Thursday, January 19, 2017

Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip

Watching 1982's RICHARD PRYOR LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP, a more self-explanatory title for a movie I can't recall, has always been a bit of an eerie experience for me.  My first encounter with it was when I was fourteen.  It ran on HBO but at the time we only had pay TV competitor Showtime. But - if you had one of those black converter boxes, you would get a scrambled picture, with sound intact.  I cassette tape recorded several HBO comedy specials with Robin Williams and George Carlin.  When Pryor's film came on I was very excited, by then familiar with his comedy albums which I had to listen to on the sly due to their, ahem, rather profane content.  So while the image of SUNSET STRIP had that jumpy line down the middle, I heard every word of the comedian's riotous but chilling monologue.

Eerie.  I laughed a lot, yes, but there was something very uncomfortable about this one.  Not the kind of discomfort when a comic is bombing.  After a slightly nervous start, Pryor was on to the finish, as trenchant as ever.  But he was never merely a guy telling jokes.  He was a natural storyteller, whether relaying childhood tales or doing his Mudbone routine (happily continued in this movie).  He always set out to make his audience twitch, and think.  To confront them.  I imagined many in his audience came to laugh at the outrageous sexual humor, the plethora of obscenities.  To howl at Pryor's ribbing of his own race.  Richard would trap them steadily, then release a torrent of anger, though not always so obviously.   He was not a side show act, a caricature; he was there to convict those who'd use the word "nigger" casually or as a weapon, no matter what color their skin was.  Pryor used the word so much that maybe for some the shock and power of it had long faded.  That was the idea?

SUNSET STRIP is eerie because Pryor should not have been alive to do it.  A few years earlier, after the massive success of his first theatrical concert film, he had nearly burned himself alive while freebasing cocaine.  A miracle.  Apparently God didn't want him yet.  It would've been quite a way to go, an audacious death for an audacious life.   But there he is, clad in red jacket, recounting the events that almost took him to the other side.  It's like hearing/watching a ghost talk about How It Happened.  Or having front room seats to the afterlife and hearing the tale.

I could hear it in his voice.  When I actually saw the movie a few years later, I could see it in a few uncertain moves around the stage.  As mentioned, the confidence was not quite there at first, until he got rolling with his material, covering sex, mobsters, and his eye-opening trip to Africa ("That mother-- looked just like Joe Frazier!").  His delivery eventually found its rhythm, and his act was as engrossing as ever.  But there was still a detectable undercurrent of fear, or sadness. Though if you look hard enough, it bubbles under the surface of most stand-ups' shows.

Pryor was more wounded than many of his contemporaries, and did little to hide this during the SUNSET STRIP show.  That is one of the reasons I find it so fascinating.  Richard Pryor was grateful to have a second chance, to still be around, to make folks double over and feel the sting of recognition of his unmatched examination of race and gender relations in America..  Director Joe Layton thankfully does not utilize intrusive methods in his document, though he commits a common sin in concert films: using audience cutaways that are not in real time with what's happening on stage.  It's a cheat, and the audience here is always shown in hysterics, but it does not detract.  It's a night of comedy, but the darkness is not merely in the shadows this time.  How interesting that Pryor performed this material where he did, a place littered with celebrity tragedy.  But he lived to tell the tale.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Office Space

"Man was not meant to sit in a cubicle" states Peter, our hero in 1999's OFFICE SPACE.  But I'll bet many of you, invisible audience, have been there.  Maybe you're reading this from one right now.  Maybe my blog is a respite from the soullessness of the fluorescent light drenched hell in which you toil.  A place where falsetto voiced secretaries answer endlessly ringing telephones and cuff linked managers saunter around ensuring that their slaves follow protocols.  Some of which involve the most minute details about say, cover sheets. Or how icons line up on your desktop monitor.

Peter (Ron Livingston) is a computer programmer at Initech, who is greatly depressed by the sights and sounds around him but feels powerless to change anything.  He lives in a drab apartment complex comprised of hundreds of identical units.  Lunch is usually at the T.G.I Friday's type chain restaurant that serves things like fried jalapenos drenched in a condiment partially made of some alcoholic beverage. But one night Peter attends a hypnotherapy session.  He leaves with a newfound sense of ...extreme apathy.  A real peace and confidence he's never known before.

He begins skipping work. And loving it.  When he does show up, he cavalierly brushes past his smarmy boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), previously the bane of his existence.  His co-worker buds, including a guy named Michael Bolton ("It used to be a cool name, before that no talent ass clown became famous"), think he's lost his mind.  Maybe he has, and all the better!  He seems unconcerned with potential consequences, including a lack of money.  But when some corporate types are brought in to downsize the office, they  observe his casual attitude and blatant honesty as an asset, as "upper management material".   It's as if Peter is a sort of Chauncey Gardiner in their eyes.

And I wish writer/director Mike Judge, best known for Beavis & Butthead, had traveled that idea further. Taken this amusing notion to some conclusion.  A minor classic could've been made out of these ideas, but instead they dead end into a tired plot involving penny shaving, or diverting fractions of pennies that will eventually accumulate into large amounts.  Initech won't notice the small increments on a daily basis, it is decided.  "You know, like in SUPERMAN III", the guys reason.

Too bad. OFFICE SPACE might've truly been the anti-establishment classic it's reputed to be.  And even though there are many great Dilbert-like gags that anyone who's ever worked in an office will appreciate, the film falls flat too often.  Jennifer Aniston is also just so-so as the waitress forever frustrated by all the silly buttons, or "flair" she has to sport at a place called Chotchkie's, clearly modeled after Friday's.  She eventually becomes Peter's girlfriend but their chemistry is practically nil.

No one will ever mistake Judge for a master satirist.  He's clearly a very intelligent and insightful guy but his movies (including IDIOCRACY) too often willingly take the low road to make salient points.  He wants to have it both ways - easy crude humor along with more lofty barbs at corporate structure.  OFFICE SPACE is still worth seeing, if only for the plight of poor Milton and the GOODFELLAS homage involving a doomed printer.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cholo Soy Cocina

My movie saturated mind reeled when I learned that this amazing new taco joint in West Palm Beach is called "Cholo Soy Cocina".   Fans of John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 may recall that the gang laying siege to the police station dropped a banner that read "Cholo".  It was explained by a character a bit later in the film that the word means "to the death."

I've since learned that "cholo" is also South American slang for "ghetto" or "mixed".  Owner/chef Clay Carnes, a self described "food savant" and former Cutthroat Kitchen winner on the Food Network, likes the term as he feels it accurately describes a mix of Peruvian, Bolivian, and Ecuadoran cuisines.  I can tell you that the tacos are the best I've had in quite awhile.  Carnes creates handmade white corn tortillas filled with very high quality meats.  I'm working my way through the menu.  I've had the steak, pollo, and chancho (pork), all fabulous.  Creative, too, with adornments of purple cabbage slaw and pickled pineapple peppers (how's that for alliteration?).  All the vegetables are locally grown.

The menu also includes ceviche, potato cakes, and an egg dish. There are ever changing craft beers on draft. Check this place out, perfectly located on Antique Row.  Only a few tables inside, with a few more out back.  There is some amusing artwork on the walls outside (including Speedy Gonzales). 

Cholo Soy Cocina
3715 South Dixie Highway
West Palm Beach, FL  33405
(561) 619-7018

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Was he planning only for believers
Or for those who just have faith?
Did he envision all the wars
That were fought in his name?
Did he say there was only one way
To be close to him?

When God made me
When God made me

Neil Young often appears haggard and pissed when we see him interviewed, or maybe he's just weary.   He's certainly been around.  He suffered a brain aneurysm, which thankfully was successfully managed with surgery.  This occurred around the time he recorded the Prairie Wind album in 2005.  It would be a return to acoustic guitar, to a sound beloved on earlier efforts like Harvest Moon and his classics of old.

In 2006's filmed record of two Nashville shows, NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD, the singer/songwriter appears grateful.  Content.  He's not on fire during this show, not in a politically or socially charged activist sort of way.  And this is no blistering electric set.  Young strums the Martin D-28 that Hank Williams once played in that very same hall, the Ryman Auditorium. He plays a banjo as he sings about a beloved dog, "Old King".  Emmylou Harris, looking more beautiful than ever,  is there to accompany him at times, as are The Memphis Horns and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.

The selected tunes are mostly optimistic but often elegiac.  The first half of director Jonathan Demme's movie features songs from Prairie Wind - songs about Young's childhood, the ukulele his father gave him, God, and his college bound daughter in "Here For You" which he jokes belongs in the "empty nest genre" and that perhaps a new radio format can be created for such music. The second half of the film was recorded at a different show, with long time faves such as "Needle and the Damage Done" and "Old Man", which has an interesting story as to its inception.  Young dedicates the song  "Comes a Time" to his late friend and colleague Nicolette Larson, who scored a big hit in the late '70s with Young's "Lotta Love".

Demme, of course well known for the amazing Talking Heads concert film STOP MAKING SENSE, again frames musicians on a stage in unobtrusive yet always visually intriguing ways.  His camera people artfully capture everything without fuss, without spectacle.  And it all plays so fluidly, edited by Andy Keir with surety.  My being extremely familiar with every single shot of STOP MAKING SENSE had me (thinking I was?) seeing some similar shot compositions and cuts in HEART OF GOLD, but unlike the earlier movie it begins and ends with a whimper, pained observance.  Neil Young sits in a chair playing "The Old Laughing Lady" to an empty theater during the credits.  It's a perfect sendoff.

Friday, January 6, 2017

La La Land

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's LA LA LAND from this current Oscar season is a well meaning, ambitious attempt at recreating big yesteryear Hollywood movie musicals.  It tries, really tries hard.  But within seconds of its opening, I knew that this movie would be an also-ran, a misfire, despite the considerable talents of its cast and crew.   I really wanted to love this movie.

LA LA LAND begins with gridlock on a freeway, frustrated drivers mouthing the words of one of many forgettable songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Hall.  Eventually, they jump on the hoods of their cars, springing across other vehicles, arms skyward.  The back of a truck opens to reveal an entire band.  There's energy and infectiousness, but it somehow doesn't play.  The rhythm is off.  The dancing is, well, amateurish.  The vocals, completely uninspired.  When the scene concluded, people in my audience applauded.   Incredulous to me. 

Then there's the cinematography by Linus Sandgren.  Hugely disappointing.  Yes, there are some vivid uses of primary colors, but it overall looks very drab, like a worn 35mm print run through a projector with a bulb of improper wattage.  Can I blame this on my theater's projectionist? How about the "blur" when the camera does wild 180s? Intentional? I appreciate the efforts to preserve the wide shots (and widescreen) of a film in which Fred Astaire might've graced, but when the subjects come off as pale imitators, maybe unsure of their choreography, well...

That's a mild shot at lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who play Sebastian and Mia, two young hopefuls who pay their dues in the City of Angels, he as a piano man in restaurants and she as a barrista on the Warner Brothers lot.  He is a serious jazz musician who loves Coltrane and wants to open his own nightclub.  She endures humiliating auditions while dreaming of being a famous actress, and also a writer.  They meet and it's hardly love at first sight.  They clash verbally, but there are undeniable sparks.  She appreciates his fire, his drive.  They fall in love and sing and dance their way among familiar L.A. landmarks like the Griffith Observatory.  The actors are very appealing, but their song and dance, eh...

Maybe that was the point.  Chazelle wanted to create L.A. as a dreamy yet harsh place with traffic jams and dumpy walk-ups and regular joes amongst them.  But things are at odds here.  The Los Angeles of this film is more of a surrealist's musing than a real place, especially as more and more of its history is bulldozed.  Granted, the city is pretty surreal anyway, but Chazelle creates a fairy tale version to suit its broken-heart-for-every-light storyline.  That would be OK, if its cast had the chops to pull off the steps.  I'm sorry, but if you aim for the glory of MGM Cinemascope extravaganzas, you have to have the right players.

And as dedicated as Chazelle is, I'm not sure he was the right director for LA LA LAND.  All of his ideas are in the ballpark and his script is not to be faulted.  He succeeds far more with his statements on the costs of achieving excellence in your craft (and associated fame as well), the trade-offs.  The notion of love goes beyond merely being side by side forever after.  Some of those ideas were expressed in WHIPLASH, Chazelle's previous.  LA LA LAND is his third movie, and all of them have jazz as central to the plot.  Maybe he should've just done a mid century tale of beaten down sax players and drummers?

Or maybe the writer/director should've (re?)screened Woody Allen's clumsy musical EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, which also had awkward choreography and less than stellar vocals, but somehow worked.  Its big stars struggling with the stage business charming in some odd way. 

But I must mention that Gosling and Stone have some chemistry.  I bought their romance in the later passages, and the climax, a daydream of What Could've Been, actually made me a little misty.  It was unabashedly romantic, and it worked for me.  I wish the entire movie had.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Knight of Cups

Some say that Terrence Malick has been adrift in some cinematic neverland the past several years.  Lost in a series of gorgeous yet deeply philosophical coffee table books masquerading as films.  I say that while Malick has (for the most part) remained terrestrial he always had his head in the clouds, or at least pointed skyward.  All the way back to BADLANDS in 1973, his debut as director.  The narration/inner dialogue by Sissy Spacek ("Holly") in that film may have been more complete and informative than the whispers we hear in 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS and some of the other recent films.  But the same ethereal voice was there.  The recognizance of the supernatural.  At least to this viewer.

Malick is quite transparent in his use of Christian imagery, even having passages of Pilgrim's Progress quoted by a narrator in KNIGHT OF CUPS.  This time, a man named Rick (Christian Bale) wanders Los Angeles in what appears to alternate between stupor and regret.  Desultory meetings with crude Hollywood executives.  He's apparently a screenwriter whose done well enough to afford trendy apartments and several women, each of whom we meet after screen titles (inspired by Tarot cards) like JUDGMENTTHE HIGH PRIESTESS, and DEATH appear, leading us through more and more scenes of Rick walking away from (or being walked away from) an ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), and a young woman who already has a husband (Natalie Portman), among others.  There are many shots of people standing far apart from each other, great divides between them.

It is through a guy named Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a unapologetic lothario, that perhaps we get a surface take on Rick and his many women - "You like raspberry for awhile, than you get tired of it and want, strawberry."  Rick waltzes with them all in a series of quick edits, much like Ben Affleck did in TO THE WONDER.  There are scenes of kissing, hugging, play, and inevitably, discord.  In a snippet of images we get a summary of the wine to vinegar progression.  The woman will withdraw, appear sad.  Say things like "You don't want love, you want a love experience."  The ex-wife, a physician who follows her groom to L.A., is glimpsed among the fakery of a Hollywood backlot, asking Rick if he regrets bringing her here. Here. Where?  Interesting location choice, Mr. Malick.

Then the women are gone.  Rick walks through empty apartments. One time he gets robbed.   His father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and brother Barry (Wes Bentley) are seen here and there, still around to remind Rick of the deceased brother and son they lost.  Joseph and Rick grieve not only for the dead, but for Barry, wracked by addictions.  Among the whispers we hear Joseph wonder how his sons became so self-centered, so wayward.  I sacrificed for my children, that's how I was raised.  But we also hear his offers of unfailing love and acceptance.  Always ready to receive them with open arms.

There are moments where others ask why Rick never had children.  Would they offer salvation? Or at least a way to take focus off of self? What does it mean when Rick gives a sideways smirk at a baby carriage?

Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is necessarily stunning, as beautiful as Malick's......screenplay? Can we even call it that?  Bale reports that the director had no shooting script on location, among those swaying palms and impossibly blue swimming pools and skies.  Many returns to the ocean, but also the desert.  I like to believe that Malick orchestrated every single lovingly designed shot beforehand, or maybe they revealed themselves to him.  This movie will do the same.

Oh, you can criticize the listlessness, the arguable excess of the parade of naked young women, that Bale's character may be little different than Hugh Grant's character in ABOUT A BOY or a thousand others. But KNIGHT OF CUPS will offer the patient more than just pretty images.  It will connect in mind and soul long after the viewing and with several more.  Like with any other Malick.


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Say Goodbye to 2016

Many are more than ready to. With gasoline and a match, I presume.  For lots of folks, 2016 was a relentlessly unpleasant year, much of it riddled with death.  We all know about the plethora of celebrities who shook off their mortal coils, musicians from David Bowie to George Michael and actors from Alan Rickman all the way to Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds (a day apart?!).  Sometimes it feels foolish to get so emotional over people I've never met.  Never kibbitzed over a coffee.  Never even saw from afar.   Yet, I have met them in many ways, connecting with their art.  A two way conversation you could say - their output and my appreciation.  It becomes part of who you are.  Maybe a reciprocal thing? Steely Dan's Walter Becker is quoted as saying that he would have a greater connection when a fan listens to one of his records alone in a room somewhere, instead of meeting that person face to face.

Closer to home, one of my old friends lost her nineteen year old son two days before Christmas.  I can't imagine that kind of grief.  Another longtime pal, a dear soul with whom I served on the media crew at my former church and who had a gentle but acerbic wit ala Ms. Fisher, passed away last summer in her home town of Pittsburgh after a decades long battle with ulcerative colitis. That was a gut punch. Memories of Laureen could fill several postings.  Her Facebook page remains, with occasional remembrances to brighten her wall.  I'm glad no one has taken it down.

For me, this was a good year. 2015 was far worse.  While two of the major reasons for that, changes in my workplace and living quarters, remain, things were much better this year.  The clinic in which I've served over seven years has undergone tremendous changes, with only a handful with whom I began still around.  Early this year several more left, on to either retirement or to strike out on their own, quite a difficult thing.  Just last month one of my colleagues - who'd worked there for over a decade - was let go.  This sent some serious shock waves with his patients, who feel dispossessed now. I've assumed many of them, trying to maintain continuity of care.   The reasons why the man no longer works with us are numerous and as before, I can't elaborate.  Many of the reasons are valid, others are just, well, life.  How it goes.   But it too feels like a death.

I think about death, unavoidably, when I go see my mother, still floundering in a nursing facility.  This coming February will mark ten years.  A tragedy.  Lately, her spirits have been higher and she actually laughs a bit.  But motivation for her to get out of bed are just empty words.  Her fear is great.  I've tried many times to intervene, short of pulling her out myself.  As always, prayers are appreciated.

I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time this year.  I got a new car in March.  I attended my cousin's wedding in Chicago.  My first gay wedding.  It was a joyous time.  The ceremony was brief and tasteful.  The music was outstanding.  Unfortunately, the supremely raunchy comedienne who did her act after the reception (why not at an after party?) was one of the most squirm filled hours I can remember.  That was the one dark spot.

Speaking of Chicago....THE CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES! I'm still basking in that one.

Donald Trump elected. Yeah. You know how I feel about that one. And his appointees? Ugh.

But I look to 2017 with hope, as always.  Things look grim in the world at the moment.  Going back to Chicago - - I was reminded by a NPR newscast this week of the record breaking homicide rate there this year.  My lovely city.  Please stop.  I pray for our President elect and his staff.  It's hard to write anything positive, but my spirit quenches the anger, the bitterness.  My faith has saved me from many things.  I pray it continues to save me from myself in the new year.

And to where we began....undoubtedly, more famous folks will pass in 2017.  We'll weep in disbelief, especially for those who were so vital to our early years.  I wrote posts about such people in '16, like Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen.  I did not give George Michael a shout on Lamplight Drivel but he was right in there, a piece of my life.  I imagine, Lord willing, I'll compose a similar year end entry in 365 days.  I pray it is filled with more light.

Happy New Year.