Saturday, February 13, 2016

Young Doctors in Love

Some time ago in my ramblings I referred to the ABC soap opera General Hospital.  I guess I can admit all these years later that in 1982 I briefly got hooked on the show because of a junior high sort-of girlfriend.  This was long after the show's celebrated Luke and Laura storyline, but the events were still your typically glossy intrigue.  I got a lot of ribbing from friends over this. I would even pause from my daily Atari obsession to watch. How I remember having a particular fondness for actress Robin Mattson, who played a "bad" girl.  I was unaware at the time that she already had some history of playing such parts in a few '70s exploitation cheapies, including one of Roger Corman's NURSE flicks.

So when I saw YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE later that year, I yielded more enjoyment from it than I perhaps would've had I not followed salacious intrigue in Port Charles.  The film is a spoof of such shows, complete with cameos by soap stars like Kin Shriner, Stuart Damon, and a pre-Brat Pack Demi Moore and pre-Northern Exposure Janine Turner, to add to the festivities. Unfortunately, Ms. Mattson is nowhere to be found.

Director Garry Marshall, in his theatrical debut, certainly had the experience and pedigree in television to oversee this silliness, but somehow it just doesn't play. Everything is off.  I remember watching his interview on either the Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas show, explaining how he wasn't sure how to pull off technical tricks like showing a calendar flip pages to represent passage of time. So accordingly one of the few jokes that works in YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE is when everything is set up for a car chase and then a guy says, "Door's locked.  No car chase". Otherwise, Marshall tries and tries to milk laughs, but the mojo he would find later hadn't quite arrived yet.  Though the director's success was never with slapstick, rather serio-comedies like PRETTY WOMAN and THE FLAMINGO KID.

There's no plot worth recounting in YOUNG DOCTORS.  Michael McKean, "Lenny" from Laverne & Shirley  is one of several of those described in the title, and often the butt of the others' insults.  Sean Young plays a colleague and love interest.  The ubiquitous (for the time) Dabney Coleman reliably plays another jackass, this time a chief surgeon.  Michael Richards is a hit man who has one mishap after another. Marshall regular Hector Elizondo is seen in drag and swears a lot. Harry Dean Stanton is on hand for an unfortunate urinalysis. Most of the jokes involve inuendoes, destruction, and overreactions.  There are entertaining overhead announcements, though none as funny as one from another lame comedy of the time, JEKYLL AND HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN: "Will the proctologist please report to the lobby? There's an asshole waiting."

Scene after scene plays to a silent audience. The rhythm isn't just off, it's practically non-existent.  Each joke thuds harder than the previous. The many soap inside gags only go so far.  Marshall throws in a little nudity to show us he's no longer indentured to network censors. In some ways, the worst kind of movie failure is one that can't make us laugh, heck, even smile, when it tries so hard.  Those ZAZ guys knew how to engineer a silly farce/spoof, but  YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE is one of too many imitators that proves just how difficult comedy really is.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Being Hal Ashby

The concluding chapter of Nick Dawson's 2011 biography of film director Hal Ashby, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel was especially poignant for me as its details of its subject in the last stages of pancreatic cancer were all too vivid.  As you may have read,  my step father in law was taken from us last April by this terrible disease.  The final week of his life was a collage of Hospice nurses and valiant attempts at ambulation.  Much wheezing. David had passed five weeks after being diagnosed.  I recall one afternoon alone with him in the house as he napped.  Terrible sounds.  When he awoke he had to be propped to stand.  This was not the man I knew for fifteen years, so sprightly and quick witted.  Always sharp, but gentle.

By many accounts, Hal Ashby was like that.  Dawson interviewed many friends and colleagues who described him as a calm, peaceful spirit who made his actors and crew feel at ease and brought out their best work.  Many Hollywood directors have very different reputations, reported to use intimidation and ferocity in their repertoire.  But when the studio people interfered with his art, Ashby showed his fangs.  This was particularly true in the 1980s, when the director clashed with big egos like Ray Stark.  When production company Lorimar, new to theatrical films, threatened (and succeeded) to take his films away and recut them.  This would be unthinkable for a man who was an Oscar-winning editor before he ever lifted a bullhorn.

But it happened.  Ill advised contracts and attempts to create his own production company were not the  fruitful enterprise intended. Ashby envisioned a house to foster productions of young visionaries.  Those who would create idiosyncratic films much like he had over the previous decade.  Ashby's golden period, the 1970s.  Each from that era are given fairly developed back- and on-set stories by Dawson, culled from interviews with the casts and crews. All considered collaborators by their leader.

Ashby's debut, THE LANDLORD was originally to be directed by his mentor, Norman Jewison, for whom Ashby edited THE CINCINNATI KID, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, et al.  It would prove to be a worthy maiden voyage, a highly insightful social drama.  HAROLD AND MAUDE was somewhat ignored by audiences during its initial release but would become a cult favorite. THE LAST DETAIL may have (understandably) been denounced by the U.S. Military but has great performances by Jack Nicholson and company. SHAMPOO was a prestige pic, a box office draw with big stars but apparently writer/producer/star Warren Beatty was the one really calling the shots.  BOUND FOR GLORY would prove to be a tough shoot but worth it for its meticulous authenticity.  COMING HOME was another success - one of many new films to examine the emotional casualties of Vietnam.  BEING THERE was a quietly lacerating study of America, political and otherwise, with Peter Sellers' last great (greatest?) role.  

But by the '80s, Ashby's films would suffer greatly in quality. SECOND HAND HEARTS (actually shot prior to BEING THERE).  LOOKIN' TO GET OUT.  LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER (the Stones concert film and easily the best of this lot).  THE SLUGGER'S WIFE.  EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE.  Whether or not the behind camera tsuris was to blame for each film's artistic and box office failures may be up to the reader (Dawson makes the case), but it's hard to ignore all that was working against the ever stubborn maverick as he fought studio execs and creative types alike.  Other headstrong figures like Robert Blake, Oliver Stone, Neil Simon, and a parade of Hollywood suits.  Sadly, even some of Ashby's former colleagues became adversaries.

Being Hal Ashby also offers a detailed account of the man's early years, a troublesome childhood in Ogden, Utah. A time irrevocably shaped by the death of his father.  This and Ashby's long string of failed relationships (many girlfriends and wives) would figure deeply into his films.  Dawson makes some parallels, though frustratingly not enough of them (deeper analyses of the films themselves would've also been appreciated but that's for another volume, I suppose).  Ashby's true love was for his work; everything (and -one) would suffer for it in various degrees.  Most poignantly, a daughter from a very early marriage he never met.  In an early chapter, someone remarks that Ashby, for all of his talent, gentleness, and generosity was adept at also "editing people out of his life".

Dawson's book is compulsively readable.  Not brilliantly written by any stretch - the style is often choppy - but the writer's affection for his subject is there, and he's not afraid to show Ashby's darker side (including drug and alcohol abuse).  Anyone even marginally interested in the Hollywood scene of the 50s through 80s will enjoy this bio. By the end, you will feel a true light had been snuffed out of the world.  Why do so many with so much to offer exit so early?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Paris Blues

We all have this innate desire to love and be loved, right? For much of the human race, finding a mate is a priority that will dictate life decisions, perhaps at the cost of fully exploring their talents and interests.  It's possible that more than a few geniuses forewent a chance at greatness via their gifts to settle down with a significant other and maybe produce some offspring.   And some of those may well be forever nagged by what could've been, ultimately deciding if they made the right decision.

Whether someone chooses to devote full attention to their vocation/hobby or courtship can make for some workable drama.  Occasionally, great drama.  1961's PARIS BLUES, however, leans more toward the former and features two American expatriates who have a gift for music - jazz, a free form very popular in Paris in the middle twentieth century.  Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) play in an ensemble at Club 33 to the near orgasmic delight of fans (note the hilarious opening credits). Ram has aspirations of writing and has been working on a piece that he hopes will be published and played by trumpeter Wild Man Moore (played by the great Louis Armstrong).   He worries that its melody is "too heavy".

The men similarly enjoy their free form lifestyles, with no strings attached lovers and crazy work hours.  No one to nag them when they come home at dawn.   But when attractive American tourists Lillian (Joanne Woodward, the real life Mrs. Newman) and Connie (Diahann Carroll) steal their hearts, what will become of their careers? Their freedom?  For a hopelessly smitten Eddie, there are valid concerns of a life back in the States, a place filled with the racism he had escaped five years before.  Who could blame him for retreating to a place where he can live and work without fear of exclusion (not to mention physical harm) due to his skin color?  But did he run from his responsibilities, as Connie repeatedly chides?  Responsibilities to take up a fight to make his homeland a place of equality?

Ram is less quick to give up his charmed existence, less obvious in his moody demeanor to admit he has fallen in love.  Lillian proves to be a solid match - a worldly, strong figure, someone who's been around far more than her friendly and loving manner would suggest.  Not shy either, as she's someone who will, you know, on the first date.  She's also a divorcee with two children back home.  Will Ram trade his carefree ways for a life of stability?  Will he be willing to leave the creative atmosphere of Paris, one that would be more nuturing of his gifts than the certain sterility of domestic life? Of a place where little ragamuffins will constantly interrupt his composing?

PARIS BLUES was a disappointment for me, a routine film with progressive ideas.  I applaud director Martin Ritt's film for its willingness to suggest that in its earlier scenes that Ram,  a white man, might entertain a relationship with Connie, a black woman.  And that a gay couple is seen in the jazz club. And the frankness with which a drug subplot is handled.   The central dilemmas of love vs. career are nothing new, but the discussions between the couples (especially Eddie and Connie) are generally intelligent and realistic.  But I did cringe at a few of Lillian's lines. 

Ram: (Speaking on the taking of chances): You get kicked in the teeth that way.

Lillian: My brother's a dentist.

Or this one, a bit too contrived, too written.  Like something out of an inferior Neil Simon script:

Ram: You just picked the wrong guy for what you wanted.

Lillian: Yeah?

Ram:  Yeah.  I'm not on the market.

Lillian: I wasn't shopping.
Perhaps there were too many screenwriters (five are credited).  It may explain why the film feels so stop/start, with a lack of flow.  Ritt (HUD, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, NORMA RAE) supplies ample atmosphere in the City of Light's many outdoor vistas and cramped apartments and backstages.  The music is great, naturally, with the "Battle Royal" sequence a classic for jazz aficienados.  Armstrong is luminous no matter what's he's doing in this picture, acting or blowing sweet sounds. Those seeking the sounds alone will be satisfied, I think.

But our timeless storyline occupies the most screen time,  How successful it is will depend largely on your age, how many movies/T.V. shows you've seen, and if you've ever made big compromises in the name of love, or something else.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Paris, Texas


It had been some time since a film left me speechless and stunned.  Rarely happens.  Something so deep and beautiful.  IQIRU, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW,  HOTEL ROWANDA, MAGNOLIA: these are a few that have really taken my breath away.  Films with unexplainable power.   I had never seen Wim Wenders' PARIS, TEXAS, other than a moment or two back when it was featured on HBO in the '80s.  In those days, it would've been too slow and introspective for me.  I hadn't lived enough life back then, anyway, even if I could've related to some of the familial issues and feelings of solitude expressed in Wenders' film.

Seen now, PARIS, TEXAS is a crusher.  A masterpiece of mood and emotion.  Striking Ry Cooder score. Astonishing use of color.  The bright reds and greens almost make the Texas and California landscapes appear Expressionistic, though the hard outline reality of dusty roads and parking lots is always apparent.  The story begins in the big empty of the desert. A drifting man wanders into a bar and passes out after shoving a handful of ice in his mouth.  After a doctor identifies him and calls his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) - a billboard designer who lives in Los Angeles - we begin to slowly learn about this man.  A beaten soul named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who remains mute even after his brother comes to retrieve him.  After an attempted escape, and much prodding by Walt,  Travis eventually begins to speak, desiring to visit Paris.  The one in Texas.

Travis doesn't remember much of what happened during the four years he was missing. A wife and child were left behind.  Hunter, now eight years old, lives with Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) in L.A.  Travis' wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) is still in Texas, whereabouts unknown.  Paris, Texas is where he thought he would settle with his family someday.

Travis returns to California with his brother. Things are awkward.   Father and son are strangers, curiosities to each other.  When home movies are shown, Travis' memory reignites, his heart suddenly burdened.  Hunter does not respond to Travis warmly at first.  A relationship is not rebuilt overnight, especially one that may never have existed with any depth.   As time goes on, Anne reveals that every month Jane deposits money into an account for her son.  A bank in Houston.

I can tell you more, of the eventual reunions.  The heartbreak of those left behind.  At one point or another in PARIS, TEXAS each character will know that particular sting.  The unimaginable weight of abandonment. The feelings as hollow and lost as the American West on display so vividly through Robby Mueller's lens.  The story arrives at a conclusion seen in countless dramas, but this one is so perfect in its understatement, yet so emotionally devastating.

Every moment of Wenders' film is mesmerizing.  From the opening shots of a man in the desert to the final moments of a man in a different, though perhaps similar place.  PARIS, TEXAS may play more effectively for viewers who understand the sort of defeat and loneliness Travis experiences.  Others will hiss at his final decision, fail to understand it.  For me, it was all right there in the lengthy scene between estranged husband and wife through the glass.  A perfectly thought out and realized conceit that does not feel contrived or pretentious.  I don't want to ruin it for you, invisible audience.  But see the film and tell me it is not a perfect method through which a man who feels like a ghost, a wraith might decide to communicate his feelings. It is one of my favorite scenes in cinema history, and absolutely one of the most heartbreaking.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Grilled Cheese Gallery

Yesterday it was cupcakes.  Today it is grilled cheese? Trends are fascinating in the business world, especially in the culinary realm.  For all of the artisans creating imaginative dishes coupling foods you'd never think would complement each other so well, others are going back to basics.  Comfort food.  How hip? Maybe for some, like that Manhattan eatery that served Swanson Hungry Man dinners on fine china and charged the earth for it.  Other restauranteurs recognize a market that is untapped.  Especially in up and coming/revitalized neighborhoods like Northwood in West Palm Beach, FL.

Northwood has steadily transformed from another depressed bit of urban blight to rows of creative bistros and art galleries. Places like Cafe Centro and Relish have been around for a few years.  Others have come and gone; such is the nature of business.  But Jeffery Thompson (owner of O-BO, a very good restaurant next door) has created a sure fire win, a place that has been an immediate hit since its opening last year.

The Grilled Cheese Gallery assumed a small spot formerly occupied by a Jamaican grill in a small strip plaza midway down Northwood Road. My wife and I went a few weeks back and had a hugely satisfying meal.  The menu includes several decadent versions of the classic as seen above.  I had the "Mondial": mozzerella and prosciutto on ciabatta with a side of fig jam.  Excellent.  My wife, who's had to cool it with carbs and spicy ingredients of late, had the "Disco", which has vegan cheese and tofu on wheat bread.  Other sandwiches add meats and oyster mushrooms.  Some folks dining next to us tried "A Night in Amsterdam", which is a heavenly sounding concoction of swiss, gouda, guyere, and cheddar.

I also tried the tomato basil soup. Nice blend of spices.

The menu even includes a few varieties of the Canadian favorite poutine! Next time.

The Grilled Cheese Gallery
30 Northwood Road, Suite 1

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Everything matters in art, except the subject, and all bad literature is sincere.

- Oscar Wilde

Alright, I'm not saying 2015's SPOTLIGHT is bad.  Not at all.  But it is not art.  Aside from one pull away shot from a desk and a few moody night scenes I found nothing for the movie to earn that description. This highly acclaimed, based on a true story Oscar contender seeks to be an ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN for the twenty first century.  Writer/director Tom McCarthy also explains his efforts to emulate the 1982 film THE VERDICT.  Both of the earlier movies were straightforward, spare dramas that relied on words and silences to tell their stories.  Perhaps nothing much "happened".  But they were finely crafted, riveting films not merely because of their subjects, important as they may have been.

SPOTLIGHT is all about its subject.  A very important precedent was set in Boston in the early oughts of this century.  A quartet of Globe investigative reporters known as "Spotlight" break not only the local story of the Archibishop of Boston's cover-up of a pedophile priest's heinous activities, but likewise of dozens more Roman Catholic priests across the city.  The story grows and grows. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the Spotlight head who guides his team (Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, and Rachel McAdams), all based on real reporters, to keep thinking bigger.  All are working for Ben Bradlee Jr. (James Slattery, playing the son of the Washington Post ed.) and new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), who recognizes the story in the first place.

As in PRESIDENT'S MEN, the actors portray driven, sometimes compulsive workaholics whose family lives may or may not suffer for their quest.  Stanley Tucci (who steals the film) plays an attorney for the victims and sums it up: "Never got married.  Too busy.  What I'm doing is too important".   Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes as what appears to be a slightly crazed, possibly undiagnosed Asperger patient. D'Arcy James (Matt Carroll) is a family man who discovers one of the pedophiles lives a block away.    McAdams is all business but we do glimpse her home life with her nana, who still goes to Mass three times a week.

The film can't help but involve us in its story.  We are there to discover each new shred of evidence, mostly to be found in public records, or at least those the church hasn't suppressed (one dramatic scene involves a plea to a judge to quash this).  A sense of justice hits us when we read the end titles, alerting us that many cases of child rape at the hands of priests have occurred around the world, and been vindicated.  You will definitely look to see if your town is on that list.

The church is generally painted as a malevolent, incestuous organization, though, hey, they do a lot of good for the community saith the defense attorneys who were only doing their jobs when they defended these monsters.  McCarthy's efforts to explore the main characters' lapsed faith is also a bit clumsy and obvious, more elements of a T.V. movie level script.

And while I realize I have used this criticism many, many times,  it is just oh so true of SPOTLIGHT.  It is a fairly well written and acted drama, but only to the level of an HBO or Netflix series.  Now, when you consider programs like The Wire and House of Cards, that's high praise.  But they're still just television.  Although, they're more cinematic than many movies.  They explore themes to levels far more advanced than anything in SPOTLIGHT.  

And the artistry is just not there.  But people love what-you-see-is-what-you-get entertainment.  Formulaic things like Law & Order.  I crave something more. Too many movies are now resembling television.   There is so much to explore about the subject of the Catholic church and its terrible secret, which of course never was one.  Alan J. Pakula took dry facts and made magic in PRESIDENT'S MEN.  Sidney Lumet took an age-old (though masterfully written by David Mamet) comeback story of a drunken attorney and made it elegant and thoughtful.

But no one can argue that SPOTLIGHT is not sincere.

Friday, January 22, 2016

El Topo

1970's EL TOPO is without question one of the strangest movies I've ever seen.  It was released during an era of great cinematic experimentation, when even Hollywood was green lighting all sorts of anti-Establishment tracts.  Films distinguished by brutal lampoons and way out fantasy sequences.  EL TOPO is two solid hours of surreality, of unchecked artistic freedom.  I  kept wanting to applaud it for its audaciousness, but enjoying it was another matter.  I might save you the trouble of watching this film (you're welcome) by merely attempting to describe it - no easy task.  It is absolutely only for those with open minds and adventurous tastes.  A one-of-a-kind experience that follows up each unusual scene with something even more unusual.   Some moments are unbelievably silly, as when a trio of bandidos drop a balloon on the ground in front of their rival and watch (and listen to) it deflate.  Others are just plain weird, sometimes graphic.

Many artists - from John Lennon to Roger Waters - have sung their praises of EL TOPO.  It is obvious that directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have been influenced by it.  I have no reservations in stating that Alejandro Jodorowsky is a talent with which to reckon, a man with a very particular vision.  I have not seen his other films, but I did catch the documentary JODOROWSKY'S DUNE which recalled the director's failed efforts in the 1970s to mount an adaptation of Frank Herbert's celebrated novel.  Before that, there was a large gap in my film knowledge; I had not even heard of Jodorowsky, though I was aware of one his later movies, SANTA SANGRE.

The writer/director, who also plays the title character has fashioned a tale that begins promisingly and intriguingly, then gets lost.   He has much on his mind, concerns about religious hypocrisy, mainly.  His targets are not merely Christians but Buddhists and maybe even Zoroastrians.  Students of theology in fact may get the most out of this movie, though it's highly unlikely to be screened in any formal settings where they may congregate.  Many will be appalled and grossed out by the plethora of gore and odd sexual elements.  An example: a woman with a man's voice offers another woman a part of a cactus that has been split open, resembling a vagina.  They proceed to lick it.

Jodorowsky will, of course, explain the necessity of such a scene.  How even the most seemingly indefensible moments have a purpose and some Meaning.  If I watched the film a dozen times I'm sure I could begin to make connections and "see" things I hadn't before, even if I hadn't eaten the brown acid.

Thankfully, when a man castrates himself we're spared a close up.  But there is a pile of stones that resembles a penis, with a fountain of water spurting upwards.  There is mutilation of humans and animals.  A club specializing in orgies where a man and his dwarf girlfriend are invited to participate in a mock "wedding night".   Many, many people are shot throughout the movie. There are several instances of sustained weird and annoying sounds (chants, the baaaing of sheep).  The violence erupts every few minutes.

EL TOPO begins with the mysterious titular character as he roams the desert with his naked young son, Hijo. On a quest for something.  El Topo tells the kid to bury a picture of his mother, to transition into manhood.  They journey into a river of blood, that of the unlucky inhabitants of a Mexican town ruled by a corpulent, evil Colonel.  After the despot is slaughtered, El Topo will ride off with the Colonel's slave woman who he dubs, "Mara". The boy is left behind.   Mara will convince her savior to go to kill four famous gun masters, each of whom represents a particular philosophy.  The movie itself has chapters like "Psalms" and "Armegeddon".

Later, after El Topo is doubled crossed and left for dead, the Western gives way to something that kinda resembles a romance, though the disturbing imagery gets even worse.  The central character awakens to find he is being revered as a a type of god.  From this point, EL TOPO's perversity becomes uncontained, over the top.  Some scenes work, particularly the Russian roulette during a church service; your points are loud and clear, Alejandro.  But other scenes are far more oblique, especially when the narrative brings El Topo's grown son (now a monk) into the fold

EL TOPO, for all of its faults and excesses, is too bold and thoughtful to dismiss, but also too messy to recommend.  I guess the film can be taken as "weird for weird's sake", the way some do with Lynch movies.  But the digging required to unearth Jodorowsky's points is truly up to you, as is whether the energy to do so may be better spent elsewhere.