Friday, August 30, 2013

Make "The Friedkin Connection"

William Friedkin, the talented director behind such films The Exorcist (1973) & To Live & Die in L.A. (1985), has recently published his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. It’s a great read about his life in the movie business. He sticks to discussing his professional career, after a brief history of his formative years in the book’s early pages. Starting out as a director of documentaries & television shows, Friedkin charts his path working on films like The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) & the 1967 Sonny & Cher vehicle Good Times. He’s open about the his frustrating experiences on these early projects, which were not very successful. Then we get to his Oscar winning classics The French Connection & The Exorcist. The bulk of the book focuses on these two films; Friedkin goes into great detail about the productions, and the challenges he faced making both films. For The French Connection, he was still considered a newcomer, even though he had directed several films previously, and faced numerous battles with studio heads over the film’s budget & shooting schedule. On The Exorcist, there were numerous bumps in the road in bringing the novel to the screen, including dealing with the controversial subject matter, and getting the right cast & crew together. There are fascinating behind the scenes details about both movies. These stories are the best parts of the book, and offer real insight into the moviemaking process.

Friedkin is candid about his successes & failures, and owns up to his own faults when relationships with his collaborators turned out badly. Another film extensively covered is 1977’s Sorcerer, an expensive remake of the classic French film The Wages of Fear (1953), which spiraled over budget & out of control during production. It later flopped at the box office, though it has had a bit of a critical re-evaluation in recent years. There’s also a section on the controversial film Cruising (1980), a murder mstery set in the world of gay sex clubs, which starred Al Pacino. Despite his candor, there’s no mention of two notorious failures, Deal of The Century (1983) and  The Guardian (1990), both of which were troubled productions that turned out badly. One weakness of the book is that there’s less focus on the second half of Friedkin’s career; his later films are given much shorter shrift, though there are still some interesting anecdotes, especially regarding To Live & Die in L.A. What some readers may find surprising is that Friedkin later had success directing operas, collaborating with the likes of Placido Domingo. In the final portions of the book he does talk about his home life, discussing some personal health issues & his fourth marriage, to studio head Sherry Lansing. A few more words about his personal life would have been welcome, since he’s very open about it in this portion of his life story. He also focuses on two recent film projects, both based on plays by Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011). This is a well-written, honest & entertaining read, especially if you’re a fan of Friedkin’s work as a director.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Short Takes: Brief Reviews On Some Recent Video Releases


Side Effects (2013) – Director Steven Soderbergh’s Hitchcockian mystery stars Jude Law as a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks. He consults on the case of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who has just attempted suicide. Her husband has recently been released from prison, after serving time for insider trading. Emily seems happy he’s home. However, she’s suffering from mood swings & depression. Banks puts her on an experimental new drug, which is suggested by her former therapist, well-played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. It appears to help Emily with her issues, but also has some alarming side effects, such as episodes of emotional instability and sleepwalking. Then Emily’s husband ends up dead under mysterious circumstances. Was she really depressed? Did the drug cause her to murder her husband? Is Banks to blame for what happened? What follows is a twist-laden tale of hidden agendas, obsession and murder. This is a thinking person’s thriller; while it may move a bit slowly for today’s audiences, the movie takes its time to develop its multi-layered story & characters. The solid performances, sharp writing and excellent direction make it worth viewing. Film noir fans should really enjoy it. This is a decidedly grown up movie; in addition to the Hitchcock influence, it’s also a throwback to 80s & 90s neo-noirs like Dead Again, Final Analysis & The Last Seduction. It’s now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital viewing & download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_mQKEwRdjQ.

42 (2013) – Writer-Director Brian Helgeland’s film about Jackie Robinson’s first year in the majors is a powerful, well-acted drama. In 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to break the color barrier and bring a black ballplayer from the Negro Leagues to the Dodgers. He signs a promising player name Jackie Robinson, cautioning him that he will have to curb his anger at the prejudice he may face, if this idea is to work. Rickey starts him in the minors, bringing him up to the big leagues in 1947. It’s a decision that will have long lasting ramifications for Rickey, Robinson, and for the game of baseball. The film does a good job showing us the prejudices Robinson faced in that first year, and how he triumphed over adversity to become a successful member of the team, opening the doors for other black players to enter the major leagues. Harrison Ford is superb as Rickey, and Chadwick Boseman is very good as Jackie. A host of familiar character actors fill out the cast. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, this is a powerful story of a very different time in our history, and its themes still resonate today. Highly recommended. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital viewing & download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2637408025/.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) – A writer with anger issues (Colin Farrell) decides to write a screenplay about “Seven Psychopaths” basing some of it on people he knows. He ends up crossing paths with a colorful gallery of rogues & killers, and gets mixed up in dog kidnappings, mayhem & murder. Director Martin McDonaghs’s darkly comic thriller is a somewhat predictable film that tries for a mix of Tarantino & Scorsese and doesn't quite pull it off. However, there are a couple of interesting set pieces, and Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and the rest of the cast are fantastic. They almost make it worthwhile. Take a look if you’re a fan of the genre. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital viewing & download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xsuaqw_seven-psychopaths-trailer-official-hd-1080-colin-farrell-woody-harrelson_shortfilms.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Early Elton Rocks The FTC's Stage One


It’s a great pleasure to see talented musicians play music they are passionate about. Their enthusiasm is infectious, especially if you’re also a fan of the music they’re showcasing. Such is the case with Early Elton, a trio of gifted rockers who played at Connecticut’s Fairfield Theatre Company on Friday, August 9. Jeff Kazee (keyboards, vocals), John Conte (bass, vocals) and Rich Pagano (drums, vocals) are veterans of bands such as Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and The Fab Faux. Their love of Elton’s early music (circa 1970-72) brought them together to do concerts in the style of EJ's live gigs from that era. Back in those days, the record label couldn’t afford to send out a full band so Elton toured as a trio, with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. This setup forced Elton to create unique arrangements of his music, which resulted in some powerful, well-remembered shows. 


The members of Early Elton have studied videos, demos, sound board recordings & bootlegs of these tours. Their homework has resulted in thrilling performances of songs from the time of Elton’s initial success in the US, “before the Donald Duck suit, the binge spending and the drugs,” as Kazee joked during the show. Opening with a rowdy version of  “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” the band treated us to almost two hours of classic Elton. The guys all traded vocals on classic songs like “Take Me To The Pilot,” “Levon,” “Friends” and even the deeper cut "No Shoe Strings on Louise," from Elton's eponymous 1970 disc. There was also music from 11-17-70Honky Chateau and Madman Across The Water. But if you're a fan of the album Tumbleweed Connection, this was your night, as no less than 8 songs from that LP were performed, including the classics “Amoreena,” “Country Comfort” and a fantastic, full tilt boogie version of  “Son Of Your Father.”


Kazee’s amazing keyboards, Pagano’s powerful drumming and Conte’s intense bass, matched with their soulful, emotional vocals (all three sang and often traded verses) made for a superb show. I’m a fan of this music from way back, and it felt like I was experiencing these wonderful songs for the first time. The group is faithful to the original versions, but they also bring some of their own interpretations & style to the material. A couple of favorites for me in a show filled with them; "Son Of Your Father," "Levon," "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," an amazing version of “Madman Across The Water” and the kick out the jams show closer, "Burn Down The Mission." Early Elton has been together about two years and are continuing to tour between their other projects. I look forward to seeing them again soon. This isn’t just a “tribute” band; it’s three top-flight musicians with amazing chops playing music they love by an artist they respect. I highly recommend seeing one of their concerts, especially in an intimate venue like the FTC. 

Here are links to some highlights of the groups live shows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M6qymG3XIk, and a full version of Amoreena; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK8DO6y8ZOs.

Photos By John V

And here’s the set list from the show:
1st Set:
Ballad of A Well-Known Gun
Take Me To The Pilot
Levon
Amoreena
Mona Lisa & Mad Hatters
Country Comfort
Son Of Your Father
My Father’s Gun
Madman Across The Water

2nd Set:
Where To Now, St Peter?
Bad Side Of the Moon
Border Song
No Shoe Strings On Louise
Love Song
Tiny Dancer
Friends
Burn Down The Mission
Encore: Grey Seal

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Ever Popular Multi-Talented Artist Effect: Todd Rundgren Live in Ridgefield





Todd Rundgren has been entertaining & electrifying fans since his days with the Nazz in the late 60s. He’s probably jumped across more genres than almost anyone else in the rock era, as an artist, producer & digital recording pioneer. From pop to soul to electronica to heavy metal, he’s done it all. He’s even recorded an album of lounge style versions of his songs! Todd has enthralled, mystified & confounded fans in equal measure with his musical explorations & experiments. On Saturday, August 3, he brought his “Greatest Hits” Tour to CT’s Ridgefield Playhouse. While he’s also been doing a run of shows this year focusing on other projects & sounds, this was a straight ahead rock & roll show, showcasing many memorable songs from throughout his remarkable 40+ year career.

Todd kicked off the night with a wonderful version of “Real Man,” from 1975’s Initiation. Other early highlights included a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman” and the classic “Love of the Common Man” from 1976’s Faithful. Todd was in good spirits, moving back and forth across the stage, playing some excellent guitar; he really seemed to draw energy from the venue’s intimate setting. Todd even did a portion of the set seated, playing shakers shaped like fruit! He even told a few brief anecdotes between songs. It’s clear he hasn’t lost his sense of humor as he gave out a “salty language” warning before “Flaw,” for the benefit of those fans who might have brought their kids to the show.



Frequent Rundgren collaborators Kasim Sulton (Meat Loaf, Utopia) on bass and Prairie Prince (The Tubes, The New Cars) on drums were part of the fantastic band, who sounded great; they were clearly having a blast playing with him. The sold out crowd also added to the electricity of the show. Todd’s always acknowledged his fans and has a close relationship with them, and they were dazzled by hits like “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference, “I Saw The Light,” and “Can We Still Be Friends?” There were also passionate performances of deeper cuts such as the Utopia track "Love Is The Answer" (a hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley in 1979), “Buffalo Grass” and  “Expresso,” which sounded amazing live.



Another high point was the tribute to soul music (one of Todd's favorite genres), featuring an excellent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” along with Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby” and Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud.” By the time he got to the power pop classic “Couldn’t I Just Tell You?” a cadre of middle aged female fans were joyously dancing in the aisles. When Todd returned for the encore of “Hello It’s Me and “A Dream Goes On Forever” it was clear from the audience reaction that he could have played two more hours, and not one fan would have left the show. Todd's artistry, sincerity, humanity & spiritualism come through in his best recorded work, but he really shines in his live performances. If you’re a fan and you get the chance to see him on this tour, it’s well worth the trip. You won't be disappointed.

Photos by John V

Here are links to Todd performing "Love of The Common Man" from the Nearly Human tour in 1990: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnc0UfTvfu0 and "I Saw The Light" with Daryl Hall from 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N48-K9z-HA4.

Next: A Trip Back In Musical Time With "Early Elton"