Serious Moonlight – David Bowie & “Moonage Daydream”

Calling Moonage Daydream a documentary doesn’t begin to cover it. I saw the film two weeks ago on opening day on an IMAX screen and was properly overwhelmed. Directed by Brett Morgan, the film is a dense overload of overlapping sound and image. It seldom slows down to let you catch your breath. It was hard for me to keep up with, to keep everything sorted. Finally I just gave up and let the film rush over me. Moonage Daydream takes us into Bowie’s life and work in a way that seems to randomly ricochet from one point to another, like a pinball game. It can feel chaotic, but I don’t think it’s random at all. This is far from a traditional movie biography As someone said, it’s not about facts and stats. There’s no narration, no on-screen titles or talking-head interviews to guide us. We hear Bowie in voice-over and clips from various interview shows over the years. He tells his own story. There’s a loose progression from the early years to the later, but it’s not strictly chronological. David Bowie was continually changing his appearance, persona, and musical styles. He’s been frquently called a chameleon. Moonage Daydream shows us Bowie as a writer, artist (painting and sculpture), actor, and most importantly, as a musician. There’s always been something otherworldly about Bowie, as though he was just visiting. That’s what made him perfect casting for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which  he was literally an alien from outer space.

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It took me a while to get into David Bowie. I had a slight awareness of who he was, but hadn’t heard any of his music. In 1973, while I was still in Iowa City in the last throes of earning a college degree, I saw Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album in a record store. The cover and especially the inside foldout seemed very freaky to me, and not in a good way. There was a sexuality to it that I didn’t like, or maybe was just imagining, and probably found frightening in some way. I clearly wasn’t ready for this, not at that time. Whatever, based on my reaction to the album cover, I decided I would have nothing to do with David Bowie.

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That September I moved to Minneapolis, where I found work in a motion picture lab. I became close friends with many of the people who worked there. We shared interests and frequently got together outside of work. Later that year or early the next, I went to the house where a few of them lived. Music I hadn’t heard before was playing on a stereo in the living room. It immediately got my attention. “What’s that?” I asked. I was quite surprised when they said it was David Bowie. The album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and the cut that was playing was “Suffragette City.” This album had come out in June of 1972, nearly a year before  Aladdin Sane. In the space of a song, I was totally sold on David Bowie. “Suffragette City” is great. It has drive and energy, and really rocks. It’s still one of my favorites. I especially like the line, “Don’t lean on me, man, ’cause you can’t afford the ticket…”

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At some point after that I picked up Hunky Dory, an earlier album which had come out in December 1971. The first track, “Changes,” is one of Bowie’s signature songs. The third cut, “Eight Line Poem,” has an incredible lyric I’ve never forgotten, “Tactful cactus by the window…” Until working on this post, I’d forgotten the song title and anything else about this cut, but that line had stuck in my head.

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If I found the cover of Aladdin Sane freaky, I wonder what I would have made of the full cover of Diamond Dogs (1974) if I’d been in the same mindset. As it happened, when I did see it, I thought it was freaky, yes, but in a good way, and very cool. The American release, however, removed the dog genitalia, so we were protected from that.

Here are the opening lyrics to the title cut, “Diamond Dogs.”

“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent
You asked for the latest party
With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump
Dressed like a priest you was
Tod Browning’s freak you was…”

This imagery reflects the sideshow vibe of the album cover, with some post-apocalyptic science fiction and a reference to Tod Browning’s notorious film Freaks thrown in for good measure.

Also on this album is “Rebel Rebel,” a more straight forward rocker that received significant radio play. It became another signature song for Bowie; he has many.

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While I was still living in Minneapolis, I saw Bowie in concert at the St. Paul Civic Center on October 5, 1974. It was great seeing him live, though I’d been drinking before the concert, so my memory of it isn’t all that sharp. I do remember working my way close to the stage. Don’t recall the song, but when he leaned forward and reached out his hand to the audience, I found myself reaching back. Yeah, I know. I was also sure he’d sung “Young Americans” that night, but the Young Americans album wasn’t released until March 1975, so I couldn’t have heard it in ’74. Young Americans is a great album. It reflected yet another change in his look and music.

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I’d seen Bowie on stage in New York in The Elephant Man in 1980, but the second time I saw him in concert was at Madison  Square Garden on July 26, 1983, where I paid $60 for scalped ticket outside the venue. The guy I got it from assured me it was a “good seat.” The good seat was up in the rafters (of course) where I would have benefited from an oxygen tank. But it was still a great show. Bowie’s sense of choreography and drama was such that even that far away, I felt like I got my money’s worth.

The Let’s Dance album had been released in April ’83. The title cut is the one that everybody remembers. The album also features Texas blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughn on lead guitar. He was not widely known at the time.

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 Heroes had been released in October 1977. Brian Eno collaborated with Bowie on this album. His influence is considerable in this phase of Bowie’s career. The title cut is a standout. It’s  inspirational and feels like an anthem. It’s yet another signature song for Bowie, one of his best known.

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David Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016, two days after his sixty-ninth birthday and release of his final album, Blackstar. His death came as quite a shock, mainly because his illness has been kept very private. Few knew he was sick. He was working right to the end. I felt a deep sense of loss, in the way that you can for someone you didn’t know personally but who was an important part of your life. At the time, Tony Visconti, a producer and arranger who’d worked with Bowie off and on through his career, said this: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.” Visconti is also a music producer on Moonage Daydream.

Moonage Daydream doesn’t include Bowie’s death. In the film, he’s still alive. Near the end of the film Bowie says, “I’ve had an incredible life and I’d love to do it again.” This took my breath away, especially after having just seen the evidence of that life for over two hours.

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That’s it for now. I’ll be back. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Supplemental: Interview with director Brett Morgen

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Stuff & Nonsense

I’ve been off the grid too long. Part 2 of “That Shit You Call Music” should have been up weeks ago, but Covid-19, as well as my usual chronic procrastination, got in the way. I went back to Iowa for a high school class reunion on July 16. Returned on July 19 to find my wife had tested positive, which necessitated adjustments to our household life. She tested negative a week or so later. A week after that, it was my turn. Tested positive on August 5 and wasn’t negative until the 23rd. This is no excuse, but while we were in that limbo state, I couldn’t crank up the motivation to do any blog work, or much of anything else. Though I did manage to watch all five Daniel Craig Bond films one after the other (though not in order), as well as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, both enhanced by the presence of the great character actor Whit Bissell. It is what it is.

Part 2 still has to be written, but in the meantime, to get going again, here is another random array of material I’ve accumulated over time. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to this collection, other than that these items all got my attention in one way or another. There’s no theme or message that I’m aware of (you’d have to ask Freud). It doesn’t begin or end anywhere, it just starts and stops. Make of it what you will.

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Below, the young Max Schreck, years before appearing in Nosferatu.

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Laurel & Hardy, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton

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Basil Rathbone & Lana Turner.

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Lon Chaney with his make-up box.

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Jeanne Moreau

Fay Wray, publicity shot for King Kong

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Illustrations by artist & filmmaker Ed Emshwiller.

 

 

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Okay, I think that about does it. The delayed part 2 of my music saga is coming up next. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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“That Shit You Call Music” – Before New York, Part 1

Before I get rolling, I probably should say something about the title of this post. When I moved to Minneapolis from Iowa City in the Fall of 1973, my first apartment was only five or six blocks from what quickly became my go-to record store, Oar Folkjokeopus, more commonly known as Oar Folk. They had a comprehensive selection of mainstream rock and punk rock records. One day there was a handwritten notice taped to the front door. I don’t remember what it was for, but it may have been announcing an upcoming event, possibly written by Oar Folk’s owner. The only thing I remember of its content was the words “that shit you call music.” I think this was meant as a joke (maybe), but it stuck with me, and at last I’ve found a use for the phrase.

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Getting Primed

I don’t recall precisely when I first became interested in rock ‘n’ roll, but it would have been in the mid-1950s, probably by sixth grade. We didn’t have a record player in my home, though at some point we did get a portable that played 45 rpm singles and extended play 45s. There were two radio stations that played top 40 records – KWMT out of Fort Dodge, Iowa and WLS out of Chicago. When I did get interested – which seemed to happen overnight – I listened to these stations constantly.

“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets was released in 1954. I probably was aware of the song then, but when I heard it blasting during the credits of  Blackboard Jungle (1955), it hit me right between the eyes. This was the first time a rock song had been used in this way on film. I knew something had changed (I would have many such moments in the years to come). “Rock Around the Clock” was irresistible. Per Wikipedia, it is “…widely considered to be the song that, more than any other, brought rock and roll into mainstream culture around the world.”

Note that the label above refers to the song as a “fox trot.” Boy, did they get that wrong. The following clip shows Haley and his band doing the song on a television show in 1956. The visual quality is poor, but I think that just adds to the abundant energy and authenticity of the performance. Definitely not a fox trot.

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Should also mention that my folks, especially my mother, loved big band music from the 1930s and ’40s. After we got that 45 rpm record player, they bought Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert on an EP (Extended Play) 45 rpm record set. This definitely broadened my horizons.

Here’s a great cut from that album, “Don’t Be That Way.” There’s a short intro by Benny Goodman recorded for the record, then the number kicks off. I love the two explosive drum solos by the great Gene Krupa. Though brief, they take the piece to another level.

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Going into high school I remember being quite taken with Duane Eddy and his breakout single, “Rebel Rouser.” Eddy’s thing was his “twangy” guitar. I really loved this record.

At some point after getting my drivers license, I learned that he was going to give a concert in Fort Dodge, about 40-50 miles east of us. It was a priority that I be there. I went with a date, though I have no memory of how that came about. The concert was going great when my date announced that she had to be back home by a certain time. She hadn’t told me this beforehand, but what could I do, there it was. The problem was that in order to make it back by her curfew, we had to leave right then, before Duane Eddy had stopped twanging. This wasn’t the first or last tragic disappointment in my life, but I sure remember it.

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Another musician I liked in high school was Sandy Nelson, a drummer who made a series of instrumental records featuring percussion. Per Wikipedia, he “was one of the best-known rock and modern jazz drummers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, had several solo instrumental Top 40 hits and released over 30 albums.” Who doesn’t respond to drumming? It’s primal.

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Cobblestone Ballroom

For at least a couple of years, an important part of my life was the Sunday night teen dances at The Cobblestone Ballroom in Storm Lake, Iowa, about 12 miles north of us. Located in the Lakeside community on the east side of the lake, the Cobblestone opened on New Year’s Eve 1929. In its heyday, musicians performing included Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Lawrence Welk. The teen dances were dry, since beer and liquor could not be sold on Sundays. Lots of soft drinks instead. These dances were often the high point of my week. Many rock and pop acts played there, including the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Bobby Vee, The Ventures, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others of the day, some on the way up, some on the way down.

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The photo below shows the dance floor, stage, and a row of booths to the right. Other the other side of the wall next to the booths was another area with two or three additional rows of booths.

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On Sundays, when a national act had not been booked, regional bands filled in. These were usually so-so draws, but the one I remember as being a definite cut above was Myron Lee and the Caddies, a group out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Here’s what they sounded like. And yes, it’s fairly derivative, but they seemed likes pros to us. (Don’t be mislead by the publicity shot below. Don & Phil Everly were not in the band.)

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A group I saw at least twice here was The Ventures, a guitar-heavy instrumental group that was very popular in the 1960s due to such songs as “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Wipeout.”

If you’re old enough, this will take you back. Of course, they’re not actually playing in this clip, just following along with the recorded song. Their guitars aren’t even plugged in, and this was decades before wireless.

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One of my high points at the Cobb (as it was often called) was the night Jerry Lee Lewis played. This was a big deal for me, and as far as I was concerned, he did not disappoint. At some point, however, he stopped in the middle of a song to say that someone was throwing pennies on the stage and to please stop it. Two or three more times he’d break and say to please stop throwing pennies on the stage, please. Growing angrier every time. Finally, near the end of his set, he swiveled on his piano stool said to someone I could not see, “Little lady, I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, and if you throw one penny on the stage, I’m going to come down and wrap this microphone stand around your neck.” He sounded like he meant it. With that, he finished his set, thanked the audience, and marched off the stage. We knew there wasn’t going to be an encore. I ruahed back to the side of the bandstand where I knew he’d come off. When he did, I thanked him and said how much I’d enjoyed his music. Without breaking stride, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, son, I’m glad you did.” I meant what I said, but I also think I wanted to make sure he knew we weren’t all small-town doofs who threw pennies at the band. Quite a night.

Below is a video of Jerry Lee giving a somewhat wilder performance than he did at the Cobblestone. Of course, he was playing to a television audience as well as a packed theater. This is from a 1958 Dick Clark special, which would put it probably two to three years before I saw him in Storm Lake.

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University of Iowa, 1962-1966 & 1970-1973

What I remember:

Walking into the student union cafeteria lounge in 1963 and hearing the opening chords of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the jukebox. I’d probably heard it before, but this felt different. The instant I stepped down into the lounge, the music kicked in, announcing itself, almost a movie moment. Looking back on it now, it’s like the message was: Things are changing – pay attention!

Catching a ride to Northwest Iowa for a holiday break, hearing one Beatles song after another on the car radio.

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Riding in a car on campus in 1965 hearing the opening chords of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the radio. Again, something different had announced itself.

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Going to a loft apartment in downtown Iowa City where this guy played the first Velvet Underground album, the one with Nico produced by Andy Warhol. You knew this was different right off the bat.  I thought this had happened before I went in the Air Force in the Fall of 1966, but I see that the album wasn’t released until ’67,  so I either heard it when I was back on leave or not until after I got out in 1970. The timeline is wonky. Memories are imperfect. Whenever it was, I know their music was really out there, cutting edge – and still is.

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Waiting for the new Dylan album to come out, then gathering in someone’s apartment to hear it, every lyric punctuated by an awestruck “Oh, wow!” from our crowd. Highway 61 Revisited was released on August 30, 1965.

This was when albums were often awaited with great anticipation, especially those of Dylan and The Beatles. Rubber Soul was released on December 3, 1965, Revolver the following year on August 5. I remember walking by a record store in Iowa City and seeing Revolver on display in the window with that great cover by Klaus Voormann. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with my good friend Don Pasquella, and marveling at the lyric “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For a few months before I went into the Air Force in October 1966, I stayed in Don’s apartment above a grocery store in downtown Iowa City, sleeping on a mattress in the front room. During that time, Don had taken a trip to New York City. When he returned, he had with him the first two albums by The Fugs. Hearing them for the first time was quite an experience. The Beatles they were not. More like a proto-punk folk rock garage band. They were an important part of the ’60s underground scene and counterculture. As proof of this, an FBI file from 1969 refers to The Fugs as the “most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.” High praise indeed. Though the early songs were often crude and juvenile, Ed Sanders’ witty sensibility and silliness set The Fugs apart. Below, “Boobs a Lot” is a good example. And below that, “Nothing,” written by Fugs co-founder Tuli Kupferberg, an existentially profound statement if there ever was one. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I hadn’t heard Leonard Cohen’s music before seeing Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), surely one of the greatest films of the 1970s or any other time. The songs fit the film so perfectly that I assumed they’d been written for it. I was surprised to find out that they were from Cohen’s first album in 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen. You can’t imagine McCabe and Mrs. Miller without those songs. As much any other component, they define the feeling and emotion of the film. I was hooked from the very first moment of the opening credits.

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I remember standing in line at the Iowa Memorial Union at 5:00 am with my girlfriend in the middle of Winter  to get tickets for a Grateful Dead concert at the Field House on February 24, 1973. Our seats were in the upper stratosphere of the arena, so we missed getting trampled when the crowd below us rushed the stage.

I remember the strangeness of seeing Captain Beefheart in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union a few months earlier in 1972, though at that time I hadn’t heard his recordings and didn’t know how exceedingly strange he really was or how bizarre appearing in this venue must have been for him. ** The album below was released in 1969. Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa shared similar sensibilities and the need and skill to go way outside the envelope.

I love the title of the cut below, “Bat Chain Puller.” What does that mean? Who knows? It’s a good example of the Beefheart method. I suspect that if The Fugs weren’t enough, this might be where you draw the line. Then again, maybe I should have more faith.

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 I have too much material to stuff into one post, so this chronicle will be continued when I return next week from a trip home to Iowa for a high school class reunion. The trip will also give me the opportunity to go to Storm Lake and check out the Cobblestone Ballroom to see if anything’s changed. I read recently that someone had bought the property, with plans to restore and reopen. Apparently all the interior furnishings, including dishware in the kitchen, are still there and intact. Makes for a kind of ghostly vibe. Here’s what it looked like a few years ago when I was there.

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That’s nearly all for now. For those who’d like a little more, I’ll close with a video of a Jerry Lee Lewis gig in London in 1964. It runs approximately 20 minutes and is energetic, to say the least. Jerry Lee uncorked in his prime is something to see. Until next time, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Movie Poster Potpourri – Take 3

It’s been nearly four years since the last one of these film poster collections (time flies). I’ve found quite a few interesting posters since then, so I thought I’d do another. There’s no particular theme here. I guess what links these is that they all got my attention in one way or another. These are for films both well-known and obscure, foreign and American. It’s a bit of a grab bag, but they’re all pretty cool.

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The Old Dark House – directed by James Whale, 1932.

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Nosferatu – directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922. Without a doubt the creepiest vampire ever, no top hat and tails for this guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dracula: Prince of Darkness – directed by Terence Fisher, 1966. I think this is a fan-created poster rather than an official one. Regardless, it’s pretty neat. At right is a Japanese poster for Dracula A.D. 1972, directed by Alan Gibson.

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The Duellists – Ridley Scott, 1977. Scott’s first theatrical feature, which he followed up with Alien two years later.

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Top Hat – directed by Mark Sandrich, 1935. The Thin Man – directed by W.S. Van Dyke, 1934. Side Street – directed by Anthony Mann, 1950. Touch of Evil – directed by Orson Welles, 1958.

 

 

 

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Saigon – directed by Leslie Fenton, 1948. I’d not heard of this film before. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in one of several films they co-starred in, another noirish tough-guy story set in the “Paris of the Orient,” as the poster puts it. Seems a little weird, but mostly in hindsight, I suppose.

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Swedish poster for The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935. Below that is Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, directed by Terence Fisher in 1969. The pink in this poster seems out of step with the subject matter, but I like the overall in-your-face aspect.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1931. Swedish poster at left, with one I’d never seen before at right. Below that is the kind of theater display for movies we don’t see anymore, followed by a pretty dynamic poster on the bottom.

 

 

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Deluge – directed by Felix E. Feist, 1933. In this early disaster movie, a massive earthquake has destroyed the West Coast, followed by huge tidal waves that wipes out much of the East Coast as well. After the impressive destruction of New York City, it becomes an ordinary movie, with a good guy looking for his wife and bad guys who complicate things. But the sequence where New York gets leveled is rather spectacular, even frightening. All the more impressive because this was made in 1933 without CGI or other sophisticated special effects. The miniatures are obvious, but it works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Drifting and White Tiger, both directed by Tod Browning in 1923 and both starring Priscilla Dean. At top is art work for a DVD release by Kino Classics ,which I thought was really interesting. The image below that for White Tiger is probably from an industry publication.

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An Italian poster below left for A Letter to Three Wives, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949. At right a Japanese poster for The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman in 1973. Below those is a graphic Polish poster for the Japanese film Hara-Kiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962.

 

 

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Blackmail – Alfred Hitchcock, 1929. This was shot as a silent film, but during production it was decided to add sound, since talkies were becoming all the rage. The film was released in both silent and sound versions because many theaters in England were not technically equipped yet to project sound films. Blackmail has the distinction of being Hitchcock’s last silent and first sound film.

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Adventures of Captain Fabian – directed by William Marshall, 1951. Errol Flynn’s strongest work had been done in the 1930s and ’40s. I think this film is an attempt to maintain his swashbuckling, adventurous image, even though he was somewhat past his prime. The way he’s depicted in this poster supports that notion. Plus, he wrote the screenplay.

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The Mask of Fu Manchu – directed by Charles Brabin, 1932. Hard to top when it comes to promoting racial stereotypes. Myrna Loy is interesting as Fu Manchu’s evil daughter.

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F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer – directed by Karl Hartl, 1932.  IMDb describes it as “A spectacular German science fiction film in the tradition of Metropolis (1927) and Gold (1934), F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer dramatizes the creation of a massive floating airport serving as a way station between four continents… Produced just as the Nazi government was taking control of the German film industry, F.P.1 was writer Kurt Siodmak’s last film before emigrating to England and eventually America, where (as Curt Siodmak) he would write The Wolf Man, Donovan’s Brain, I Walked with a Zombie, and many other classic Hollywood horrors.” It’s interesting that three separate versions were filmed with different casts: German, French, and English. The casts include Peter Lorre, Charles Boyer, and Conrad Veidt in the various versions.

The artwork in the German poster below is quite stunning. Below that at left is the French poster, with the English at right.

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Italian poster for Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). It’s unusual in that it uses a photograph of co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame that’s like a portrait instead of more conventional poster artwork. It’s quite intriguing.

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This post is a follow-up to four previous posts, “Movie Poster Art: Foreign Versions” (6/30/14),  “Movie Poster Art for Art’s Sake” (12/30/16),  “Movie Poster Potpourri” (8/31/17), and “Movie Poster Potpourri – Take 2” (8/20/18).

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That’s all for now. See you at the movies. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Down the Rabbit Hole (Again)

July 2, 2022. It’s come to my attention that a number of images have disappeared from this post, which accounts for the numerous blank spaces. I suspect gremlins. I’ll be restoring these missing images as soon as possible.

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As I wrote in the intro to a previous post made up of random material like this one, when I’ve been looking for film-related material, I almost always come across a lot of other stuff I feel compelled to save. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to this particular collection, other than that these items all got my attention in one way or another. Some are simply weird and bizarre, others possibly offensive, certainly politically incorrect. This doesn’t necessarily make any sense. It doesn’t begin or end anywhere, it just starts and stops. Make of it what you will. I’m refraining from any further commentary, which would probably just get in the way.

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There’s more (a lot more), but this is probably enough for now. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Tip of the Iceberg – Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I said I’d be thinking of films I’ll wish I’d included long after this post is done and gone. Well, it only took until the end of the day. I didn’t intend to do a part two, but I feel that the following films really need to be part of this. This is it for this anniversary post, no more. Otherwise I’ll keep adding films for another ten years.

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A primal experience when you’re six years old. Not only did my mom allow me to see The Thing, but she saw it with me. She’d probably get arrested for child abuse today. But I survived, more or less. Still a great film, holds up well today.

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Saw this first at the Ziegfeld Theater. Coppola had a new sound system installed for the occasion. The helicopter attack – surreal.

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Steve McQueen, iconic and totally cool in a definitive role. Plus one of the greatest car chases.

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Game changers, for better or worse.

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Two films directed by Edgar Ulmer.

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Finally, of course, Peckinpah.

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As Randolph Scott says to Joel McCrae at the end of Ride the High Country, “See you later.” Until then, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Ten Years Down the Road – Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday, April 25, marks ten years since I started this film blog. Ten years. How is that possible? It’s been a long strange trip, fighting procrastination every step of the way. But it’s too late to stop now, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m not going anywhere.

I’ve wanted to acknowledge this anniversary in some way, and what I’ve come up with is to put up posters for some of the films that have been important to me over the years. A friend of mine once said that the power of movie posters may be greater than the movies themselves. There’s something to that. Really great posters are able to evoke strong memories of the films. Some of the films I’ve selected are truly great, i.e. Grand Illusion, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane, The General, to name a few. Others, both recent and in my distant, primordial past, have meant a great deal to me and still do.

Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive listing, but more like the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be thinking of films I’ll wish I’d included long after this post is done and gone.

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One of my first movie obsessions. I’ve seen King Kong so many times.

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Impossible to overstate how much I love both of these films.

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I love Warner Bros. cartoons, especially the ones made by Chuck Jones. If I had to pick my favorite of all of them, it would be this one.

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Seriously…

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This image is of the end papers of the science fictions novels for young readers published by the John C. Winston company in the 1950s. I still get a charge from the sense of wonder and excitement it invokes in me. I think it ties in strongly with how my taste in films and books developed over the years.

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Finally, two great endings from two great films, The Searchers (1956) and Citizen Kane (1941). These endings both have a strong emotional effect on me, due in no small part to the music scores by Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, respectively.

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That’s it for now, but stay tuned for more. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks

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For Bruce Willis – From Russia with Love

Recently I was going through the vaguely organized mass of material I’ve accumulated over the years, stuff I’ve been reluctant to get rid of because who knows when you’ll need it, right? While I was doing that, I came across a copy of a letter dated December 17, 1991 that had been sent to the film journal Cineaste. At the time, I was working at Cinema Guild, a film and video distributor here in New York. My supervisor, Gary Crowdus, was also the founder and editor of Cineaste. He’d brought the letter to the office to show me. It was rather unusual, as you’ll see. A Russian woman had written that she had an important message for Bruce Willis that she hoped would get passed on to him. She wanted him to know that he had “infected the Russians with the virus of disobediance through the films Die Hard I & II.” 

Even though this goes back 30 years, the fact that it was announced a month ago that Bruce Willis has aphasia, which affects language expression and comprehension, and was retiring from acting, along with the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine, makes the letter somewhat timely now.

There’s something very charming and totally sincere about the letter, which you can read in full below. I’ve transcribed it exactly as she wrote it, odd word choices, sentence constructions, and all.

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December 17, 1991

My dear Americans,

My name is Tamara Maximenko. I am from Murmansk. It is a large port city in the North of Russia, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

My purpose in writing is to ask kindly to pass on an important message to the American famous actor Bruce Willis. I think it might be interesting to him. I would like Bruce Willis to get to know that he has infected the Russians with the virus of disobedience through the films Die Hard I & II, by John McTiernan and Renny Harlin. This virus has spread for a short time all over Russia while inculcating deeply in our mind. Even Russian intelligentsia were affected by the disease, though they had been trained by classic writers and also by the sad fates of the previous Russian generations in the spirit of resignation and non-resistance any evil with violence. We caught your “disobedience,” Bruce Willis, approximately 1.5 – 2 years ago. It was the time of the mass delivery of video equipment to Russia. In since that time we have been existing in new condition with great delight and a bit of astonishment. As thing turned out it was most pleasant to be not only the member of the collective, in which the minority had to obey the majority, but to be the person expressing one’s own opinion. Bruce Willis, you seemed as if you were among defenders of Russia in the days of the August’s putsch. It was a though you were standing next to our fearless Russia’s President Yeltsin under probably enemy fire and both of you were to be ready to die hard. I was being proud of you, so were my friends. I don’t know really what result our own “disobedience” will lead us to. I even sense with destruction delight that it is “up with us” (these words from our famous poet). But I am not sad because I believe your films, Bruce Willis: verte! If you and we are affected by the same disease – disobedience. Therefore. We shall be waited for the same end. And happy end of your Die Hard encourages us.

Now something about myself. I am a doctor. I work for a large hospital. I am specialized in rehabilitation patients for serious neurological illnesses with the methods of physiotherapy. I am married. There are 3 main loves in my life. They are:

1. My angel-like daughter Luba, it means “love” in English.

2. My learning English, though it is very difficult to study the second language without the teacher-native-speaker. But may be I am a bit dull.

3. My favorite American films. I dote on 9 ½ Weeks by Adrian Lyne; Wild Orchid by Zalman King, because their refined décor and attractive sophistication. I am enjoyed by unattainableness of Mickey Rourke. I am fond of Falling in Love by Ulu Grossbard, because I am crazy about the verbal expression of love. I love Postman Always Rings Twice by Bob Rafelson. This film makes me sympathize to sin, while shuddering at my own morality.

I could write very much, but I am afraid you are exhausted by me.

I would like to hope you to read my letter, and it would be over my desire to receive a few words from you (as I am not sure you will get my letter).

And finally, Happy Christmas my dear Americans.

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Here is the actual letter.

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As I said before, I find the way she expresses herself in the letter charming and sincere. I especially like the part that begins “Now something about myself.” We find out that she’s a doctor, a wife, a mother, and that the three main loves in her life are her daughter, her learning of English, and her favorite American films. She’s careful to cite the names of the  directors of each film, which I think is interesting. That the choices she mentions include films with Mickey Rourke should not be held against her. This was 30 years ago, after all, when he was cooler.

I think Tamara put a lot of thought into her letter. The idea that Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films could somehow inspire free thinking and “disobedience” in her fellow Russians says a lot about the power of cinema in popular culture.

I don’t know if an effort was made to forward the letter to Bruce Willis, but I think he would have liked it. Maybe it’s not too late. And by the way, I’ve heard that he has eight completed films scheduled to be released in 2022 and 2023, so he’s not going away quite yet.

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That’s all for now. See you at the movies. Stay safe. We’re not there yet. — Ted Hicks

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Mifune on My Mind – Random Notes

Film Forum in New York City recently held a four-week retrospective of Toshiro Mifune films, 33 in all. I’ve loved Mifune on screen for years, so this series was like a gift. I’d seen many of the titles being shown and have nearly as many on DVD, but the opportunity of seeing them again on a theater screen was too great to pass up. I ended up seeing 15 of the films in the series, including a documentary on Mifune’s career. The following Film Forum trailer is an excellent collection of clips from his films.

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In 1984, the Japan Society here also had a Mifune retrospective, showing 40 films over eight weekends from March 7 to April 29, with Mifune in attendence at the start. I attended as many screenings as I could. The night before the official opening of the series there was a benefit with plenty of celebrities on hand, including Lee Marvin, with whom Mifune had co-starred  in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), and Robert De Niro, seen with Mifune in the photo below.

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That benefit was above my pay grade, but I was there the following night to see Yojimbo (1961). It was either that night or the next that I encountered Mifune himself in the lobby of the Japan Society. I’d gotten there very early to pick up my ticket. People hadn’t started to arrive yet, so the lobby was basically empty. I was talking with the person at the ticket desk when I saw that Mifune had entered with a Japanese woman who I think was his translator. This was a surreal moment for me. Not being able to speak Japanese, I probably stammered something like, “Mifune-sama,” and attempted a bow, undoubtedly inept. It still made my day. I remember that he was shorter than I am, and I’m only 5′ 8″. I expected he’d be taller. But he was Toshiro Mifune, so what did it matter? Not having a camera with me that night, the closest I could come to a picture of myself with him was this shot taken several days later next to a photo in the lobby that he’d autographed.

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Mifune made 16 films with director Akira Kurosawa, all of which were shown in the Film Forum series. The importance of this collaboration cannot be over-estimated. It brings to mind the films that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made together. Here are some shots of Mifune and Kurosawa both on-set and off.

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Scenes and posters, clips and quotes from Mifune’s films with Kurosawa.

Seven Samurai (1954)

The scenes below take place during the final battle in the rain. Mifune is crouched at left in the first shot, and is at lower right in the second. This battle lasts approximately 25 minutes on screen. It’s simply spectacular.

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High and Low (1963)  This is one of my favorite films, an intense police procedural based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom. It’s really extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yojimbo (1961)  Who doesn’t love this film?

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Sanjuro (1962)

The final showdown with frequent Mifune co-star, Tatsuya Nakadai. Guess I should raise a spoiler alert, but this is really something. Mifune is especially good in the moments after the duel.

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Drunken Angel (1948)  Mifune’s first film with Kurosawa, in which he plays a tubercular gangster treated by an alcoholic doctor, played by his frequent co-star, Takashi Shimura. His final film with Kurosawa would be the epic Red Beard (1965). In Something Like an Autobiography (1983), Kurosawa wrote this about Mifune in Drunken Angel:

“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. Anyway, I’m a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”

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Throne of Blood (1957)  Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s dark and heavy and pretty great. Reportedly, Kurosawa had real arrows fired at Mifune in the final scene, which may have added to his terrified reaction.

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Samurai Rebellion (1967)  This is my favorite Mifune film made by a director other than Kurosawa, in this case, Masaki Kobayashi.

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Snow Trail (1947)  This is a title I regret missing at Film Forum. Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, it was Mifune’s first film and his first time acting with Takashi Shimura, who played the doctor in Drunken Angel and the samurai leader in Seven Samurai. It was also scripted by Kurosawa, which is an interesting connection.

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It wasn’t only samurai films that Mifune appeared in, though those are probably what he’s best known for, in this country at least. Here are two examples.

A Wife’s Heart (1956)  This was at Film Forum. I hadn’t heard of it before and wanted to see it because it was made by Mikio Naruse, a director with similarities to Yasujiro Ozu, and starred Hideko Takamine, an actress I liked. And because it had Mifune in a contemporary, rather straight role. I liked it quite a lot.

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Perhaps the most unusual film in the Japan Society series in 1984 was one Mifune had made in Mexico in 1961 playing a Mexican Indian. This was The Important Man (Animas Trujano: El Hombre Importante), directed by Ismael Rodriguez. Reportedly, Mifune was not dubbed for this role, but spoke his lines in Spanish after a Mexican actor had recorded them for Mifune to learn. I don’t think it’s very well known, at least not today. Interestingly enough, it was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

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Photos of Mifune, both posed and candid, from a range of years.

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Here’s a shot that perhaps goes back too far. Mifune Year Zero.

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Toshiro Mifune was born on April 1, 1920 in China. He lived there until he was 19. His parents were Methodist missionaries! He appeared in over 150 feature films. From 1950 to 1960, he acted in 64 films. He slowed down from 1961 to 1970, appearing in only 38 films. This guy worked a lot. He was a great actor with a forceful presence and no shortage of charisma. He died at age 77 on December 24, 1997. I wish he was still here, but we have his films.

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Note: Many of these titles are available for streaming from Amazon Prime and other sources.

That’s all for now. Stay safe. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks

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Mifune at 28. Getting ready.

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Best Documentary Films 2021

The following ten documentaries, listed in alphabetical order, represent the best of what I saw last year.

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Ascension (Jessica Kingdon, director)

From Daniel Fienberg’s review in The Hollywood Reporter (6/23/21):

“Presented with no narrative and limited structure, Ascension is a collection of breathtaking images and revelatory vignettes that position China as a simultaneously alien and completely universal cultural and industrial landscape, never spelling out which direction points toward progress. Kingdon’s wholly observational film — no voiceovers, talking heads or title cards steer you — was filmed across 51 locations around China and uses ‘class’ as its structure, such as it is. Ascension is loosely divided into three parts, starting with the workers in Chinese factories, moving into a middle class positioned at the pivot of a burgeoning consumer culture — salespeople, influencers and attendants to the rich — and finally the wealthy with their embrace of Western excess.”

I’ve seen this film twice, and each time found it to be a mind-blowing experience. We’re given nothing to guide us other than what we see and hear. It’s up to us to figure out the context of each setting, which is sometimes obvious and sometimes not. There are a few cases where I’m still not sure of what’s  going on, though this didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment and amusement. A sequence inside a workroom where  young women are assembling and finishing highly detailed, life-size sex dolls is jaw-dropping. I love it that nothing is explained. I was just a stranger in a strange land.

Available for streaming on Paramount +.

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Count Me In (Mark Lo)  Rock drummers talk about drumming and play the hell out of their drums. It’s very exciting. Who doesn’t respond to drumming? It’s primal.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Fire Music (Tom Surgal, director & writer)

Edited from the film’s website:

“Although the free jazz movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was much maligned in some jazz circles, its pioneers – brilliant talents like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane – are today acknowledged as central to the evolution of jazz as America’s most innovative art form. FIRE MUSIC showcases the architects of a movement whose radical brand of improvisation pushed harmonic and rhythmic boundaries, and produced landmark albums like Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Inspiration and Coltrane’s Ascension. A rich trove of archival footage conjures the 1960s jazz scene along with incisive reflections by critic Gary Giddins and a number of the movement’s key players.

“One of the most alluring features of free jazz is its wide breadth of artistic expression. From the highly emotive, free blowing mode coming out of New York, championed by pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, to the more composed, New Music influenced strains of Chicago’s AACM, to the space age afro-centric stylings of Sun Ra and his Arkestra (allegedly from the planet Saturn). The common thread always being the heavy emphasis on open improvisation and virtuosic playing.”

Not yet available for streaming.

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Five Years North (Zach Ingrasci & Chris Temple, directors)

This extraordinary film “…follows Luis, an undocumented Guatemalan teenager trying to eke out a living in New York City under the radar of the authorities, and Judy, a female ICE officer tasked with scouring Luis’ neighborhood for people like him. Being an immigration agent and a first-generation immigrant herself, Judy talks about the ironies and intricacies of her life while Luis is shown trying to overcome fatigue and anxiety to achieve his American dream.” — TV Guide

Lots of humanity here. We see Luis getting battered by the system and a caring ICE agent who struggles with what her job requires. Five  Years North is a good illustration of how people come to this country for the hope it represents and what they have to deal with in trying to make a go of it.

Not yet available for streaming.

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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Morgan Neville, director)  All I knew about Anthony Bourdain before seeing this film was that he had something to do with food and cooking. I found out that there was a little more to him than that. Roadrunner shows Bourdain to bea fascinating, complicated character. I was totally engaged and quite moved by the end.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Storm Lake (Beth Levison & Jerry Risius, directors)

From The Daily Yonder:

“Storm Lake, a 2021 film directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, is, at once, about “a newspaper, a family, and a community”—each of which is inseparable from the rest. The documentary offers an extensive and intimate look into The Storm Lake Times—the Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper in the small agricultural and meatpacking community of Storm Lake, Iowa. With a population under 15,000, the town is a testament to rural Iowa’s changing landscape amidst climate change, immigration, and Big Agriculture.

“Founded by John Cullen in 1990 and staffed entirely by other members of the Cullen family, The Storm Lake Times has diligently covered those big shifts, and much more. The documentary follows The Storm Lake Times’ small staff to national (yet deeply local) events like the 2019 primaries, and to the community spaces that form the heart of the local newspaper—an elementary school classroom, the county fair, the town’s Fourth of July parade, among others.”

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I grew up on a farm about 12 miles southeast of Storm Lake, located in what I like to call the southeast corner of northwest Iowa, so I have a very personal connection to this film. Storm Lake is where my movie life began, with regular visits to the Vista Theater (seen above). I left years before Art Cullen and his brother started The Storm Lake Times, but I’m proud of the work they’ve done and recognition they’ve received as a progressive voice in a red state. This documentary is a clear reflection of that.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, director)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post:

Street Gang is WONDERFUL!!! Sesame Street is an institution, and an important one. From an educational, cultural, and entertainment point of view, it’s close to unique. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, Street Gang skillfully weaves together archival  footage from the program and behind the scenes with interviews to tell the extraordinary story of the beginnings and development of the show. It’s inspiring and entertaining in its message.

Available for streaming on HBO Max.

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Summer of Soul (Questlove aka Ahmir Khalib Thompson, director)  Everybody knows about the Woodstock music festival in 1969, but few remember — if they ever knew in the first place — another music gathering that took place in Harlem, attended by 300,000 people over six weekends. This film is an attempt to set the record straight. Filled with great music by great musicians, it’s an incredible rush of positive energy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but as I recall, Stevie Wonder blew the doors off.

Per Searchlight Pictures:

“…part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture, and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just 100 miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, and more.”

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Val (Leo Scott & Ting Poo, directors)

“Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial actors, has been documenting his life and craft through film. He has amassed thousands of hours of footage, from home movies made with his brothers, to time spent in iconic roles for blockbuster films like Top Gun and Batman. This raw and wildly original documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled look at what it means to be an artist.” – per IMDB.

This film  feels rather unique in content and structure. Kilmer’s willingness to let it all hang out is startling in its effect. We see him in his movie-star prime and then after throat cancer has diminished him physically, but certainly not in spirit. Throughout, I was reminded of the actor who portrayed Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993), an eccentric, perfect performance.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

The Velvet Underground is a group that has meant a lot to me over the years, both for the music and the personnel, specifically Lou Reed and John Cale. After I moved to New York City in 1977, I saw Lou Reed frequently at The Bottom Line and John Cale almost as many times. Their music has been a part of my life for years. Haynes’ film is startling in many ways, both in the often radical way it’s structured and in the depth of the material presented. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about the backgrounds of the people who came to form the Velvet Underground. The cultural scene in New York in the Sixties provided a unique and fertile landscape that expressed itself through film, art, photography, and music. Everything fed into everything else. The importance of Andy Warhol to all this is examined in the film. The amount of material amassed is almost overwhelming. The editing is excellent. The source attributions listed in the lengthy closing credits seem to go on forever. Along with all the archival footage, interviews conducted for the film are interwoven throughout. Haynes said during the Q&A after the screening that they limited new interviews only to people who were there at the time, active in that scene. John Cale is especially great to hear. Maureen Tucker, too.

The Velvet Underground always comes back to the music. I’d forgotten how experimental their sound was, especially during the early years. I think there’s stuff on the first two albums that we still haven’t caught up to yet. Seeing this film reminded me of that. I was quite moved at the end.

Available for streaming on Apple TV+.

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That’s all for now. Best TV yet to come. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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