Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Secret!

The writing/directing team of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) certainly earned their spot in comedy film history with the 1980 spoof AIRPLANE!, which remains a staple in the genre.  While it was a relentlessly silly, near non-stop parade of all sorts of jokery, what was also really funny was how little it deviated from what it was spoofing, namely the 1957 disaster flick ZERO HOUR!, but also the series of AIRPORT films of the 70s.  If you watch these movies, you'll observe what howlers they were to begin with.

In 1984, ZAZ followed up with another parody, TOP SECRET!, this time taking aim at both Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley vehicles. One does not have to be intimately familiar with those sorts of films to get a kick out of this, however, and the generous amount of sight gags and puns, while not as fast and furious as in its predecessor, provide enough to entertain your inner 12 year old.

Val Kilmer, back when he was amiable and funny, plays American pop singer Nick Rivers who, in an unspecified time period (all the better for anachronistic jokes), travels to East Germany to perform in a festival. His hit "Skeet Surfin'" provides an amusing opening credit sequence.  Nick quickly alienates his hosts (by threatening to add them to the Montgomery Ward mailing list) and finds himself in prison, where he meets Dr. Paul Flammond (Michael Gough), a scientist being forced to create a weapon of mass destruction for the Germans. Rivers will also meet Flammond's daughter and his potential love interest Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) who is involved with the French Resistance, all of whom have names of familiar French words.

As you can see, the plot is more than a bit absurd, essentially a collection of genre cliches. What matters in TOP SECRET! are the gags, and there are some classics amidst the misfires. Like the visit to the Swedish bookstore, and watch that scene carefully; it may be the most creative and inspired idea in ZAZ history. The East German national anthem. The underwater barroom brawl. There are also several of what I call "perspective" gags, such as a train station that rolls away instead of the train. Or the bookstore owner's (Peter Cushing) eye that really is that large, even when he removes the magnifying glass. There are two separate scenes where a pair of boots appear to be attached to someone, but...aren't. There are also boob and penis jokes, and one prop, a special, erm, "helper" that is sure to make modest viewers blush. And those musical numbers are quite funny.

TOP SECRET! may suffer for/baffle younger viewers as so many of the jokes are very dated, like the BLUE LAGOON inspired flashback, the Virginia Slims tennis tournament reference, and the tank and Pinto gag. ZAZ are willing to mine near anything for a laugh, and with so many attempts the law of averages will guarantee a few duds and groaners. There are some slow stretches, lapses in rhythm and energy. The film was not a box office winner like AIRPLANE! and is surprisingly obscure. If you are unfamiliar and enjoy this sort of silliness, you may make a pleasant discovery.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Call Did Come

I had prepared for this call for many years. It was always there, waiting. I could not tell if it was a mere glimmer or flashing beacon. I played the call in my mind and imagined how I'd react. Wracked with an enormous sadness but also some sense of relief.  And that's exactly how it happened.

Over the years, my grandmother had many close calls.  Falls, hip surgery, pneumonia. She had been in hospitals and rehabilitation centers.  On Thanksgiving Day 2012, she fell one final time in her own apartment.  The catalyst to prompt me to admit her to a facility that would not only monitor her movements, but encourage her to get out of bed and be social.  Not much persuasion was necessary, as she made several friends in her new home, always introducing someone new when I visited.

This past October, Theresa celebrated her 101st birthday.  Another close call a day later when her blood pressure spiked and she had suspicion of sepsis.  I spent a Saturday evening in the ER with her.  She was scared.  So was I.  Was this it? But as many times previously, she beat the illness and returned to her life. She was amazing. A sweetness and strength unmatched.

Last night, the call finally came.  She had been feeling weak and not eating as much the last few days.  My wife and I visited her this past Saturday, bringing early Christmas presents (a scarf and a sweater, in her beloved pink).  She was crazily affectionate as always. It would be the last time I would see the light in her eyes and hear her voice.

I went to the facility after the call and went to say goodbye. She had her head to the left, and her right eye and mouth were open. She was still warm. It was unbearably sad. I haven't broken down that hard in a long while. I really fell apart when I eased the sheet down to see her hand, upon it a ring that spelled out "I Love You." Like she was conveying this one final time.  I said it back to her.

There is more to say. For now I wanted to get these words down, to let my invisible audience know.  In the coming weeks there will be a memorial service, and visits to family, hopefully including my grandmother's sister, a tower of strength herself.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not the Days of Old

For a time, it was doubtful that the annual holiday party at work would even be held this year. I was  prepared to title my annual entry "This Space for Rent".  Things will be changing in my workplace of over five years very soon.  Big things. Without being specific, I can say that some longtime employees decided that they will not stick around to see these changes take effect in the New Year.  They will work together in a new location, in fact. But most are staying. Unfortunately, a palpable awkwardness has contaminated the office for the past month, as the soon to depart have found themselves at odds with the others.  The usual year end hugs and congratulations would not have occurred at a company party. In fact, it would've had the potential to be the most uncomfortably grotesque shindig of my career.

So one of the employees who is leaving decided to throw an alternate celebration.  About fifteen gathered at a beautiful old home to share holiday turkey and ham and play Christmas bingo. The ten foot high tree had a train circling the presents underneath.  There was even an appearance by Santa. My gift: candy balls whose second ingredient (after sugar) is Wild Turkey. The party was a perfect size, and a warm affair. Many in attendance were "stayers" (including myself) but the junior high school level drama at the workplace of late was absent this brisk South Florida evening.  And a pleasant surprise: one of the front office staff ladies who recently gave birth to twins was there with her husband. The two girls were left at home with their abuela. Mom looked better than she had in months. Those last days before the delivery had her appearing haggard and beaten. But this night, despite the expected lack of sleep, she looked cheerful and relaxed.

You'll note that I've excluded significant details about the situation at work and I remain tight lipped for now. It was a bit sad that the large parties at local restaurants were now a thing of the past, at least for this year. 2015 - who knows?  But the house party had an intimacy and warmth that had always been missing.  This was easily the most enjoyable work Christmas party I've attended. I wish those who are moving on great success in the coming year. And to those of us remaining, we wait hopefully for own sustained good fortune and ever forward improvement in our caregiving skills.  I pray for an environment that will continue to encourage such goals.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Possible Spoilers

INTERSTELLAR is such an enormous, sprawling, ambitious motion picture that by its very scope it is likely to have considerable flaws.  Any film that attempts to tackle so much, to be so many things is likely to fall short in some regard.  Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan has extended a grasp that was perhaps doomed to only reach so far, to fail in part (though nobly) to fully elucidate the ideas of he and sibling Jonathan's screenplay, which was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg (in some ways, the movie feels like one of his earlier efforts).  Some in the original audiences for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY may have had similar criticisms toward what would eventually be hailed as a masterpiece, but that film would never be accused of being too sentimental.  Unlike Spielberg's A.I., which was originally conceived by Kubrick.

To wit, there is in fact a lot of weeping in INTERSTELLAR.  Under the circumstances, not unwarranted. While floating in deep space, characters watch video transmissions of their loved ones back on Earth, wondering when/if they will return. Lead actor Matthew McConaughey has two intense crying scenes during such moments. He plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who gets no less than a chance to save the world, as Earth has become a barren dustbowl. The movie does not explain (or maybe I missed it) why the American military is no longer necessary and there aren't enough farmers in this unspecified time frame of a future.  Cooper is a weary middle-aged widower father of two who's had to scuttle his dreams and talents as an engineer to toil on a farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow, welcome as always) to support his family.  Through a series of events, Cooper and his spunky daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) discover the underground quarters of the last remnants of NASA.

Dr. Brand (Michael Caine, by now a Nolan regular) is there to explain that a wormhole leading to possibly inhabitable planets exists, and he wants Cooper to pilot the spaceship Endurance, flying a mission with his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and others (including two robots who have settings for "humor" and "honesty") to investigate these worlds named after the astronauts who discovered them. Each planet orbits the black hole called Gargantua, a significant detail of the plot as Cooper will eventually travel through it, making some huge discoveries that will answer questions posed earlier in the film.  That's as much as you're getting out of this reviewer, invisible audience.

Additionally, I won't reveal the identity of the Big Star (no, not that kind) who appears late in the film, though unfortunately I had to control a snicker when this individual appeared.  Even though the character is sobbing uncontrollably when first seen. I just couldn't help it. It also pains me to say that the plot development involving this character is unnecessary and clutters the movie with extra, contrived and predictable conflict that merely detracts from the larger story.

INTERSTELLAR spans several earth years, about eighty, I believe.  Due to the Endurance's proximity to the black hole at various points, a dilation of time due to gravitation pull will equate one hour on the ship to seven years back on Earth.  This is a perfect device to create familial poignancy, to detail the troubling relationships between (mainly) fathers and daughters.  I was taken aback at how readily the film embraced sentiment, largely absent from Nolan's previous work. The finale will probably have some viewers getting misty.  I wondered if the director realized that his film, loaded with complex explanations of physics, included more familiar, human elements to not only balance the tone, but address criticisms about the cold austerity of his earlier films.  Despite some moments that border on cornball, I think INTERSTELLAR maintains a successful tread between the academic and romantic.

But make no mistake, much of the romance in this film is of the possibilities beyond the Earth. The considerations of entire alternate galaxies.  Searching for planets beyond our own ravaged island is a frequent theme in science fiction lit and films (BLADE RUNNER, ELYSIUM). Ecological advocacy, if intended, is a bit muddy in INTERSTELLAR but the excitement for exploration and the urgency for self-preservation is very clear. 

The movie is an event.  Refreshing to experience real cinema (not digitized, and God bless Nolan in his fight) on a huge screen in this age where people watch 2001 on their smartphones. The visuals are astounding; I saw it in IMAX, highly recommended.  James Horner's score, often ear splitting, is just the right amount of majesty.  The cast is very good. Bubbling under numerous scientific explanations are hints of the theological, though you have to look no further than the film's tagline ("Mankind was born on Earth, it wasn't meant to die here") to discern such ideas. Or that the previous trips to other worlds were dubbed "Lazarus missions" ("You are risen from the dead, but you have to die first").

While INTERSTELLAR is not a cinematic debate on the existence of a higher power ala 1997's very underrated CONTACT (which also had physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant), the Nolans suggest that for all of the science that makes life possible and sustainable, that allows space travel, perhaps Something breathed it into us. That maybe we are conduits through which the supernaturally imbued knowledge can flow. But is the ultimate hope INTERSTELLAR provides in its conclusion within us intrinsically, merely because of science, or because of One who created us?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

How I wish I could've been there when A HARD DAY'S NIGHT hit theater screens back in 1964.  To witness something so new and fresh, so inventive. Unless you've completely avoided visual and aural media for the last fifty years, the novelty of The Beatles' inaugural foray in cinema will be lost, and undoubtedly remind you of something you've previously seen. Being of a certain age guarantees that the uber cool piece of music or film that you find so ground breaking has already been done, in one form or another, perhaps before you were born. This will be especially true for certifiables like myself who have been exposed to so much.

None of the above should prevent you from watching A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. Aside from its obvious historic significance, the movie bursts with an energy and spontaneity that is infectious, inspiring.  Every shot suggests the possibility of another fit of creativity and imagination, an unexpected direction to take. Unlike many of its clones, it is not a sloppily constructed pastiche, an amateur night collegiate exercise, but rather a skillful collage of exuberance. I see I've used a lot of vocabulary so far, words critics toss about in their efforts to convince you one way or the other. This is warranted.

Director Richard Lester was undoubtedly the right choice for this, if you will, day in the life of the Liverpool quartet. A perfect match.  Lester is like the ultimate fan, albeit one skilled in the Spherical cinematographic process, trying to glimpse his quarries in hidden moments. He'd of photographed them changing their socks if he had the chance. But this is not a documentary. With a script by Alun Owen, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT travels with the boys as they ride trains, attempt to keep Paul McCartney's grandfather out of trouble, search for a wandering Ringo Starr, and eventually play a show.  It is filled with quick (and quick witted) dialogue which would be a stock in trade for Beatles films.  And that wonderful music. My generation had MTV. The Boomers had this.

As many have observed, what is quite noticeable in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is the optimism, the wide eyed joy. Fame, drugs, psychadelia, and Eastern mysticism had not yet worn down the quartet (interesting as the resulting music may have been). Their early hits were upbeat and their dispositions even, at least onscreen. If any tsuris was going on off camera it is not evident here. Though pay attention to John Lennon. Lifting that bottle of Coca Cola to his nose. Ah, ha.  Is he trying to sabotage the light? He all but lifts his middle finger to the camera. Is he foretelling the future? The Figure of Portent? At one point, quite chillingly, the Beatles' manager, so frustrated in his efforts to reign the lads in, hisses "I'm going to murder you, John!"

But overall we have a sunny time capsule. An incredibly influential (and reverent to the French New Wave style) movie, the reach of which is still seen, even in those videos you see on the Fuse Network.  Watch A HARD DAY'S NIGHT followed by 1970's often painfully uncomfortable LET IT BE . You will see the classic disintegration of genius and harmony. Crushing, perhaps unavoidable. Criterion, having done another spot-on job with NIGHT, should get to work on the unfortunate coda.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Post Thanksgiving Feasting

Thanksgiving weekend was a typically busy time of food prep and miles of travel all over South Florida to visit scattered relatives. For the Big Day, we had the usual trimmings of turkey, stuffing, my wife's great cranberry sauce, etc. etc.  Things were a bit different this year as we additionally celebrated my in-laws' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, attended a wake, and had house guests from Georgia and Pennsylvania. The latter being my wife's second cousin who decided that we should cook an Indian meal for her aunt and uncle, who visited Sunday evening.  He's quite handy in the kitchen - his first night he gored several avacadoes for guacamole and the next morning whipped up tasty omelettes.  Lately we haven't cooked as much so it all seemed so, I dunno, magical.

But Sunday night's dinner was especially ambitious.  The main course was a fabulous salmon smothered in a store bought tikka masala sauce, with almost everything else made from scratch: the not too spicy lentil based dal (good to serve with whole wheat roti), the yogurt and cucumber dish known as raita, and the flavorful okra you see below.  Cleansing the palate at the finish was gulab jamin, a dumpling style, ball shaped dessert in a sweet syrup. 

In case you're a local and want to attempt a similar meal check out the comprehensive Indian/Pakastani grocery in West Palm Beach called India Bazaar, 4780 Okeechobee Blvd., (561) 721-9202.

Monday, December 1, 2014

All That Jazz

Every morning, he reminds the mirror that "it's showtime." It used to be approached with real zest and anticipation. Hands outstretched and smile wide.  Lately, the face is weary. Dexedrine and Alka Seltzer make standing up even possible. The eyes are bloodshot and require frequent hits of Visine. Vivaldi pieces provide his soundtrack. Another cigarette is needed. The sheets reveal another partner spent the night.

1979's ALL THAT JAZZ is one of the most brazenly self-indulgent, pretentious ego trips you're likely to see. To watch director Bob Fosse's spectacularly downbeat, ersatz episode of This is Your Life is a frequently painful two hours. The celebrated theater and film director and choreographer suffered a heart attack in 1975 after years of punishing schedules and destructive behavior.  All fodder which Fosse has worked into this screenplay, his very own 8 1/2, Fellini's ode to self from the early '60s.

The Fosse doppleganger in ALL THAT JAZZ is called Joe Gideon, played by non-music and dance guy Roy Scheider. He was not the first actor considered, but he owns the part, really dives into the muck and hangs on to the very bitter end.  By the glitzy finale, as his body lies dying on a hospital bed and he imagines the final number, a splashy death-take on the Everly Brothers tune, "Bye Bye Love", he apologizes to his wife, daughter, and every one else he has abused and/or neglected in some fashion. It's a long, excruciating send off, fitting for a movie that can be described likewise.

Gideon is mounting a new stage production. Possibly his most ambitious. The dance routines are complex and the material embraces erotica. There are a plethora of bad jokes.  He loathes it.  His contempt is obvious as he sits at a roundtable read through, one of several lacerating moments in ALL THAT JAZZ. Gideon is also editing his latest movie, a bio of a tormented comic, not unlike Fosse's 1974 film LENNY. The cutting is torturous. Studio people are worried. Back at the theater, more worries. Gideon's been here before, perhaps would have it no other way. More cigarettes.

And sex. Gideon has a variety of overnight guests, often his own dancers. They mistake his carnal interest for love.  He can't even love himself.  So why is he broken when one of them admits she's sharing another's bed? Is there a glimmer of a human being in there? He does encourage one of his charges after she repeatedly blows a routine: "I can't make you a great dancer, but I can make you a better dancer."  Maybe he just wants it all. Too bad he didn't "die young and leave a good looking corpse".

Periodically during ALL THAT JAZZ, Gideon chats with an attractive woman (Jessica Lange) who we guess is some sort of angel of death.  Maybe the Grim Reaper.  She flirts with and teases him while he opens up like a psychiatric patient on some celestial couch.  He asks her the same questions he throws up to God:

How can you make something so perfect as a rose, yet I can't?!

Why am I not talented enough? Funny enough? Deep enough?

Perfectionist, tortured artist inquiries.  Of course, he's his own worst critic. Is he trying to achieve perfection in his personal life? He rather seems swept along by his own vices, helpless to mold his family life and professional relationships into a letter perfect ballet. Unlike some monsters, he's all too aware of himself, his failures.  He does in fact give a shit, but seems paralyzed to change.

It's obvious Fosse put everything he had into ALL THAT JAZZ, from its eye-filling opening - herds of dancers during tryouts set to "On Broadway", to that final duet with Ben Vereen, Fosse the artist dissects Fosse the artist and the tortured mere moral within.  His film is relentless, especially in the later passages with its repeated intercuts between Gideon's heart surgery and moments of lavish choreography.

Once in a while, the film takes a breather, as when Gideon's daughter does a lovely, almost impromptu bit of choreography to "Everything Old is New Again" with his girlfriend at home. Or when we meet a rival theater director played by John Lithgow.  All the while, choking self analysis comes off by turns as smug, self-deprecating, astounding egotistical, crushingly depressing, but maybe even hopeful.  I don't know if the movie can be called a cautionary tale, because likeminded genius/talents wouldn't have their lives any other way.  Maybe they're just incapable.

And kudos again to Criterion for such an astounding remaster!