  Moreover, Olivia Wilde (who played Quorra in Tron: Legacy) does well as an unexpected helper in the protagonist’s cause, and it was a nice touch to see Adam Beach (who played the part of Ira Hayes in Flags of our Fathers), whose character becomes a needed ambassador as the story unfolds.

If you’re looking for a good movie for a “Saturday (or Friday) night out with the boys” occasion, this film is perfect.  It is perfect for a father taking is son and son’s friends* for a fun time, or for a band of college buddies getting together for movie night.  If this film were made and released during my undergrad days, the boys and I would still be talking about it today:  it delivers that well.  James Bond and Indiana Jones team up to fight aliens in the old west.  A movie like that is so awesome, it’s worth repeating.

*Bear in mind that with a PG-13 rating, there is some violence — mostly modern western-style shooting violence, etc., so it is always wise for parents to exercise discretion accordingly.