Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Movie Review: This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, directed by Sydney Pollack (1966)

Robert Redford and Natalie Wood make a gorgeous couple in This Property is Condemned, 1966.

Director Sydney Pollack talks things over with stars Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, while Charles Bronson relaxes in the background.

The stunningly beautiful Natalie Wood in This Property is Condemned, 1966.
A Southern accent lets you get away with a lot. If you’re a movie character from the South, you can be as weird and eccentric as you want, and people will just write it off. If you acted the same way, but were from the North, people would instantly think you’re crazy. That thought came to me as I was watching This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. It’s based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, who virtually trademarked Southern eccentrics. Early on in the movie, Redford’s character has a short speech where he says, “Do you know there was a cat once who fell asleep in the sun and dreamt that he was a man who fell asleep and dreamt he was a cat. When he woke up, he didn’t know if he was a man or a cat.” What the hell does that mean? Because that speech is delivered in Redford’s Southern accent, it sounds vaguely poetic, as though there’s a deeper hidden meaning in that story. Had that same speech been delivered in a Northern accent, I would have quickly come to the conclusion that Redford’s character was a deranged serial killer, and I would have been shouting at the TV, telling Natalie Wood’s character to get out of his room.

This Property is Condemned plows the same fields as much of Williams’ other work, and it’s not one of his major works. As Gore Vidal wrote of Williams in his excellent 1976 essay, “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self,” “Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes. Constantly he plays and replays the same small but brilliant set of cards.” (United States: Essays 1952-1992, p.1146) This Property is Condemned is set in a small town in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and it focuses on Alva Starr, (the luscious Natalie Wood) her domineering mother Hazel (Kate Reid) and Alva’s younger sister Willie (Mary Badham). Hazel runs a boarding house, and she’s basically pimping out the beautiful Alva for dates with men in order to make some extra money. Ironically, Kate Reid was only 7 years older than Natalie Wood, which shows the difference between being a leading lady and a character actress. Things get shaken up when handsome stranger Owen Legate (the super handsome Robert Redford) takes a room at the boardinghouse. Legate is in town to hand out pink slips to some of the railroad men, who all seem to also live at the boardinghouse. (Look for the always creepy Robert Blake in a small part as Sidney.) Legate is at first dismissive of the flirtatious Alva, but he eventually realizes his attraction to her. 

Owen and Alva spend a passionate night together after he’s beaten up by some of the angry railroad workers he laid off. (Being a super handsome guy like Robert Redford means that you get the shit kicked out of you a lot on screen. See also: Tom Cruise.) Alva wants to leave her annoying mother and move to a big city, so Owen buys her a train ticket to New Orleans, where he lives. But then he overhears Hazel telling someone about their plans to move to Memphis with a rich older gentleman and angrily confronts Alva and leaves town in a huff. Knowing she’s lost Owen, a drunken Alva confronts her mother, her mother’s sleazy boyfriend J.J. (Charles Bronson) and Mr. Johnson, (John Harding) the rich older gentleman who wants the Starrs to move to Memphis. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and Wood delivers an exquisite performance as she demolishes their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Alva drunkenly demands that J.J. should marry her that night if he really loves her. Her behavior doesn’t really make much sense, as it’s been clear throughout the movie that she despises J.J.’s attempts to flirt with her. Anyway, they get married, spend the night together, and the next morning Alva steals his money and takes a train to New Orleans. Fortunately, she finds Owen again, and it looks like things will end happily for them. The movie seems to go through a tonal shift once we get to New Orleans. It suddenly feels like the 1960’s rather than the 1930’s, as Alva moves into Owen’s apartment and happily waits for him to come home from work. But then Mother shows up and ruins everything. She tells Owen of Alva’s marriage to J.J., Alva runs out into the rain, catches a cold, and dies. 

The acting in This Property is Condemned is superb, as Wood delivers an amazing performance. I suspect that she probably identified with Alva’s situation, as Wood’s real-life mother was basically the stage mother from hell, and closely controlled Wood’s life as a child actress. Wood was enthusiastic about playing the role of Alva, saying it was “probably the closest I’ll ever get to playing Blanche DuBois.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.304) Wood is beautiful, sexy, and touching as the hopelessly romantic Alva. Wood’s wardrobe is amazing, and the dresses that Edith Head created for her show off her beauty very well. Wood and Redford make a stunningly attractive screen couple, and their chemistry is obvious. Although the film was not a hit when it was released in August, 1966, Wood was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Drama, but she lost to Anouk Aimee, who won for her role in A Man and a Woman

Wood had previously starred with Robert Redford in 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover, and during the shooting of that film she approached him about pairing with her again in This Property is Condemned. At that point in his career, Redford had done a lot of TV work, but he wasn’t yet a big movie star, as his breakthrough roles came in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park and 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford said yes to Wood, and he pushed for his friend Sydney Pollack as director, even though Pollack had only directed one movie. This Property is Condemned was the first movie directed by Pollack that Redford starred in, and they would go on to make seven movies together. I always like Robert Redford’s confidence on screen. Of course, I’d be confident too if I looked like Robert Redford. Redford seems to have that confidence in every role he plays, and it works especially well for Owen’s character. If someone else were playing Owen, he might seem like a real jerk. 

The supporting cast is excellent as well, particularly Mary Badham as Willie. Badham is best known for playing Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and This Property is Condemned is one of her only other acting roles. Pollack’s direction is very good, and he’s helped out by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, who gets to do several of his trademark long tracking shots from helicopters. Perhaps the most impressive tracking shot is the one as Alva is riding the train to New Orleans. The camera starts outside the train, focusing on Natalie Wood’s face, and then pulling back to reveal the entire train as it crosses a bridge. It’s a beautiful shot.

If you’re a fan of the beautiful and talented Natalie Wood or the handsome and talented Robert Redford, or you just need a Tennessee Williams fix, check out This Property is Condemned.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tom Wolfe on Donald Trump's 2016 Presidential Campaign: A Parody by Mark C. Taylor

Donald Trump at the 2015 Iowa State Fair, August 15, 2015.

Author Tom Wolfe.
Author’s note: The piece that follows is a work of fiction, and is not actually by Tom Wolfe. As I was reading a story in The New York Times about Donald Trump’s visit to the Iowa State Fair yesterday, I thought, “How great would it be if 1960’s-era Tom Wolfe was covering Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign?” So I decided to write this affectionate parody of Tom Wolfe’s writing style. I invented all of the quotes uttered by Donald Trump in this piece. 

BZZZZZZZZ. As the helicopter scuttles across the sky, the Iowa crowd grows restless with excitement. “Is that him?” “In a helicopter?” When it touches down at last, and the rotor blades stop whirring, a familiar figure steps out. TRUMP! There he is! How does his hair look? He’s wearing a hat! Trump strides out into the crowd, trailed by a phalanx of reporters and several aides. Trump’s lips seem to be forever frozen in a petulant Jaggeresque pout. And then there is his hair. Covered by a red baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “Make America Great Again,” the famous orange-colored comb-over is not to be seen today. MOOOOOO! In the distance cattle from the cattle barn make their opinions known. Trump offers helicopter rides to the kids swarming around him. When someone mentions the word “liability,” Trump shrugs his shoulders and says, “Whatever, I’m covered. I’m worth $10 billion dollars. I’m good.” BZZZZZZ goes the helicopter again, whisking away someone for a short ride.

The candidate walks towards the Agriculture building, where the famous cow sculpture made out of butter resides. “A cow, made out of butter? Wow, that’s fantastic,” Trump says. “You know,” he says to no one in particular, “I’ve done deals with butter companies. Really great people. Great product.” Inside the Agriculture building, Trump finds himself hemmed in by the crush of people trying to get close to him. WHHIIIRRRRRR. The air conditioning hums away, preserving the butter cow for the curious crowd. Trump is unable to get close enough to the butter cow display to see it. This seems to frustrate him, as he says, “You know, this building has a lot of potential. You could add more floors to it, maybe a moving walkway or something so people could get to the butter cow easier. Maybe have a golden display case for the butter cow. I could really make this place huge and fantastic. Trump Des Moines, how does that sound?” WHHHIIIRRRRRR. As Trump talks, his hands are in perpetual motion, jabbing the air, stabbing to make a point. “America’s very weak right now” JAB! “President Obama has been a total disaster” STAB! “The Chinese are crushing us in trade” STAB! JAB! JAB! 

Trump poses for selfies with cellphone-wielding people in the crowd. CLICK! “I think what you’re saying needs to be heard right now.” CLICK! “I loved The Apprentice!” CLICK! “Did you try the pork chop on a stick?” CLICK! “Thanks so much for coming to Iowa!” CLICK! After a short speech, Trump heads back to his helicopter, thanks everyone for coming out to see him, and flies away. BZZZZZZZZZZZ.

After Trump departed, I decided it was time to try some of the fried foods. I bought a deep-fried Snickers bar. As I took my first bite, I quickly wheeled around and grabbed some extra napkins. After all, I have to keep this white suit spotless.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Album Review: James Taylor, "Before This World" (2015)

Album cover for "Before This World," James Taylor, 2015.

James Taylor, 2015. No, I'm not related to him.
James Taylor’s music has always reminded me of autumn. There’s a wistful, elegiac feel to it, a certain unhurried melancholy that reminds me of the leaves changing colors. Taylor’s songs have always been warm and accessible, and his sensitive lyrics show his deep compassion.

Taylor’s new album, “Before This World,” was released in June, and it’s his first album of new material in thirteen years, since 2002’s “October Road.” In the intervening years Taylor hadn’t disappeared, as he released a Christmas album, an album of covers, and two live albums. But his songwriting muse seemed to have dried up, and in interviews promoting “Before This World” Taylor has spoken of consciously taking time off to write another album, saying he wasn’t sure he would ever record another album of original songs. I’m happy he took the time to write “Before This World,” as it’s an excellent record. 

“Before This World” isn’t a departure from Taylor’s well-established musical style, but that’s not a bad thing. As Taylor said in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I’m not the type of musician who reinvents himself over and over again. I am a slow evolution of a style of recording and writing, and I do think that in ways I get better at it.” Taylor’s beautiful high, yearning voice hasn’t changed very much over the years, and it’s a comfort to hear him again.

The songs on “Before This World” show Taylor’s range as a songwriter, as he covers topics from the war in Afghanistan to the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series. All of the songs are excellent. Sure, “Angels of Fenway” might be a little cheesy, but if my favorite baseball team hadn’t won the World Series in 86 years, I’d probably write a sappy song about it too. My favorite songs on the album are “Montana,” “SnowTime,” and the gorgeous medley of “Before This World/Jolly Springtime.” “Montana” is a lovely ballad, as the narrator tells us of his affection for his home. “SnowTime” is about finding the spirit of summer, even when you’re in Toronto and it’s the middle of winter. As Taylor sings, “Someone summoned up summer just strumming on an old guitar/and every note was the antidote to December.” “Before This World/Jolly Springtime” is a medley of new Taylor songs that both sound like they could be old folk songs. Sting adds a lovely harmony vocal to “Before This World,” which also features Yo-Yo Ma on cello. “Jolly Springtime” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album, as Taylor sings, “Thin, thin, the moment is thin/ever so narrow the now/everybody say got to live in today/don’t nobody know how.” 

“Before This World” had a huge first week on the charts in June, and amazingly enough, became Taylor’s very first Number One album. Taylor has scored a Top Ten album in every decade since the 1970’s, 12 Top Ten albums in all, and now he finally has a Number One. That’s a pretty nice accomplishment. 

The last song on “Before This World” is a lovely version of the old Scottish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” As I listen to the song again for this review, the next song that starts playing on my iTunes is “Something in the Way She Moves,” recorded in 1968 for Taylor’s first album, on the Beatles’ Apple label. Amazingly, Taylor’s high, pure voice sounds just about the same on both songs. It’s good to have him back again.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Concert Review: Diana Krall at the Orpheum Theatre

Diana Krall, "Wallflower" album cover, 2015.

Diana Krall, looking lovely as always, in a promo photo for "Wallflower," 2015.

"Did you really just yell out 'Elvis Costello'?"
Diana Krall gave a splendid performance last night at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Krall was in top form on vocals and piano, and she was ably supported by her excellent band, featuring Stuart Duncan on violin and guitar, Anthony Wilson on guitar, Dennis Crouch on bass, Patrick Warren on keyboards, and Karriem Riggins on drums. 

I’ve seen Diana Krall in concert once before, and my review of that 2013 concert at the State Theatre is the most viewed blog post I’ve ever written. I’m not really sure why that review has proved to be so popular. Not to be too self-deprecating about my own writing, but I think it might be so popular because of the pictures that accompany that post, which show Krall at her loveliest on the cover of her 2012 album “Glad Rag Doll.” But regardless of the reason for that review’s popularity, I was looking forward to seeing Diana Krall in concert again. Krall is an excellent live performer, and she has a warm stage presence. She’s also quite funny, and she has a real rapport with her audience. At the beginning of the show, some wiseguy yelled out, “Elvis Costello!” and Krall replied, “Do people go to Elvis Costello concerts and yell out ‘Diana Krall?’” 

The concert started with the gently swinging “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” and moved on to the bluesy “There Ain’t No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of My Tears,” one of my favorite songs of Krall’s. Both songs are from Krall’s excellent 2012 album “Glad Rag Doll.” Krall has a relaxed elegance on stage, as she frequently flips her thick blonde hair out of her eyes as she’s playing.
Krall performed three songs that were connected by a theme of weather, due to the rainy day that she spent in the Twin Cities on Thursday, her day off before the concert. “Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain” and “Let It Rain” were two more superb songs from “Glad Rag Doll.” In the middle of those she played “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” 

As in Krall’s 2013 concert, the Tom Waits song “Temptation” was a showcase for the whole band, with long solos by everyone. Krall started playing the song on an electric piano, before switching to her grand piano. She also played a little of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at one point during her solo. Stuart Duncan played his violin like a mandolin during part of his solo, as he and Anthony Wilson traded licks. Duncan and Wilson’s interplay on the violin and guitar gave the band a 1930’s sound, reminiscent of the gypsy jazz of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, and that gave me the idea that Krall should make an album with her current band of songs associated with Reinhardt. 

After “Temptation,” the rest of the band left the stage and Krall performed a few songs solo, which I thought was a highlight of the evening. When the band returned to the stage, Krall played the first song from her latest album, 2015’s “Wallflower,” which focuses on pop songs from the 1960’s and 1970’s. She sang a nice version of the Mamas and the Papas’ hit “California Dreamin,’” recast to take advantage of her jazzy voice. While Krall sang several songs from the 1970’s throughout the rest of the concert, she only performed one more song from “Wallflower,” the title tune, an obscure 1971 Bob Dylan song. Krall also sang a lovely version of Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which she recorded for a 2012 charity album. She also scored with her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” as Krall’s husky alto is the opposite of Mitchell’s high soprano. Krall should really record another album of songs from the 1970’s, this time with her small group, as opposed to the more orchestrated sound of the “Wallflower” album. Krall is such a strong piano player, and I think it’s a shame she only played piano on three songs on the “Wallflower” album. To close the concert, Krall sang a heartfelt version of her husband’s aching song “Almost Blue,” and a rousing version of the Band’s “Ophelia.” Last night was an excellent show, and more proof that Diana Krall is one of the most talented jazz performers around.

Set list:

We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye
There Ain’t No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of My Tears
Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Let it Rain
Let’s Face the Music and Dance-solo
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter-solo
California Dreamin’
A Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan)
Amelia (Joni Mitchell)
Just You, Just Me
Indeed I Do

Wallflower (Bob Dylan)
(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night (Tom Waits)
Almost Blue (Elvis Costello)
Ophelia (The Band)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Concert Review: Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band at the State Theatre

Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band. Woody's the short, nebbishy guy with the glasses.

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen’s movies since I was teenager, so I was very excited to hear that he was coming to the Twin Cities to perform live with his jazz band. For many years, Allen has played the clarinet in a New Orleans jazz band in New York City. While Allen has performed in Europe several times with his band, he hasn’t toured much in the United States. I knew this was a rare opportunity to see one of my favorite directors live in person, and a chance to hear some great music as well.

The concert proceeded much like I thought it would: Woody said a few words after the second song, and also at the end of the concert. That was it, no stories about the many great movies he’s made, no jokes. But in between there was some very good music. Allen’s band is usually called the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band when Allen plays with the group in New York City. The band featured trombone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, with Allen on clarinet, and Eddy Davis on banjo. The music was very good, but it would have been more fun in a more intimate setting than the 2,000 seat State Theatre. (The concert could have been held in a smaller space: the balcony wasn’t even half full.) 

The band’s repertoire is said to be more than 1,000 songs, and for this concert they played some songs I knew, like “Down by the Riverside,” Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade,” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” They also played many songs I didn’t know, but I enjoyed those as well. While Allen calls himself an “amateur” on the clarinet, it’s very clear from hearing him play that his love of this music runs deep. It’s fun to see someone doing something they love, and it’s obvious that Woody Allen loves New Orleans jazz. At the age of 79, Allen still has real passion for both music and movies, as Irrational Man, the 47th movie he’s directed, was just released two weeks ago. Even though Allen’s film work is uneven, as classics sit next to clunkers, I always admire artists who just keep going. Sure, his latest movie might not be as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan or Match Point, but why should that stop him from working? Allen has crafted some of the greatest comedies of the last 50 years, and it was a lot of fun to be able to spend some time with him tonight.