Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes(2015)
Directed by
Bill Condon
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, from a novel by Mitch Culling, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan
IMDB Entry

If you were asked to list the top actors working today, Ian McKellen would be high on the list.  He’s not only a brilliant actor, but he’s been a star in movies, TV, and on the stage.*  And though he’s best known for his blockbuster and franchise films, he’s just as willing to take a role in a small movie.  Mr. Holmes deals with a franchise character on a human scale, and McKellen is superb.

The film is set in 1947.  Sherlock Holmes is 93 and retired, raising bees.** He lives in a farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).  Holmes has been moved to write about his final case, but has a problem – his memory is failing. He has just returned from Japan for a natural remedy that he thinks might help, but it’s not doing him much good.  However, talking with Roger, who Holmes grows fond of, he begins to remember the details of the case, where a woman (Hattie Morahan) seems to be planning to murder her husband.

The two stories unfold gently, in small doses, as we see the relationship between Roger and Sherlock grow while flashing back to thirty years earlier as the case takes shape.  There is also a subplot about a Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose father had moved to the UK to meet Holmes.  The three stories complement each other and connect in many ways.

Roger and HolmesIt’s a given that McKellen is brilliant.  His Holmes is far deeper than most characterizations, and the frustration he feels at his failing memory is so very real.  Milo Parker does an excellent job, too, able to keep up with McKellen’s decades of skill. 

Director Bill Condon probably liked to go back to a more serious minded film after doing two films of The Twilight Saga.  He and McKellen has worked together on Gods and Monsters, another small film that showcased top notch acting and an unusual story.

The  movie got good reviews, and was a useful anodyne to the summer blockbusters that year (it came out in July).  But it was buried by later released at Oscar time and McKellen was not nominated.

If you like Holmes or McKellen, or a story with real emotional depth, this is a movie to seek out.

*I was lucky enough to see him live on Broadway with Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (run in repertory with Waiting for Godot).  It’s a play that requires top notch actors to succeed.  Luckily . . .

**Of course.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (music)

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross
Wikipedia Entry

I’ve been doing this blog for over ten years, with 570 posts so far.  That’s a lot of entries, and these days it’s sometimes hard to figure out new entries that might fit.  And it was only this week that I realized I had overlooked one of the greatest vocal acts ever: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

Jon Hendricks (b. 1921) was a jazz singer, performing at a very young age. After WWII, at the encouragement of Charlie Parker, he moved to New York and established himself. 

Hendricks was attracted to the idea of “vocalese,” where a singer would take a jazz standard – usually an instrumental solo -- and add lyrics to make it singable.  He would add some scat singing to fill out the sound.

Dave Lambert (1917-1966) also was a jazz singer who started out even earlier than Hendricks.  He also was was a fan of vocalese and began to work with Hendricks.  They realized they needed a woman to fill out the sound, and Annie Ross (b. 1930) joined the group.

Their first album, Sing a Song of Basie, put them on the jazz map.  They took songs made famous by the Count Basie orchestra and used their voices like instruments, singing what was performed by saxophones and trumpets.  It was – like all their albums – a tour de force. They originally wanted another female voice to help out, but Ross didn’t like the idea.* So they invented double tracking so she could sing two parts at once.

The followed this up with Sing Along with Basie, which was more of the brilliant same, with Count Basie taking part in the sessions.  After an album, The Swingers!, which is hard to find information about, they recorded their masterpiece.

It was released as The Hottest New Group in Jazz!, but is now just referred to by the name of the group.  It is absolutely amazing from start to finish, highlighted by Ross’s witty “Twisted.” 

To really see what is going on here (though you don’t need to to love the song), here is the original instrumental:

In a sense, though, this example is misleading.  Their sound involved teaming and harmonies and all three of the people singing at once.

The album is one of the milestones of jazz.**

The group recorded two more albums” Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington (doing for him what they did for Count Basie) and High Flying with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Annie Ross left the group in 1962.  Lambert and Hendricks recruited Yolande Bavan to replace her.  As Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they put out three live albums, but the group ended, sadly, in 1966, when Dave Lambert died after being accidentally hit by a tractor-trailer while trying to fix a flat tire.

Both Hendricks and Ross continued to perform to much acclaim, but it just wasn’t the same.  In 1985, Hendricks worked with the Manhattan Transfer*** to put out the album “Vocalese,” which is the closest thing to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross since then.

It’s actually hard to find most of their work.  Only The Hottest New Group in Jazz! is available on its own (though it has been expanded).  There is a compilation of all their albums out, but it’s seems to have only appeared in Europe.

Still, it’s all worth the effort.  These are (as I was told when I bought the album) “three cool cats.”

*She has said she wanted to be the only girl in the group.

**I purchased a copy of it (in vinyl) from a small record store, Apex Music Korner in Schenectady.  The storeowner was definitely impressed, that one of those college kids had an appreciation of jazz.

***I saw the group when I was in college.  They were terrible.  The problem seems to be is that they had had an almost complete turnover of personnel and direction from when the concert was booked, and they hadn’t had time to rehearse the new act.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Joan Armatrading (music)

image(1950- )
Wikipedia Entry
Joan Armatrading Web Page

Some musical artists, despite their great talent, never seem to break through to fame. They produce superior music for years, but never become stars.  This was certainly a case for Joan Armatrading, who was successful enough in her base in the UK, but never became the name she richly deserved to be in the US.

She was born in the Caribbean, on the island of St. Kitts and moved to Birmingham in the UK when she was seven.  When she was 14, she started writing her own songs and lyrics, picking them out on the family’s piano.  Eventually, she got a guitar and began to write more material, starting to appear in local clubs.  Eventually, she joined up with lyricist Pam Nestor to release her first album, Whatever’s For Us in 1972.

The album didn’t make much of a splash. She soon split from Nestor and wrote all her own lyrics.  Back to the Night was released as a solo and didn’t create many ripples, either, but her third was the charm.  Joan Armatrading went gold, and her single “Love and Affection” made the UK charts.

Her songs were a eclectic mix of folk, blues, Caribbean styles, and rock. He voice had a good range, but she generally sung in the mezzo-soprano range, her lower voice making her singing more intimate.  She wrote about love and relationships is ways you often didn’t see.

She followed up with Show Some Emotion, whose title tune is just one more wonderful moment.  It started making inroads into the US market, but the next, a live album Steppin’ Out did not chart.*

Her next effort, Me Myself I, was her most successful effort, with the title song a minor UK hit.  She continued to record, going gold and silve in the UK, but never making a mark on the US except in underground station.

But it’s not her albums that make her great.  It’s her songs – some not even released as singles.

Love and Affection

I just love the opening lines.

I’m Lucky

 Drop the Pilot

And the delightfully perverse rocker Call Me Names**

Armatrading’s career peaked in the 1980s and she stopped appearing on the charts.  She had a revival in 2007 with the blues album Into the Blues, which hit #1 on the blues charts, and she continues to perform and record today.

She is certainly appreciated in the UK, where she’s been named an MBE, but only a relatively small number of people in the US know of her and appreciate what a fine talent she is.

*In the UK, all these albums made the top 20.

**Listening to it carefully for this entry, I realized that the first person sections of the song are from the point of view of the man.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other People’s Money

Other People's Money(1991)
Directed by
Norman Jewison
Written by Alan Sargent, from a play by Jerry Sterner
Starring:  Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Dean Jones
IMDB Entry

Corporate takeover artists are usually the villains of a film, but sometimes there is a more nuanced view of the issues.  Other People’s Money deals with as nasty a corporate raider as you’ve ever seen, but doesn’t paint him entirely as the villain.

His name is Lawrence Garfield (Danny DeVito) – known in the business as “Larry the Liquidator” for his penchant for finding overvalued companies, buying them up, and then selling off their assets.  His next target is a small company, New England Wire & Cable, which is a major employer in the small town it is situated in.  Its president, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) is the type of enlightened company head we like to see in films (think George Bailey).  He resists Larry, hiring his stepdaughter Kate (Penelope Ann Miller) to convince him to back off.  Of course, that doesn’t go well, and there is a ton of quiet and nasty behind-the-scenes maneuvering and double crosses, leading to the climactic shareholders meeting where both Jorgy and Larry make their cases.

The movie is impressive because it’s not all black and white.  Both Jorgy and Larry have some strong points to be made, and the film tries to get away from the cliches.

DeVito is perfectly cast as the crude and overbearing Larry, a man who is completely ruthless when money is concerned..  Gregory Peck brings his usual quiet dignity to Jorgy.

Director Norman Jewison had a long history in Hollywood when the film was made, directing films like In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck and many others.  This wasn’t a big hit, but I do like the way they avoided the easy cliches of the situation.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Whit Bissell (actor)

Whit Bissell(1909-1996)
IMDB Entry

Character actors may never be the star, but they are essential to the success of a movie. They have to make an impression that they’re more than just someone walking on and speaking a line, but not be overwhelming.  Sometimes they just fade into the background afterwards.  And Whit Bissell was one of the best.

Bissell took to the theater early, appearing on Broadway in 1933, when he was 24.*  He worked very consistently on the stage for over ten years, then tried his hand a films.  Many of his early roles were uncredited; his first credit was in Brute Force as one of the prison guards.  From then on, there was no stopping him, and he’d appear in 6-10 movies a year.  In the mid-50s, he started to find the niche in which he’s best remembered:  science fiction films.  Starting with Target Earth, he fell into the characterization that became his trademark:  a scientist or other authority figure who was there to help the hero.** 

He had a small but pivotal role in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the two actors in the frame tale.***

His biggest film roles were as a scientist (of course) in the drive-in classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.

As the studio system died, he switched to TV as an all purpose actor.  Despite being in the medium almost from the beginning, he didn’t have any recurring roles until 1965 (a seven-episode stint in Peyton Place).  His first regular role wasn’t until the next year, where he played General Kirk**** in The Time Tunnel.  He also appeared in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” as the manager of the space station where the trouble began.

Bissell continued to work regularly in TV until the early 80s, when he seemed to retire.  Overall, he appeared in over 300 shows and movies, making his face one of the most familiar of all actors.

*His debut, appropriately enough, was small -- one of the cards in Eva LaGallienne’s version of Alice in Wonderland.

**I note that in The Atomic Kid, he was billed as “Dr. Edgar Pangborn.”  Pangbourn had a couple of novels out at this time, though not his masterpiece Davy.

***The two scenes – at the beginning and at the end of the movie – were added to the film because the studio wanted a more hopeful ending.  Director Don Siegel hated the change.

****A general was almost the same as a scientist in 50s SF.