Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Return of the Jedi

Episode VI of the STAR WARS saga, RETURN OF THE JEDI, was for my fourteen year old self a tremendously satisfying film going experience.  By 1983, my affection for these characters and their plight was at levels that might've been cause for concern. The way some of my female classmates were involved with characters from soap operas like General Hospital, speaking of them as if they were friends or family, was how I felt towards Luke, Han, Princess Leia, C3PO, R2-D2, et al.  Never had I been so engaged in fictional worlds and their inhabitants, even in novels. George Lucas had created something engaging, so unlike anything else, yet with all the trappings of your average science fiction opus.  It's still hard to explain.

By this time, Luke has almost completed his Jedi training. He indeed returns to free Han Solo (who was imprisoned in carbonite at the close of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) from the clutches of the disgusting Jabba the Hutt.  The action occurs on his home planet of Tattooine amongst another large gallery of weird creatures, including with an arthropod-like sand beast that is essentially a large mouth with rows of teeth and a deep belly into which its victims are digested forever.  This battle sequence is very imaginatively designed and directed by Richard Marquand.  It provides pubescent boys with thrills not limited to Leia's much discussed two piece.

But most of RETURN takes place on the forest planet of Endor, home of the teddy bear-like Ewoks, beloved by many series devotees, detested by others.  The Ewoks are cute, but fierce when they need to be and help the rebels push Imperial forces back while the Empire completes repair of the Death Star.  Luke will visit Yoda one last time and again faces Darth Vader, who continues his urgent campaign to recruit his son to the Dark Side. You know the rest.

After the potent drama of EMPIRE, RETURN OF THE JEDI seems a bit weak, content with itself.  Maybe coasting a bit.  Harrison Ford appears to be on auto pilot, though entertainingly so. Many fans decry the willing embrace of sentiment in this episode, with its abundance of cuddly creatures and a finale that left many misty eyed and red faced. For me, this was exactly how it was supposed to be.  The movie is a relief after its heart thumping predecessor, but no less thrilling.  A chase through Endor's forest and the final battle are standouts.  The characters are compelling as ever and my heart warms for them every time I watch the film.

After RETURN's theatrical run, Lucas announced that there would not be nine movies as advertised. I was disappointed but also delighted, as I loved how everything was tied up at the end.  I liked leaving these characters frozen in their happily ever after.  I could always revisit the trilogy and I did read many of the spinoff novels like Splinter of the Mind's Eye.  But time has proven differently, and as you know Episode Seven will be released this December. Lucas was not involved this time.  After my reactions to Episodes One through Three, I am not saddened.  We shall see.

But first, let's revisit those prequels, all directed by Lucas himself.  How could they miss....?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Stereo

Viewers of the films of David Cronenberg often note how clinical they seem.  Chilly, austere.  This approach perhaps is best for his usual subject matter.  Often, analyses of the human body, its physiology and inevitable decay.  Sexual elements inform hypotheses, independent variables, and outcomes.  Neurology drives each function and is examined much the way a clinician would, with streams of jargon and lack of emotion.  Cronenberg uses hard medical subject matter and its trappings to leap into science fiction, to explorations of the extrasensory.

The director's first full length feature, 1969's STEREO studies a group of telepathic subjects who volunteer for an experiment by a Dr. Luther Stringfellow, the unseen investigator who heads the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry.  This study will consider states of consciousness and alternate personalities among the subjects as they engage in sexual behavior.  Exploration of deviancy and the smashing of social norms (such as heterosexuality and the idea of a "family unit") are expected as aphrodesiacs are ingested and regions of the brain that regulate speech are obliterated.  Stringfellow's followers fill the soundtrack periodically with dense explanations of the new perceptions developed within and between the young participants.  The descriptions often sound like a post doc student who swallowed too much peyote.

STEREO was filmed on a barren campus at the University of Toronto.  Cronenberg already demonstrates, even in this modest debut feature (a little over an hour in length), his mastery of the use of locations as personifications of his themes.  The unspeakable gloom and solitude of both interiors and exteriors mirror that of his characters, a few of whom commit suicide (offscreen) when, as part of the research model, they are separated from each other.  The relentlessly serious narrative is mainly a collection of static shots with only that occasional narrator to explain, in the most oblique and cryptic terms, the results of the experiment.  Most of the time, the film is silent.  Uncomfortably so.  STEREO is quite a discordant experience.  It intriguingly alternates between being fascinating and dull, and often it manages to be both at the same time.

Cronenberg followers will absolutely see in STEREO the genesis of themes expanded to sometimes gruesome lengths in later films such as SHIVERS, RABID, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME, CRASH, et al.  As a primer, this film may not spur the uninitiated to seek out these more accomplished films.  For the dedicated, it will provide a satisfying piece to the enigmatic puzzle of the director's work.


NOTE: STEREO is included as an extra on Disc 2 of Criterion's recent issue of SCANNERS.  The 1969 film (and its 1970 follow up, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE) is also featured on the DVD of Cronenberg's 1979 racing drama FAST COMPANY, which I've yet to investigate. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Farewell, Mitsu'

Well, it's been a long ride, good Mitsubishi.  Eleven plus years. Ever since my second semester of graduate school.  The first five years or so were fairly punishing for you.. Many drives to Davie and later Boca Raton from W.P.B.  During those critical years, you never gave me a bit of trouble.  You were the most reliable vehicle I ever had.  After years of aggravation with Chevys and Fords, cars that "had more miles on them vertically than they did horizontally", as Dangerfileld once quipped,  you, a 2002 Galant provided the stability my inconsistent schedules required. I experienced every emotion in those seats, had conversations that ranged from silly to studious. Listened in horror to some news reports and laughed along with Car Talk. Lots of music, too.  Recently, I gazed at the passenger side and thought of some of the many who shared a ride: family, friends, bosses, preceptors, classmates, co-workers, students, patients, friends of friends.  Some who are no longer with us.

I bought you at CarMax, a great experience.  Any plug I can give them is welcome.  I detest the usual dealership atmosphere, all the bullshit.  Some enjoy the negotiating - but not this guy.  It was an auspicious introduction.  What was your first owner(s) like? You had 29 K on your two year old chassis.

Immediately you were subjected to marathon drives. My fuel bill was considerable.  Then came three hurricanes - you braved those without a hint of damage, even as seemingly every projectile flew around you.  Later, when I took a job a mere five miles from home you got to relax a bit, though the nonstop road construction in this town was rough on you. I did my best to keep up with the usual maintenance. I did have to apply duct tape to a broken gas cap door and a driver's side mirror that knocked against a road cone.

This year your timing belt went, and that was the end.  My trusted mechanics misaligned the new one on the first pass and even after it was corrected it was just never the same.  It was time. I'd been thinking about trading you in long before but was very happy without a monthly payment.  Events this year have transpired to allow me to inherit a car from a deceased family member.  A few weeks later, I learned that another family member was in need of a vehicle as his was on its last legs. The opportunity was there to keep you among loved ones.  Worked out perfectly.

So Mitsu', your days are not quite over. A new life!  More miles to go before you sleep.  Yes, you need more attention.  A second opinion and diagnosis.  More "doctor" intervention.  Mechanics are sort of like surgeons, right? Before you head to that final resting place, that yard, I think you have more work to do. A family to transport.  Keep them safe.

I wanted to thank you for your tireless (so to speak) service, and make anyone who reads this aware of your breed, how trustworthy you are.  Salud!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Beverly Hills Cop

I watched 1984's BEVERLY HILLS COP again recently and suddenly realized, "Huh. This really isn't a very good movie." Highly entertaining and fun to watch, without question.  Sweet nostalgia, sure.  Funny? At times. But on closer examination, which is obviously a mistake, the fog lifts, and we see it for what it is.   How had I not noticed this the dozens of times previously? Am I getting crotchety?  Overthinking it? I'm more discerning now, yes, but I've gone back and re-watched other 80s favorites like BACK TO THE FUTURE and they're just as good as I remember, but this one....

The script.  I think that's the main culprit. It's awful.  Downright lazy.  Even stupid at times. What should've been a biting skewer of L.A. excess is merely a silly exercise in formula.   Inexplicably, Daniel Petrie's screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award!  This seemingly cobbled together collection of scenes essentially milks the ol' "fish out of water" scenario to its zenith.  Add some pretty good action sequences, a villain with an accent, drug smuggling, and several cringe worthy moments where the main character gets what he wants by bullying and humiliating others and generally making a scene and there you have it.  A box office smash that led to even worse sequels that make this one seem as if directed by John Ford.

Martin Brest helmed this original film with his usual professionalism.  There's no questioning his abilities.  I think he's an intelligent, talented director who handles actors well and has a decent visual sense.  He also does some pretty entertaining DVD commentaries.  His sparse resume includes the wonderful, at times heartbreaking GOING IN STYLE and the slam bang comedic adventure MIDNIGHT RUN.  SCENT OF A WOMAN was overlong but a fine showcase for Pacino and the supporting cast (including an early bit by Philip Seymour Hoffman).  MEET JOE BLACK was really overlong and muddled but still somewhat intriguing.  Let's not bring up GIGLI, 'k?

Eddie Murphy, playing a Detroit cop named Axel Foley who drives his crappy blue Nova all the way to Beverly Hills (and ever wonder how such a POS heap could make it that far?) to investigate the murder of a childhood friend, is the main draw.  His natural, confident underdog style and funny laugh.  Murphy's star was at its brightest in 1984, coming off Saturday Night Live and two big hit films (48 HRS. and TRADING PLACES).  He also had some popular comedy albums and cable specials, though I doubt his "Faggots" routine would fly today.  Oh, Eddie.  Check also 1987's RAW, Murphy's bid to make a celebrated concert film like those of his mentor Richard Pryor.  Pretty mean spirited stuff in there. 

COP was probably Eddie's summit before a long topple, with a mixed bag of offerings and some really bad movies like THE GOLDEN CHILD to follow.  The actor would find a second life later on in more family friendly things like the DR. DOOLITTLE movies.  In between he remade Jerry Lewis' THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, an amusing film best remembered for its plethora of fart jokes.

And let's not forget that pop single, "Party All the Time".

Perhaps one can trace the first fall to BEVERLY HILLS COP, its obvious tailoring as the dreaded Star Vehicle I've bitched about before.  The entire film is shaped around Eddie, making him, without fail, come out on top.  Just about everyone else in the film is drawn as a one dimensional buffoon. Makes it difficult to root for Axel Foley.  Never once is he the butt of a joke, the victim - other than being thrown straight through a window in a senseless scene.  Other actors do get to be funny, most notably Bronson Pinchot as art gallery snob Serge, but it's all about Eddie, who can do no wrong.  That's what audiences wanted, and still do.  To vicariously live through these characters who always win, no matter that they have to behave like complete pricks to achieve that victory.   The film's message seems to be that if you are obnoxious enough, you'll get your way, every time.

But it must be said: despite all that, it still manages to be an ingratiating, never-fail dose of entertainment that benefited from a good director and an attractive cast.  I still really enjoy Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F" theme, too.  So maybe I should just ignore the inner critic.  Just don't get me started on COP II and III.....

Monday, June 15, 2015

Local Hero

How I love Bill Forsyth's LOCAL HERO.  It's like a favorite article of clothing, a standby comfort food, a long desired vintage wine.  The writer/director's insightful films usually inspire amusement and warm feelings upon reflection.  While GREGORY'S GIRL and COMFORT & JOY are similarly, fondly recalled, this wonderful movie is in its own class.  One of the reasons for this is its patience.  The film is in no hurry to rush along a plot or assault you.  Even in 1983, this seemed unusual for a major studio production.

MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) is a Houston corporate executive for Knox Oil and Gas. A confirmed city boy who reluctantly flies to a wee Scottish seaside village called Ferness to help facilitate the town's demise via a planned oil refinery.  As you might expect, Mac's directive will change as he meets the locals and is entranced by the scenery and develops a liking for a slower pace.  I suspect a reluctant viewer or two had much the same experience with LOCAL HERO itself, gradually won over by its charms.

How can one resist the eccentricities of Forsyth's characters?   Knox CEO Felix Happer (a spry Burt Lancaster) has a keen interest in astronomy and undergoes his own metamorphosis.  There's a Soviet boat captain with capitalist leanings who regularly checks his stock portfolio.   Ferness residents include a discreetly (though frequently) amorous hotelier/accountant and his wife and a codger who lives on the beach and will die fighting if necessary to keep it free of any "progress".  There's even a mermaid, though don't expect her to don a curvy fish suit ala Darryl Hannah in SPLASH.  Knox will be seduced by their and the town's Old World manner, even finding himself lovingly brushing seashells one afternoon.   None do exactly what you'd expected of them, at least not all of the time.  And none are as simplistic as you might think.

The low key vibe Forsyth creates is familiar to those with a taste for foreign cinema, yet all his own. Magical, in some way.  Scenes play past the expected cutoff, long after a witticism is uttered.  Many are lengthy conversations about big and little things (that are actually big things).  His screenplay is not merely a stinger to corporate America, not a simplistic "return to nature" or ecological sermon.  Also, not just a "technology is evil" polemic.  This remains true even at film's end, when Knox is back home in his luxurious, modern apartment, sitting and longing for the modest town and its genuineness. Sounds paradoxical?  I'll leave it to you to discover how the director weaves his disparate elements to a satisfying climax.  Bonus: Mark Knopfler's sublime scoring.

The humor in LOCAL HERO is fairly dry, more observational than joke-laden.  The only element I can recall that has any root in inherent silliness is the running gag of Happer's psychologist's outlandish efforts to reach his patient.  Their final meeting (of sorts) is funny enough though a bit out of step with Forsyth's usual style.  It almost feels like a script note from Warner Brothers honchos.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back

The second installment in the STAR WARS franchise, 1980's THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, is considered by many to be the best in the original trilogy, if not the entire saga (thus far). The middle picture in a series usually ratchets up the conflict to near operatic effect.  Think of BACK TO THE FUTURE II, THE MATRIX RELOADED,....These films often conclude with a cliffhanger that sometimes invites booing from impatient moviegoers.  And even in 1980, attention spans were waning.

I've always loved EMPIRE, but for years was not among those who considered this the crown jewel of its galaxy.  Maybe my younger self was just frustrated by the loose ends, the much darker tone of this entry.  As much as I appreciated grim scenarios back then I actually favored the more juvenile, playful tone of Episode VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI.  The original STAR WARS remained my favorite.

These days I recognize that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Episode V,  is indeed the strongest of the lot; the screenplay (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan), acting, and direction (Irvin Kirshner) represent a series high.  Things get damned near Shakespearean. Everything clicks.  And it has aged rather well.   For each subsequent movie, the special effects became more spectacular though just about every other element declined.  Maybe things got a bit too cozy with RETURN; we'll consider that in the respective review.

The Rebel Alliance continues the good fight against the Empire.  It is a few years after the close of STAR WARS, when the Death Star was destroyed.  Luke, Han, Leia, and company have set a base on the frozen planet of Hoth. Darth Vader aggressively seeks to find Luke via probe droids.  The now more mature young boy from Tattooine spends most of EMPIRE separated from his compadres, training with the miniature Jedi sage Yoda on the swamp planet of Dagobah.  The others -after a series of obstacles which includes a harrowing flight through an asteroid field and ahem, the belly of the beast -land in Cloud City, overseen by Han's shifty old pal Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).   Skywalker is continually plagued by strange premonitions and dreams, leading to a climactic confrontation with Vader.  Some startling news awaits the young Jedi wannabe.  I won't spoil it but, is there really anyone who doesn't know by now?

EMPIRE is an excellent chapter for the complexity of its characters.  A rocky but steady romance develops between Han and Leia.  Their dialogue and behavior are far from fairy tale fluff.  Calrissian is also drawn with some realism - think of him as that corporate opportunist who'll change his spots on a whim. But he's not malevolent.  Luke begins his transformation from awestruck fighter pilot to focused master of Jedi teaching. The screenplay so expertly weaves each story in the tapestry.  The plot lines flow nicely together, scene transitions are fluid and don't feel as episodic as in RETURN OF THE JEDI.  And I love how our good guys are seriously flawed and conflicted.  Most of the bad guys are pretty one dimensional,  yet Vader begins to display some indication of a certain duality.  Perhaps some old feelings.

Yes, the f/x are sensational.  The battles are exciting (AT-AT Walker attack on Hoth). The locations are nicely diverse and maintain visual interest and have texture.  There is humor among the relentless drama but never edging into silliness.  The hardware is fascinating. John Williams again conducts otherworldly accompaniment.   The climatic events are crazily emotional, heart thumping. How frighetened we were for Han. Carbonite! Will he be OK? Frustrating to a kid, yes, but even then I was enraptured, hungry for more.  We had to wait three more years.....


NOTE: Unless you have the old (pre-1997) videocassette of this and the other original STAR WARS films, these days you can only view the spruced up special edition versions that have tweaked effects and extra footage.  Purists have been in a lather over this for some time.  I understand the hostility, and I can join the invective aimed at Lucas for screwing with these beloved films.  But I don't feel the damage is sufficient as to wreck the experience.  I would contribute to a petition to rerelease the intact originals, though....

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Limits of Control

A friend once explained that whenever he needed to chill out, he played the film A GOOD YEAR, the one with Russell Crowe.   I have some films like that, ones that exude an unexplainable calm, whether because they are soothing in some skillful way or just flat out boring.  I can add Jim Jarmusch's THE LIMITS OF CONTROL from 2012 to the list, a film about a hit man on assignment that is about as low energy and lethargic as anything I've seen.  Some things do happen, but very few and few and far between in this nearly two hour film.

Many people really hate this movie.  It's not hard to see why.  Detractors of Malick often describe watching his films as akin to watching paint dry. Jarmusch's film will make THE NEW WORLD seem like SPEED to such viewers.  Isaach De Bankolé is the Lone Man, assigned a mission that will lead him to several lonely locations throughout Spain.  His instructions are limited to phrases like "Use your imagination and your skills."  The Lone Man meets a variety of characters in cafes and on trains.  He always orders two separate espressos and by the end of each meeting will switch matchboxes with his contacts, played by actors like John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, who plays "Blonde" and loves to speak of "really old films.....when people just sit there, not saying anything."  You can almost hear Jarmusch chuckling to himself off camera.

Another meeting produces a phrase I'm just itching to use at an opportune moment: "Wait three days until you see the bread and the guitar will find you."

Each meeting may be Jarmusch's own chapters in his version of a Zen bible.  Certainly the idea of Dhyāna, or meditation, is a focus in THE LIMITS OF CONTROL.  My knowledge of Zen doctrine and Buddhism is admittedly very limited so I may have missed quite a bit with this film.  The Lone Man exhibits patience, self-control (he repeatedly refuses the advances of a woman, usually shown naked, and tells her of his abstinence while he's working), and may represent a teacher or spiritual leader of some sort.  I just don't know.  I do know that the film, beautifully composed and filmed by Christopher Doyle, works a spell that made me feel more relaxed than I have in a while. Static scene after static scene the film becomes hypnotic and just this side of somnolescent.  Even when Bill Murray shows up at the end and loudly curses.

I think Focus Features could market this film with other videos meant to manage anxiety and hypertension, though for many, the result will be just the opposite. If you can get with its flow, and you appreciate Jarmusch, you might find a nirvana of sorts.  Either way, you've been warned, invisible audience.