Sunday, July 20, 2014

Little Big Man

Spoilers

Jack Crabbe, 121 years of age, sits and with great pain recounts his sad history to a reporter.  A life that was largely shaped by Native Americans. From his adoption by the Pawnee after they slaughter his parents to his accompaniment of Chief Old Lodge Skins as he attempts to pass away atop an Indian burial ground. In between, what you might call an epic unfolds.

By 1970, the "epic" was hardly a new sort of event at the local cinema, but LITTLE BIG MAN had an attitude that set it apart, announced a harbinger of the Hollywood to come, for a little while at least. It was released in an era when the mainstream was starting to resemble the underground. Movies that threw down the shackles of Hayes' code censorship, that began to more explicitly examine the underbelly of American life. And what better canvas on which to undertake such an examination than during the era where Native Americans clashed with those pioneers who would seek to overtake them? You might say the natives were wrestling with an immigration problem run seriously amok.

Previously, American Indians were portrayed on screen as gross caricatures, as convenient bad guys against clean cut Caucasians. Gradually, more thoughtful films emerged. LITTLE BIG MAN, based on Thomas Berger's wry 1964 novel, portrays the U.S. Cavalry as the villains and America's original residents far more sympathetically than seen before.

Between them is Jack (Dustin Hoffman), latter dubbed "Little Big Man" for his bravery despite being short in stature. His travails lead him from the Cheyenne camp to that of the white man and back, a few times.  He meets and becomes associates with a snake oil salesman, a sexually frustrated,  Scripture-quoting reverend's wife (Faye Dunaway) who spouts verses about temptation, Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), and even General Custer (Richard Mulligan). LBM gets married a few times, but loses his wives to the race that raised him. 

Director Arthur Penn and co-screenwriters Berger and Calder Willingham's treatment of  LITTLE BIG MAN is both deadly serious and (at times) bitterly satirical. There is mastery in so many scenes, often playing on multiple levels. A good example: Little Big Man is passed from sister to sister one lusty night in order to impregnate them. Is there irony in the white man perpetuating the race? The dialogue and rhythm of that scene is a choice glimpse into Berger's method.

Custer is portrayed as a maniac, a bit daft, yet dangerously cunning and aware. He agrees to hire LBM as a scout years after they first meet, noting that everything the young man ever uttered was a falsehood, deeming him a "reverse barometer."  The two will find themselves amidst the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Punctuating the film are unsettling bursts of violence, orchestrated deftly by Penn, who had done likewise with BONNIE AND CLYDE a few years previous. The violence is an unnamed character throughout the film, serving as a Greek Chorus of sorts, and a reminder of the realities of the New America.  This intriguing personification is like the sober guy in the room taking over the narrative when the entertainingly drunk and smug co-yarn spinner gets a little too cute; a perfect balance for this tale. That describes nearly every scene. The journey is long. Left to reflect upon it all is Jack Crabbe.

LITTLE BIG MAN can be seen as one of the progenitors of the later would-be epic, films like FORREST GUMP and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. A central character who meets a wide assortment of characters who he influences and by whom he is influenced.  But, the film eschews sentiment and piety at every opportunity. Its circular narrative is both a revisionist Western and a howl of pain at the treatment of Native Americans. The characters and events are based on fact, but this story plays as if J.D. Salinger (as channeled through Berger) had re-edited your high school history text.   The performances are fine across the board, with special mention for Mulligan, who I was mostly familiar with from his sitcoms; he portrays a brand of lunacy here that is skillful and frequently hilarious.

When the Chief (Chief Dan George) at last lies on the burial ground, he wishes to leave this world. It is not to happen. And here we still are.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Even Better........

Another instant classic from Al's latest.  This is sorely needed.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Still Crazy, Again

Knowing that "Weird Al" Yankovic is still doing his thing indicates there is some small remnant of my "good old days."  Days that with each year (and each old school celebrity passing) grow dimmer.

The former high school valedictorian has been doing funny song parodies for well over three decades. I bought several of his records in the 80s, which featured spoofs like "Girls Just Want to Have Lunch", "Another One Rides the Bus," "Like a Surgeon",  and "Eat It." I had to wonder how awkward it was for Yankovic to get permission to record his ditties, from all those hubris soaked celebs. As if by answer there was a funny sequence in his 1985 mockumentary THE COMPLEAT AL which showed him entering Michael Jackson's hallowed inner sanctum to ask if he could use lyrics like "It doesn't matter if it's boiled or fried just eat it!".

Al also did several other tunes, originals like "Buy Me a Condo" and "Nature Trail to Hell" (an ode to slasher movies) to round out his mega selling albums. Don't forget those polka medleys! I also enjoyed the times Al took over MTV Veejaying duties ("We'll paint your mother pink!"). And his videos were just as imaginative as the songs, with a particularly funny one for "Fat", a riff on Jackson's "Bad".

So all these years later we have "Tacky", a much appreciated take on Pharrell's earworm "Happy." It is the first single from Yankovic's new album Mandatory Fun.  Here's another amusing video, with special guest stars!



Many thanks, old friend.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS, the new film adaptation of the wildly successful, as-of-this-writing still running Broadway musical, is primarily aimed at undiscriminating Baby Boomers who remember when they first heard Frankie Valli's impressive falsetto on the radio back in the 1950s. I attended a matinee with dozens of them recently, and they ate every bit of it up. As we were exiting, a lady in said demographic complained to the teenagers waiting to clean the theater: "I can't believe the (Palm Beach) Post gave this a negative review. Probably written by a bunch of kids! This movie was perfect!"

That's being very generous, but I still enjoyed the heck outta this movie. Despite some reservations, I had fun. I've always had a fondness for show business tales, especially those involving the evolution of a band. There is a formula: musicians meet, discover mutual interests/talents, form a group, become successful, suffer infighting, split. This formula takes its blueprint from real life, of course. Like a group of Bellville, New Jersey guys, one of whom being Mr. Valli, discovering their ticket out of the 'hood.  A place where stereotypical Italian parents warn you to be back by curfew as they slurp spaghetti and local big fish mafiosos tear a C-note and tell you to come back with the other half when you need a special favor.

Valli, who was born Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), is headed for a career as a hairdresser before joining hustler Tommy DeVito (a magnetic Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to eventually form the Four Seasons. There are several false starts and paying of dues along the way. Tommy and Nick, with a weakness for petty crimes, find themselves in and out of jail. Mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) encourages Frankie to lose the shears and work hard at his God-given talent ("the rest will follow"). After, yes, Joe Pesci (Joey Russo) introduces the boys to Guadio, who had a hit with "Short Shorts," the rest is history.

The early scenes of JERSEY BOYS feel like GOODFELLAS-lite, but with fewer F-words and almost no violence. Though someone does hurl that patented Joisey insult "your mother's ass!" at least once.  It makes you wonder how differently the movie would've played if Scorsese had been called upon to helm Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's script instead of Clint Eastwood. Certainly the energy level would've been far more amped. Eastwood's ultra laid-back style is as recognizable as any director's stock in trade, and while the lighter tone of this project makes a good fit, it also allows some mild frustrations. Like a tendency for scenes to drift on and on, without a clear idea of how to conclude.  At times, it's almost as if the actors, appearing baffled, are waiting for their boss to give them some indication of what to do next.

Some of the leads reprise their stage roles. I thought everyone was well cast. Eastwood gives himself a (interestingly timed) cameo, sort of. Walken, the only big star, gets to display those indescribable mannerisms, a bit more subdued this time. My only disappointment was with Renée Marino, who plays Frankie's wife, Mary. Not her performance, but how little the script gives her to do after her dynamite first few scenes. She is swallowed by the script's clichés, as a now alcoholic left at home wife, yelling at her husband for being on the road too much and being a poor father. It's a shame, after her electrifying entrance, that she's seen for the rest of the picture merely clutching a glass.

There is some grit in JERSEY BOYS, but nothing you could call edgy. What coulda been another raunchy slice of life ala MEAN STREETS, THE WANDERERS, or even SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is rather some rose colored nostalgia, sanded down for your protection. And hey, no issue here, that's the film's (and play's) aim. To make its core audience feel good and maybe get all misty. To sing along.

Even within a very artificial landscape, Eastwood creates a believable mid 20th century canvas, right down to the plastic covers on couches. The barbershops. The cars. And each character stops within a scene (sometimes mid-song) to offer his take on the events ("Everyone remembers it how they need to"). The standard things: success causes rifts in marriages, power struggles, ill-advised debts, creative differences. There are scenes of wild parties, battles with intoxicants. One character's daughter dies way too young.  But the real reason for the whole affair: we're there  for the making of all the Four Seasons' hits, including "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." Tough to resist, especially for those greying audience members who think music went downhill when Bobby Darin started singing protest songs.

And to be fair, there are some unexpectedly pointed moments, like at the end, during a 1990 reunion of each Four Season as they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nick turns to the camera and explains why he quit the quartet in 1965: he felt like the Ringo Starr of the group.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Life Itself

"I take it this isn't yours" Chaz Ebert asks her husband Roger before they leave the hospital. She's referring to what appears to be a Gideon's Bible in the night table drawer. Roger shakes his head.  It's a moment I'm certain that director Steve James included in the new documentary LIFE ITSELF to provide some perspective on the famed film critic's not exactly crystal clear religious leanings. I've often wondered about them, ever since I read his review of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In his closing paragraph:

Here is a film that engaged me on the subject of Christ's dual nature, that caused me to think about the mystery of a being who could be both God and man. I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully. The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.

Ebert also once mused on death:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013 following several years of battle with thyroid cancer that would cost him his lower jaw and the ability to eat and drink. But he was as lucid as ever. His output increased and included some of his most choice writing, ever. Not only movie reviews.

I began reading Ebert's reviews in annual editions published by Andrews & McMeel in the mid-80s, several years after I had first seen him on PBS's Sneak Previews. Whether vocally or in print, a very particular persona emerged - erudite, yet curiously down to earth. A real love for the art form. Infectious.  When Ebert was reduced to communicating through a computerized voice, his public appearances grew fewer, and it was unspeakably sad to see him that way. I remember almost gasping when I first saw that cover of Esquire. But the "voice" remained, right up to his death.  That keen mind, that personality was as alive as ever in his writing. I felt privileged to get to read it. A friend who never left.

LIFE ITSELF, based on Ebert's 2011 memoir, is a fascinating, sometimes heart wrenching warts-and-all biography of the man who taught a few generations how to watch and critique films. Certainly there were many before him, famous kvetchers like Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael, who gets a mention or two (one hilariously profane) in this movie, but their prose was far too stuffy and esoteric for most Americans. Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel took a populist approach, discussing cinema with the type of no nonsense language you might hear in a bar between White Sox and Cubs fans.

A good example, there, perhaps. Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun Times, a more blue collar paper, from the 60s onward. Siskel worked across the street at rival the Chicago Tribune, a bit more academic. This seeming mismatch provided the perfect team, foils to each other that introduced audiences to passionate film debate. Starting on a small local Windy City program and eventually going national. Siskel & Ebert became the most recognized and imitated of any film critics. They became pop culture legends. This would be to the dismay of some other voices, including Time magazine critic Richard Corliss (who appears in the doc), who felt the duo dumbed down the process.

LIFE ITSELF spends a significant amount of time discussing the S & E years, tracing their histories, both colorful. Ebert wrote a few screenplays, including the infamous BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (a few clips are featured) for softcore maven Russ Meyer. Siskel hung around with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and his harem riding on the "Black Bunny" jet and, as one pundit remarks, "actually living the sort of life Roger only wrote about" in those naughty scripts. Much is made about the critics' often contentious rivalry; their cinematic (and personal) arguments would continue well after the cameras shut down. Siskel also enjoyed playing practical jokes on his partner. We're treated to some amusing clips of the duo insulting each other as they attempt to cut some promos.

Siskel died in early 1999 from a brain tumor. He had kept his illness a secret from many, including Ebert. When Roger would face his own brand of cancer in the following decade, he did just the opposite. And there we are, with Steve James' camera in the hospital as our subject has his throat suctioned and in the rehab center as he struggles to take another step. Chaz, ever the tower of strength, usually smiles through but is shown breaking down at least once.  LIFE ITSELF spends a lot of time, more than many viewers may want, showing Ebert in his final days, weakened and weary, but never defeated. But there was a moment when the white flag would finally be raised. When that moment arrived, did he imagine a journey to Nothingness, that content place he had been before he was conceived?

James, who directed the celebrated basketball doc HOOP DREAMS in 1994 (excitedly championed by Siskel and Ebert), has assembled an even, comprehensive elegy to a complicated man, never shown to be saintly or cloyingly optimistic. We hear about his long-ago alcoholic fueled nights in a watering hole, sometimes with a prostitute by his side. There are the descriptions of his egomania, selfishness, and pride to balance the positive attributes. A man who changed for the better when he got married at the age of 50. 

Anyone who grew up watching and/or reading Ebert will find this film engrossing, from the descriptions of some of his controversial dismissals of films like FULL METAL JACKET and BLUE VELVET, to an amazing story of how Leonard Cohen saved his life. To exec. producer Martin Scorsese's numerous recollections of Ebert, including the time he convinced the director to not end his life. 

The heart of it all, the thing Ebert "loved more than movies", is Chaz, a woman we get to know well throughout this indispensable documentary. We don't just hear her words, we see her heart and soul. She continues to write on Ebert's site, right there along with volumes of her late husband's incredible talent. It's nice to have them. 

And I still wonder what Ebert found on the other side.....

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Star Wars Radio Drama

A long time ago in a bedroom not too far away, an adolescent boy obsessed with the STAR WARS films discovered another portal to the wonderful adventures born of Mr. George Lucas. In 1981, National Public Radio presented a 13 part adaptation of the first film (Episode IV), itself originally conceived as the first in a trilogy. I recall Lucas saying there were to be nine movies but later recanted after directing Episodes I - III. After seeing those films, I imagine few were disappointed. But then Lucas sold this billion dollar franchise to Disney and now there in fact will be three more films. Baited breath.

It truly was theater of the mind. Even though I had seen the original film a few dozen times by then, familiar with every frame. NPR's program was so vividly rendered, so beautifully produced. Brilliantly directed by John Madden. It lit up my 12 year old mind even further. I taped many of the episodes and wore them out.  It was one of the first radio "plays" I had heard and I could now understand what some of elders were speaking of when they recalled the glory days of the medium. Brian Daley's adaptation considers events that occur before the opening of the film, more of Luke Skywalker's history on the desert planet Tattooine. Later scenes are nicely expanded and some are brand new, providing a deeper understanding of those familiar characters.  Ben Burtt's post production sound design uses effects from the film in ingenious ways, with masterful cues that make every droid, light saber, and turbo thruster come alive in ways limited only by your own imagination.

Most of the actors from the film did not return but Perry King, Ann Sachs, and Bernard Behrens do just fine as, respectively, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In fact, the entire cast is excellent. David Paymer, Adam Arkin, and David Alan Grier can be heard in supporting roles.  Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels reprise their roles as Luke and C3P0.  They would return for the radio follow-up of The Empire Strikes Back two years later. Only Daniels would be back for Return of the Jedi, which was delayed until 1996 due to issues between Lucasfilm and KUSC, the Los Angeles radio station that produced the original shows.

I recently downloaded the Star Wars radio program from iTunes (it is also available on CD) and am just as impressed 30 + years on. Wish I'd had this for those two Florida to Maine road trips I did back in the late 90s! It's a real treat for fans and is one of radio's finest hours, at least in my lifetime. Star Wars was a huge success for NPR, reportedly driving up listenership 40 percent and prompting mountains of fan mail. I wish there were more radio plays of this, heck, any type.

As of this writing I am finishing up Empire Strikes Back which I had missed during its 1983 airings. It is not as well produced (sounds a bit rushed) or compelling as its predecessor but still quite good and essential for devotees. John Lithgow's voicing of Yoda is a little disconcerting. I have yet to audition Return of the Jedi.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Captain Phillips

For some, I imagine 2013's CAPTAIN PHILLIPS will play like a military industrial training film. A step by step tutorial on how to effectively remove a threat without the bother of collateral damage. A satisfying flag waver that pays tribute to those in uniform.  The story it tells and its outcome should be well known to most viewers. In 2009, the container ship Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips and his crew were taken captive by a group of Somali pirates.  Despite being unarmed and ill-prepared for such peril, the crew turns the tables on the marauders, but eventually Phillips will be stuck with the pirates on a lifeboat, bound for Somalia.

The remainder of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS cuts between ratcheting tensions both on the lifeboat and in the Navy control room as orders are given to rescue the Captain, to not let him reach the Somali shore. You can read all about it. In fact, I'd recommend that.

I always wonder if movies like this are worth the time. Rather than reading news stories or a participant's recount, which are usually far more compelling. Making a docudrama or based on real events picture anymore seems to be a gratuitous exercise. It's not like the days when great movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN were produced.  Today's "based on..." films are rather all too common reminders that screenwriters are bereft of ideas. I guess it depends on what approach is taken. An attempt to capture, to the letter, what it was like? Or maybe a more human drama, an exploration of each party with even a bit of depth?

I would've preferred the latter approach with CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Not that Billy Ray's script doesn't try. Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the lead pirate, Abduwali (Barkhad Abdi) are front and center and are not mere pencil sketches or caricatures. Each is viewed with some measure of sympathy, and a little complexity (more is needed). Phillips is a family man who is prepared to die for his crew. Hanks very ably embodies the serious, yet compassionate professional (and apparently his portrayal is far more favorable than that of the real Captain Phillips). Abduwali and his cohorts are dirt poor and desperate, and the movie somewhat makes the case as to showing what little choice they had.  A deeper exploration of that idea might've allowed for a stronger drama.

But the movie's real agenda is to track a mission. To follow the military as they pinpoint and eventually execute a rescue. In that regard, it works very well. Despite what has thus far sounded like an unfavorable review, I was riveted throughout CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Cheering for the protagonist and holding my breath when it seemed things would go south. I wanted to see victory. But then I was always reminded of the pirates, the "bad guys".  The ones I wanted to see taken down.

Director Paul Greengrass again allows his camera to shake violently with the action it tracks.  It is a real distraction for some viewers, but this time I wasn't as annoyed by it as I was at times during the BOURNE movies. The director has realized true life dramas before (UNITED 93) with great, white knuckle urgency. Again he creates a very well crafted thriller that engages us, but I wonder how a film that considered the backstory rather than the particulars of the operation would've played.