Thursday, April 19, 2018

Letterboxd

I'm not especially prolific with multiple social media.  This is by choice.  I feel as if I have enough time drains in my life.  Facebook is more than enough.  I have a Twitter account that I rarely use.  Instagram? Nah. Snapchat? Oh, you kid.   I already send too much energy on my smartphone.  However.....

Late last summer a friend told me about Letterboxd, a social network that connects you with other movie lovers.  The site is mainly for logging films you've seen.  Some users only log films currently watched (or re-watched).  As it is quite a handy database, I went back and charted every film I could recall seeing.  This formidable task was assisted by using the browse by release date feature, and the hard copy laundry listing I began in the late 1990s.  At that time, I carefully went through Leonard Maltin's annual almanac and checked off what I had seen in my lifetime.  Then I wrote them all down.  Then I started listing my first time views.  It comprises several front and back 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper.

I'm still working through that task.  I'd estimated that I've watched around 3,000 films.  As I compose this entry my Letterboxd film list is at 2,741, far less than that of some of the folks I track (one has seen over 16,000 titles?!). There's something relaxing about this activity, so if ever feel like I'm wasting precious time I can always justify it as hypertension management.  Or an anxiety crusher.

Letterboxd ("Your Life in Film") allows you to rate films, write reviews, create specialized lists (and "want to watch" lists), and follow other fanatics who do likewise.  I've already learned much, and discovered several obscurities.  The data for Letterboxd comes from TMDb, a crowd sourced database.  IMDb was reportedly too expensive.  There are some missing titles.  Short films are included.

It's great fun for those of you who share my madness.  It's free, unless you become a "Pro" ($19 a year) or a "Patron" ($49 a year), which allows personalized statistics and other perks for you.  You can follow me: redeyespy.  I'd love to follow you too.

letterboxd.com

Monday, April 16, 2018

Sixteen Candles

Writer/director John Hughes began his celebrated, if brief, tenure as the Contemporary Bard of Teenage angst with 1984's SIXTEEN CANDLES.  His efforts were a relief from the waves of youth film idiocy that had plagued theaters and cable since the late '70s, many if not all trying to emulate NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE.  As you may know, Hughes wrote for National Lampoon magazine in the '70s and there demonstrated as lascivious a sense of humor as anyone, but also a quieter wit, one which occasionally distinguished his movies.

Occasionally.  Make no mistake, SIXTEEN CANDLES and the other Hughes dramedies all have moments of juvenile and crass humor.  Here, there is a long sequence at a party (parents out of town, natch) that, if described, makes everything sound excessive and stupid.  Like when plates slip off a weight bar and crash through a few floors, smashing into a wine cellar.  Or a pizza on a turntable.  A girl's hair gets caught in a door.  A guy is trapped under a glass table. A station wagon crashes into a parked car, but the latter's occupants don't notice 'cause they're making out.  Etc. Etc.

There is an also exchange student named Long Duk Dong, who is a walking caricature that has drawn plenty of controversy (moreso in these very sensitive times).  There are jokes about a girl's underpants - one character flashes them to a group of horny freshmen in the boys' room during a school dance.  A drunk prom queen type ends up spending the night with the central nerd in someone's father's Rolls Royce.  Dong, whose name when spoken is always followed by a gong on the soundtrack, also ends up drunk and flails around on the ground to the great embarrassment of his hosts.  Prior, when one of them calls the police to report Dong missing and offers a description of him, answers the dispatcher with '"No, he's not retarded!"

Sound horrible? Like just another just another '80s teen epic? I don't know how those of you who were not teenagers in the mid 80s will react to SIXTEEN CANDLES.  Many older folks either were apathetic or shook their heads in disbelief.  Some of those who weren't born yet watch it with disbelieving eyes these days.  I don't care.  I was fifteen in 1984 and Hughes struck a chord with me and millions of my Generation X brethren.  These were and are my teen movies, even if I also readily embrace and identify with films from and about other eras like ...if and DAZED AND CONFUSED.

What's so special about these movies? Their plots are as old as Drama itself - those with low esteem and impaired social standing crave the approval of their peers.  The stories were often predictable, and resolutions seemed pat or even undermined the personalities of the characters (see Allison in THE BREAKFAST CLUB).  But.....at the time, the insight Hughes gave his characters was a bit different than that of the average filmic teen.  Wit and intelligence shared real estate with the more silly moments.   They coexisted - there really couldn't be one without the other in this universe, one that was so familiar yet also fantastic and foreign in many ways.  This changed a bit with the later, more serious PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, which were written but not directed by Hughes.

I've failed to mention the plot of SIXTEEN CANDLES.  You don't know? Samantha (Molly Ringwald) is turning sixteen but her family is so wrapped up in preparing for her older sister's wedding that is forgotten.  To make matters worse, that guy she likes, Jake (Michael Schoeffling), the one who has the house party, seems not to notice her.  Unlike "Farmer Ted"(Anthony Michael Hall), a supergeek, who won't leave her alone.

The movie is played mostly for laughs, and Hughes demonstrates great timing, as does his cast, including John Cusack in an early role (his sister Joan is in this, too). Riotous funny at times.  Yes, even the barbs at the mentally changed, the Asian, the virginal, etc.  You do remember that Hughes wrote for the Lampoon?  Take no prisoners satire.  We seemed to have forgotten about comedy.  Often the "offensive" material shines the necessarily light of recognition on its targets, which can (and should) include all of us.  If we can't laugh at ourselves, we really do have nothing.

But Hughes is equally deft with the sober moments, the recognizable loneliness in the shadows of a high school gym.  Those moments are there, and make SIXTEEN CANDLES more than just a Clearasil wallow.

Friday, April 13, 2018

AC/DC: Let There Be Rock

1980's concert movie AC/DC: LET THERE BE ROCK truly is for fans only, but it may well convert a viewer or two.  Not necessarily because of any cinematic skills courtesy of directors Eric Dionysius and Eric Mistler. Oi, it's the music! Now you may think the Australian bad boys are just noise, with shrieky vocals and ribald lyrics to augment the grinding guitar wails, but in addition to being a bit slapdash in your summation you'd also be perhaps unfairly dismissive of their talent.  These guys started with the blues and tore off in their own disorganized but inspired directions. And they rock.

You might have read in an earlier entry describing how, at the age of twelve,  I became an instant fan in my friend's bedroom one afternoon, when he spun a 33 1/3 of Back in Black.  It was like nothing I had heard in my cloistered existence.  Soon after, I began listening to the older albums, like High Voltage and Highway to Hell, learning those tunes were sung by one Bon Scott, who co-wrote many of the lyrics and died before Back in Black was recorded.  Brian Johnson did, um, a hell of a job in his place but Scott was one of a kind.  He's stated that his vocals were inspired by Little Richard, and you can hear that.  Not everyone dug Scott's voice, though I never read anything as caustic as I had of Johnson's singing, described by one critic as "an automatic fart shooter."

AC/DC proved a problematic listening choice for my church going self, however.  It seemed every other song was about or had the word "hell" in the title.  I later interpreted this to be tongue in cheek, an effort to irritate authority figures and record burners.  But did Bon Scott have some odd obsession with the concept of damnation?  

LET THERE BE ROCK, named after AC/DC's 1977 album, was shot in Paris during the Highway to Hell tour.  The set list is choice, and not just the hits.  It's good to hear lesser knowns like "Walk All Over You" and "Shot Down in Flames" alongside fan faves like "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "Girl's Got Rhythm".  "Bad Boy Boogie" is highlighted by guitarist Angus Young's playful striptease out of his trademark school boy uniform.  Young truly is a "live wire" -  pumping his thigh in a jerky march across the stage and sometimes falling down and doing 360s on it, never missing a note.  He enters the crowd and later rides on the shoulders of Scott during an extended version of "Rocker".  He alone makes the movie worth seeing.

Interestingly though, for all the energy exhibited the concert footage simultaneously feels subdued, even muted at times.  It's really difficult to explain why.  Perhaps because everyone else seems anemic by comparison to Angus.   The camerawork is mostly standard, though there is the novelty of some overhead shots.  The music never suffers; each rendition creates the same excitement as when listening to the albums, stack of pennies on the stylus, under huge Koss headphones.  Would've loved to have been old enough to be at this show, or to have gone to the Plaza Theater in West Palm Beach, FL to catch a midnight showing (along with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).

There are also periodic interludes - semi-coherent band interviews and a few silly outdoor sequences, including a plane/car race and soccer kicks.  These scenes are filler, easy to take, but add little.  The off screen interviewer, who sounds like a computer, asks the guys how they perceive their band mates, how they contribute to the music, etc.  Bon Scott has a moment where he reminisces about his early days with the band, how he began as their chauffeur before grabbing the mic.  It's a bittersweet moment, knowing that he would pass away two months later.   The end credits dedicate the film "To Bon."  Did he get a hero's welcome in the sort of afterlife of which he sang?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Your Audiology Tutorial: Ossicular Chain

You may be familiar with the terms hammer, anvil, and stirrup to describe the three bones that connect the eardrum to the inner ear.   A more academic/medical restatement of that sentence:  You may be familiar with the terms malleus, incus, and stapes to describe the ossicular chain that connects the tympanic membrane in the middle ear space with the oval window in the inner ear.  Stated either way, these tiny bones (the tiniest in the human body, by the way) transmit sounds via vibrations from the drum and exert force on that oval window (a membrane covered opening).

You could think of the bones' vibration as sort of a piston-like action.  Moving medially from the tympanic membrane, the malleus' handle or "head" attaches to it, and articulates with the incus, which in turn articulates with the stapes, which rests against the oval window.   The stapedius muscle stabilizes the stapes by preventing excessive movement of it by pulling it back from the oval window.  If the stapedius muscle isn't contracting properly, normal sounds may be perceived as excessively loud.  The tensor tympani muscle in turn stiffens the ossicular chain by pulling the malleus into the middle ear space.  This physiology is known as the acoustic reflex, which will be explored in more detail in a later entry.

If the stapes' "footplate" is fused/fixed into the oval window, hearing loss may result.  The surgical procedure known as the stapedectomy involves replacement of the entire stapes or within the fused footplate with a prosthesis. Most procedures are successful but I have encountered a few patients who've reported otherwise.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Static

1985's STATIC is an undeservedly obscure movie that is just begging for rediscovery.  This is despite its co-writer/director Mark Romanek, who "wishes it would go away."  He all but denies its existence, stating that his debut was actually 2002's ONE HOUR PHOTO.  Harsh, Mark.  Puzzling, too.  Not many first timers create such a thoughtful, memorable film.   Possibly one of the most endearing character studies of the '80s.

I was always enticed by the synopsis:  a young man invents a monitor that he claims shows live images of Heaven.  That place where the afterlife occurs.   As with many films, I first learned about it from Leonard Maltin's annual almanac.  Finding this movie was an exercise in futility for many years.  I never caught it on cable, and I did not see availability on VHS, Beta, Laserdisc, DVD, DVD HD, Blu-Ray, PAL, or any other format.  Then one afternoon as I perused the On Demand offerings of Xfinity I saw the title and grabbed it, uncertain if another opportunity would ever arise.  I figured the video and audio quality would be poor (it was), but in this case I was so eager to finally watch the movie I wasn't concerned.

For the next hour and a half I was entirely engrossed, completely fascinated with a film that played much differently than I would've imagined.  This was good and bad, but mostly good.  Reviewers had always described STATIC as "weird", "eccentric", "odd", and while I would agree to some extent I found the film better summarized as "piquant" and "bittersweet".  Quite sad, too. Nowhere nearly as strange or way out as expected.  I was prepared for the movie to more fully exploit the idea of this unusual invention, toiled over for two years by a young man named Ernie Blick (Keith Gordon) following the tragic death of his parents in an automobile accident.  Maybe some sci-fi-ish moments.  We only see the device twice: on Christmas Eve when Ernie unveils it to his friends, and at the end, when a character peers into it one last time.

You might imagine several opportunities for theologiocal muses with this central idea.  The script (co-written by Gordon) also has Ernie being fired from a crucifix factory (for stealing the deformed ones,  which he places on his wall at home) and that his cousin Frank (Bob Gunton) is a wacky street evangelist, the sort  who yells "Jeee-zus" to unfortunate passersby as if the name was a weapon.  STATIC does fill its colorful,  creatively composed frames (Romanek would go on to direct rock videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, R.E.M., and many others) with visual ideas and motifs that will intrigue those who hunt for Christian imagery in their art.

For me, STATIC (a title with multiple meanings) works best as a study of small town life, of those who've found themselves unable to leave.  People like Ernie's friend Patty (Lily Knight) who's been a waitress as long as she can remember, unsure as to why life has turned out the way it did.  She's envious of Julia (Amanda Plummer, as a normal character!), another old friend of Ernie's who's found success in a New Wave band and come back into town for a visit, but opens up to her in a nice scene in a diner.  We also meet Frank's wife and twin boys, martyrs to their father's obsessiveness of a coming nuclear (and biblical) holocaust.  Ernie himself is stuck in both an emotional and geographic stalemate, and Gordon plays him quite well.  The script observes everyone sharply, but with a certain degree of warmth and even respect.  I wanted more time with these characters.  I feel they vanished before I really got to know them.

The final half hour does take a left turn into more satiric directions, and while I never found it overcooked, I was a bit displeased.  It made me wonder what Romanek and Gordon were really trying to say with their movie.   Then there's a finale I can't imagine anyone would've seen coming.  I found it an affront to many of the film's themes, but upon reflection I guess it made sense.  .

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Batman: The Killing Joke

Spoilers!

2016's BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE is an animated adaptation of the seminal graphic novel from 1988 that traces the sad history of the Joker, of how he became that ultra sadistic, sociopathic jackal who proves as evil as Batman is...conflicted.  Bob Kane's creation was always a tortured soul, and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's comic effectively portrayed the batsuit clad millionaire Bruce Wayne as near evenly matched by this most nefarious of criminals.  Director Sam Liu and writer Brian Azzarello have done a very faithful filmization, one that played in theaters for one night before its digital and DVD/Blu-ray releases.

I normally don't bother with animated spin offs that play on television or go straight to video.  The animation is usually sub par and the story lines trite.   My interest in superhero sagas of any stripe has dramatically declined over the past few years.  But there was something about this one that caught my attention.  That the source material was cited as an influence on Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's Batman sagas didn't hurt a bit.  THE KILLING JOKE was also the first Batman movie to receive an R-rating, indicating that things got plenty dark.

They certainly do.  Readers of the novel will recall the shocking crippling of Barbara Gordon, alter ego Batgirl and daughter of Gotham's Commissioner Gordon.  Also, the Joker's grotesque amusement park, a place where the Commisioner is stripped and humiliated, forced to observe nude images of his physically violated (in many ways) daughter.  The flashbacks to the Joker's origins - once a failed comedian who worries of how to provide for his pregnant wife - are terribly sad and ultimately hopeless. The filmmakers dive in full barrels with THE KILLING JOKE, leaving Batman frustrated and exhausted, despite his ultimate victory.  Though how that finale plays out, with a pull back from the arch-rivals, could lead to more than one interpretation.

Batfans do have some serious misgivings with this film's first half hour, new material featuring Batgirl's entanglement with a sleazily suave thief named Parris Franz.  This story does feel more like fodder seen on a basic cable program, with some cheesy asides and a few unfortunate bits of animation.  Ultimately, it effectively sets up the remainder of the movie, making that scene where Batgirl is ambushed by the Joker that much more resonant (she also gets an epilogue halfway through the credits, so stay tuned).  Another thing about this section of the movie: yes, it's true, Batgirl and Batman have intercourse.  No, it's not shown, not the reason for the R-rating (that would be for violence and some very creepy atmosphere later on).  But it was enough for many devotees to get up in arms.

I consider myself a fan of Kane's world, but I'm not slavish to the comics or unwilling to see liberties taken.  Batman is a complex dude and any gloom surrounding him seems entirely appropriate.  For a scholarly view of the Dark Knight, read my friend Alex Wainer's fascinating book Soul of the Dark Knight:Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.  Batman having sex with his protege didn't bother me a bit, but it was surprising.  Maybe it shouldn't be as superhero dramas move further away from Zap! Pow! yesteryears.

NOTE: Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy return as the voices of the Joker and Batman, respectively.  They are both excellent. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

I, Tonya

Some of the early reaction to I, TONYA, a retelling of the life of disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, was characterized by outrage.  There goes liberal Hollywood again! Making a hero out of a villain! Just like when Oliver Stone did that flattering portrait of Fidel Castro!! Et cetera.  Some folks couldn't imagine how/why anyone would dare suggest an alternative to what the media fed us way back in 1994 -  a white trash brat from Oregon sought to eliminate her competitor by having her kneecaps whacked.  The cause celebre dominated the news just prior to O.J. Simpson's even bigger circus the same year.

Director Craig Gillespie's 2017 film addresses the "incident" in its second hour, immediately acknowledging that some actually thought Tonya did the deed to Nancy Kerrigan herself.  The main players are shown in present day, recalling the sad story from modest confines.  We get at least three differing points of view on the events: Tonya (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her mother LaVona (Allison Janney).  Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers do not necessarily give anyone a more credible take, but as the events shown here reveal that Tonya was mostly the victim of bad associations, we do feel somewhat sorry for her.  When the judge hands down his sentence near the end of the movie, it's hard not have even a trickle of empathy.

And that's because, whether what we've observed is heightened or otherwise, we've been with Tonya on a two hour journey through her ten cent life.  Abandoned by her father early on and left with a miserable, tough love to the nth mother.  One who mocks and abuses her daughter, never letting her forget that every tip she earns as a waitress has gone to support her skating.  The kid is really good, amazing even.  She becomes one of the top skaters in the United States and makes the Olympic team more than once.  Not many others before or since could land a perfect triple axel.

But Tonya did not fit Committees' idea of a model athlete.  She used music by Z.Z. Top for performances and made her own modest costumes.  She had an attitude.  Her image cost her higher scores. Nancy Kerrigan, briefly shown to be a one-time friendly rival and on-road roommate of Harding's, conversely fit the squeaky clean mold.  I, TONYA effectively swipes at the judges almost as devastatingly as it does the media, mainly the tabloid show Hard Copy, which resorts to heinous activities like having Tonya's pickup truck vandalized and towed away to get her reaction on camera.

We don't see much of or learn much about Kerrigan in this movie.  Why doesn't she get to break the fourth wall like everyone else? I don't know if that is a flaw with this movie.  It's Tonya's story, and having Nancy Kerrigan barely seen, kept at a distance, may reflect the skaters' relationship.  It may also be a commentary on class structure, something else this film does fairly well.

And besides, isn't it more interesting to have a movie about a flawed loser? Harding's story is filled all manner of Classic Struggle, perfect for a movie.  I find tales such as hers far more dramatically rich than that of winners, often shown to be (falsely) angelic at best or insipid, moronic saints at worst.  Or just plain boring.   I, TONYA, while not exactly the RAGING BULL of ice skating movies, does paint a somewhat similarly (if nowhere nearly as artful) vivid and unflinching portrait as Scorese's film.

One film critic called this the GOODFELLAS of ice skating movies, and I believe this is because of Gillespie's directorial style at certain moments - fast cuts and rock songs that narrate scenes. Restless tracking.  It was quite recognizable, and less impressive than when Scorsese (or even David O. Russell) employed it.  I was more impressed with the performances Gillespie gets from his cast.  Robbie modulates her performance perfectly, knowing when to make it seem real and when to go for caricature; her choices always seem appropriate.  The same can be said for Stan and Janney, the latter of whom picked up an Oscar.  I liked her work, but it's awfully showy at times.

Watch that late moment when Tonya stares into the mirror, applying what is essentially war paint to her cheeks before a fateful final routine during the Olympics.  It may seem like a bid for Oscar, but I thought Robbie nailed it.

P.S. While many of the songs were used effectively, some were too familiar.  Particularly Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" which really needs a cinematic moratorium.