Sunday, May 29, 2016

Retro Movie: Mitchum vs. "The Yakuza"

Can you imagine a story about the Japanese mob directed by Sydney Pollack, who helmed such classic films as The Way We WereJeremiah JohnsonTootsie, Absence of Malice and Out of Africa? It happened in 1975, when Warner Brothers released Pollack's The Yakuza. This intriguing, moody thriller stars Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith and Ken Takakura. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, who had been stationed in Tokyo during the occupation following WWII. An old friend of his, George Tanner (played by Keith) asks Kilmer to help him rescue his daughter from Tono, a yakuza boss who has kidnapped her. It turns out that Tanner has been selling guns to Tono, and something has gone wrong. Kilmer heads to Japan to meet with the yakuza boss. Once there, he ends up reuniting with an old flame, Eiko, and her brother Ken. Since the post war days, Ken has hated and resented Kilmer, although he doesn’t know why.

Ken Takakura & Robert Mitchum
Kilmer needs Ken’s help in contacting and dealing with the yakuza, as Ken used to work for them. But everything is not what it seems. Tanner is keeping secrets from Kilmer about his true dealings with Tono. Ken’s brother, a yakuza advisor, tries to help our heroes, but things escalate even further. Tanner's daughter is rescued, but that's not the end of the story. As Kilmer and Ken get closer to the truth, a chain of events put in motion by Tanner’s actions affects all of their fates. Kilmer finally finds out why Ken has always disliked him, a secret which dates back to when Kilmer had helped Eiko survive in the days after WWII. Mitchum is very good in the lead role, and the fine supporting cast features familiar character actors Richard Jordan, James Shigeta and Herb Edelman. Brian Keith is quite effective as Tanner, an atypical role for him.

The Yakuza is a stylish, well made film that is a bit leisurely paced by today’s action film standards, but is well worth a look. The story is a meditation on honor, dealing with your obligations, keeping the promises you make, and dealing with the fallout from the secrets you keep. It’s much more than a shoot ‘em up movie, though there is quite a bit of gun & swordplay in the film. The screenplay is by Paul Schrader & Robert Towne, from a story by Leonard Schrader (Paul’s brother). The wonderful score is by jazz great Dave Grusin. It's one of director Pollack’s more unusual films, but I think it’s one of his best. Interestingly enough, he made this movie right around the same time he helmed the classic espionage thriller Three Days of The Condor, with Robert Redford & Faye Dunaway. The Yakuza is available on DVD and for online viewing on some sites, such as Amazon.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Big Star's Story: "Nothing Can Hurt Me"

Music fans often discuss “the best band that you’ve never heard of” or declare, “they should have been a huge success” when debating the merits of little known but influential groups. The fascinating documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012) tells the story of one such band. Big Star came together in Memphis in 1971, and made two outstanding, critically acclaimed albums before lack of support by their label, little or no radio airplay, and problems within the band caused the group to break up in 1974. Singer/guitarist Alex Chilton was the former lead vocalist for The Box Tops, who had scored Top 40 hits with songs like “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby.” He and fellow Memphis native Chris Bell had both recorded at Ardent Studios, and knew each other from the local music scene. Bell had a band called Icewater, which featured bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. When Chilton showed the other musicians some songs he’d written, they decided to work together, and Big Star was born.

Their debut, #1 Record, released in 1972, alternated between gentle acoustic numbers like “Thirteen,” and guitar driven rockers such as “Feel,” all laced with Byrds-like guitars & Beatles-esque harmonies. The album essentially set the template & direction for the power pop genre of the 70s, and beyond. Reviews were universally ecstatic, but the band’s label had financial & distribution issues, so people couldn’t find the album, much less buy it. The frustrating experience caused tensions within the band; Bell quit the group, rejoined, then later quit again. Their second album, Radio City (1974), was another strong effort, with wonderful songs like “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With A Girl” showcasing the group’s polished pop song craft. But continuing issues with the band’s label doomed this release as well. Reviews were positive, but this record also had little or no distribution. The band's label was having issues after being purchased by Columbia Records, who did nothing to promote the group. Still, something about their music stuck in the minds & hearts of the people who did manage to hear their albums, or got to see them perform.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me charts the band’s history through the recording of both of those records, as well as their third album, Third/Sister Lovers, which was recorded in 1974, but unreleased until 1978. The group is seen in archival footage, and there are in-depth interviews with colleagues, friends & family members, as well as famous fans of the group, including Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick, The Replacements and Mike Mills of R.E.M. The film also follows the paths that Chilton & Bell (who were like the Lennon & McCartney of the group) took after the band’s breakup, and discusses their solo work. There's also coverage of the eventual reformation of the band by Alex Chilton & Jody Stephens in 2003, and the growing appreciation of their music thru re-releases of their albums. While the group had little success in their original incarnation, a funny thing happened: people began to discover their records; bands like The Bangles, Cheap Trick and The Posies covered their songs, and cited them as an influence. Rolling Stone included all three of their original albums in their list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” 

The film has an element of melancholy (especially since original members Chilton, Bell and Hummel have all passed away), but it’s also a celebration of the band’s music as well as their lasting musical legacy. This is an insightful, heartfelt look at a band who should have been superstars, but whose music still managed to reach an audience, despite their lack of mainstream success. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, and is worth watching for devotees of the band, fans of the power pop genre and music aficionados. It's also an interesting look at how the record industry worked back in the 1970s. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here are links to the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxAbkqRGxqY, and for the songs “September Gurls,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAIuim4GXK0 and “Thirteen,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pte3Jg-2Ax4.

"I never travel far, without a little Big Star." Lyric from The Replacements song Alex Chilton, a track from their 1987 album, Pleased To Meet Me.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Retro Movie: Ray Milland in Corman's "X"

Filmmaker Roger Corman made a name for himself as a producer & director with a host of successful low budget genre films in the 1950s and 60s, and also helped start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and many others, by giving them work on his movies. His series of influential Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (most starring Vincent Price) are now regarded as classics. Another interesting Corman project from this period is the 1963 tale, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, simply titled “X” onscreen. The movie tells the story of Dr. James Xavier, who is experimenting with moving beyond the limits of vision in humans. Xavier develops a serum that will expand what we can see. After briefly testing it on animals, Xavier decides to uses the eye drop serum on himself, and his visual capacity does increase. At first, he can see through clothing and solid objects. He is elated with the results.

But that’s not enough for the scientist, and as he continues to use the serum, Xavier begins to see much more than he bargained for: it’s a textbook example of the old science-fiction theme, “there are some things man was not meant to know.” Xavier’s research partners drop his funding, and even though his increased visual capacity helps save a young girl’s life at the hospital he works at, no one supports him. He ends up working at a carnival sideshow as a mentalist, and later as a faith healer. Xavier continues to see deeper into the world than any man ever has; will he see beyond this dimension, or even this universe? Will he go mad?

The movie is well cast; Milland is excellent in the title role, and perfectly conveys the elation, and later dread, that Xavier feels as he sees shapes, colors & things that he eventually can’t comprehend. Diana Van Der Vlis, Harold J. Stone & John Hoyt are all effective in supporting roles, and Don Rickles (yes, that Don Rickles) is quite good as a carnival barker who wants to cash in on Xavier’s visionary powers. Corman regulars Dick Miller & Jonathan Haze have cameos as customers at the carnival sideshow. The effects are well done for the period, and eerily convey the odd & mind-bending things that Dr. Xavier sees, which are beyond the veil of normal human perception.

X is a solid bet for fans of the sci-fi & horror genre; it definitely transcends its B-movie origins to tell a unique story. There are some nice touches from director Corman (who was several films into his excellent work on the Poe cycle at this point) and it strives to deliver a bit more than the typical genre films of the period. Many reviewers & writers (including Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his landmark study of the horror genre) have noted the almost Lovecraftian themes that pop up late in the movie, but it’s a well-crafted chiller, however you interpret it. The film often airs on Turner Classic Movies and other cable channels, and is also available in a nifty Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, which includes commentaries from Corman and writer-director Joe Dante, among other extras. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4clwgHEOYMo.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Amazing Story of Tower Records

Tower Records. For me, the name brings back memories of browsing through endless aisles of CDs, videos & books in their New York stores, with that now-famous yellow & red logos. These gargantuan record stores were a meeting place & frequent destination for true music fans from the 1960s thru the 1990s. The 2015 documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise & Fall of Tower Records is an insightful look at the story of this amazing company. The film charts the creation & expansion of Tower, from its small beginnings in California to its eventual expansion, with new stores all across the country. There were even Tower franchises opened in Japan. Featuring interviews with founder Russ Solomon and many of the staffers who helped shape the business into the retail powerhouse it became, its an insightful movie that also shows how the music business changed over several decades, and how some companies (like Tower) didn’t update their plans enough to ride out the after effects of those changing times.

In addition to the comments from the staff, there are interviews with Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Dave Grohl (who worked at a Tower store, and was pleased he got to keep his long hair) and others, who talk about why Tower was beloved by music fans & artists as well. Tower wasn’t just a record store, it was a destination where fans could meet & talk about music. It’s clear that Solomon was a visionary; he encouraged a work hard, play hard attitude, and treated his staff like family. This policy served the company well in its formative years. Everyone who worked for him talks about how employee suggestions & ideas were encouraged & welcomed. Many of the key players (some of whom have unique personalities) in the company moved up in the ranks throughout the years. They had fun, were extremely loyal, and contributed significantly to the company’s success.

Tower didn’t just change the way music was sold in stores; it was a force for change in the music business. They were one of the first chains to offer in-store appearances & performances by artists, and even published their own music magazine, Pulse. The large displays featuring artists & album covers inside & outside the stores were a calling card for the company, which had its own art department, a rarity at the time. But like many entertainment-based corporations, problems began when mismanagement and over expansion (as well as the advent of digital music) hurt the business as a whole. The later portion of the movie which chart’s the company’s downfall, is a bit sad, but ultimately this is an entertaining story of a company that started small, got big, exploded onto the landscape, and left a lasting legacy (and some wonderful memories) for music fans everywhere.

Directed by Colin Hanks, this incisive film will resonate most deeply with music aficionados, but it’s worth seeing for those who enjoy a balanced & well-told story, and this one is all the more fascinating because it’s true. It’s effective not only as a history of Tower, but also as a perceptive look at the arc of the music business from the 60s through the present day, and how the way we listen to & buy music has changed so dramatically. The film is available on some digital services, but has also been been released on DVD, and the disc has some excellent additional interviews & clips as extras. Check out All Things Must Pass: The Rise & Fall of Tower Records, you wont be disappointed. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrcCAwL01fI.