Quick ‘Tones

Jazz may be the closest thing we have to a universal language. In its variety of instruments, its profusion of forms, and its embrace of influences, it owns a global musical lexicon and a glittering treasury of artifacts.

All of these facets are on display in Live at the Quick (2002), a concert documentary of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Quick Center For the Arts in Fairfield, Connecticut.

The ensemble features the core Flecktones group: Bela Fleck, the world’s most accomplished banjo player on acoustic and electric synth banjos and guitar; Victor Lemonte Wooten on fretted and fretless basses; Jeff Coffin on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, clarinet, and flute; and Future Man, a percussionist who invented the synth-ax drumitar, an instrument that produces pre-recorded electronic percussive effects that he plays along with a traditional drum kit.

Andy Narell plays steel pans and keyboards; Paul Hanson brings on the bassoon; Paul McCandless handles oboe, English horn, soprano and sopranino saxes, and penny whistle; Sandip Burman works the tabla; and Congar ol’Ondar, a Mongolian Tuvan throat singer, resplendent in native costume, sings in transcendent style.

Bela says, “I heard the banjo when I was about eight or nine years old. I fell in love with it, just the sound of it… But growing up in New York City, I was also hearing everything that was happening in the Sixties. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell – those were some of my favorites – all the bands, Chick Corea and jazz, classical music. I just loved it all. And so I’ve tried to play those musics on the banjo and find ways to make it fit… Through the years I’ve run into people that play strange instruments in strange ways…”

“Here’s a guy,” Andy Narell observes, “who took the banjo out of the bluegrass band and is doing something totally different with it. And the band is kind of full of people like that who are doing something different with their instrument.”

“I might be a good guy to call to play the oboe and the English horn,” Paul McCandless notes, “because there aren’t that many guys who improvise and are comfortable in sort of an extemporaneous style on those instruments.”

Jeff Coffin asserts, “I think Bela is an amazing leader of a group that he professes not to lead in some ways.”

“As a leader of a band, I’m a leader among equals.” Bela explains, “It’s not like I can tell anybody, ‘Hey, now I want you to do this.’ It’s not like that. I mean, everything has to be arrived at… in a way where everybody feels good about it. There’s a lot of input. Everybody does their own thing. I don’t really tell people what to play. Unless I have to. Like unless it’s a pressure situation and I feel like I have the solution. That’s another part of my life, that’s producing the records or being the traffic cop in a big situation like this. It’s stressful, but it’s very rewarding when it all comes out good.”

The Quick performance reprises tunes from the Flecktones’ Outbound album (2000) and other numbers, with guest performers accumulating song by song as the set progresses. The video is intercut with interviews of Bela and the band members.

1. intro – “That Old Thing” (woodwind unison with Coffin, Hanson, and McCandless)

2. “Earth Jam” (introducing Wooten, Future Man, and Fleck)

3. “Lover’s Leap” (adding Narell)

4. “Zona Mona”

5. “Ovombo Summit” (solo by Future Man playing synth-ax with the left hand, drums and cymbals with the right)

Bela: “When I was in Newgrass Revival and in the bluegrass world, I learned from Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush and Stewart Duncan and Vassar Clements. Everything they played I tried to figure out how to play. In the Flecktones I try to figure out what Victor’s playing… I try to learn the rhythms that Future Man is playing. I try to learn the saxophone language – the jazz language that Jeff plays in his solos… It just starts to all creep in. And so, even though my heroes… Chick Coreas and the Charlie Parkers… I probably studied them more. The truth is I probably learned more from the people I play with.”

6. “Hall of Mirrors” (Sandip Burman appears)

7. “Scratch and Sniff” (deploying synthesizers on Hanson’s bassoon and Coffin’s tenor sax)

8. “Amazing Grace” (solo by Wooten in bouncy blues style, melody expressed in overtone harmonics)

9. “Big Country” (full band)

Bela: “Big Country” is one of those tunes that just sort of arrived in my head – done – in my mind. And what I do when that happens is I call myself. I call my machine at home. And I sing the melody. And I can’t, I’m not, I shouldn’t be singing in the first place. But it’s just the only thing I can do since the melody’s gonna be gone; in another minute it’ll be gone. That’s the nature of composition… the inspiration factor. And then there’s the craft. How do you take that inspired moment and how do you make it into something that’s complete and makes sense all the way through?”

10. “Alash Khem” (Alash River Song”) (solo by Cogar ol’Ondar)

Bela: “Ondar would have to be one of those things that just fell into our lap. It was just a perfect fit from the first time. And audiences, their minds are blown when they hear a guy get up there and sing three notes at one time. You know they’ve never heard that before.”

That includes your reviewer, who feared, on first hearing Congar, that he was having an auditory hallucination.

11. “A Moment So Close” (featuring vocals by Future Man and Ondar)

12. “Prelude From Violin Partita No. 3” by J.S. Bach (Fleck, acoustic banjo solo)

Bela: “So we always change things around… We don’t even write the set list ’til right before we go on stage. Never play the same show twice in a row. We do all these things to try and trick ourselves into being spontaneous… And it happened. It works a lot of the time.”

13. “Hoe Down” (from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet, with full band, featuring a blues raga break with Fleck and Burman trading measures on banjo and tabla)

14. encore – “Ah shu Dekio” (Congar ol’Ondar on morinchur and vocals with full band)

The Live at the Quick video was directed by Marc Smerling for Notorious Pictures. A Live at the Quick CD was also released in 2002.

There is no better way to enjoy music than to be there with the musicians while they make it. Since we cannot always be with world class performers where they work, we can be grateful for the medium that transports them to us. At our leisure we can hear and see Bela Fleck coaxing the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach from the banjo, Congar ol’Ondar conjuring a trio from his throat, and countless other priceless coins from the inexhaustible mint of concerts on film.

 

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 8, 2017)

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Dumb Things Done In Movies – Scene 2

It’s dark in the cellar. We move cautiously down the narrow hallway between the dank wall with peeling plaster and a tall, shapeless stack of dusty cartons, poking the beam of our flashlight at a rat scuttling along the baseboard. We are edging toward a door, never opened before because we have just found the key clutched in the fist of a partially decomposed corpse in a casket disinterred by accident in the back yard. Behind the door there is something creepy, something awful and ineffable, a horrific secret never meant to be revealed. Our mounting dread wrestles with rising panic. The flashlight illuminates a lock flecked with rust.

“REEOWW!” The cat leaps from her hiding place among the mouldering boxes, nearly brushing our face with stiff whiskers in a blur of gray fur.

Cut! Wait a minute. Couple of points to be made here.

First: Apart from the sudden, unexpected hand on the shoulder or the shrill ring of the telephone ripping the dead silence, is there a more shopworn gimmick in the horror flick than the startled cat? Did they really do that again for the billionth time?

Second: When was the last time you personally witnessed a domestic feline behave this way? You never have, have you? Because cats don’t do this! A startled cat does one of two things – cower or run for cover. No cat would ever screech and leap from a secure perch into an empty space or rush toward a threat. Cats save their screeching for other cats. They are not dumb.

It’s the movie makers that are dumb. They are so dumb that, rather than exercise a speck of imagination, they exhume a cinematic cliche so long exhausted that the only suspense it enhances is the viewer’s curiosity: how long will it take these harlequins to spring the startled cat?

Give it a rest, film crafters. After 120 years of movie images rushing past our weary eyes, we are ready to retire the startled cat.

Traveling Lady, Stay Awhile

    In 1971, the year following the great success of his movie M*A*S*H, Robert Altman chose to adapt Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe about an amiable drifter who discovers his soul in the harsh, unpromising outback of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century.

    Altman assembled his stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a group of durable character actors, including William Devane, John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, and Michael Murphy, and ingenues Keith Carradine (his first role) and Shelley Duvall (her second). He instructed his cast to select their own wardrobes from thrift shops and personal belongings, prepare themselves to live in rudimentary dwellings near the set for the duration of the shoot, and not to expect excellent weather.

    The result was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a dreamy, sensuous, and affecting film about ambition, pride, romance, character, and community. A sense of fragility and bust held at bay pervades the story, emphasized by the gently rueful songs of Leonard Cohen and the presence of rain, mud, or snow in nearly every scene. Digging in against the elements, determined miners scrape from their living from ore reluctantly disgorged by the hills, finding their comfort in rugged humor, bottled spirits, and muted camaraderie as the town of Presbyterian Church takes shape around them.

    The arrival of the mysterious stranger McCabe (Beatty) brings mutual benefit. He is rumored to have shot dead a notorious bad man, but he seems to have no more aim than to be one of the boys, taking his chances along with everybody else at rude poker and raw whiskey. McCabe is accustomed to solitude; he communes with himself in muttered monologues. Among the residents of the hardscrabble town, he finds he is the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Acceptance by his newfound friends stirs ambitions he was not aware he had. He sees the profits to be banked by bringing the town a commodity it most eagerly needs: prostitutes.

     Fancying himself an astute cosmopolitan, McCabe is blindsided by the beautiful, calculating, and thoroughly worldly Mrs. Miller (Christie), the madame who follows the imported ladies of pleasure. McCabe falls for her like Cascade mountain rain. Though their business relationship redounds to their personal advantage and enhances the town’s prosperity, no effort of charm, sincerity, or plea can crack Mrs. Miller’s granite heart. Turned away at her door, McCabe audits their partnership. “Money and pain. Pain, pain, pain.” Mrs. Miller’s impenetrable reserve prompts McCabe’s disconsolate soliloquy, “You’re just freezin’ my soul. That’s what you’re doin’. Freezin’ my soul.”

    The booming town inevitably attracts the interest of a large mining corporation that dispatches representatives to buy out McCabe and Miller’s holdings to cement their local monopoly. Confronted by an obstinate McCabe, the company resorts to more intimidating tactics, sending the implacable Butler (Hugh Millais) with a pair of surly gunmen. Will McCabe and Miller sell out? Will they ever pledge their troth? Are they the only thing standing between Presbyterian Church and the relentlessly controlling forces of commerce?

    In his long, fruitful career, Robert Altman (1925 – 2006) wrote, directed, or produced 34 films for the big screen and dozens of movies, series episodes, documentaries, and short features for television. He favored experimental approaches in style and story. In this film he spotlights main characters with appreciable flaws, portrays prostitutes in warm, familial glow, and fills backgrounds with chatty ensembles conducting business without reference to the principal action.

    McCabe & Mrs. Miller may have been submerged by the acclaim accorded many of Altman’s other movies, but it is a work perfectly realized in its chemistry, atmosphere, and effect. Life is rarely an all-out war against the armies of darkness. For most it is the humble struggle to put down roots, to nurture one’s designs, to be something for someone, to defy transience and impermanence.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, July 2011)

The Kids Were Alright

    Considering all that has been written about The Who by music critics, biographers, and pop journalists, there is not much left to say about this forceful, inventive, and influential rock aggregate. Thanks to Amazing Journey (2007), however, there are still fresh things to see.

    The twin DVDs in this set produced by Nigel Sinclair, Bill Curbishley, and Robert Rosenberg include The Story of The Who and Six Quick Ones. These documentaries assemble live performances and recording sessions, archival newsreels, television and movie clips, interviews with the principals, their managers, producers, family, friends, and fellow rock musicians (Sting, The Edge, Eddie Vedder, Noel Gallagher, Steve Jones, and others) from 1964 through 2003.

    The Story of The Who tracks the band’s career from the earliest days of their emergence from among scores of English performers scrambling for attention in the wake of the commercial tsunami known as the “British Invasion” of 1964, spearheaded by the Beatles’ successful penetration of the American marketplace.

    The extraordinary thing about this footage is that there is so much of it. That is owed to The Who’s first managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert – entertainment industry promoters with no particular ear for pop music – who surveyed the lively London scene in the spring of ’64 looking for a promising group to manage and to film in action for a movie. Their selection of The Who – then billing themselves as The High Numbers – for their project proved to be miraculous. Suppose they had picked Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five? They could not have foreseen any more than the band themselves that The Who would become rock immortals.

    The hits started coming immediately. I Can’t Explain, The Kids Are Alright, My Generation, Magic Bus, Happy Jack, and I Can See For Miles were chartbusters in Great Britain and the U.S.A. The documentary cameras continued to roll. The Who recorded an advertising jingle for Coca-Cola, which inspired their first concept album, The Who Sell Out.

    One could isolate The Who’s four consecutive studio albums, The Who Sell Out (1968), Tommy (1969), Who’s Next (1971), and Quadrophenia (1973) to bury in a time capsule with the assurance that, when unearthed by archeologists centuries hence, the vigor, spirit, urges, concerns, and musical vocabulary of the first quarter century of rock ‘n roll would be amply represented and potently distilled.

    The Who were by no means a seamless ensemble. Musically and temperamentally they were more distinguished by their individuality than by their cohesion. The subtraction of any one of their members however, would have meant a sundering of the whole, a fact sadly demonstrated in 1978 when rambunctious drummer Keith Moon died shortly after the release of Who Are You?, the group’s last hit. Each of the other three band mates ventured solo careers. Roger Daltrey struggled to find suitable material for his rugged voice. John Entwhistle harnessed melodic, ostinato-free bass figures with brass sections and his sardonic sense of humor in several albums, but could not sustain commercial viability. Only Pete Townshend possessed sufficient artistry and imagination to craft exciting, affecting songs in his own right.

    If there had ever been any doubts, it became clear in later years that The Who had been Pete Townshend’s band all along. The tensile strength in Townshend’s direct, introspective writing embodied thoughtful vulnerability even as his music summoned thunder. The Who wanted their performances to be seen and felt as much as heard. Their decibel level pressurized eardrums and their stage antics – the windmill guitar chords, the amplifiers pounded for feedback, and the furious destruction of guitars and drum kits – suggested rage shrugging off restraint.

    The band members were notoriously fractious. In their interviews, Daltrey and Townshend are candid about their difficulties in working together, as well as their personal weaknesses, creative failures, and affection for intoxicating substances.

    Six Quick Ones is designed to be complementary with The Story of The Who. It covers some of the same ground, including some of the same interviews and documentary footage. Where the first film presents a chronological history of The Who, the second is organized into six segments (plus bonus material), bringing into focus each of the band’s four members, a study of the group’s conceptual framework and art school influences, and a recording session that spotlights The Who as constituted in 2003.

    All writing about music suffers from being naturally unmusical. Its purpose is typically critical, expository, or promotional. Even if it were cast as lyric poetry with inspired phonemes and complex rhythms, it would still be language, absent tonal pitch, timbre, melody, harmony, and sonic dimensions. This review of Amazing Journey can offer only arid sentiment and parched opinion. The DVDs invite the viewer with a thirst for The Who or for the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s to sip cool draughts straight from the wellspring.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, August 2010)

Heart Felt

    Mother Africa is the cradle of our species. She has also given birth to so much of our music that we sometimes lose our ear for its origins. “I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it is so much associated with a white Southern stereotype,” says Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument. In Throw Down Your Heart (2008), he documents his six-week sojourn to Africa to discover whether the modern banjo still has a vibrant voice in the land where it was born.

    The banjo is a descendant of an instrument that African slaves brought to the New World in the 16th century. It sat in the laps of musicians in cane and cotton fields, in plantation shacks and sheds, atop the levees and bales of raw goods that stood along the rivers that brought the blues to the bustling gulf ports.

    By the early 19th century, the banjo was an essential element in plantation cake walks and white minstrelsy. It accompanied sailors in their sea chanteys and traveled west with hopeful miners toward the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the presentation banjo was adopted as a parlor instrument alongside the player piano. In the early 20th century, it sang in the ragtime orchestra and the nascent New Orleans jazz bands. By the 1930s, the banjo had disappeared from the jazz ensemble, though it continued to flourish in folk music and in the jigs and reels of barn dances in the Appalachian states that reached a national audience through radio broadcasts. In the mid-1940s, the banjo burst forth as an instrument of arresting brilliance when it was featured in bluegrass music.

    In the four countries on his itinerary, Bela Fleck steers clear of big cities and large venues. He, along with sound engineer Dave Sinko and director Sascha Paladino’s filmmaking crew, head for the bush and the villages “to play with great African musicians and find a role for the banjo in their music.”

    In each of his stops, Bela connects with a musician to serve as host and translator and to introduce the party to locals and their particular instruments and tradition. He emphasizes that he has no wish to be front and center among the players, but prefers to take a seat on the backbench. In every group setting, he adds his banjo’s voice as if he were politely joining a conversation already in progress.

    The first destination is Uganda. The filmmakers stage a boisterous audition in Jinja to recruit musicians familiar with the local music. From there the party travels to the village of Nakisenyi. In nearby Lwanika, Bela meets his first guide, Walusimbi Haruna, a professional musician whose specialty is the thumb piano. “Music is in every aspect of life,” Haruna explains. The visit includes a stop at the grave of Haruna’s late father, where burial customs in Africa and America are compared. In a touching moment, Bela is visibly caught off guard when Haruna is overcome with grief as they play a song about his father.

    The thumb piano is culturally regarded as a man’s instrument, but Jinja’s prodigy, it turns out, is Ruth Akello, a woman who sings like an angel and plays like a “wizard.” Nakisenyi possesses an enormous marimba, a communal instrument played by many people at once that sounds “like a rock band.”

    The filmmakers depart Nakisenyi with sadness. Dabbing at tears, Bela notes, “I felt truly welcomed.”

    The second destination gives the film its name. Bagamoyo, in Tanzania, means “throw down your heart.” Bagamoyo was a seaside collection point for the transport of slaves. Unfortunate captives knew that when they glimpsed the sea they should thrown down their hearts because they would never see their homes again.

    The Tanzanian guide is John Kitime. Bela had hoped he might meet Hukwe Zawose, the legend of traditional Gogo music, but is disappointed to learn that Zawose had died a few years earlier. He is delighted to find blind vocalist and thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga alive and well. The two compose and record seamless inventions from their very first session.

    At a brief stopover in Dar Es Salaam, Bela becomes acquainted with determinedly tribal young Masai, who are pleased to demonstrate their traditional forms of dance.

    The travelers cross the continent for their third destination, the Gambia, believed to be the birthplace of the banjo. Sniffing the Gambian air, Bela quips, “I can smell banjo.”

    Jil Ekona Jatta is the Gambian guide. He introduces Bela to the akonting, a 3-string banjo ancestor. We see an akonting constructed as American banjos had been until the early 1800s: an animal skin is nailed to a hollowed calabash with a shaved hardwood pole run through it. After several days of drying in the sun, a carved bridge is glued to the head and strings of gut or hemp fiber are attached.

    “It felt really natural playing with the musicians in Gambia,” Bela reports. “It felt like the banjo was supposed to be there.”

    The fourth and final stop is Bamako, Mali, the “crown jewel of the African music community.” The hostess is Oumou Sangare, the great “songbird” of Mali’s Wassulu music, who owns the hotel the filmmakers enjoy during their stay and moves among adoring crowds with the regal grace of one born to the purple.

    Bassekou Kouyate, the town griot (“keeper of customs”) introduces Bela to guitar hero Djelimady Toukara and ngoni master Harouna Samake.

    As we listen to the handcrafted lutes, harps, flutes, whistles, shakers, and drums of contemporary Africans, we are hearing instruments designed to perpetuate continuity with the ancestral past as well as the throbbing heart of the present. Some of this very music comforted the enslaved people dragged away to the Americas.

    Music of all cultures in every age evokes exuberance and despondency, celebration and rapture, discovery and contemplation. The modern banjo evolved to express the musical forms of our European-derived Western tradition with its machined instruments and tempered tuning systems. Does the banjo have a role in Africa music? Of course it does because the voice belongs to the player, not the instrument. “I just want to make great music,” says Bela Fleck, a man of endless imagination and expansive heart. His banjo voice is and always has been sublime. In every setting it is truly welcomed.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, June 2010)

Alas, Poor Yorick

According to the French periodical Cahiers du Cinema, in their appreciation of the film at hand… but our request to reprint their opinion has not as yet been answered so we are not at liberty to share it. Suffice it to say, there are “motion pictures” and there is “cinema.” Our subject, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001) is something else.

As Shakespeare wrote – was it Shakespeare? – wait, we have the quote here somewhere. If we can find it, we will come back to it later.

Confronted by such a screen spectacle, we tremble merely to contemplate its depths of profundity, its expanse of scope, its pierce of insight, its brilliance of illumination, its reverberation of consequence… Hold on a moment. We shall have to take our medication to stop this trembling before we can continue.

Science! Is there anything more dazzling, more exhilarating, more utile, more swollen with promise? Yes, there is. Power! Could there be a topic more topical, a surge more surgical, an import more important? Certainly there could be. Sex! What could be thrilling, more beckoning, more forbidden? Well, there’s one thing. Death! Is anything more entrancing to the mind, more hypnotic to the senses, more elusive to the soul? Okay, there is. Wealth! Dreams of untrammeled desire sated, of acquisitive urges empowered, of insecurities forever banished! But isn’t that the same thing as Power and Sex? Damn! Those trembles are back again.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has it all and much, much more. Science. Power. Sex. Death. Mysterious meteors. Aliens from outer space. Ray guns. Mutant monsters. Resurrected tyrants. Mesmerized slaves. Did I mention Science? And the seductive, alluring “Animala Dance”! Your hips will sway; your legs will twitch. You will be unable to remain in your seat. You will probably go to the kitchen for a snack.

The film’s trailer warns us, “You’ll be sterilized with fear!” It must be so because we find ourselves impotent to summarize in words a work that wrestles so far outside its weight class, in which each part is greater than the sum of its whole. Yet somehow it all goes together like skeletons and xylophone music. It’s very complicated. It’s scientific. Or, as Doctor Armstrong edifies his helpmate Betty, “You know what this meteor could mean to science. It could mean actual advances in the field of science.”

Who should rightfully possess the priceless atmospherium? Doctor Armstrong, the Earth scientist from Earth, Kro-Bar and Lattis, the stranded aliens who need it to power their space ship home to the planet Marva, or the imperious Lost Skeleton, arising like the noble dust of Alexander to assert his designs of world dominance and matrimony? The issues cudgel the brain.

The roles of the characters are played by actors. Larry Blamire does all the science as Doctor Paul Armstrong. His meals are prepared by faithful Fay Masterson as his wife and spouse Betty. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell are brave, resourceful, and confused as Kro-Bar and Lattis. Brian Howe is evil as Doctor Roger Fleming. Jennifer Blaire fuses forest creatures together to become Animala. The Skeleton plays the Skeleton.

Oh, before you go, here’s that quote we promised: “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” We have no idea what it means. Do you? We just dug it up because you can’t bury a good quotation. Or a skeleton.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, June 2010)

Brit Wit

    The tiny English hamlet of Little Wallop (Pop. 57) has its problems. Deaf Mr. Brown’s dog never stops barking. Ancient Mrs.Parker suspects there is a conspiracy afoot in the church Flower Arranging Committee to overturn her leadership. The local football club is so desperate to field a team to compete with the neighboring village that it has placed the entirely nonathletic church vicar between the goalposts. Nasty algae have invaded the pond behind the vicar’s house that have baffled local health authorities and turned the pool, like Little Wallop itself, into a murky uninviting stew whose continued existence is questionable.

    The swirling tensions in the tired little town are lost on earnest, well-meaning, and distracted Reverend Goodfellow, whose serious mind is absorbed by the challenge of composing the speech he must deliver to a convention of religious colleagues on the subject of “God’s Mysterious Ways.” He is unaware that his exasperated, sex-starved wife, exhausted by the sleepless nights caused by Mr. Brown’s dog, is about to run away to Mexico with a panting American golf pro, or that his over-ripe daughter is a nymph who will couple with any boy registering a pulse, or that his adolescent son is daily tormented by school bullies.

    The situation looks hopelessly clogged until the arrival of Grace, the Goodfellows’ new housekeeper, a protective, practical, problem-solving, paroled murderer.

    Keeping Mum (2005) puts the lie to the lament that there are few good film roles for women or elderly actors. The British seem to have no trouble finding supple scripts to keep their seniors in front of the camera. Octogenarian Liz Smith is the paranoid Mrs. Parker and septuagenarian Maggie Smith is sharp and clear-eyed as the homicidal housekeeper who keeps finding uses for the dark pond behind the house. A buttoned-down Rowan Atkinson and a feverish Kristin Scott Thomas are the preoccupied reverend and his at-wit’s-end wife. Patrick Swayze is suitably creepy as the lecherous American. Written by Richard Russo and director Niall Johnson, Keeping Mum is a delicious must-see for fans of Brit style dark comedy.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 2010)