My brother spent this week in Japan with his son, my sister, and her husband. The sister told the nephew that they’d take him anywhere in the world when he graduated high school. He chose Japan. Mainly because he is a gamer and they do a lot of that stuff in that country. They seem to be having a blast.
Here stateside, things have been a little tougher. When I’m not writing about cool things, I run a little family business with my dad and that brother. With him gone, the father figure and I have had to pick up the slack. This has meant some long workdays. This has meant some earlier bedtimes. This has meant less movie watching.
But as always I found some cool stuff to talk about.
Who Saw Her Die?
George Lazenby is the only actor to have played James Bond exactly one time. Famously, after having a bad experience making On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the actor walked away from Bond and a promising career. He made a few movies after that then wasted away on late-night cable TV. Arrow Video recently released a really nice Blu-ray of this underseen and underrated giallo starring the actor (looking much looser than his Bond days with long hair and a groovy ‘70s mustache). The story is undercooked, but the Venice setting is spectacularly moody and Lazenby is quite good in it. You can read my full review here.
Grateful Dead - Madison Square Garden - 1990
The Grateful Dead were notoriously hard on keyboard players. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan died at the young age 27 in 1973 due to alcohol abuse. His successor, Keith Godchaux, died in a car accident in 1980. He was just 32. Brent Mydland played a variety of synthesizers with the band through the 1980s died of an overdose in July of 1990.
By this point, the Dead were more akin to a huge corporation than the small club band they started out as. They were one of the most successful touring bands in the world, playing enormous stadiums and large arenas all across the country. The organization supported a myriad number of roadies, management, crew members, secretaries, and the like. Though the loss of Brent was a huge loss, everybody felt like the band must play on and so they did. By September 1990, just two months after Brent’s death, the Dead headed out on Fall Tour.
Without much fanfare and only a couple of interviews, they hired Vince Welnick (formerly of The Tubes and Todd Rundgren’s band - neither a clear match for The Grateful Dead) to fill the empty keyboard slot. As Vince was not at all familiar with the Dead’s music, and there wasn’t much time for him to learn, Bruce Hornsby - a longtime Deadhead who has sat in with the band on occasion - agreed to join the band temporarily.
They played their first shows at Madison Square Garden for a five-night run. I’m a dyed in the wool 1970s Dead fan myself, but I have to admit this run is pretty darn good. Jerry Garcia is clearly energized by the new players. Hornsby, whose own band does a lot of improvisation, is right at home with the Dead. Welnick’s keyboard is tuned a little too high in the soundboard recording so he tends to blare everything else out, but when it settles down, he performs admirably. And the rest of the band is finely tuned.
The band wouldn’t have too many more runs like this where everybody is running on all cylinders before Garcia died in 1995. Which is why I usually don’t pay much attention to their bootlegs from the 1990s. But this run definitely makes me reconsider.
You can find the entire run, ready to stream, on the Archive.
Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection
Actress Ida Lupino was an up and coming star in the 1940s. She was also strong-willed and outspoken, which put her in hot water with Jack Warner. So much so that by 1949 she started her own independent film company and started making her own movies. Kino Lorber has put together four of these films (Not Wanted, Never Fear, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Bigamist) into a lovely new boxed set. They mostly fall into the category of social ills melodramas, but within that framework Lupino shows incredible skill, grace, and humanism as a director.
Lupino has mostly been forgotten outside of classic-film circles so it's nice to see her getting her due with this set. You can read my full review of it here.
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I’ve never been a huge fan of these films in terms of story and this one is no exception. Hiccup and his rag tag team of humans have been rescuing dragons for a long time now. So much so that their little island is becoming over crowded. When he hears of a hidden world where dragons will be safe and hidden from the human world, he sets off to find it. Of course, there is a bad guy in the way who wants to hunt and stop dragons. Of course, there is a love interest - this time for Toothless, the dragon Hiccup rides, which he thought was the last of his kind.
It's all pretty standard storytelling stuff. I can’t quite put my finger on why but I just don’t love these stories. They are cute and fun, but something about them doesn’t push them into awesome for me. What is awesome is the animation. All three movies are beautifully drawn and colored. They truly look like a fantasy with bright colors and wonderful character designs.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
My daughter is a big fan of the new Star Wars movies so we decided to go back to the Original Trilogy this week. She’s actually seen them before but she was much younger then and doesn’t really remember them. I was real curious about how she would react to the whole Vader reveal in Empire so I was careful to not say anything remotely spoiler-y about it while we watched the films. As that scene drew nea,r I made sure she was watching closely and paid attention to any reaction she might have.
She had none. Nothing. No reaction at all. I paused the movie and asked her if she already knew that Vader was Luke’s father. She said she did. When I asked when or how she had learned about it, she just shrugged. I know that this is a part of our culture, but I really hoped that eight-year-old girls might not have soaked that bit of trivia in. Oh well.
The movie still holds up like gangbusters. I used to watch it all the time. I’ve seen it dozens of times but that was mostly through high school and college. In the last decade or so, I’ve seen it maybe once, possibly twice. It is a classic. It is the best Star Wars movie, but it still surprised me how well made it is. The script is tighter than any other Star Wars film and the cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is gorgeous. The cast is all across the board fantastic and it's just a really terrific little sci-fi fantasy. You know this. Everybody knows this. I won’t carry on about it, but if you haven’t seen it in awhile give it a watch. It is well worth seeing again.
The second trailer to Sam Mendes World War I drama has just been released and it gets me all sorts of excited. It follows two boys who are given the impossible task of alerting a group of British soldiers of an impending ambush by the enemy. They must race across enemy lines to give the warning in order to stop the slaughter of some 1,600 men including one of the boy's brothers. Mendes shot it in a way that makes it look like one long take. I love WWI movies. I love Sam Mendes. I really hope I love this movie.