Sunday, January 14, 2018

Downhill Racer

"It's not exactly a team sport" replies an assistant coach of the U.S. Olympic ski team in 1969's DOWNHILL RACER.  His retort is directed to a skiier who complains about newly recruited downhiller David Chappellet (Robert Redford), of how this non communicative loner only seems out for #1, to use his prime position to best old records and bring himself the glory alone.  Is that Chappellet's goal? Why does he ski? Back home in Idaho Springs, Colorado his father makes that inquiry. David's answer: to become an Olympic champion.  "World's full of 'em", dad muses.

You might call Chappellet a cipher, a bland slate of a man who seems to possess no conscience or soul.  He's not evil, just driven. Self-centered. Clueless about about pretty much everything else except the sport.   He may not even really care about skiing, but he realizes that he is quite good at it, and hurtles toward a goal of achieving the top honor.  But then what? The movie ends before he can ask or find out.  Interestingly, the next film director Michael Ritchie and Redford worked on, 1972's THE CANDIDATE, ends with the main character's inquiries to that effect once he's won the election.  Is it all about the journey?

DOWNHILL RACER, distinguished by Brian Probyn's great photography and some highly impressive ski sequences, is a quietly effective portrait of a man who's quite visible for his talent yet remains a shadow.  Redford, who indeed appears a bit blank in some of his roles, was the perfect casting choice.  He seems to not have (or even be interested in) friendships.  He becomes infatuated with a woman named Carole (Camilla Sparv) who works for the company courting him to wear their skis, but the tryst fizzles after a few rendezvous.  Is it because Chappellet is ill equipped to actually give in a relationship? Or is his lover just as vacuous and selfish? I like how James Salter's screenplay refuses to paint Carole as a martyr or saint, someone to redeem David.  

Also noteworthy is Gene Hackman's work as head coach Eugene Claire.  He brings his usual solid professionalism and has such a singular persona that is just so enjoyable to watch, even during the perfunctory scene when he dresses down Chappellet for an impromptu race down a mountain to causes injury to the team's top athlete.  This element of the plot (among others) is fascinatingly similar to 1986's TOP GUN, by the way.

Ritchie began his film career with many interesting social dramas, giving way to more commercial fare in the '80s and beyond.  Those familiar with SMILE and THE BAD NEWS BEARS will see in DOWNHILL RACER the genesis of his observant eye on the human condition, one again cast at a distinctively American protagonist.   There's a very keen awareness of social dynamics, especially how folks view each other.  There's a minimum of melodrama, yet big moments that bring their personalities into the light, revealing their multifaceted DNA.  I think of Vic Morrow's berating of his son in BAD NEWS BEARS, Barbara Feldon's unfailingly cheery disposition (even after being shot!) in SMILE.  Redford gets a revealing moment of his own in this movie, when he suddenly, abruptly reacts to finding Carole in Switzerland with another fellow.  Maybe there is a soul in there.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Winter

As you may have read last month, I got to play in snow for the first time in several years.  Prior to that, the only time in recent memory was during a trip to Colorado for an audiology convention in 2007.  My wife and I drove up a mountain and fell in piles and flung a few hastily created balls.  Snow and sustained cold weather are a novelty to someone who lives in Florida, particularly the Southern portion.  Having lived in West Palm Beach most of my life, I feel cheated in this regard.

I never got to go sledding. Ride on a snowmobile.  I've never gone snow skiing or snowboarding.  My trips north in my early years had me building a few snowmen and just gazing in wonder at it all.  Much as I did during the trip to NJ last month.  Just running my ungloved fingers through it.  It's magical.  Even when it gets dirty and slushy.  I know that readers who live in wintry locales will laugh at this.  They'll imagine that if I had to shovel the driveway every day for a month I would change my tune.

Growing up where the summer (almost) never ends, I feel that not only was I cheated, but I've been warped in some fashion.  My father (who grew up in Norway) had a theory, one I heard repeatedly during my formative years: constant warmth and tropical conditions affects people's brains.  There needs to be a progression of seasons.  A time to play.  A time to hibernate.  It allows order of mind and body.  I agree.  Not many people, regardless of where they live, do.  ESPECIALLY not those in my neck of the woods.  People here balk when the thermostat dips below 70.  Last week, it went quite a bit below.  Mornings in the 30s.  A few days where the highs did not climb above the 50s.  Mostly sunny. Heavenly.

Why don't you move, then? In time.  It will happen.  Getting closer to that goal.   I will do the opposite of most - move out of FL, to a cooler place (in every sense of the word).  I have a lot of seasonal catching up to do.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER from last year is pure cinema, and a real joy to watch as an artist has been allowed to indulge his strongest, best impulses.  If you are familiar with the writer/director's work you might be surprised at the abundance of warmth in this new film.  Tenderness, even.  It's a love story, albeit between a mute woman and an amphibian that resembles THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.  The scenario is firmly within del Toro's usual realm of the fantastic, yet with a strong dose of real world seriousness that likewise infused the writer/director's PAN'S LABYRINTH.

The story is set in (a somewhat surreal) Baltimore in 1962.  The Cold War looms over every corner, especially in the secret government laboratory in which Elisa (Sally Hawkins), unable to speak since a childhood accident, works as a janitor.  A mysterious tank is brought in one evening, housing an amphibian/human that was retrieved from South America by the creepy, sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is under orders by General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) to examine the "asset". The creature exhibits hostility, biting off two of Strickland's digits.  Elisa and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are recruited to mop up the bloody mess and begin to get curious.  Elisa will eventually leave out eggs for the creature and play him Benny Goodman records.  He turns out to be a gentle man/fish.  A bond is formed.  Love, actually.

Meanwhile, thoughtful scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) balks at the idea of vivisecting the amphibious man for research, but has a dark secret that may undermine everything.

THE SHAPE OF WATER, strikingly photographed by Dan Laustsen, has a "B" movie storyline with an "A" movie screenplay. The director draws each character carefully and lovingly.  Ms. Hawkins has a very intriguing presence.  She may not be "beautiful" in the traditional Hollywood sense but is alluring both physically and in her sensitive performance.  Richard Jenkins is marvelous as Elisa's neighbor Giles, a commercial artist frustrated with his career and closeted sexuality.  Shannon gets to play a bad guy with aplomb - just this side of being cartoonish without becoming ridiculous.  The entire cast shines.  And del Toro's screenplay gives each of them revealing moments.  Strickland's home life is depicted in an almost Douglas Sirkian manner.

You might describe this movie as an adult fairy tale.  It is definitely not for children.  Yet some of the best moments are innocent and child like: a bathroom is allowed to be submerged in sink water for a dance; a musical number appears unexpectedly; Elisa and Giles enjoy an old movie on T.V. together.  The amphibian man is well rendered and looks period appropriate. A few bits don't entirely work - namely an awkward attempt to comment on both racism and homophobia during a tense scene in a diner - but overall THE SHAPE OF WATER balances social, sexual, and political elements quite gracefully.  While I was reminded of movies like SPLASH and even LILO AND STITCH, del Toro has created a movie all his own, one that he has described as his most personal.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Like many Gen Xers, I first heard the name "National Lampoon" when it prefaced the title of the 1978 smash hit ANIMAL HOUSE.  In those days as a pre-teen desperate to catch this most verboten of movies, I was unaware that behind that name was a long running magazine, which spawned a stage show, a radio show, and even Saturday Night Live.  A crew of bona fide geniuses who pushed boundaries farther than good sense (or even the very notion of deviancy itself) would tolerate.  Have you ever seen an issue of the Lampoon?  Much of it is jaw dropping in its beyond irreverent takes on politics, sex, religion, you name it.  The glory days of the mag were from the late 60s to '75, and any issue from that era would especially make twenty-first century eyes dilate in disbelief.

Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney met at Harvard University.   Quite dissimilar in their backgrounds and personalities, they shared a savage wit that spared no one.  They wrote for the infamous Harvard Lampoon, which had been around since 1876.  Beard and Kenney would also pen the Tolkien parody Bored of the Rings before co-founding National Lampoon magazine.  Beard is one of the original staff members to be interviewed in the 2015 documentary DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON. Like Kenney, and many of the other original staffers, he was a complicated individual. Fastidious, reclusive, rarely opening his office door.  He's also described by other interviewees as someone so intelligent he could've followed any career path.  Beard himself, seen in latter day, comes off as amiable and cooperative, if not especially filled with saucy backstage tales.

That's left to folks like writer Ann Beatts, who, along with fellow Lampooner (and mercurial personality) Michael O'Donoghue, later joined SNL.  She's pretty candid in her recollections of being one of the few women on staff.  "I started on my back," she wryly reports.  The dark sensibility behind (yes) tasteless mock ads like this
is amusingly blunt.  She and the others describe O'Donoghue as quite the volatile artist, a reputation that would follow him his entire life.  Publisher Matty Simmons has plenty to say about him, as well as of later contributor John Hughes, whose "Vacation '58" would be the basis for his script to a similarly named Lampoon film in 1983.

Some of the talking heads criticize the mag for taking real advertising (mainly alcoholic beverages).  Mad Magazine never did, perhaps maintaining some sort of integrity in the process. Throughout this movie, I was waiting for someone to make a comparison with The Onion, which at the time of this writing does still possess some of the old caustic spirit.  Kevin Bacon, who had his debut role in ANIMAL HOUSE, does offer his bizarre impersonation of director John Landis.

But this doc is really about Kenney, a man greatly loved by collaborators like Tony Hendra and Chevy Chase, who breaks down during a recollection.  Everyone and everything else is ancillary to Doug, who exhibited his own manic behavior by leaving the magazine for a year to retreat to the woods to write a novel (deemed to be junk by Beard).  The later passages of DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD focus exclusively on the man after he exits the magazine a rich man, taking roles in ANIMAL HOUSE (who could forget "Stork"?) and producing CADDYSHACK.  It was the latter's poor critical reception and only moderately successful box office that many of the interviewees in this film believe plunged him into a serious depression, furthered by drug abuse. Douglas Kenney died on August 29, 1980 after falling off a cliff in Hawaii, an accident that some thought might've been otherwise.

DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD is a mostly adequate, sometimes inspiring portrait of a group of startlingly intelligent misfits who created something of an antidote to the stone faced nihilism of the '60s and '70s.  The early issues of the magazine skewer their targets so thoroughly and mercilessly you almost feel bad for them, especially as you see some version of yourself on the receiving end.  Mankind, really.  No one was safe.  As someone once said, comedy is not pretty.  Nor should it be.  When Donald Trump's young son was mocked in a tweet by an SNL writer, with a subsequent public outcry of  "He's too young! He's innocent! He didn't decide to be in that position! He's off limits!", I kept wondering how the Lampoon would've handled it.  With the mercy of a brick, I'd assume, though wrapped in a cocoon of eruditious wit.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Atomic Blonde

The best thing about 2017's ATOMIC BLONDE is its title.  It's one of those word plays I wished I'd thought of, maybe to describe a combustive ex girlfriend.  Kinda also sounds like a comic book character.  The movie is in fact based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston called The Coldest City.  The ingredients for a tight action thriller are all there, but director David Leitch's movie really falls short.  The less than stellar script of such a movie can be ignored, usually, if everything else delivers the goods. Consider several James Bond adventures.  While ATOMIC BLONDE has style to burn and a sold performance from its lead actress, Kurt Johnstad's poor screenplay relegates this movie to cinematic limbo, not quite bad enough to be erased from the hard drive but far from worthy of inclusion in the National Film Registry.

Charlize Theron plays the lead role, a British spy named Lorraine Broughton, who is recruited to travel to Berlin to retrieve a highly coveted list of Intelligence agents.  The list is contained in a wristwatch, and has the names of those snooping for the East and the West.  An MI6 agent, one with whom Broughton was close, loses his life over the list to the KGB.  Those sneaky Soviets also do their damndest to take out our atomic blonde out as she races and fights around the Berlin Wall, which will come down during this story.   Broughton has a contact named David Percival (James McAvoy) who seems to love living in a city filled with deception and double (perhaps even triple) agents. Can he be trusted?  What about the mysterious Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a French agent who does a flagrantly bad job of covert tailing but might make an appealing lover for Lorraine?

ATOMIC BLONDE's storyline is jumbled nonsense, with indications that the filmmakers wanted to shoehorn some astute observations on the nasty business of spying during the waning days of the Cold War.  Mainly, actual news clips and a soundtrack of '80s pop and alternative songs are used (with mild success) to create a sense of time and place; the often wince inducing CGI does not do so well. A semi-graphic sexual encounter feels tacked on.  Jonathan Sela's cinematography is colorful, a cinematic candy store.

Some of the action scenes are good, especially a lengthy fight between Lorraine and several who try to kill the German defector (who's memorized the List), who is under her protection.  It is during this scene that Theron shows she has the stuff action heroes are made of (proven earlier in MAD MAX FURY ROAD).  I like how the film shows her impressive blocks and kicks, and how she gets injured, unlike some fantastic, phony superhero.  She gets to kick ass, but she's still a human.

But, that, script........

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, One Last Time

If you're of a certain age you'll note how much faster time goes as an adult than when you were a child.  I recently had this discussion with one of the doctors I work with.  He had read an article in a neurology journal that explained the reason for this curiosity - our brains are chock full of experiences and memories, thus making everything move faster.  Kids are still acquiring experiences, making those forced naps and long waits for Christmas Day interminable.  Interesting.

2017 was indeed a flash, a year that was not the parade of significance as in previous, but still filled with every emotion.  Highlights:

-Attended my thirtieth high school reunion (You can read about it here).  I was initially reluctant for numerous reasons.  For one, the twenty-fifth was so satisfying I didn't want this new one to be some weak epilogue.  Aside from a few minor disappointments, it was a success.  How many more will I grace?

-Traveled to Oregon and Idaho for the first time.  I've always been enamored with the American West, and these were frontiers yet to be crossed.  Loved both places.  I did write about them (three entries).  You'll have to scroll back for those, slackers!

-Lost several patients this year.  I'm talking mortality.  I've been through this many, many times but it stung worse than usual in 2017.  Especially the fifty-seven year old I fit with new hearing aids who died a few days after her third appointment with me.  Fifty-seven.  I wept after hours in the office over her and for one special lady (in her late 80s) who had told me in 2016 that she had cancer.  The call from her daughter came last July.  Not hearing Lorraine's Southern drawl in the exam room makes things a little bleaker. 

-Endured a rather scary hurricane warning.  Irma was predicted to be a Category 4 monster, but thankfully only packed Cat. 1 conditions for our coast.  Unsettling time nonetheless.  The folks in Puerto Rico were not so fortunate with Maria.  Any time I complain these days I stop and remember those over there, still without power.

-Had a white Christmas (here)!  The flurries came down during our pre-Christmas trip to northern NJ, and created little kid excitement for myself and (I think) my wife.

-Completed a full year of couples' workout.  We had two trainers extraordinaire at Ultima Gym in West Palm Beach: Austin for the first quarter and Kathleen for the remaining.  Learned a heckuva lot and despite a continued battle with the abdomen, got in better shape. Still a lonnnggg way to go.

You may have noticed the absence of a December tradition this year here at Lamplight Drivel - the holiday party summary.  One did occur, at a sports bar chain that is somewhat of a go-to for decent food but hardly my first choice for a Christmas bash.  I was enjoying the snow in Waldwick while my co-workers exchanged white elephant gifts.  Sorry to have missed it, but I think I was in a better place.

Speaking of work.....pretty good year.   The growing pains of the early days of our practice's merger are largely past.  For the most part I've been able to continue my diagnostics and amplification services in the same manner as I always have.  September marked my eight year anniversary.  As with each of those, many faces changed around the office. Even the office manager.  In 2017, the front desk staff completely turned over.  I realize that such a position is usually transitory, but in my earlier years we had some longtimers who did their jobs and did them well.  I don't want to be yet another grump who cracks on Millenials, but........

How's mom? Still in rehab.  Still hard to discuss.  Pray. Yes, it works.

In the news? Trump, yes.  No rehashes or rants this time.  How about that rash of ruined careers over allegations of sexual innuendoes and misconduct, some from decades ago? Producers, actors, T.V. hosts, senators, and others watched their reputations fester as many came out of the woodwork to reveal long ago indiscretions meted out by these apparent male scumbags.  I am not defending anyone here.  Please don't accuse me of trivializing any wrongdoing.  I am not "victim shaming."   If these men are guilty of these acts, they should pay somehow.  Though some of these charges are far less heinous than others, and many more notables would be toast if their closets were shaken.  If this were the pre-Internet age, I'd offer: "Get a good press agent, yet-to-be-revealed predators!" Hope the fallen were smart with their millions.

For actors, musicians, and authors, I have this apparently keen ability to separate the art from the artist.  Old story.  I will continue to appreciate Kevin Spacey's past work.  I just don't understand how folks "can't watch him anymore."  You do realize that your beloved thesp may well have done worse things than Spacey, right? Is ignorance bliss for you?  Speaking of Spacey, you probably know that his scenes (as J. Paul Getty) in the current ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD were reshot with Christopher Plummer.  Unprecedented.  A money move, and one I understand.  Would it have been fair to the cast and crew if the film had been shelved? So how about GORE, the already filmed biopic of author Gore Vidal with Spacey in the lead that has entirely been scrapped?

By the way, Plummer ain't no saint.  Ever read his autobiography In Spite of Myself: A Memoir? The one in which he reveals much lascivious behavior, some of which I'm sure was not consensual?  No backlash for him.

LD continued to be mostly about movies in '17 and there's no indication that will change in '18.  I have quite a storehouse of reviewed films to share in the coming months.  There were some personal entries and I'd like to contribute more in the future.  I could do another series - like the previous ones about undergrad, my time in NYC, and the twenty years I toiled in pharmacy - about graduate school, but maybe more time needs to pass.  That was quite an experience.  Maybe I'll save it for my memoir.

May your 2018 be filled with joy, health, and peace.

Friday, December 29, 2017

New Year's Eve

Year to year, New Year's Eve is quite different for us.  Maybe for you as well.  Even though it's frequently called "amateur night", we may go out, grab dinner somewhere.  One recent year we went to a movie (AMERICAN HUSTLE).  Another we went downtown, grabbed a drink at (the now long gone) World of Beer and meandered until the waterfront firework show.  There was also that one when we found ourselves out with a large group, eating huge steaks at Abe & Louie's in Boca Raton well after midnight (not a wise decision, not for the restaurant but the time of consumption).  A few years we fell asleep long before the ball dropped.

In November you had an entry of Thanksgiving recollections so now you have this one.  My childhood NYEs were usually at my grandmother's house.  Lasagne was the dish and it was always fabulous.  Unlike many Italians, my grandparents were not into seafood so pasta ruled the night.  I remember watching Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve several years, with Barry Manilow singing "It's Just Another New Year's Eve."  We had those noisemakers with the handles, around which spun metal rectangles.   Those long blowers, too.  We threw confetti around the living room.  Happy memories.  My parents did not drink.  As you've read, my grandfather did, and was typically out like a light before things lit up in Times Square.

One year (when I was quite young) was spent at a neighbor's annual bash.  She was an affluent, elderly woman who loved to cook and show off her house, which was easily the most beautiful on our block.  I've spoken of her here before.  Her husband, Buddy, had suffered a stroke some time back and was reduced to utterances of "da da da.." over and over.  One of the folks on our street told us that years earlier, Buddy taught his parrot curse words, which the bird directed at the mailman, who was finally so irritated and offended he refused to deliver parcels any longer.

In more recent times, a few Eves stand out, ones during my twenties, the "wild years".  One was spent at the location seen in the above photo.  It is a square at a local shopping center, just down the street from where I am currently living.  One Eve in the early '90s, several of us sat on the benches and shared a bottle of champagne after a dinner at John Bull, at the time housed in the center background of this picture. Great place.  Food, interior, staff - all fine.  We did not intend to spent the entire night by that fountain but it turned out that way, and was a great time of laughs and reflection.  I walk past this area several times a week and always smile at the memory.

During another I joined a dear friend and her fiance to witness their marriage vows. I was the only guest.  Then we, including the officiator, all went to a very nice restaurant (can't remember which).  I had met Bonnie in the church choir a few years before and after I helped her with a move we bonded. Like brother and sister.  Unfortunately, that NYE marriage didn't end well.  Bonnie has since moved around a bit, including a return to her old stomping grounds in New Orleans. I visited her there in 1997.  She remarried about three years ago and is very happy. She's on Florida's west coast now.  We've been planning a double date with them for some time. 

In the late '90s I joined a few co-workers for NYE downtown on Clematis Street, hitting several bars.  I don't think they had fireworks at that time.  But there certainly were ones of a different sort at a nearby Denny's at 3 or 4 AM that New Year's Day.  A fight that began in the restaurant continued in the parking lot.  We did not go out to watch but heard thumps against the window - the guy losing the fight was pushed against it a few times. Happy New Year!   Post clubbing at Denny's was a ritual in those days, and there was usually at least one memorable event each time.  Even if finding 1/4 of the remains of a previous customer's hamburger smeared on the menus was the only highlight.

This year? Not sure.  Maybe we'll go to someone's house again.  Or maybe we'll just conk out.  Maybe Barry was right.