Thursday, August 17, 2017

Night of the Juggler

The late 70s/early 80s saw a long slate of tawdry urban action dramas.  The genre was quite diverse.  During that period several films depicted concrete jungle wastelands as the stage upon which desperate urbanites fought back against the oppressions of poverty, corruption, racism, random violence.  Movies like FORT APACHE, THE BRONX tried to put us in the muck with weary cops and make us understand just how third world our own backyard had become.  Others with gang members as protagonists like THE WARRIORS were more stylized and cartoonish.  Perhaps taking a cue from 1974's DEATH WISH, and no doubt real life, FIGHTING BACK and the telefilm WE'RE FIGHTING BACK considered the Everyman whose own neighborhood had become a battleground, a place where you were afraid to travel, where even going out for a slice at the corner pizzeria became a hazard. 

1980's NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER considers a divorced ex-cop, now eking out a living as a truck driver, named Boyd (James Brolin) who lives in a rough neighborhood with his teenage daughter.  After parting with her as she walks to school, a creep (Cliff Gorman) snatches her, thinking she's actually the daughter of a wealthy local politico.  The event happens at just the right moment for Boyd to witness it and thus begins a relentless daylong pursuit that will take him through some of the roughest and sleaziest portions of Manhattan.  This would of course include a Times Square peep show.  Any gritty movie set in NYC in the '70s has to involve those sidewalk barkers and scantily (some non) clad dancers.

But the real shithole? The South Bronx, in all its rubble and defeat. The very definition of late twentieth century neglect.  Where our weirdo scumbag racist villain still lives in his childhood apartment despite the alarming decline around him: "It used to be a nice place, then all the niggers and Spics came in" he laments several times.   NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER was filmed entirely on location.  You can fake the physical devastation on a soundstage, but it's much harder to fake the vibe. And that special rotten feel, the palpable fear you got in the City in those days is perfectly captured in this movie.  For that reason alone it is worth something.  When Boyd finally tracks down his daughter and her captor, it's in an area of jaw dropping devastation.  A glaring failure of city government.

As a result perhaps, Boyd's mere presence inspires a gang of Puerto Ricans to taunt him. During a frantic getaway, a black female cab driver offers this summary: a white man showing his face in the South Bronx alerts the locals that he is either a debt collector or a cop.  But as Boyd has demonstrated throughout the movie, he is no one to be messed with.  He beats the hell out of the entire gang not once but twice.  Prior to that, he bests one of his former police force colleagues, the crazed Sergeant Barnes (a bug eyed, wild haired Dan Hedaya) who blames him for his shattered domestic life after Boyd wouldn't join him in a ring of corruption.  That Barnes is pretty crazy,  firing a shotgun at Boyd through the streets of Manhattan, even with hordes of bystanders at every corner.  That scene, by the way, is one of the dumbest and most improbable I can recall seeing in any movie.

There are too many improbabilities to list, honestly.  Like why the daughter just sits quietly in the kidnapper's car instead of struggling to get out after she's abducted.  Or the scene at the peep show.  Or Boyd's seemingly superhuman strength (and lack of any discernable fear). Or Mandy Patinkin as an Hispanic cabbie who joins in a wild car chase (where are the cops?) And speaking of... Richard Castellano, good ol' Clemenza from THE GODFATHER, is on hand as the busy Lieutenant who finds himself trading New York causticisms over the phone with the kidnapper.

Director Robert Butler had overseen many Disney comedies before this real 180 of a direction change, and his work is fair, nothing remarkable.  But the climax is very poorly lit and abrupt.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Detective Story

Spoilers

Jim McLeod is unconcerned with grey areas.  Or maybe he is just unable to see them.  As a detective with the NYPD, he witnesses a nonstop procession of lowlifes, many who show little interest in or ability at rehabilitation.  But there are also the first time offenders, those who commit petty thefts out of desperation or to get attention.  McLeod's colleagues argue that such individuals deserve another chance, that a booking will stay on their records and possibly ruin their lives.  McLeod is unrepentant, determined to hold up the law to the letter, even when a man who was embezzled by his employee wants to drop the charges.

Have the realities of the job hardened this man?  "I'm drowning", McLeod (Kirk Douglas) admits late in 1951's DETECTIVE STORY.  By that point, the reasons are more personal.  But throughout the movie, he describes a lifelong hatred of his father who had a "criminal mind" that stokes his fire toward crime and those who perpetrate, regardless of the severity.  Is this why he relentlessly torments shamed physician Karl Schneider (George Macready) for a year after arresting him? Enough to make the doctor, wanted for malpractice, turn himself in so the abuse will cease?

McLeod will learn how Schneider is connected to his loving wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) during the second half of DETECTIVE STORY.  It is about that time that the film unfortunately stumbles, loses its surefootedness in portraying the realities of being a cop or a criminal in the Big City in the mid-twentieth century.  The associated melodrama of the McLeods' story is powerful and involving but overwhelms the movie's previously steady observation of how folks view the law, or perhaps react to it.

Some are devil-may-care, like longtime criminal Charlie Gennini (Joseph Wiseman), who mocks the detectives with shrieks of hysteria. Others are small time thieves like Arthur (William Reynolds) who steals from his boss only so he can afford to take an old girlfriend out for a fancy dinner.  Or a sad, unnamed shoplifter (Lee Grant, in her debut) who is scared of even being fingerprinted.  A lonely woman who is so eager to get married her only apparent criteria is that the guy wears a pair of pants.

A majority of the story occurs on one set, the police precinct.  This echoes the film's origins, a 1949 play of the same name.  Director William Wyler uses that set in very creative ways, always finding another bit of business to keep it interesting: the way a cop uses his foot to keep a door from slamming, the dispatcher's use of his desk. The actors embody the space very naturally and believably.  It feels lived in. Wyler establishes an atmosphere capturing what seem like real lawmen going about their business.

But punctuating it is some heart thumping drama, which include taboo-for-the-time elements like premarital sex, abortion, and even a cop killing.  There will be an act of contrition that perhaps sufficiently resolves one character's awesome flaws. As you examine those, consider the attitudes of an American male in the time period.   If screenwriters Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan had dispensed with the Big Revelations and just given us a slice of life, I would've been satisfied.  But DETECTIVE STORY is a well acted, fine drama nonetheless.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Automatic for the People

I have a friend who feels that "each R.E.M. album is worse than the previous." He's one of those I.R.S. label snobs, i.e., he feels that the band never made as intimate or exciting an album once they signed with Warner Brothers.  I vehemently disagree.  As late as 1998 they were still breaking ground with their Up album.  As much as I adore the early efforts like Murmur and Life's Rich Pageant, my absolute favorite in the R.E.M discography is 1992's Automatic for the People, which will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary this October.

Such a wonderfully arranged album. Lots of slow tempo ballads. String arrangements are as common as guitar charts.  The mood is somber and mostly defeated, yet there is a strange sense of hope, especially with the album's closer, "Find the River", an astonishingly beautiful song that considers both youth and old age.  Similarly, the gentle remembrance "Nightswimming", with its lovely piano and oboe seduces listeners with some unexplainable, almost supernatural air.  Lyrically, the band seems to be lamenting the passage of time, increasing concerns of mortality, even merely wondering if there is a place to sleep ("The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite").

"Try Not To Breathe", with its end of life lament, has haunted me since the first listen.  It is my favorite track on this album.  In more recent years, my interpretation of it has gone beyond that of someone at the end of his life to perhaps someone who has already passed on.  Imagining the words are coming from some of my deceased loved ones has brought me to tears.   Yet, its sad poetry has this comforting assurance, through its words and also perhaps in part with its conveyance of both melancholy and occasionally more dissonant C & W guitar work by Peter Buck.

Despite the peaceful vibe of most of the album, angers springs forth in the politically charged "Ignoreland", during which lead singer Michael Stipe is railing against the previous Republican Presidential administrations. His delivery is muffled; it takes some effort to catch all the words.  It's as if Stipe is shouting the song through a bullhorn at some rally.  "Drive" seethes in a slower drawl, but is no less pissed at the state of early '90s culture.

"Man on the Moon" was a tribute to the late comedian/provacateur Andy Kaufman, and its title was used for a 1999 film bio directed by Milos Forman.  The unconventional structure of the song (how appropriate for its subject matter) is a tribute to Buck and drummer Bill Berry's adventurous writing, nicely rounded out by bassist Mike Mills.  Stipe's vocal performance on this song is fabulous, suggesting pathos and joy, often at the same time.

My least favorite tune is one of the most popular from this album: "Everybody Hurts" has always been a treacly, over the top, melodramatic bit of pop that just rubbed me the wrong way.  It feels like a deliberate plea to have a hit.  When I read that the song was "aimed at teenagers", those young souls for whom every romantic slight is the end of the world, it made sense.  It didn't help me appreciate it any more.

P.S. "Sweetness Follows" and "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" are respectively used in the films VANILLA SKY and BABY DRIVER quite deftly.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Sting

Spoilers Within

The shine of 1973's THE STING has happily not been tarnished by decades of cinema similarly featuring confidence games.  Elaborate plots by grifters to swindle and cheat their rivals, usually out of a large sum of money.  Films such as THE SPANISH PRISONER and NINE QUEENS delight in keeping audiences guessing as to who is conning whom, and subsequently pulling out the rug when all indications prove entirely wrong.  Some of these films allow us certain knowledge, to be "in on it", but usually there is at least one hoodwink which we didn't see coming.

The finale of THE STING has such a moment, and it's a doozie.  My saying that alone may be a spoiler, so beware.  What is the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? Hasn't everyone of a certain age who seeks out film already seen this box office smash? Or at least that its outcome is widely known? Something akin to Darth Vader's revelation to Luke Skywalker?   I did read that co-star Robert Redford, who plays the wonderfully named Johnny Hooker, didn't watch his own movie until 2004, over thirty years after its initial release.  I had forever caught individual scenes but did not see the entire thing until 2016.  So shhhhh, already!

It's 1936;  Illinois con man Hooker participates in small time hustles until one day he nets a windfall - a cool 11 K from a mark who quite unfortunately turns out to be a courier for the hissably mean crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).  Hooker gets this information a bit too late from dirty cop William Snyder (Charles Durning) - who is looking for a piece - as he's already blown his entire share at the roulette wheel.  When Hooker's friend and colleague ends up dead, he scrambles to Chicago, where he hooks up with legendary con artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), now a face down drunk who operates a merry-go-round.  But legends don't die easily.

Hooker is thirsty for revenge.  Gondorff is wise enough to know such a driver is bad for the business of grifting, but he sees potential in the kid.  A plan is hatched to hit back at the vicious Snyder, one that will involve poker and horse racing and lots of faked locations: offices and parlors and the like, and even Federal agents.  Oops, I did it again.  It's difficult to talk about THE STING without giving things away.  And while we're privy to the boys' and their accomplices' trickery, David S. Ward's exemplary screenplay still provides a few gotchas in the later going.  We don't share every conversation with these guys.

There is pleasure as well in watching this great cast work.  Newman and Redford re-team with their BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID director George Roy Hill and turn in some natural, charismatic performances.  Star performances,  with merely a wink or even a belch.  The supporting cast is comprised of actors like Eileen Brennan and Ray Walston, all turning in perfectly whimsical yet sorta gritty turns in a Depression era landscape where everyone is hungry.  If you have not viewed this classic you owe yourself.  Even if you've heard Marvin Hamlisch's adaption of Scott Joplin ragtime music a million times.  And it's still just wonderful.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

I dunno, invisible audience.  I found this year's THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE to be a real disappointment.  Probably moreso because this was a spin off that I thought could really be something.  One that really earned its existence as a spinoff.  Batman was one of the many delights of the original LEGO movie; his supersized ego delivered via that patented growly voice was truly hilarious.  He just about stole the movie.  How easy it would be to give him his own adventure.  This should(ve) be(en) a slam dunk.

Well.....first the good points.  Will Arnett does another great job of voicing the superhero/Bruce Wayne.  His rasp is still perfect.  He doesn't merely have eight-pack abs; he has a ninth!  The screenplay (credited to five writers) gives him several funny lines. Gotta love that password!  I also loved the random moment when he begins wailing on an electric guitar deep within the Batcave.    The movie works in clever references to just about every Batman movie and T.V. show dating back to the 1940s.  The music and onscreen exclamations (Pow! Zap! etc.) of the Adam West program are amusingly woven in.  The computer animation is sensational, if overly stimulating.  This movie feels like the equivalent of a child who's been unwisely allowed to consume too much sugar.

So....the bad points? It's too much.  Too much action, too much noise.  That sadly may just mean I'm too old for THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE.  I love frantic movies as much as the next overgrown adolescent, but they seem to be upping the ante on chaos with each shiny new studio product.  Is everyone so deficient in their attention spans that they have to be assaulted with color, noise, and movement at every second? Probably, yes.  That opening scene is a great example.  Seriously, I almost bailed on this movie because it was so ridiculous.  Shame on you, director Chris McKay!

Back to the screenplay.  A feel good message about working as a team is the main take home here.  Batman has always been a lone wolf, a sociopath exorcising some major demons.  When the Commissioner's daughter, Alfred the butler, and an adoptee who eventually becomes Robin repeatedly badger the big grouch to allow them to help him fight the bad guys you might forgive the movie's excesses, though the message itself is sometimes brought across with just as much as a sledgehammer approach as everything else.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE also addresses the complicated relationship between Batman and the Joker, his main nemesis.  A bit surprising.  Not explored in any dark manner ala the comics or the Christopher Nolan movies, but given a whimsical spin with a few snarky moments.  I might've appreciated them more if THE MOVIE JUST CALMED DOWN A LITTLE BIT.

Ahem.

Your kids will probably love it.  There are a lot of butt jokes.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dunkirk

In their wild praise, some film critics and fans of writer/director Christopher Nolan have proclaimed his current film DUNKIRK as the best World War II film ever made. For the latter group, it's unsurprising.  Have you encountered any Nolan fanboys on forums or social media? Defensive lot.  They find no fault with their hero, no nitpicks of his works.  As if he is criticism proof.  No artist is or should be immune from reproach.  I am a huge fan of David Lynch and am currently digesting his new Twin Peaks series, which has proven to be everything from mind blowingly brilliant to maddeningly amateurish, depending on the episode (even the scene). I have no hesitation in calling him out if I think he's failed in some fashion.  To worship an artist is to be blind to his or her deficiencies.  But also, to me at least, those shortcomings can be as intriguing as what makes them so renowned.

I can point out several deficiencies in DUNKIRK, mainly what isn't there that I think should be.  I've seen numerous war films: everything from "B" programmers to works I would consider poetic. I, and apparently many others, have expectations for narrative and characterization.  Mine would not be as comprehensive as perhaps that of other viewers.  I don't need flashbacks, or characters sitting around and reminiscing.  I don't need a lot of exposition.  Yet, as the triptych of DUNKIRK's narrative was unfolding, I at times was craving some familiar meat.  Nolan's film is a disorienting, battering experience (especially in IMAX, highly recommended. Hell, a must). You can surmise that that was the idea - just like that of the young British private who, after a stunning opening scene, escapes to the perimeter of the beach only to be plunged into a week long nightmare of narrow escapes on land and sea.  He, like many thousands of others are trying to survive the Nazi invasion of France, awaiting evacuation.  Nolan expertly stages a series of harrowing scenarios of sinking vessels, some torpedoed by U-Boats, others picked apart by Germans using the vessel for target practice.

Also at sea are an armada of private boats on orders of the Royal Navy to retrieve downed fighter pilots and other escapees - quite a remarkable story in itself.  Nolan focuses on one vessel, commandeered by a middle-aged man who brings along his son and a young deckhand for the mission. This section will exemplify one of the film's main thrusts - that these men were never seeking individual adulation or glory, but always working for the greater good.  History tells us there were far more boats (and soldiers) than DUNKIRK shows.  Nolan is well known for avoiding unnecessary use of CGI so his scope may have been limited.  It's a choice I can certainly live with; thank God for the director's steadfast refusal to join all the others who've resigned their visions to digital.

The third story is in the air, as Spitfire pilots battle with Luftwaffe planes.  Of the three airmen, one is left, with barely any fuel, to take down bombers who are attacking the beach and sea vessels.  His final glide (on thermals, one would assume) is dramatic in the quietest possible way, at odds with Hans Zimmer's relentless, stress inducing score that does not stop for the entire running time.  I have to agree with my mother-in-law, who loved the picture but felt that silence (at least here and there) would've been just as effective as all the noise.

Nolan was going for a down and dirty immersive experience.  To put you in the water.  At one hundred and six minutes, DUNKIRK is the director's shortest movie, and every moment has been carved away from a would-be fatty narrative that might've allowed backstories and military meetings.  Possibly even a love story of some sort.  There are many great war films with such scenes, but DUNKIRK owes more to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS than STALAG 17.   

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Maureen

You were a souped up car in that rent-a-go-cart town.




One of the finest tributes to a lost friend I've heard.  You may cry.