Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Eli Wallach vs. "The Magnificent Seven"

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, sponsored by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For more details, and a list of posts, please follow this link: https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/the-great-villain-blogathon-2017/. Thanks for reading!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is the fondly remembered Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. The movie has a wonderful cast, including Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. They’re members of a group of gunfighters hired to rid a small Mexican village of a bandit that has been victimizing them. But we don’t meet the title heroes until a bit later in the film. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Calvera, the villain of the piece, who’s vividly portrayed by Eli Wallach. He’s marvelous in this sequence, riding into the village and strutting around like he owns the place. And at this point in the story, he does own the place. Calvera starts lecturing Sotero, one of the village leaders, on why his life is so difficult. He has to provide food and shelter for his men. Since they're outlaws, he and his crew are on the run, and have to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s a tough existence, at least according to Calvera. When one of the villagers challenges him, he casually kills the man and reminds everyone he’ll soon return to pick up more supplies.

The villagers decide to take action, and hire Chris Adams (Brynner) to gather a band of hired guns to help them drive away Calvera. Chris warns them that once they go down this violent road, there’s no turning back. At this point that we begin to meet our heroes, who are played by a cast of rising stars including James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. What’s interesting is that after the opening scene, Calvera isn’t seen onscreen for almost an hour. But he’s always a presence. Everyone talks about him, and discusses what the'll need to do defeat him. We know that once he and his men meet Chris and his crew, sparks (and bullets) will fly. And they do, in a tense scene where Chris asks him to "ride on" and leave the villagers alone. But Calvera won’t be put off so easily. He and his men battle the “seven” in the first of several well-staged action sequences from director John Sturges.

Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach
Calvera feels, like many antagonists, that he isn’t a villain. He’s just taking advantage of the situation. He and his men need provisions, and the village is a means to an end. He believes our heroes are disrupting the natural order of things. It’s his view that “If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Calvera is a formidable, sly and menacing adversary, who isn’t above using a bit of guile to get what he wants. He tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Chris and the others to come over to his side. After our heroes are defeated and banished, it seems the bandit has gained the upper hand. But the warriors return and fight Calvera and his men alongside the villagers. “You came back…for a place like this…. a man like you….Why?” he asks, with his dying breath. Even at the moment of his defeat, he can’t understand why Chris & the others would return to aid these people. His question remains unanswered. 

Eli Wallach was a well-respected stage actor who made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956). It’s a testament to his talent that he holds his own against the star power of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of the cast. He makes an unforgettable impression as Calvera, in an energetic and intense performance that never slips over into parody. In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad & Me: In My Anecdotage, Wallach fondly discusses the movie, and tells some interesting stories about the production. The men who were hired to play his gang in the film ended up bonding with him. They all went riding in the morning before filming, and insisted on making sure his riding accessories and gun were in working order before he used them. Wallach also wore a silk shirt and gold rings, as he felt it showed what a bandit like Calvera would do with his ill-gotten gains.

Wallach appeared in many fine films during his long career, including strong roles in two other Westerns, How The West Was Won and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, where he stole the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The Magnificent Seven is an exciting film with a great cast, a literate script, and of course, that rousing score by Elmer Bernstein. The movie has spawned several sequels, a TV series and a recent remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. But none of the subsequent villains have been quite as distinctive, or as memorable, as Calvera. I re-visit the film often, and while I enjoy all of the wonderful performances in this iconic Western, Wallach's is indelibly etched into my cinematic memory. Here's a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwMykCREW0.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

20 Feet From Stardom: Powerful Voices Emerge From The Background

Ever wondered about those backup singers you hear on so many great rock & roll songs, like the magnificent voice rising up during The Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”? Producer & music industry executive Gil Freisen did, and the result is 20 Feet From Stardom, a revealing 2013 documentary that covers the careers of several of these artists, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The film includes interviews with these talented women, as well as appearances by Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger & Sting. It’s a fascinating look at the lives of some amazing singers, who were featured on songs that are now considered classics, like the Phil Spector produced “He’s a Rebel,” which features vocals by Love. Many of the artists profiled here became the “go to” session singers for many artists and producers of the rock era.

Several of the interviewees point out that the “hooks” we sing along with on many of these songs are actually the parts the backup singers performed. The artists who made use of these incomparable voices, like Jagger, Elton John, Sting & David Bowie, praise the added dimension these singers gave to their music. But the film also covers the dark side of the story. While Love sang the lead on “He’s A Rebel,” the record was credited to producer Phil Spector’s girl group The Crystals, who hadn’t even heard the song, and were on tour when Love recorded it. Spector actually pulled this trick with several releases, denying Love the success she could have achieved if the songs were released under her own name. Clayton, whose vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” were so memorable, unsuccessfully tried to launch a solo career, a problem which has also plagued some others profiled in the film, including Tata Vega & Claudia Lennear.

Lisa Fischer, who sang backup for Luther Vandross, and has toured extensively with The Rolling Stones, did have a semi-successful solo career, and is thankful for that success. She’s philosophical about the ups & downs of being a working musician. Judith Hill, the youngest of those profiled in the film, has been featured on NBC’s The Voice, and is currently trying to make the transition from backup singer to solo performer. The artists profiled all discuss the difficulty of going on that particular journey. The stories they tell are moving, insightful and revelatory. These singers have a shared history that helps bring their experiences into razor sharp focus. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look back at an important period in rock history; these indelible songs and unforgettable voices continue to influence today's artists. The movie features some incredible studio and live performance footage of these singers at work with artists like Vandross, Bowie and Ike & Tina Turner. The film climaxes with a wonderful cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lean On Me” sung by Darlene Love, Jo Lawry, Lisa Fischer & Judith Hill.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom has received many accolades, including the 2014 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. It’s a must see movie if you are a music fan; if you don’t know who these singers are now, you certainly will after seeing this film. I’ve loved many of these singers for years, and I found the movie (and their stories) entertaining, illuminating & mesmerizing. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD, and is also streaming on some demand services. The disc version contains some deleted scenes, as well as an additional half hour interview with some of the film’s featured artists, conducted by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWyUJcA8Zfo.

Author's Note: This month marks the 6th anniversary of John V's Eclectic Avenue. Thanks to all who've read, supported, and spread the word about the blog over the years!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets: An Awesome Double Bill at Stage One

Marshall Crenshaw and The Bottle Rockets
Marshall Crenshaw has been thrilling fans for several decades with his memorable sound, which encompasses pop, rock & folk. For his performance on April 2 at the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, he brought along some friends: the Missouri based alt-country powerhouse The Bottle Rockets. In essence, we got two incredible shows for the price of one. The Bottle Rockets kicked off the evening by tearing through a blistering set of kick out the jams, country-flavored rock. The set included several songs from their 2015 release South Broadway Athletic Club, including the jam band-esque “Ship It On The Frisco,” the allegorical  “Dog,” and the jangly “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)”

Lead singer & guitarist Brian Henneman, drummer Mark Ortmann, bassist Keith Voegele and guitar master John Horton share the unique chemistry that allows them to sound loose and spontaneous, but simultaneously tighter than Ortmann’s drums. Everyone in the band got the chance to shine with some memorable solos, and you can see why this group is so well regarded for their passion-fueled live shows. Sprinkled throughout the more recent tunes were a handful of key tracks from across their 25-year career, such as “Kerosene” and the raucous “Indianapolis." Other favorites like the pulsating "Radar Gun" & the Neil Young-ish "Thousand Dollar Car" rounded out the set list.

Marshall Crenshaw
After The Bottle Rockets wrapped up their set, there was a brief break before they returned to the stage to back up Marshall Crenshaw. He started off his portion of the night with a stellar version of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” Crenshaw then segued into a mix of more recent compositions such as “Red Wine” and “Television Light” along with staples like “Cynical Girl” and “There She Goes Again.” He was enthusiastic & in good spirits, providing strong vocals and some excellent guitar work. While the more well-known songs from his repertoire garnered the strongest audience reaction, there were other highlights during the show, including a lovely version of Grant (Husker Du) Hart’s “2541” and an incredible take on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” featuring stellar work from Ortmann & Henneman.

Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets have been playing together for several years now, and they shared a nice camaraderie during the show. The full-bodied backing of the group brought a tougher edge to Crenshaw’s music. Despite the passage of time, his well-crafted tunes definitely retain their wit, charm, and melodic hooks. The latter portion of the night featured a mini-set of Crenshaw’s classic power pop, from “Someday, Someway” to “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” The encore, a marvelous cover of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” was a fitting coda to a great show, especially in light of Berry’s recent passing. Special thanks to the staff at the Fairfield Theatre Company; Stage One is a wonderful venue for live music, and this phenomenal evening was no exception.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Retro Movie: The Legend of Hell House

The haunted house thriller is a longtime staple of horror films, and 1973's The Legend of Hell House is one of the better entries in the genre. As the movie opens, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett is asked by a wealthy man to conclusively prove (or disprove) the existence of life after death. He's given one week to investigate Belasco House, which is considered the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” The house was owned by Emeric Belasco, a notorious occult practitioner & murderer. Belasco went missing after a series of horrible events took place on the premises. No one has been able to explain the strange things that have occurred at this location, also known as "Hell House." Barrett’s joined by his wife Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), as well as two mediums, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) & Florence Tanner. Fischer was involved in a previous attempt to cleanse the evil energy from the house, which ended in failure. He’s still scarred by the experience, which left several people injured or dead. Fischer is wary of getting involved in this new investigation.

Roddy McDowall & Pamela Franklin
As the group tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the house, the supernatural forces within begin targeting individual members of the team. When Florence tries to communicate with the spirits in Hell House, she's first contacted, then attacked, by the unearthly presence. The ghost who speaks through her claims to be Belasco's son, but is that its true identity? Edith is also affected by the spirits in the house, but in a much more sensual fashion. She tries to seduce Fischer on two occasions while her husband is sleeping. Once she's aware of her actions, she's mortified. These incidents cause more tension within the group. Despite all of this, Barrett clings to the fact that there's a scientific explanation for these uncanny occurrences. Meanwhile, Fischer has kept his psychic power closed off since returning to the house. He has to decide if he'll once more open himself up to the danger there, in order to help the team. Can they solve the mystery of Hell House, and survive the experience?

"This house....it knows we're here."
The movie is a bit less subtle in its horror and scare elements than previous haunted house or ghost stories such as The Uninvited or The HauntingBut it's a great deal of fun; it's kind of a cross between a Hammer film and a B-movie thriller from the Roger Corman era at American-International Pictures. In fact, James Nicholson, a founder & former partner of AIP, produced the film. The movie is well-directed by John Hough, who provides an eerie atmosphere, and builds a nice level of tension as the story moves forward. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and couple of nice twists and turns to the tale, courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson. The movie is based on Matheson's novel Hell House. There's also a subtle & nicely crafted electronic score by Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson, which is ideally suited to the tone of the film.

The cast is wonderful; they achieve the perfect balance in their performances, never going too far over the top. The Legend of Hell House is a treat for Roddy McDowall fans; there’s nothing better than seeing him give his all in a juicy role like Fischer. He's outstanding in the film. Pamela Franklin is excellent as Tanner; she pulls off a difficult part very successfully. In an earlier role, she appeared in The Innocents (1961), the classic ghost story based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Clive Revill as Dr. Barrett & Gayle Hunnicutt as his wife Edith both have some nice moments, but this movie is really a showcase for McDowall & Franklin. Genre fans take note; look fast for Michael Gough, who appeared in several British horror films of the 1960s & 70s, and played Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman movies. He has a brief but important cameo in the movie. The Legend of Hell House is an effective, intelligently made chiller that should please discerning fans of old school horror. The film is available in a Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory, and as of this writing, is also streaming on Netflix. Here's a link to the movie's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXzZViYiI3o.