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John Cale – Slow Dazzle

slowdazzleIn which the dada noodle of Wales re-teams with Messengers Manzanera and Eno (2/5ths of Roxy Music) for what is essentially Fear 2.

Weathered by coke and booze, Cale’s brogue highlights the humor in tunes that poke loving fun at rock & roll of both the schlock and shock varieties, replete with backing singers and garish echo.

The scary Elvis cover is where it all comes together.

As the second release from Cale’s residency at Island Records, Slow Dazzle maintains its predecessor’s dark sense of fun but packs less of a punch.  (Helen of Troy, the third Island LP, is the weak link.  It sounds more gothic and the songwriting less assured.)  Combined, these records are the former Velvet’s take on the Brits’ assimilation of all that the Velvet Underground did, with a few fond odes / tips of the hat to Brian Wilson thrown in for good measure.  Attitudinally, Cale caps it off with a grin and a gob of spit.

Rating: A

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The Reconstituted Saturday Matinee of the 1930s

Between 1990 and 1996, Hollywood released four full-length homages to the classic Saturday matinee / pulp serial. Set in the 1930s, they are eminently watchable, nostalgic throwbacks made to cash in on the Indiana Jones craze and the resurgence of the comic book movie ushered in by Tim Burton’s Batman. However, only one of these four was a hit (Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy), and by the time the last one appeared (The Phantom), the fad for this kind of movie had died. The Phantom, The Rocketeer, The Shadow—each one was supposed to kick-start a franchise. All of them, sadly, “died a death,” but they endure on DVD and Blu-ray as cult favorites. Here are some notes of comparison:

Narrative Drive

The Rocketeer and The Shadow get off to a great start, but they also take a while to get going. The Phantom, while it scores lowest of the four in terms of box-office receipts, cachet and casting, has the most drive and the best action sequences.

Winner: The Phantom.phantommovie96

The Hero

Billy Zane’s Phantom is bland. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy is too old to be convincing. (Still, they don’t undermine my enjoyment the way Tobey Maguire does in the Spider-man films.) Alec Baldwin adds the right amount of ham to The Shadow‘s cheese. He gives the role a dark, debonair quality. Billy Campbell’s Rocketeer is cute as a button.

Winner: The Rocketeer ties The Shadow.

Tone

The Rocketeer is the lightest of the bunch, and like The Phantom it is a bit of an underdog (Disney Pictures banked for the most part on a cast and crew of lesser-knowns). It is the family-friendliest title here—the tone is one of unsullied innocence. The other three films are darker by varying degrees.

Winner: The Rocketeer (for light), Dick Tracy (for darkness), and The Phantom (for the best balance of the two).rocketeer3

The Rogues’ Gallery

True to the spirit of the serial and the b-movie as a whole, the rogues’ gallery in each movie comprises a veritable who’s-who of top-tier character actors.

Winner: It’s a total draw.

Dames

Of the dames on display, Dick Tracy‘s Madonna is the weakest. Her acting leaves a lot to be desired. Penelope Ann-Miller (The Shadow) stuns and Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) is positively ripe.

Winner: Easy. The Rocketeer.

The Hero’s Outfit

By virtue of its dark simplicity, the Shadow’s outfit is the coolest. He looks like the Invisible Man minus the bandages and shades. (I dig the hook nose, too. It’s an odd detail that, despite its fidelity to the original artwork of the novels, is never explained.) The Phantom’s purple leotard is fun but lame. Dick Tracy’s yellow trenchcoat marks him as a bright symbol of law and order. The Rocketeer’s aviator garb, which includes a boxy helmet, is functional and simple—yet I don’t understand how the rocket never burns his ass to cinders.

Winner: The Shadow.

Visuals

Visually the films are pop tarts, staged and shot with tender loving care. The production designers of The Shadow and The Phantom really outdo themselves: The Phantom‘s caves are neat; The Shadow‘s New York City is an art-deco diamond. In both films, the level of detail catches the eye and sets the imagination racing. The Rocketeer is less flashy, but three of its sets made me smile: the Frank Lloyd Wright-style house that belongs to Timothy Dalton’s villain, the South Seas Club, and the Bulldog Cafe.

Winner: The Shadow.theshadow

Story; or, the Hero’s Quest

The Rocketeer is an aw-shucks kind of kid. If you believe that a compelling pulp hero should be drawn with light and shade (i.e., he’s a do-gooder with a prominent dark side or appearance), the Rocketeer is the least interesting of the lot. But, though I admire screenwriters David Koepp (The Shadow) and Jeffrey Boam (The Phantom), they don’t craft stories here that feel, well, vital. That is, the stories don’t absolutely need to happen to the heroes the way they do. Armed with the power to cloud men’s minds, the Shadow combats evil because it is a life he was forced into (for reasons that never make much sense). The Phantom has good reason to prevent the evil Drax from finding magic skulls, but (spoiler alert—and I may be giving the plot short shrift here) the Phantom knows all along he will emerge victorious in the end. Since the Rocketeer is not a superhero with his own lair, much less a secret team of agents at his beck and call, he faces greater odds. His story, while of an outlandish sort (how could it be otherwise), is therefore the strongest of the four films.

Winner: The Rocketeer.

Gadgets

Dick Tracy’s two-way wristwatch/radio is cool, as are the pneumatic tubes that course through New York at the Shadow’s behest. Still, Batman weeps, because the Phantom lives like a king in the caves and crevices of a frickin’ island. The Rocketeer’s jetpack trumps all, because it is integral to his story. And it looks cool.

Winner: The Rocketeer.

The Villain

A dashing Howard Hughes type, Treat Williams (the tycoon Drax, The Phantom) is a boast and a creep. Moreover, he’s camp, a trait he seems to relish. Al Pacino (the mobster Big Boy Caprice, Dick Tracy) goes over the top, too, but the prosthetic makeup overwhelms him. He might as well be doing voice-over for a joyless puppet (never mind that he is probably the best thing in Dick Tracy, Vittorio Storaro’s lighting notwithstanding). As the descendant of Genghis Khan, John Lone (The Shadow) does moderately well with an underdeveloped role, but the character never oozes much of a threat. Finally, Timothy Dalton (movie star Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer) is the slimiest of the four villains. He’s perfectly cast and, without succumbing to archness, he has fun with a semi-surprising role.

Winner: The Phantom ties The Rocketeer.

The Score

John Williams may be a god among film composers, but his scores often feel busy, intrusive—shrill. His scores for the Indiana Jones films are no exception. Fortunately, none of the other movies I’m talking about fall into that trap. Dick Tracy‘s score has the most going for it (orchestral Danny Elfman shares the spotlight with Stephen Sondheim tunes). The Shadow stumbles, albeit briefly, when Kenny G-style muzak plays under the scene where Baldwin and Penelope Ann-Miller first meet. (Anachronism, no!) Those distinctions aside, the scores for all four films are altogether decent.

Winner: Dick Tracy.dicktracy

Zingers (a Sampling)

Dick Tracy: “Around me, if a woman don’t wear mink, she don’t wear nuttin’.” “Well, I look good both ways.”

The Rocketeer: “How do I look?” “Like a hood ornament.”

The Phantom: “Fine, go ahead. It’s your rescue.”

The Shadow: “Psychically, I’m very well endowed.” “I bet you are.”

Winner: The Shadow.

Pull

Inspired as many of the elements in these films are, their overall pull depends greatly on whether you pine for a reimagining of the Saturday matinee serial that feels less ironic and/or self-knowing and/or adrenalized than the Indiana Jones quartet does. (Combined, the Indy Jones movies remain the standard-bearer for the sort of film under discussion.) If you do, The Rocketeer is the prize pick. If you don’t, and you don’t mind the old-fashioned trappings that remain (particularly the, uh, ethnic cliches that are unavoidable for this kind of storytelling; sorry, Kent, I had to mention it somewhere), you might like The Phantom best. Dick Tracy stars an annoying child actor, so I ding it a few notches.

Winner: It’s your call, friend, but Dick Tracy is clearly the runt of the litter.

Final Tally

1. The Rocketeer
2. The Shadow
3. The Phantom
4. Dick Tracy

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Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Volume II

aphextwinambientiiTextbook ambient music is not necessarily good ambient music. If I can’t get lost in it or play it to get lost in something else, I have little use for it. Good ambient, then, is deep-focused. Not only does it simply fill the background, physical or mental, it works as music should. It moves you. It makes you want to listen to it closely.

At his ambient best, Aphex Twin* (one of at least two brilliant autodidacts of 90s electronica, the other being DJ Shadow) is the definitive link between Eno and Boards of Canada. Selected Ambient Works Volume II outshines Volume I because it dares to drone for minutes on end, and except on two tracks it dispenses with beats altogether. The album is good, at times great, ambient because, in addition to having the qualities I just mentioned, it shimmers with its scratches intact. On nearly every untitled cut, dissonance (i.e., darkness, the jarring note or effect) looms.

For those of us who spin through the dirty metropolis, locked and lonely in our spinners, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is a trip to Cloud City…and back.

Rating: B+

*Kent introduced me to Aphex Twin. The catalog, which is daft, deft and dense all at once, has two main modes: oft-unsettling and balmy ambient, and deeply disturbing, jerk-jokey death-dub. One day Kent may write a guide to the techno side of Aphex Twin. For now, though, you can surf the net for a primer and not be disappointed.

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Paul McCartney – Zoo Gang

zoogangSolo Paul McCartney is full of crap.  As folks have remarked for longer than I’ve been alive, his music from 1971 on misses the Beatles.  It is no match for even the worst cut on The While Album.  But if you approach any of the Fab Four’s solo work with lowered expectations — as though you had a chance to curate the lost sequel to The White Album, itself three or four solo albums in disguise — you will find plenty of demos, finished takes, outtakes, and toss-offs (OK, let’s just say “tryouts”) worth considering. Two of Paul’s most celebrated albums, Ram and Band on the Run, are not as choice as some in the McCartney camp would have you believe.  Yet a quick stroll through the vaults (on YouTube or Spotify) offers some amazing finds.

Firstly, “Oh Woman, Oh Why” and “When the Wind is Blowing” from the Ram sessions.  They are minimalist gems of a sort.  On both tracks McCartney gets into a slow, unfussy groove.  Free of whimsy and the desire to impress, their raw, slightly downbeat modesty belong to a history of the man that feels new and ripe for discovery.

Then there is “Zoo Gang,” a kind of instrumental kin to “Live and Let Die” (which is arguably the man’s best official release in the wake of the Beatles’ demise).  Originally the b-side to the “Band on the Run” single, “Zoo Gang” is now on the deluxe version of the Band on the Run CD (and it’s pretty easily found on YouTube, too).  With shades of Lalo Schifren and Quincy Jones, “Zoo Gang” sports an early 70s spy shuffle that could be the theme for any radio or TV show with a bit of intrigue.  I hear it and imagine Monty Newman in velvet trousers, playing a Minimoog with one finger while a band of session players fresh from a Jean Claude Vannier production jams with perfect precision.  And look at that: it actually was the theme tune for a short-lived U.K. series about French Resistance fighters.  Cool.

*I read that McCartney and company do not play on the version featured in the show (Jungle Juice do?).  Whatever.  The differences are so subtle that they barely register.

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Blue Velvet

bluevelvetartworkBlue Velvet is arguably David Lynch’s best film.  Much is said about the film’s “aboutness”:  It is a willfully weird Hardy Boys mystery about sexual awakening—a dry cartoon about the rot beneath the surface of small-town America—an America that, with its white picket fences, gee-whiz banalities and Roy Orbison songs, remains trapped in the amber of the 1950s.  Bask though he does in the surreal and the absurd, Lynch strikes me as an abstract expressionist.  He paints the mood canvas in bold strokes.  His peculiar talent is the ability to pull a very specific feeling or set of feelings out of moments that are strikingly textured, that are a bit off—that, taken apart, amount to so much nonsense.  He commits to filming his dreams—and when pressed together, they sink or swim on the conductor’s sense of rhythm he imposes.  In Blue Velvet, the dream logic has the power to engulf you.  Seeing to its end the simple setup of a boy’s quest, rooted in an unflinching, voyeuristic look at the duality all around (e.g., the bugs in the grass, the cute, kink-loving boy next door, the bug in the cute robin’s mouth), and giving it the air of a funny, lovely and richly colored dream, the movie remains one of Lynch’s most balanced offerings.

Rating: A

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