Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Rancho Deluxe

1975's RANCHO DELUXE really is a one-of-a-kind movie.  Fitting that its screenwriter, Thomas McGuane is a likewise singular artist.  For him, words are not merely things to advance a plot or paint pictures of his characters but rather moldable raw material for the creation of something unexpected in a landscape of the familiar.  For appearing simpletons to utter something that sounds philosophical.  The movie concerns a cattle baron in big sky country Montana in his efforts to apprehend the rascals who make off with (and even hold for ransom) his prize steers.  There are soap opera like intrigues of failed marriages, stale marriages, attempted seductions and reconciliations.  Duplicitous seeming innocents.  Potboiler stuff.

But not this movie.  Nope.  Not in anything resembling the traditional sense.  I'm not familiar with too many other '70s grindhouse features that has dialogue like this.  Jack McKee (Jeff Bridges) and Cecil Colson (Sam Waterston) are a pair of bored cattle rustlers who are driven in their actions by avoiding boredom.  When Cecil asks his partner why he would undertake a risky haul he simply replies that he wants to stay awake. Their exchanges throughout the movie at times sound like some weird hybrid of Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut.  Though McGuane, best known as a novelist and fly fisher, has a language all his own.

Ideas too.  Cecil, an American Indian, gets a lecture from his father about a widespread problem in the local parts: pickup truck cults.
I've seen more of this state's poor cowboys, miners, railroaders and Indians go broke buyin' pickup trucks. The poor people of this state are dope fiends for pickup trucks. As soon's they get ten cents ahead they trade in on a new pickup truck. The families, homesteads, schools, hospitals and happiness of Montana have been sold down the river to buy pickup trucks!... And there's a sickness here worse than alcohol and dope. It is the pickup truck death! And there's no cure in sight.

Mcguane's themes are common.  Progress is not progress.  The individualism of the West is being eroded -  The ranch owner and his wife used to be be in the beauty parlor business ("Don't you ever miss Schenectady?").  There's a quick shot of a closed down drive-in theater.  Capitalism is a toxicity.  The "normal life" is perhaps a selling out of one's identity. When Jack returns home, his parents have contrived to have his ex girlfriend there, hoping he'll reconsider and settle down.  Instead, Jack trashes the house and screams at them all, wanting none of their "medicated" existence.  McGuane is the one yelling against America, of course.

The cast is great.  Slim Pickens does his unique thing as a cattle detective (and former horse thief). He's laid back to the point of non-existence, seemingly in no hurry to catch the rustlers.  His recounting of a dream of ancient Egypt is one of his several priceless bits.  Clifton James and Elizabeth Ashley are John and Cora Brown, the wealthy ranchers. They too are bored as hell.   Harry Dean Stanton plays one of their ranch hands, Burt, who is slow witted but awfully sweet.  Bridges, whose Jack is so disaffected his face registers ennui even during a wild outdoor sex scene, is fine and Waterston is likewise in an atypical role.  It's quite jarring to see him play such a ruffian after years of watching his stern D.A. on Law & Order.  Jimmy Buffet and his band play "Livingston Saturday Night" in bar.  This was the first of at least two times he's done this in a movie (see also FM).

RANCHO DELUXE won't be everyone's cuppa, but for those seeking something a few degrees to the left of Philip Anschutz, a grin or two is very likely.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Regional Kitchen & Public House

The Regional Kitchen & Public House is an absolute gem of a restaurant located at CityPlace in West Palm Beach.  We stopped in to check it out nearly a year ago, impressed with the elegant yet rustic feel of the place.   We agreed it would be worth a meal there.  Regrettably, we didn't partake until our two day's late Valentine's Day dinner last month. 

From the front entrance there's a decent side bar off to the left and a large private room to the right, past the dining area.  It was packed.  Reservations seem to be necessary.

We began the meal with the tomato pie (seen above).  A generous layering of roasted tomatoes are supplanted by sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, and herb aioli.  It was even better than it looks or reads.  Way better than what in print might sound like a mere flatbread.  Our very helpful waiter recommended this "From the Pantry" starter and remarked that it is their most photographed offering.  So, hence...

My entree: the grilled snapper, which is served atop a large banana leaf.  Salsa verde covers the fish and an assortment of market veggies.  Very good.  My wife ordered the cobia, which was surrounded by gnocchi, ham, pea greens, and oyster mushrooms.  Many dishes have a Southern bent, such as the pickled shrimp and low country boil.  Old Bay seasoning can be found in some of the broths.  The ingredients are farm to table.

Dessert? Dark chocolate pie with a side of citrus sorbet.  It was small but "mighty" as our waiter promised.

As its name might suggest, The Regional does in fact have the local feel of a homey yet upscale neighborhood eatery.  Carolinian Lindsay Autry is the house chef, previously a finalist on the T.V. program Top Chef.  She quite successfully blends Mediterranean and more domestic styles seamlessly in combinations that might sound iffy but by all reports have been delightful.  We'll be back to try more of 'em.

The Regional Kitchen & Public House
651 Okeechobee Blvd.
West Palm Beach, FL  33401
(561) 557-6460

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Rumble Fish

And if sometimes I can't seem to talk, you know this blackboard lacks, a piece of chalk.

1983's RUMBLE FISH suffered a lot of criticism during its original release.  Professional movie watchers and layperson alike were baffled as to why director Francis Coppola chose to frame this adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel the way he did, in black and white, apparently emulating German Expressionism.  Some saw French New wave influence.  As with other Hinton books, the story of rebellious youths was seemingly pretty straightforward, but with plenty of existential elements.  Of the film adaptations (including THE OUTSIDERS, also directed by Coppola), RUMBLE FISH is the most abstract and inward looking.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon in another bad ass teen role) idolizes his older brother, known as the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), to the point of lacking his own identity.  He shares with him an alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) but lacks their insight and smarts.  Not just the street variety.  Rusty is confused, frustrated, but unable to articulate (or understand) just why.   His frustration drives his behavior, his poor choices.  He neglects and mistreats his girl Patty (Diane Lane) and seems to be more interested in gang fights.  It is during one of them that the Motorcycle Boy reappears, quite possibly saving his life.

Like the fish at the pet store (the only image in color), the two brothers feel stifled by their bleak Midwest town.  Motorcycle Boy, someone who could've done anything with his life but suffered bad timing, got all the way to California. But he came back for perhaps one last look, to dance again with an old lover, to quietly reflect on the emptiness of having been king of the local gang, being bored with such a life.  These views are unfathomable to to Rusty James, who can't see beyond the fishbowl.  Who can't seem to calm his restless spirit long enough to listen.

But time is running out, represented so vividly by Coppola by time lapse photography of clouds and clocks in nearly every frame of his movie.  It is a stylistic in sync with everything else, a patent fantasy dance that might recall WEST SIDE STORY at times, with its highly choreographed movements and camera work (by Stephen H. Burum).  There's that evocative scoring by Stewart Copeland.  And you know when Tom Waits appears in the first scene as a mumbling billiard hall owner that you're in some other dimension.  A youth fever dream with enviable production design.   The B & W photography is just so right for this bleak tale, one that a kid with more romantic notions might've conjured as he sits in detention.

Monday, March 12, 2018

3 Women

Robert Altman's 3 WOMEN from 1977 is a fascinating, unsettling experience that isn't like anything else of which I'm aware.  This would include Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA, an obvious influence.  Viewing it made me feel anxious and uncomfortable, like something sinister was constantly ducking into shadows and bubbling under the surface.  There are obvious elements to this effect: Gerald Busby's discordant score,  an uncertain, dreamlike vibe, and repeated images of disturbing murals, which foreshadow and comment upon the action.

As others having pointed out, water is ever present in this movie.  From the senior rehabilitation spa at which Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) work to the pools at their apartment building and local honky tonk bar.  The third woman of the title is Willie (Janice Rule), who says nothing for most of the movie and is usually seen painting those striking images in the bottom of the pools.  Altman's use of water imagery may be seen as of a reflective mirror (one of many throughout the film), a distortion of events, a healing place, a place of transformation (a sort of baptismal), or even the fluid in which life begins.  Or ends.

Pinky is a painfully shy, childlike waif who (says she) hails from Texas.  She and Millie, an extroverted, chatty type who fancies herself a worldly sophisticate but who is actually mocked and ignored by her co-workers and neighbors, become roommates.  It is clear that Pinky idolizes her new friend, wants to be just like her.  Then we see her break into Millie's diary and copy down her Social Security number.  We have an idea where the story is headed.  We won't be entirely correct.

Pinky, after a traumatic event, will transform. Somewhat aggressive, devil may care, more like her roommate, but assured and popular with others.  She begins to resemble a rebellious teenager: smoking, drinking, borrowing Millie's car without asking.  Millie will withdraw, no longer the dominant in the relationship.   More, mother-like, albeit a passively helpless one.  These ideas may be clues for the highly ambiguous ending, one of the most unusual and discomforting I think I've seen.  An ending that could be argued about for days.

Literal interpretation will prove very difficult for 3 WOMEN, a film writer/director Altman concocted and modeled after a dream.  There is a bona-fide dream sequence in his film, a stylized collage of imagery tinged with death, but the entire story can be viewed as a quietly relentless nightmare.  Unpleasant, downright spooky, yet sometimes very funny character study that Altman orchestrates as both artist and psychoanalyst.  His pace is often very slow, all the better to milk the dread.  Also, to be knocked out by the two lead performances, whose eyes and faces convey as much as their words.

P.S. There is a curious use of Coca-Cola logos during this film. We see the famous "Real Thing" wording in the background of several scenes.  The one time that a Pepsi machine is featured is in the bus station, where we first meet an elderly couple who claim to be Pinky's parents. Interesting.....

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Brooklyn: A Grim Retrospective

As I was reading Brooklyn: A Grim Retrospective by Joe Castaldo, I realized that this could've been my life.  I spent my first four years in that borough, before my folks decided to start over in West Palm Beach, FL.  I would never know how it felt to grow up on mean streets.  To spend listless days on stoops and getting into trouble.  Maybe be part of a (Italian) gang and march/stumble into fights.  To steal cars.  I guess could've done those things in SoFL, but it wouldn't have been the same.  There's something about the atmosphere of neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, the latter in which Castaldo grew up and almost died a few times.  He almost died in Manhattan, too, as a young adult.  Who's to say that couldn't have been me as well?

Having this discomfort made my read that much more involving.  My parents escaped what seemed to be a grimy place in the early '70s.  If I had grown up there, it's possible I would've been the same "good" kid I was in Florida, avoiding "hoodlums" and "punks" and staying away from drugs.  If so, the "bad" tough kids might've called me a "pussy".  I just don't know what would've happened.  What happened to Jerry?  He describes himself as being a good Catholic kid in his earliest years, then falling into one bad scene after another through his teens and beyond.  He describes his mother as being caring and nurturing.  His family was poor, living under very modest conditions.  They resided in Bensonhurst (where I still have some relatives), a place portrayed by the author as insidious, a clean looking row of streets (run by the Mafia) that nonetheless harbors violence and addiction.

I've visited Bensonhurst several times over the years.  It indeed appears as a neat, modest 'hood with working folks who actually do say hello to each other as they haul out their trash and make sure they parked on the right side of the street for that day.  My grandmother's sister and some of my cousins live in the same old brownstones.  It always felt safe to me. Maybe because I look like them.  Maybe because I was never there long enough to get to know the secrets, to look at someone the wrong way.  I've corresponded with Jerry on Facebook and he says it's all changed in the last few years.  I have heard it is becoming increasingly Asian.  Maybe the way Chinatown has slowly eroded Little Italy in Manhattan.

Castaldo is a good storyteller.  His remembrances of the '70s and '80s play like little movies, maybe like junior Scorsese pictures.  He stole cars, but only because he loved to drive; he always returned them.  But once, he absconded with the wrong ride, one that belonged to a Mafioso.  Jerry did keep all the Tupperware he found in the trunk and surprised his mother.   The goombahs caught up with him.  Somehow Castaldo lived to tell the tale.  There are recollections of street fights with hammers (which would come back to land on his skull),  sexual abuse at the hands of an EMT in an ambulance, clashes with a peer who would later take pity and perform plastic surgery on him for free, and his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, who stuck with him through suicide attempts and an endless cycle of bottoming out and re-emerging from drug abuse.

Her name was Mary Lou, and Jerry reveals that she eventually, finally left him for good.  Underneath my exterior of appreciating realistic, sometimes darkly realistic conclusions, I hope that she reads Brooklyn: A Grim Retrospective, and reaches out to forgive him.

Castaldo's book is compulsively readable.  His memory is clear enough to recall some fine detail, much of which is ugly and unpleasant.  He's a vivid writer, and while his style is sometimes choppy and crude it is very suitable for this story.  It's honest writing, and that's what's critical here.  The final chapters, the years before Castaldo finally cleans up, get bleaker and bleaker until it's nearly unbearable, and are some of the most compelling words I've read.

P.S. These days Jerry is an entertainer (singer/guitarist) with an exhaustive schedule of over three hundred shows a year.  His repertoire are songs in the adult contemporary style, from the "Great American Songbook".   His voice reminds me of Jerry Lewis, with shades of Neil Diamond. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

David Lynch: The Art Life

Painting. Coffee. Smoking.  That's it.  That's the "art life" according to a painter named Bushnell Keeler who would become an invaluable influence and a mentor to a young artist named David Lynch, who had little interest in his high school studies but could spend hours lost in a canvas.  He was serious about his art.  The man rented Lynch a studio, then later encouraged him to go back to art school.  The first go-round in Boston wasn't too successful.  Frustrated, Lynch and friend Jack Fisk decided to go to Austria to train with Oskar Kokoschka for the next three years, but returned after two weeks.

The duo, who would work together years later on Lynch's debut film, ERASERHEAD, then found themselves at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  Lynch was inspired by his classmmates and despite its frightening atmosphere, the city itself.  As David Lynch describes a neighbor who thought she was a chicken, walking around on her hands and knees and exclaiming that her nipples hurt, you can see where just about every subsequent idea Lynch would put onscreen was born.  He should thank the city of brotherly love for its catalyst of dread, a fountain of grotesquery. A place that "sucks your happiness away and fills you with sadness and fear."

2016's DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE, directed by Jon Nguyen, is a pastiche of luscious images of its subject at work in his studio, working with paint and etchings, and sitting in front of a studio microphone on a porch, reminiscing of his early years.  His toddler daughter occasionally wanders through.  Interspersed are old photographs and home movies, with glimpses of his early short films that  lead to an AFI grant which would eventually fund ERASERHEAD.  THE ART LIFE concludes with a discussion of that groundbreaking feature, its five years in the making.

Prior, in between long pauses and long drags on cigarettes (framed beautifully, it must be said). Lynch gives us some detail of his childhood.  His fondness for Idaho and his disdain for Virginia.  His hatred for academia.  That patented tenor of a voice weaves his history as compellingly as his surreal films and television programs portray nightmares.  I could listen for days on end.  I could also watch him paint just as long; the movie needed more such scenes. There is something very reassuring about watching and listening to the man, even as describes his early experiments of watching the stages of the decay of fruit, or how dead insects figured into his art.

Lynch seems to be living the art life these days, and even though he recently devoted a few years to revisiting the Twin Peaks universe, I suspect he'd be just as content with a palate knife and stencil brushes.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


Lucky has been around for decades.  He's smoked a pack a day for most of them.  His doctor says, eh, don't stop, if they haven't killed you by now they're not going to.  I was reminded of my concern some years back for my ninety-eight year old grandmother, who stopped eating everything but cheesecake.  She had also decided to eliminate her blood pressure pills.  Her GP told me not to worry about either thing.  Indeed, she lived to one hundred and one.

Lucky meanders around his desert landscape, following a daily routine of yoga, breakfast at a diner, a trip to the bodega, some game shows, a later stop at a bar.  Everyone knows him.  They are aware he does not believe in the afterlife. He believes in nothing, quite emphatically.  Lucky is of the mindset that one returns to that same void one occupied before birth.  He is not saddened by this idea, and remains content, hopeful.  But at one point he admits he's scared.  Of what?

2017's LUCKY was one of my most anticipated films for that year, nearly as much so as BLADE RUNNER 2049 and PHANTOM THREAD.  Also, for Twin Peaks: The Return, quite relevant in this discussion.  Here was a showcase for one of my favorite character actors - Harry Dean Stanton - playing a ninety year old atheist on what the ads called a spiritual journey.  Harry's friend and frequent collaborator David Lynch plays a role, as does Stanton's old ALIEN cast mate Tom Skerritt.  Another fine character actor, John Carroll Lynch, makes his directorial debut. Stanton passed away before the film's release, adding a serious gravitas. What a swan song this must be!

At the end of the hour and one half, I had a hollow feeling.  Big disappointment, but also the emptiness you feel when you experience something less than genuine. Yes, that's a harsh assessement.  I have no doubts that the cast and crew of LUCKY had good intentions.  I suppose my expectations were too great.  But were they? I would've been fine with a plotless character study, one in which the old man wanders around his town and surveys his long life.  That does describe this film.  So what's the issue?.  Big ones: subpar script, direction, and editing.

Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja's script might've just as well been a skeleton upon which the actors could've ad libbed.  Maybe it is.  But I was struck at its simplicity.   I was expecting some poetry, philosophy.   It felt shallow and obvious.  Flashing digital numbers on a coffee maker and cactii were not suitable enough metaphors for this viewer.  There should've have been considerable weight in Lucky's story. "Spiritual journey"? Maybe it was all internalized, because what I got from this movie felt like an undergraduate's thesis, at best.

John Carroll Lynch's direction is, politely stated, amateurish.  This is especially obvious in the scene with Lucky and the young waitress from the diner, who stops by his house one afternoon.  I guess it was supposed to play awkwardly, but it felt more like the actors were looking for some offscreen guidance.  There is a sense of listlessness throughout the movie, of an uncertainty of pace, tone, and even content.  Wim Wenders orchestrated pure art with his slow paced desert opera starring Stanton,  PARIS, TEXAS, back in 1984.  J.C. Lynch needs more experience behind the camera, to say the least.

And Siobodan Gajic's editing? Sloppy, abrupt, seemingly to cut in the middle of key scenes.  Some of the worst I've seen in a (semi) high profile film.

That leaves the performances, which are marvelous.  Just about unavoidable with this cast.  I forgot to mention Ed Begley Jr., who plays Lucky's physician.  Their scene is one of my favorites in the picture.  Ron Livingston does good work as a young insurance salesman.  Skerritt plays a Marine vet who shares a wartime memory with Lucky, a Navy vet.  David Lynch is irresistible as Lucky's dear friend Howard, who laments the escape of his tortoise, President Roosevelt, who's probably one hundred years old.  Howard's monologue about the tortoise and its lifelong burden is one of the most touching and observant I've heard in some time.  The rest of the actors were mostly unknown to me, but filled their roles nicely.

Nonetheless, fans of the great Harry Dean Stanton, an actor who has given us many years of fine performances and even some music (he gets to sing during a memorable birthday party scene) must watch LUCKY, his screen bow, a final appearance that feels all the more valuable now in spite of its many shortcomings.

P.S.  If you want a really powerful and heartbreaking display of Stanton's latter day mastery, watch  David Lynch's new Twin Peaks series, in which the old cuss reprises his role as Carl.  His moments of generosity toward a trailer park resident and how he handles the death of a young boy are far more profound than anything in LUCKY.