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NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand

PARADISE COVE

(QUIVER DISTRIBUTION/VOLTAGE PICTURES/CRASHING WAVE PRODUCTIONS/SUNSET PICTURES/THUNDER STUDIOS (144 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

I don’t know, sometimes it’s not that complicated. Despite the fact I’ve been watching more movies than usual in the pandemic era and have in general been predisposed to like most of them, I still require an engaging plot and some kind of cinematic ZIP to push my thumb to the UP position. And the little sucker is resisting efforts to do so when it comes to PARADISE COVE, a new Malibu-set thriller directed by Martin Guigui. The only known star in this thing is Mena Suvari, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long while. It was good to have a new appearance by her as kind of a guide, and she’s decent here as the restless, aching-to-get-pregnant wife of a guy who just took possession of the shell of his late mother’s beach house in Malibu, which needs – let’s just say – a ton of work. The setting is lovely enough, and our young couple, Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Suvari) are shown admiring the view, playing with their tiny dog, and clinking wine glasses together as they discuss how much they want to have a child and Tracey’s apparent difficulty getting pregnant. Knox doesn’t seem too bothered by anything, and assures his wife that everything’s going to work out fine.

PARADISE COVE (TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

It’s a jolt, then, to discover that they have a mysterious squatter living below their abode-in-progress. That would be Bree (Kristen Bauer van Straten), a shifty, wild-eyed woman who looks older than her twenty-something age and is more than well-known to the locals, including a bar maid who telegraphs that something may be amiss with this gal, and to Sheriff Garcia (Ruben Garfias), who sees her mostly as a harmless nuisance. Ah, but Bree is more than just a danger in paradise. She is clearly unhinged, manipulative and not receptive in the least to Knox’s efforts to get her to relocate. A bit of background is provided about a tragedy she endured with a young son, and Knox tries to be sympathetic to her. But she’s not the sort to “work out a deal” with him or anything. And she quickly gets on the bad side of Tracey, too, who hardly wants to set aside her preoccupations with pregnancy and finances to deal with this crazy lady. Sparks are gonna fly, you might say. And sharp knives, hammers and coldly barbed insults are also gonna be utilized. That kinda stuff can definitely impinge on the aesthetic beauty of crashing waves and crying seagulls outside the window. A scene of Bree sneaking into the shower with Knox is downright ludicrous, and it’s sort of where I began losing patience with this film. Although Bree is reasonably attractive, I simply did NOT believe Knox would react as he did in this scene, not after what had already happened. In fact, Knox’s less-than-smart decisions throughout the movie detract from the sympathy he might have earned as the central character. He’s not all that bright, slow at putting the big picture together, and less than a truly reassuring husband for poor Tracey. As an actor, Grinnell LOOKS the part of an in-over-his-head husband, and he fits nicely with Suvari’s mostly plaintive, concerned wife. But he’s missing something in the charisma department, and his performance is simply too low-key in these proceedings. By the time a big confrontation occurs, there has not been enough energy built up to give this “thriller” an actual thrill. You just sort of want to get it over with.

PARADISE COVE (MENA SUVARI, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

I will say that the premise is a reasonably interesting one – the list of movies about deranged homeless females in Malibu is a short one, as far as I know. And Bauer van Straten’s is the notable performance here. She’s a character who is not overtly psychopathic… more someone who gets under your skin by being rude and insensitive, and then starts doing increasingly nasty things without warning until you and your new place are in BIG trouble. The character has some compelling moments, and yeah, she’ll likely creep you out plenty. There’s a bit of “Fatal Attraction-lite” about Bree and her doings here.

PARADISE COVE (KRISTIN BAUER VAN STRATEN, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

But ultimately this movie is somewhat of a tiresome watch, despite the scenic setting. Nobody is genuinely likable, the plot pushes at the limits of credibility a bit too often, and Knox and Tracey, while you basically ROOT for them, are kind of a bland, unromantic couple. The film lacks any big or genuinely impactful scenes that would make you invest more deeply in these characters. And as a so-called “thriller,” there’s a paucity in that regard, also, except for one or two sudden moments. Mena Suvari fans might enjoy seeing her in a sizable role like this, and some may find the film an okay diversion. But my stomach felt empty at the end of the movie and so did my brain. Not exactly “Paradise,” in other words, for my cinema-loving self.

PARADISE COVE is available now On Demand.

WAITING FOR YOUR CALL: THE TIMOTHY WOODARD, JUNIOR INTERVIEW

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR (photo credit: EVAN DE NORMANDIE)

Timothy Woodward, Junior is an actor, a writer, a producer and a director. He has done at least one of those jobs, and in some cases, most of those jobs on a variety of TV shows and film projects, including STUDIO CITY, HICKOK, BEYOND THE LAW, AMERICAN VIOLENCE and THE FINAL WISH.

Woodward’s current project is THE CALL, a psychological horror movie set in 1987 and starring the wonderful duo of Lin Shaye (THE FINAL WISH and the INSIDIOUS franchise) and Tobin Bell (the SAW franchise) as a seclusive couple who, after being tormented by four teenage pranksters (played by Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning and Sloane Morgan Siegel), suffer a horrible tragedy. Edward Cranston calls the four to tell them that his wife, Edith, has died and has named each of them in her will. There’s a catch, however. For them to collect the money, each of them must go to a room in the Cranston home and make a phone call… to Edith, who had a telephone buried with her. If the youths can stay on the line for one minute, they will get their inheritance. Along the way, each must face their biggest fears and regrets. The film is a dark and brooding character study that occasionally brings to mind the lurid Slasher flicks of the 1980s in vivid splashes of red.

THE CALL DVD box

After a brief run at drive-in theaters in October, THE CALL will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 15 at the usual outlets. This brief phone interview with Timothy was conducted on October 2, the day of the film’s theatrical release.

THE MULE: So, we got ten minutes. Let’s jump right into it. Watched the movie last night. I liked it… a lot. I’ve gotta say, a lot of stuff made sense to me that didn’t make sense in the trailer. Primarily, the press release said that it was set in 1987 and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why such a bizarre… I mean, why pick 1987? And then… I mean, this is an homage to those classic Horror/Slasher movies from that time period.

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR: Yeah. For sure. And, you know, I turned four years old in 1987. That was the first year I watched my first ever Horror movie. So, that’s also why I picked that year. Could be the setting, ‘cause it was originally kind of generic ‘80s, so I picked ‘87. I just thought there was a lot of Horror that was coming out around that time. I kinda started setting out the sort of ‘80s Horror vibe.

THE MULE: Yeah, it worked really well, too.

TWJ: Thank you. I think we’re gonna release another trailer that’s gonna have more of an ‘80s vibe. We had two and we were going back and forth on which one we were gonna use. We didn’t want people, when they saw the trailer, to think that we were using the ‘80s almost as a crutch. So, we wanted to kinda catch people with the hook and then potentially release another one where we kinda focus on, you know, the more… as we get closer to the movie, the uniqueness instead of violence in the trailer.

THE CALL (Lin Shaye) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Sure, sure. The one thing I gotta ask you, man: Working with Lin and Tobin had to be just absolutely incredible. How did you snag them for this work? I know that Lin had… she’s got a production credit in there but, other than that, how did you end up choosing them for these roles and how was it to work with them?

TWJ: So, I got the script, actually, from Lin’s manager through Lin. They were already producers on it and they gave it to me to direct. I worked with Lin on THE FINAL WISH. Jeffrey Reddick (producer on both films) and I had a really good rapport and working relationship on that movie and they liked what I did. They came to me and said, “Hey, look, we’ve got this script and we’d like you to direct it, maybe come on board as producer. What do you think?” And I wanted to work with Miss Lin again… in a heartbeat so, I read it, liked the concept and we started punching up the characters and, I think a couple months later we were in production, ready to go.

THE CALL (Tobin Bell) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

And, you know, the idea of Edward Cranston… we were trying to figure out… there’s this couple, revenge that has to happen, there’s… if you’ve seen the film, there’>s probably things that aren’t in the trailer, it’s not just a straight they break windows and a revenge thing by any means. So, you wanted someone who would feel suspect a little bit, did he have anything to with this. Someone, you know, who just fit and Tobin had come across in conversations between me, Gina (Rugolo, another producer on the film) and Lin and he just felt like a perfect fit from the start. I’m just so glad we went that direction because I think he did such a great job and Lin and him had such good chemistry immediately. Which, you usually don’t see people just walk on set, you know, never really met in person or worked together before in person and they’re iconic like that, in a certain genre, and then they just click and they disappear into their characters like they are just who they are, you know. They look like they fit, they feel like they fit and those scenes were so easy because their chemistry was so good. It was just point the camera and shoot.

THE MULE: Yeah. That’s amazing that you got into production so quickly. That almost never happens.

TWJ: Yeah, we were lucky that we were able to do it, to pull it off.

THE MULE: The… uh… I’m gonna put “teenagers” in quotes here, but they all really pretty much hit the spot with their characters and the horror aspect, their horror at what was going on… from originally, >you know, the whole prank thing… there’s a backstory there that’s just amazing.

TWJ: Thank you, man. Yeah, that’s something that I carved out… even while we were filming, I was coming up with different situations and ideas for that because the backstory in the original script wasn’t fleshed out much for each character, it wasn’t much more of a blueprint. The two weren’t originally brothers and we said, “Hey, let’s make them brothers.” I worked with Jeffrey Reddick and Patrick – Patrcik Stibbs, who wrote it and Jeffrey Reddick, who was a producer – and, I was like, “Let’s make these guys brothers and, then, kinda create a situation for all of them where it’s just a little bit more personal.” You know, the idea is, hopefully you think one way about a person, then you feel another way in another moment. And it makes you feel for them or you don’t. It’s just to make them feel more three dimensional, so they didn’t just feel like complete cardboard characters until you feel like, “Hey, I understand why this person may be this way.” I can understand what this person’s going through.

THE CALL (Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning, Sloane Morgan Siegel) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Right. I was actually going to say that, without giving anything away, all four of those characters come with baggage that kinda makes sense for… the way they turned out. Let’s put it that way.

TWJ: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, for sure. And, their story for why they’re doing what they’re doing, you know… again, can’t give away too much… but, you feel one way, you think one way and then, it’s something else and the trailer tells you something completely different. That’s kind of the idea, we want you going in not really knowing exactly what it is you’re going to see and exactly who to pull for and in what way and be just… entertaining, you know. A psychological war. Psychological war is important to me because I think that’s… the idea of living in your mind and repeating your worst nightmares and your dreams… I mean, your fears on loop and repeat, that’s pretty terrible thing to be, you know.

THE MULE: And, it does work on that level, as well, as far as psychological horror, psychological thriller, whatever you want to call it. And, not only is it an homage back to those very bloody ‘80s kind of Horror things, but even back further than that when the horror wasn’t actually shown on screen, it was just intimated. I mean, it works really well because there’s stuff going on in that… in the final third of that movie that really… it sets the standard for stuff to come, I think.

THE CALL (Brooklyn Anne Miller) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

TWJ: Yeah. That was the idea and it’s just a little bit… people are like, “Well, you got Tobin from SAW and SAW was gory… ” and people kinda automatically assume from the trailer that it’s gonna be really just this… gory film and I’m going, “You may be surprised. It’s not going to be just like you think.” It’s very different… on purpose. It was done that way because I think your mind can imagine way worse than what I can show you. If I can show you a piece of it, your mind can go other places, you know. So, that’s the thing about it. Whether it’s JAWS and the shark, you know… if you see it all the time it becomes this way… But, we wanted to pull out spots in a few areas to make your mind go, “Oh, shit!” and just let you wonder what they’re going through. Even at the end of it, ya know.

UP ON THE GLASS

(GRAVITAS VENTURES/SAVE THEM WILD DOGS (96 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Wow. I remember a review of the Viggo Mortensen film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, in which the writer used the effective line “You won’t know what hit you” to summarize the dastardly plot. That’s how I felt at the conclusion of the genuinely compelling new film UP ON THE GLASS. I really don’t want to give away much here, because this film is worth experiencing on your own, without knowing key details beforehand. It manages to be suspenseful, visually appealing and non-formulaic throughout most of its 90-minute running time, and that is quite an achievement. So here’s what I can say. Jack DiMercurio (Chase Fein), the main star of this unique film, is a restless, introspective sort who is not given to explaining his emotions or thoughts very easily, and has an uncertain employment history. He’s agreed to spend some time at the lake house of his old friend Andy Shelton (Hunter Cross), who’s a bit too abrasive and honest, but is a successful businessman who seems to have good intentions. Andy’s wife Liz (Chelsea Kurtz) is only talked about for the first portion of the movie. We learn that Jack may have once been involved with her and gets moody when her name comes up. We also have to endure the obnoxiousness of a third friend, “Mose” (Steve Holm), who joins his old buddies for the weekend. At first you think this movie is going to be a character study of these three friends, starting to feel their ages, drinking too much, and questioning each other’s life choices. They’re in a beautiful setting along Lake Michigan, enjoying the shoreline and the imposing sand dunes Andy takes them to so they can lose themselves. “There’s space out there. Men need that,” Andy tells his pals. But though we’re shown some memorable scenery, and these guys overall seem to be basically likable, friction soon develops. Andy pushes Jack to share more than the latter is comfortable with. “I think you’re TOO smart,” he tells him matter of factly. “It trips you up. You overthink things.”

UP ON THE GLASS (Chase Fein, Hunter Cross, Steve Holm) (publicity still)

For this part of the film, I was admiring the believability and charisma of the characters, especially Jack, and the bright, striking cinematography by Mark Blaszak. I was intrigued. But then there is a sudden, rather implausible event that changes the entire nature of the film. Hopefully no one gives it away to you because, despite this didn’t-see-that-coming development, the film trades on a different kind of suspense and a couple of pretty rich themes from then on. Although we’ve been treated by this point to the appearance of a couple of lovely women from town, store employees Becca (Jessica Lynn Parsons) and Kate (Nikki Brown), their part in the story is mostly minimal. Not so when Liz shows up at last. Chelsea Kurtz does a fine job investing Liz with depth of character and conflicting emotions. She and Fein have clear chemistry and authentic-sounding conversations, and there is some seriously good acting going on here, as a sense of buried romantic potential must compete with a few other developing themes. You sort of WANT these two to get together. A dripping faucet in the kitchen, which Jack promises to fix at least twice, provides a metaphor for the passing of both time and opportunity, and these two terrific actors really do make you want to see what will happen in the next scene. The grim nature of reality, however, prepares you to expect bad stuff. Director and co-writer Kevin Del Principe shows plenty of command with his helming of this tale, and he has the patience to trust that most audiences will take the ride, slow though it may be at times. I think he has the makings of an exceptional filmmaker.

UP ON THE GLASS (Chelsea Kurtz) (publicity still)

I simply can’t say a word about the ending. I watched this film early in the morning, letting a couple of its big surprises wash through me, and I want to enjoy my feeling of sheer admiration, something I don’t feel near enough these days after I screen a film. You do NOT get a neat resolution of anything with UP ON THE GLASS. It does almost nothing that you want or expect it to do. It certainly gives you a couple of complex characters with shifting motivations. And it creates its own brand of intense suspense that for me was truer to what might happen in real life than a dozen bigger budget films. And I liked all six of the principal actors, with something pretty unforgettable being captured here by Chase Fein. He’s an actor to watch. Judging from a few less enthusiastic reviews on IMDB, not everyone was enamored with Del Principe’s directorial vision, however, and you certainly could be forgiven if you don’t like the main plot twist or the way you’re left hanging at the end. But I genuinely admired this film for how it avoided the obvious at most turns, and tried to hint at much bigger themes and character conflicts than what we usually get on screen. I won’t forget UP ON THE GLASS, that’s for sure, and I plan to follow the careers of virtually everyone who played a part in making it.

ECHO BOOMERS

(SABAN FILMS/SPEAKEASY/ORGANIC MEDIA GROUP/FOTON PICTURES/DARK DREAMS ENTERTAINMENT (100 minutes; Rated R); 2020)

You set yourself a real challenge as a director by making a film about unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, something that director/co-writer Seth Savoy was probably NOT thinking that much about when he helmed ECHO BOOMERS, a sort of “millennials gone wild and destructive” story timed to coincide with the bitter division and economic meltdown of recent years (though pre-Covid). It’s hard to sympathize all that much with a quintet of college graduates bitter over debt and fewer real opportunities, who decide to work for a greedy criminal entrepreneur named Mel (Michael Shannon), robbing mansions of the well-to-do and then utterly destroying as much of their untaken possessions as possible. We know right away things aren’t going to turn out well because the film opens with an author (Lesley Ann Warren) asking the most conscience-troubled and otherwise sort of likable member of the gang named Lance (Patrick Schwarzenegger) if he’d be willing to recount the troubled tale for a book she wants to write about the dastardly crime spree. So events unfold in flashback, as Lance is asked by his cousin Jack (Gilles Geary) to join in an “opportunity” to make some good money and have some fun. We meet the crew at a poker game, with abrasive and dour Ellis (Alex Pettyfer) and the charismatic female member Allie (Hayley Law) providing the most screen presence apart from Lance. The gang have pre-arranged addresses of their wealthy targets; they then wear evil masks, go in and bust the place up big time (an explanation from Lance about the destruction preferences of each member – one likes to destroy family photos, one prefers disintegrating the most valuable objects – is genuinely painful to experience, but at least it’s given a bit of expository background), and retrieve selected paintings and other valuables for the resourceful Mel to fence through his connections. Money comes in, everyone theoretically gets paid, and that’s that.

ECHO BOOMERS (Hayley Law, Alex Pettyfer, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Oliver Cooper, Jacob Alexander, Gilles Geary) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

Not for long, though. Mel doesn’t trust his charges overall, and newcomer Lance really has a lot to prove. The gang don’t trust each other much either, and it’s quickly established that Ellis is keeping a watchful eye on Lance for his receptivity to Allie, who is obviously sort of involved with the tougher guy. Tension grows exponentially, with Lance doing a voiceover about the various “lessons” of this trade (ie: “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep”) and how these quickly evolve into rules. The “they” he refers to, of course, is those dang selfish rich people, and it doesn’t quite wash that they deserve all this intrusion and destruction, especially when the motivation of the young anarchists is so selfish and unfocused. As stated earlier, these jerks aren’t that likable; moments of character and conscience are present but scattered. What makes the film compelling is wondering where the slip-ups will occur that will bring this enterprise crashing down, trying to follow Lance’s mini-journey of morality as he’s the most relatable character, and wondering if Mel or Ellis will erupt in violence, something that is certainly hinted at. To the film’s credit, it does NOT take a truly predictable path compared to similar genre offerings, and it does have some things to say about greed and trust issues in a criminal endeavor that is clearly shaky to begin with. This sort of keeps you watching. The opening clips from CNN newsreels about the nature of the times set an interesting tone, but doesn’t really provide enough context for what has motivated these entitled lawbreakers. You’re glad when things are brought to a halt, and I give Savoy credit for keeping a steady hand as a director and pacing the story more than competently.

ECHO BOOMERS (Lesley Ann Warren) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

The actors all do fine, especially Schwarzenegger and Shannon, a veteran of countless productions. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lesley Ann Warren also, who has long been one of my all-time favorite actresses and a genuinely underrated talent for decades. She’s only in a few scenes here, which is a shame, as she always brings a certain authority and believability to anything she does. But it’s still great to catch her again. It’s impossible to say if ECHO BOOMERS will find an enthusiastic audience; it doesn’t break much new ground, and other than seeing a lot of stuff get smashed up, nothing is all that shocking. But it’s worth a view as a character study of bummed-out millennials doing dirty deeds not so dirt cheap. And maybe a rule should be added to Lance’s list which stops at 10: “You play with fire too much, and eventually you’ll probably get burned.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.

ROBIN’S WISH

(QUOTABLE PICTURES/VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT (77 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Our impressions of comic genius Robin Williams over the years came mostly from his manic, unpredictably spontaneous appearances on various late night talk shows, where he was a frequent guest, and from his creatively cultivated movie career, where he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was more than just an inspired funnyman in films such as GOOD WILL HUNTING (for which he won an Oscar), DEAD POETS SOCIETY, AWAKENINGS, THE FISHER KING, the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM series and many more. Williams had the kind of crazed, full-tilt energy that was hard to keep up with for audiences and fellow performers alike. “He was a constant spark,” says director Shawn Levy in the poignant new documentary ROBIN’S WISH. “I remember many many days when Ben Stiller and I were watching Robin Williams in his head just GO OFF, and that kind of manic, wildly creative bottomless pit of ideas – that mojo, that ability which was like a superpower; I’d never seen anything like it.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Shawn Levy and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

None of us had, of course. Although other comic icons like George Carlin had the ability to free-associate and connect different thematic threads inventively, Williams was unique in his rapid fire characterizations (often lasting just a few seconds), his physicality and his matchless ability to adjust immediately to a host’s question or an audience’s vibe by veering breathlessly from one comic tour de force to another. Arguably there has never been a comic artist with such an adrenaline-fueled presentation so consistently, and it could wear people out. As the movie makes clear, it sometimes did that to Williams himself. As we learn quickly in this compelling documentary, the culprit for what ultimately preyed upon and then killed Williams was a rare condition called Lewy Body Dementia, an insidious brain condition that has no cure. Williams never knew he had it.

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams memorial outside his home, 2014) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

“Lewy Body Dementia is particularly tragic in the way that it increases anxiety, increases self-doubt, causes delusions and misbeliefs that have never been present,” one of Williams’ main physicians explains. Robin’s wife, Susan Schneider, our primary “guide” for the downward journey we see the icon take in this well-realized doc, adds “When someone gets sick like that, it’s so confusing. It’s not their heart that’s sick. It’s the mainframe. It’s the computer. That’s very different.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams) (photo courtesy: RICHARD CORMAN)

Williams started showing signs of difficulty a couple of years before his death by suicide in 2014, an event that shocked the entertainment world. We hear from many of his close friends and colleagues in the movie such as Rick Overton, Mort Sahl, Shawn Levy (producer/director of the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM franchise) and David E. Kelley (producer of Williams’ final TV project, THE CRAZY ONES, in which he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar). All pay tribute to his love of performing and his boundless comic gifts. There’s a poignant segment on Williams’ close friendship with the late Christpher Reeve, and a spirited chapter on the LA comedy club the Throckmorton, where Williams began showing up for legendary, well-attended improv nights. Some of his colleagues talk about how difficult it was to even keep up with his energy. But some noticed him slowing down or starting to not show up. “There’s nothing sadder than when a comedian is by himself,” says one upon describing seeing Williams sitting alone one day.

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

Something was very wrong, and the tragedy this film makes so clear is that Williams simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Directors such as Levy describe how the actor would need to “check” if his work was okay, needing more and more reassurance. He took it personally, thinking he was losing his talent or ability to focus when in fact the truth was more insidious. Susan Schneider, who tears up and talks about how she and Williams met, how much they were in love and how gradually the change happened, makes the tragic elements of the story abundantly clear. “We had unknowingly been battling a deadly disease,” she says, “one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

It’s a marvel to see Williams doing voiceover work for some of his popular animated characters, and an eventful trip he took to entertain troops in the middle east ends up being unbearably sad. Williams had the proverbial heart of gold; he was a deeply empathetic person, wanting to make a difference to others while sometimes barely being able to reign in the untameable talent he possessed. For all the incredible work he did in his career, 63 seems far too young to be his age at death. He surely had much more to give, and though the film alludes to past episodes of substance abuse, it’s made clear that he was “sober, not on drugs” before he died. The film does a fine job of balancing observations of Williams by those who knew him best, with the need to explain about this bizarre “Lewy body” disease and the awfulness of debilitating brain disorders in general. Be warned that the grief and sadness hold more sway in this doc than the celebratory aspects of Williams’ talent, which you can find elsewhere. ROBIN’S WISH is an examination of a tragedy, an unexpected shutting of the doors on one of the most promising comedy and acting careers of all time. Director Tylor Norwood keeps matters close to the heart throughout, and gives us probably the most personal look we’ve ever had at Williams. If you’re prone to tears, you may want to keep the kleenex box close at hand while watching this movie. The degree to which Williams honestly CARED is the strongest impression you come away with. And you won’t soon forget the moment that Susan finds a scribbled note in one of her husband’s books after he died. It says, simply, “I want to help people be less afraid.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams’ wish) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

More info at: robinswishfilm.com

LIMBO

(UNCORK’D ENTERTAINMENT/ALTERNATE ENDING FILMS/LIMBO ENTERTAINMENT (89 minutes; Unrated); 2020)


Whenever I’m assigned a review for a low-budget indie type film, usually something I’ve never heard of before, I have a tendency to mentally prepare myself for an experience that’ll be tedious and hard to write about, as has been the case more than a few times. It’s just that there are only so many ways to make a film genuinely entertaining and interesting; the “surprise factor” is a rarity in below-the-radar films. Imagine my pleasant reaction, then, when LIMBO turned up, on a particularly bad day for me when I was mostly making myself kill time, and lo and behold it grabbed me right away and didn’t let go. There have been other films that combined the legal profession and the underlying theme of good versus evil – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE comes to mind – but there is enough clever, offbeat stuff in LIMBO to make it a worthy viewing experience. A timeless theme that has occurred throughout the history of films is given some curious new life here thanks to writer/director Mark H Young’s clear interest in the whole “heaven or hell” debate. And yes, I was surprised.

LIMBO (Veronica Cartwright) (publicity still)

A bad brute of a guy, Jimmy Boyle (Lew Temple) commits a senseless murder of a mother of three (Veronica Cartwright in a brief but memorable appearance), and must face justice. It’s giving nothing away to say that he dies himself; the film is concerned with whether he’s going to go to hell, or get a “redemption” that would allow him to go to heaven. So two attorneys in a dingy underworld office must argue the case: Balthazar (Lucian Charles Collier), a young looking guy with an oddly casual accent, gets to make what surely appears to be an open-and-shut case for why this reprehensible killer should go straight to hell, even though the “witnesses” called indicate he had a horrible, abusive father and a drug-addict mother. But not so fast: the white-suited new attorney for Jimmy, an attractive gal named Cassiel (Scottie Thompson) has some pluck and energy to take a deeper look into Jimmy’s past; this includes exploring his atypical relationship with a self-aware prostitute named Angela (Lauryn Canny). Balthazar is being pressured to “close this case down” quickly by a nasty rep for Lucifer named Belial (a fiery Peter Jacobson). And it sure seems like Jimmy is irredeemable; in fact, Cassiel tries to quit the case, figuring this is just NOT going so well. But Mark H Young has some things he wants to say about humanity and justice. “I’m very confused,” Cassiel tells Balthazar at one point. “I put my trust in God. But now that I’ve seen what humans can do with my own eyes, I don’t know what I believe anymore.” And the film does take a more interesting than you’d expect view of what makes a guy bad, with a couple of interesting twists.

LIMBO (Richard Rhiele, Lucian Charles Collier) (publicity still)

There is some dark humor along the way, and a crucial bit of acting levity by Richard Riehle as Phil, a wisecracking stenographer, whom film fans will remember from his role as Tom Smykowski in the cult film OFFICE SPACE. I enjoyed the understated, sort of weary back-and-forth between Collier and Thompson, two actors I was not familiar with; there’s a grudging mutual respect for the very separate worlds of good and evil that each has to represent. We do see various demons with minimal horns sticking out of their heads, including Riehle’s character, walking in and out of various scenes, and there’s an amusing sequence in a hell bar. And by the time Lucifer himself appears near the end (James Purefoy, adding to the endless unique interpretations of a character we’ve been conditioned to ALWAYS be curious about), enough interesting stuff has unfolded in this movie to make Purefoy’s performance a genuine delight.

LIMBO (James Purefoy) (publicity still)

While Temple is mostly one-dimensional in his portrayal as Jimmy, he is certainly unsettling to watch and provides a mostly compelling story arc. Thompson and Collier are both so unconventional they make things move along rather briskly, and Jacobson and Riehle are excellent. LIMBO aims for a fresh look at the most timeless theme in the world, that being good versus evil – and there are times when the plot is really a stretch. Jimmy doesn’t give us enough depth to care that much about him, and certainly there are questions of plausibility throughout. But I truly liked the setup of this film, and the whole notion of everyone getting a “trial” to see which way they are going after they die. The script has more panache than I expected, and I would say Young is a director to watch. I was never bored watching LIMBO; in fact, I am kind of eager to see it again. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, considering my not so enthusiastic attitude when the opening credits first rolled.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.

SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”