Thursday, January 26, 2012

Friday Film Pick: Mike Binder - “Indian Summer” (1993)


There are certain places, certain patches of land that can encapsulate your entire childhood experience into their modest acreage. Today's film pick is about one such place. But before we get into it, allow me to wax poetic about my days growing up in Saratoga Springs, NY.

On West Avenue, next to Shirley's Ice Cream, was a video rental store called Mister Movie. Every Friday evening my family would go and pick out a few VHS tapes to watch over the weekend. My sister would get some feel-good Disney film about some blind girl who jumps horses for an old-timey carnival, I would get whatever 80's sci-fi schlock I'd already seen 634 times, and my parents would get the latest action or drama that was out that week. Mister Movie catered to all of our tastes and as the years wore on, I found myself appreciating everyone else's cinematic choices as well. These days I am more than willing to admit that perhaps my sister was right, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken is arguably a better film than Spaced Invaders.

My first rated R movie was the Kurt Russell/ Sly Stallone buddy cop movie, Tango & Cash. A bit later it was the Eddie Murphy/ Nick Nolte buddy cop movie Another 48 Hours. I think my pops was really into the genre. Technically I wasn't “allowed” to watch Rated R movies, my parents weren't that liberal with their censorship standards. But I had this trick where when they were ready to pop in their movie I would pretend I couldn't sleep. After a few minutes of bargaining they'd allow me to lay on the small couch in the living room while the movie began, assuming I'd fall asleep out of boredom or lack of connection with such “grown up” films. With a pillow over my head, so that they couldn't tell my eyes were still open, I'd watch every second of those flicks. One weekend my mom must have picked the movie, because instead of the traditional mis-matched police partner story there was a funny little film about a bunch of thirty-somethings reuniting at their old summer camp. This movie was Mike Binder's Indian Summer.

Written and directed by Binder in 1993, the film is an ensemble comedy featuring some of the best acting talents of the 80's and 90's; Diane Lane, Bill Paxton, Julie Warner, Kevin Pollack, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, even a small part for Sam Raimi, and presiding over all of these amazing characters was Alan Arkin, as the soon to be retired camp counselor. It's basically The Big Chill Goes To Camp. The old friends gather to relive their glory days and escape from the dismal urban, capitalist lives they have become entangled in. Some are unhappily married, some are widowed, some are still single, but all of them have a story, all of them have an arc.

Mike Binder has developed a reputation as crafting taught, snappy character pieces that give actors a chance to work outside their comfort zones. Joan Allen's comedic chops shone through in his film The Upside Of Anger. Adam Sandler's most dramatic role was in Binder's post 9/11 drama Reign Over Me. He was just getting started with Indian Summer though, and his freshness as a writer and the vibrancy of the young cast brings an energy and spirit to the film that is sometimes lacking in his later work.

I can't explain to you why as a 9 year old kid (who hadn't yet been to summer camp, I didn't attend Skye Farm until I was 12) I loved this movie so much. Perhaps it was the serene earth tone cinematography, or the nuanced character interaction, or the soulful soundtrack all working together to paint a picture of grown-up life that was wistful and nostalgic. It seemed to tell me, “Enjoy these years of play while you can because shit gets really real.” It's a message I took to heart. Despite the fact that Indian Summer is an all but forgotten movie today (it might turn up some Sunday afternoon on HBO 3 or something but good luck trying to find it in any stores), this should not be taken as a reflection of its quality. It's a simple film about friends and nature and how much it sucks to grow up. It's truly one of my favorite films of all time and has been a tremendous influence upon my own screenwriting. Do yourself a favor and convince your parents to let you “sleep” on the couch so you can check it out.

Thursday Thunderbird Jam: Chubby Parker- King Kong Kichie Ki Me Oh(1928)

This week the Thunderbird Jam is Chubby Parker's 1928 recording of “King Kong Kichie Ki Me Oh” found on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. A derivation of the classic folk ballad “Froggie Went A- Courtin” (a whimsical ballad about a Frog proposing marriage to a little Mouse) this song is perhaps the most fun song in the world to start a sing along of. Trust me, I've done it. A LOT.

Chubby Parker was an Indiana born working man. Working as a patent clerk, electrician, and all around inventor extraordinaire, music was not his first calling. He played the banjo like a champ though and appeared on a Chicago radio program called National Barn Dance. His distinctive, high-pitched voice and simple, straightforward strumming caught on with Mid-west listeners and he soon became a staple of the program.

While “Froggie Went A-Courtin” is rather ubiquitous in the Anglo folk tradition (the oldest known version is from 16th century Scotland), Chubby's version includes a whistling bridge and a non-sense chorus chock full of alliteration. The chorus is so fun in fact, it was sampled by Mickey Avalon for his raunchy hip-hop hit “What Do You Say?” included on The Hangover soundtrack. Chubby's version also changes the traditional narrative of the song. Instead of focusing on Froggie and Ms. Mouse's wedding supper and all the Hollow Tree animals in attendance, he sings about the violent battle Froggie wages in order to win Ms. Mouse's hand.

Froggie rolls up to Ms. Mouse's door packing mad heat (a sword AND a pistol) and right in the middle of proposing to her, all these other fools roll in the door (3 or 4 at least) and Froggie has to mow them all down to prove his love for Mousie. Needless to say, it's a pretty terrible night in Hollow Tree. Anyhow, Ms. Mouse is super impressed (who wouldn't be?) and agrees to marry Froggie right away and they live happily ever after, even having some little half frog/half mouse children.

Banjo. Whistling. Personified Animals. Swordfights. Marriage.
All the elements of a great folk song. They sure don't make 'em like they used to.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday Film Pick- Zoe Cassavetes- Broken English (2007)


With Broken English, Zoe Cassavetes boldly makes her mark upon her family's cinematic legacy. Zoe is the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, arguably two of the most influential artists in American cinema, and while that automatically pins a tremendous amount of expectation on her first film she delivers with style and grace. Not only is it a funny and insightful movie but it's also peppered with subtle cinematic references that enrich the autobiographical element of the story and elevates this from a “Sex and the City” story to a deeply personal experience.

Obviously drawing from her life and those of her peers, Cassavetes wrote a magnificent script which beautifully illustrates the great strength it takes for an emotionally fragile woman to find self-worth and peace in this crazy, modern world. The protagonist is Norah Wilder (a great nod to another incredible director) played by Parker Posey. Norah is a beautiful but insecure thirty-something so pre-occupied with her career and her perceptions of romance that she's never been able to find a successful relationship, even with herself.

Norah feels the pressure from all sides as she negotiates the treacherous dating scene of Manhattan, deals with her over-bearing mother and step-father (played pitch perfect by Gena Rowlands and Peter Bogdonavich respectively), and lives in the shadow of her best friend Audrey (Drea De Matteo) and her seemingly perfect marriage.

Parker Posey has never looked more beautiful and she plays Norah with such earnest subtlety that you can't help but fall in love with her. You find yourself wanting to console and comfort her when she's put through the relationship ringer on a series of atrocious dates. One such date is with Nick Gable, a new-agey action movie star who seduces Norah after a night of sake and cheap flattery.

The one flaw of the film comes through this character. Cassavetes spends so much time on this element and pushes him so far into the two-dimensional, Scorpio male role that it becomes almost satirical. You wonder how Norah could ever fall for him in the first place and it's the only element of the film that doesn't quite ring true. His mistreatment of Norah is so raw that by the time Norah's real love interest Julien (a suave but dorky French sound engineer) is introduced you are as skeptical of his intentions as she is. After a weekend of bliss Julien returns to Paris and soon after Norah decides to chase after him. Enlisting her best friend Audrey, they rush off to track down a chance at true love.

This is where an interesting parallel to another influential independent film is introduced. Broken English, at times, can be seen as a sort of companion piece to Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost In Translation. Zoe Cassavetes has shared a long friendship with the fellow filmmaker, both heiress' to a hefty cinematic legacy with celluloid running deep in their veins. Both films find themselves in stuffy hotels and alienating locales, with soul-searching women soaking up cultural landmarks to an electro-pop soundtrack. Certain character elements are also similar, De Matteo's Audrey is almost certainly based on Coppola. Much like Scarlet Johansson's character in Translation, Audrey is in a crumbling marriage to a neglectful filmmaker succumbing to his own vanity. Seeing this story from another viewpoint I couldn't help but think that perhaps Posey's Norah character was on the other line when Scarlett was sitting in the window of that sad Japanese hotel, calling her friend and trying desperately to connect.

Broken English strikes a different emotional tone, however. It's somehow even more honest than Coppola's film. Sometimes to the extent that one feels almost embarrassed as an audience member to see a character be so vulnerable on screen. In one scene, Posey's performance of Norah's panic attack was so difficult to watch it reminded me of Rowland's heart wrenching dinner table scene in A Woman Under The Influence. In a 2007 interview in The New Yorker, Cassavetes said “I love when I'm writing and I'm cringing because I know I'm doing something right”.

She certainly has. The is real, its raw, its about how people really are. In this case how a woman feeling the full weight of age, loneliness, and social expectation really is. It's sad, funny, and beautiful. A film that would certainly have made her father very, very proud.

Thursday Thunderbird Jam: Chromatics- Running Up That Hill (2007)


“If I only could, I'd make a deal with God and get him to swap our places...”

Kate Bush released “Running Up That Hill” on her 1985 album Hounds of Love. Over two decades later the track still holds up and influences a new generation of pop artists including Portland's punk-disco outfit, Chromatics.

Chromatics re-imagines the song on their 2007 record Night Drive, the album acting as an introduction to new lead singer Ruth Radelet, and what a stunning introduction it is. Kate Bush's ethereal voice is so unique that it would be impossible to emulate and gladly Radelet doesn't attempt to. Instead she utilizes her own distinct vocal gifts to create a breathy, moody, and sexy take on this ode to masculine/feminine miscommunication.

Admittedly the atmospheric production on the 1985 original can sound a bit dated (mostly the bombastic drums). Chromatics improve upon this in their version; slowly building each element with a subtle, increasing intensity so that you're never distracted by the electronic flourishes but entranced by them. Adding to the sensual and intoxicating vibe of the track is the exceptional guitar work of Adam Miller. He is able to provide a sparse but precise rhythm, plucking sharp, bright tones that transport you into the fluid, languid world of the song.

To say this track is sexually charged would be a gross understatement. It's friggin' hot. When you get home from work today, put it on and lay a smooch on your Mr. or Mrs. It'll work. Trust me. It's a beautiful song, a touching song, an erotic song. A prayer for mutual understanding and empathy between lovers despite the fact that men and women will never, ever truly achieve it.

Chromatics - Running Up That Hill .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Change doesnt stop for broken hearts... The Poetry of Mary Angelina

In 2010 the Burlington, Vermont based painter and poet Mary Angelina released her first book, Cracking Calypso. Written over the course of five years it is one of the most hard hitting and refreshing collections of contemporary poetry I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I spoke with the author about the book and its origins. "I hadn't written anything good in almost seven years" Angelina explained, "I kept trying to write the world's idea of a great poem when suddenly I decided to just write for me. That's when 'American Babel' poured out of me almost in its final form."

Soon after this initial poetic accomplishment the flood gates were open and Mary was on her way to a powerful collection of words. Angelina pulls no punches in her dense and rhythmic verse, tackling issue after issue of the largest scope; war, death, rape, greed, and betrayal. Yet even with such dark and intense subject matter, the book manages to strike a humorous and compassionate tone that reinvigorates a readers faith instead of diminishing it. Take, for example, this portion of the aforementioned 'American Babel'...

If God is real, she's pissed now,
I doubt she meant for this.
Blessed are the forgotten,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are the white and wealthy
the other seven days a week.

"In composing the book," Angelina says, "I took the dark, light, rhyme, and non-rhyme and sort of made a mix-tape." It is a delicate thematic balance, which Angelina walks to near perfection. She utilizes newer slam inspired rhythms on the incendiary 'Apathetic Limbo' and places it alongside 'Dystonia', a deeply personal piece done in the ancient villanelle form. "I'm drawn to long, rhythmic poems with a lot of 'umph'. But you can get lost in rhythm. Like reading too much Dr. Seuss or something."

The balance of old and new, cynicism and whimsy, comes from a deeply empathetic place in the author. When asked where that place may be exactly Angelina responds, "My guts! The guts of me and my soul. While writing this book I was dealing with intense spurts of grief. Writing and painting and music were my life. They literally kept me going. So it was also one of the more alive times in my life."

Alive indeed. This book is a vibrant and startling collection that is not to be ignored. Cracking Calypso is published by Star Chamber Press and is currently available for purchase on

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Friday Film Picks: Hal Ashby- Shampoo (1975)

The late Hal Ashby's cinematic legend has recently experienced a healthy resurgence due in most part to some high profile name dropping by the likes of Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, and Jason Reitman. While this has prompted renewed interest in his cult films like The Landlord (1970) and Harold & Maude (1972) his most critically and financially successful film Shampoo (1975) has, ironically, remained somewhat obscure.

Written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, the film's star, Shampoo is the story of a L.A. hairdresser and his sexual misadventures over the course of Election Night in 1968. The supporting cast consisted of a young Goldie Hawn, the British bombshell Julie Christie, Lee Grant (who had stolen many a scene in Ashby's Landlord), a pre-Princess Leia Carrie Fisher, and the criminally underrated Jack Warden (who would go on to play the President in Ashby's Being There). Shampoo is a hilarious but subtle portrait of wealthy, liberal excess in Southern California and it's head on collision with the impending Nixon era. Beatty's flamboyant portrayal of the hipster hairdresser who is constantly questioned about his sexuality is only made funnier by his borderline compulsive bedding of every woman in the film. Jack Warden is the perfect foil by playing a shrewd businessman and potential investor in Beatty's salon, who is also throwing a fundraiser for the California Republican Committee. It's a clash of classes that ends with plenty of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Ashby had an incredible knack for taking characters that could have been very unsympathetic and making them fully formed, multidimensional people. Take for instance a scene in Shampoo where the beautiful Goldie Hawn confronts her beau Beatty about his endless philandering. She could have come off as a flighty cuckold and he could have looked like a total asshole, but due to Ashby's pitch perfect direction and sincere attempt to empathize with these outlandish characters the scene instead becomes heartbreaking and sad. An admission of wrong-doing by both lovers and also a small moment of redemption for the somewhat directionless hairdresser at the center of it all.

In addition to fantastic performances, flawless direction, and a snappy script, the film has a soundtrack to rival the likes of Royal Tenenbaums or Almost Famous. Shampoo contains hits by Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and an original score by Paul Simon. Not too shabby, Ashby. Not too shabby at all.

Check out this 1975 gem and I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Even if you don't love the story, you'll love the look. There's some amazing hair-dos!

Thursday Thunderbird Jams: The Who- How Many Friends (1975)

By the mid-Seventies The Who had already been “talkin' bout My Generation”, written an epic opera about a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy”, and synthesized an escape from the “Teenage Wasteland” that was post-Mod/post-LSD youth culture. Yet with all their revolutionary musical accomplishments, a younger and angrier wave of rockers were emerging. The sun seemed to be setting on an entire generation of influential artists. The Beatles were long gone, The Stones were exiled in the south of France, and now The Who's future was uncertain at best. In an art form driven by youth and rebellion, what's more unbecoming than an aging rock 'n' roller?

While pondering exactly that, Pete Townsend (the band's brains) had succumbed to a bout of deep melancholy and self-doubt. He'd even fallen out with his peers Keith Moon (the band's brawn) and Roger Daltry (the band's bravado). Bassist John Entwistle (the band's balance) was the only one able to keep himself neutral by forming his own side project, “The Ox” and touring England.

Townsend gave a series of controversial and cynical interviews in various music rags alluding to the dissolution of his once unstoppable pop group. In a particularly vitriolic interview conducted by Roy Carr in the Spring of 75, Townsend said “When Roger speaks out about 'we'll all be rockin' in our wheelchairs' he might be but you won't catch me rockin' in no wheelchair... The group as a whole have got to realize that the Who are not the same group as they used to be. They never ever will be and as such ... it's very easy to knock somebody by saying someone used to be a great runner and can still run, but he's Not What He Used To Be."

In this same interview, Townsend also lamented the abandonment of the rebellious spiritual revolution of late 60's rock. “Basically, everyone had this mood that something was happening ... something was changing. In essence it did, but unfortunately a lot of its impetus was carried off by the drug obsession. Then when things turned out to be meaningless and people had missed the bus, they quickly realized that they'd gambled everything on something that had run away. The same thing happened to rock. Rock got very excited and flew off ahead leaving most of its audience behind. The Who went on to do what I feel to be some very brave and courageous things, but in the end the audience was a bit apathetic.”

All in all the once thrashing and snarling guitar god had become a bitter, albeit eloquent, old man. But then something really interesting happened... The Who By Numbers. Released in October of 1975, this record harkened back to a simpler, more honest, and emotionally vulnerable time of rock writing. By leaving the grandiose rock opera ambitions of Tommy behind and focusing instead on self-contained songs with personal lyrics and layered musicianship, Townsend created a more cohesive statement than any concept album could have hoped to be.

Ironically, with all of Townsend's fear of being over the hill, the most amazing quality about By Numbers is it's youthful sound. The fact that it was created so long after the pop hits like “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” but contained hit singles like “Squeezebox” and “Slip Kid” is truly a testament to Townsend's ability to write from an place where he is perpetually young at heart. While his insecurity and fear of irrelevance was on raw display in songs such as “However Much I Booze” and the somber “Blue Red and Grey” (the latter an obvious influence on Eddie Vedder's recent mid-life ukelele crises), the strongest performance on the record is from Mr. Wheelchair himself, Roger Daltry.

“How Many Friends” is the album's climactic ode to paranoia and social alienation. Daltry delivers a powerful, full throttle vocal that sits atop Keith Moon's bombastic but perfectly controlled percussion like whipped cream on a bitchin' banana split. Townsend's guitar is surprisingly understated for such an epic song. Perhaps, despite all his public digs at his bandmates, Pete realized how much he truly needed this goofy singer, this reckless drummer, and this droll but beloved bass player.

This sentiment seems to emerge from the tense bridge when Daltry softly sings the final verse,

When I first signed a contract
It was more than a handshake then I know it still is
But there's a plain fact
We talk so much shit behind each other's backs I get the willies
People know nothing
'bout their own soft rubber soul how come they can sum us up
Without suffering
all the hurt we've known How come they bum us up

Townsend almost seems to be writing an apology (or as close as he would ever dare get) to his brothers in arms. A battle cry to unite them once more, The Who against the world, if only for one more album.
How many friends have you really got, Pete? At least three, that's for sure.