Monday, September 26, 2016

5063-C

The sight of boxes and containers has become very familiar to these eyes.  Though this time it was a bit different.  Moving out, yes, but not my stuff.  Well, not all of it.  Lamplight Drivel readers will recall entries discussing the passing of my grandmother in late 2014.  She had not lived in 5063-C since Thanksgiving Day of 2012, when her fall prompted me to place her in a nursing facility.  She would never again get to see her beloved apartment of nearly twenty years, a place she bought after being widowed three times over.

Her old house was about seven miles to the East, near the water.  A home I visited through childhood and later lived in two separate times in my twenties.  Loved that place.  White brick fireplace.  It had this great backyard, too. Citrus trees.  My grandmother and grandfather moved there in the early 1970s, after decades in Brooklyn.  My grandfather died in 1984.  My grandmother remarried in the mid '80s and again in the early '90s.  The first guy wasn't the greatest choice.  The second was a decent enough fellow who liked to travel in his van.  My grandmother rode with him for awhile and during that time, my senior year in college, I lived at the old 355.

A few years after I graduated she moved to 5063-C, located within a modest 55+ community west of town.  Her third husband, Vinnie, had passed and she was ready to start anew yet again.  She would soon meet her fourth and final husband, Tom, one of the sweetest people I've ever met.  They were wed within a short time and had several blissful years together before Tom left this world in 2001. During that time my mother moved into another unit in the same complex.  I also lived in both of their apartments at various times while I was still in school.

Each year got tougher for grandma.  She survived double hip replacement surgery.  There were three hurricanes in two years. I remember hearing Wilma outside the bedroom window; it sounded like a locomotive.   Thankfully, no damage to her building.  The worst part was the week of no power afterward.

Many nights Grandma would cry out in the wee hours, often from bad dreams.  Good aides and neglectful aides came and went.  Senior Services began to call me with reports that my grandmother's neighbors were concerned for her safety. 

In the last month I finally got around to cleaning out my grandmother's belongings.  We will be selling the unit, long overdue.  I'd been busy with a myriad of things over the past year and a half.  A perfect opportunity arose when I was informed I had over one hundred hours of PTO I needed to use before my anniversary date at work.

I spent weeks sifting through clothes, books, photographs, old Avon inventory, documents that dated back to the '70s.  Tedious work.   I had to carefully examine everything as my grandmother had left currency in pockets and between pages of magazines.  Some of my old stuff was among the piles.  Old floppy disks and even some grad school paperwork was there, triggering a barrage of memories.

All of it did.  As you would expect, not all of it favorable or pleasant.  Some reminders of bad periods were there, things I'd blocked out of my mind.  Relationships that had soured.  Debts that had plagued my foolish younger self.  A lawsuit my grandmother filed in vain.  Photos of my parents, long separated.  But also, photos of a surprise birthday and the early days of my courtship with my now wife.

The a/c in the apartment had failed some time before this big job.  It was fixed on Day Two.  Thank God.  Unfortunately, old boxes stuffed with papers in a stuffy apartment bring bugs.  As I opened some of them I was greeted by the occasional cockroach or three.  It got to a point where I just took the damned things outside so if any were hiding they could just scurry on into the grass.

Much of what I cleared out was donated to Goodwill.  At the time of this writing the furniture is still there, but this task is closer to completion.  I am thankful to 5063-C for its years of shelter for my family, but honestly, I won't miss it.  Namely because I was never particularly fond of it aesthetically.  Also because it was a part of my life that, while necessary, was far from the greatest of times.  I mentioned in an earlier post about leaving something in the rear view mirror.  This will soon join it, happily, but I am eternally grateful for the love that was allowed to exist there.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bugsy Malone

If another gangster musical with an all-kid cast exists in the stratosphere, I'm certainly unaware of it.  A stark picture that looks and feels a lot like an old Damon Runyon story or gangster noir, but with children.  Does this sound like a good, or at least workable, idea for a movie? Writer/director Alan Parker, in his film debut, thought so. 1976's BUGSY MALONE, if nothing else, is unlike any other flick I've seen.  It's a dandy novelty piece, rarely discussed anymore.  An unusual, possibly daring experiment that is proving hard to review.

Why? BUGSY MALONE inspires a certain brand of confusion as it is viewed.  Maybe discomfort as well. It could depend of the age of the viewer.   I first saw this movie when I was in my early teens, finding it fascinating and fun.  The film puts the kids through the old timey paces of the roles once played by the likes of actors like John Garfield.  The story takes place during Prohibition, in and out of speakeasies, in dingy backstage dressing rooms.  Jodie Foster plays torch singer Tallulah, girlfriend of gin joint owner Fat Sam (John Cassisi, absolutely perfect in this role) and Scott Baio (future Happy Days player and Trump supporter) plays the title character, a two bit boxing promoter who impresses Fat Sam with his courage and moxie and is later hired as his driver.  The entire cast is well selected.

The script references the sort of antics displayed by criminals like Al Capone, Bugs Moran, et. al.  Plenty of guns come out but instead of bullets, whipped cream is fired. "Splurge guns" they call 'em.  They get plenty of use throughout BUGSY MALONE, with several slow motion highlights.  It's all very slapstick, but when someone gets splurged, they still go to that big dance hall in the sky, so if you think on that, it's sorta disturbing (unless you take the climax of the movie literally).  Watching thirteen year old Foster vamp it up and sing the highly suggestive tune "My Name is Tallulah" may also ruffle a few twenty-first century feathers.

But to me, the incongruity of it all is part of what makes BUGSY MALONE worth seeing, assure a spot in cinema history.  I'm not entirely down with the choice to dub the kids' singing with adult voices (a bit creepy at times), but the sum is quite entertaining and certainly, different.  Fans of Parker will also note strong similarities between the choreography and editing of the soup kitchen number here and the meat grinder scene ("Another Brick in the Wall, Part II") in his later PINK FLOYD, THE WALL.  The director would continue his somewhat bleak perspective on movie musicals with EVITA in 1996.

Just about all of the songs (composed by Paul Williams) in BUGSY MALONE are spirited yet tinged with sadness, especially "Tomorrow" sung by a young black boy as he pushes a broom and laments not getting to chance to audition.  Most sound very '70s, too, adding to what is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Departed

2006's THE DEPARTED was proclaimed by many to be a return to the sort of kinetic filmmaking for which Martin Scorsese is best known.  Within seconds, expectations seemed to be confirmed.  There's that rapid fire editing by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker.  The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" thunders in.  Sharp, harsh dialogue.  Wise narration fills the soundtrack, this time by Jack Nicholson.  It's impossible not to be reminded of the great GOODFELLAS.  THE DEPARTED even similarly begins with two of its main characters' early lives, growing up in the 'hood. There's another great cast: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen.  The violence is strong.

So why is it that I just can't rank THE DEPARTED in the Scorsese pantheon with the likes of MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS?  Does it suffer the fate of CASINO, of deja vu? Does it feel like Marty was just repeating himself? Somewhat, but I'm happy to watch just about anything this living master of cinema shoots. Scorsese has left the neighborhood plenty of times to create a wide array of features like THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and KUNDUN.  Not always entirely successful but there's never any doubt that you are in the hands of an uncommonly gifted filmmaker.  Hell, I'd watch a film on the mating habits of mollusks if Marty was in the director's chair.

THE DEPARTED is a remake of INTERNAL AFFAIRS, a highly regarded 2002 film from Hong Kong.  That film has popped up on cable a few times but is always dubbed, so I've yet to see it.   Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have combined it and its sequels into one long, profane crime drama that gives the whole theme of identity a real workout.  Trust, too.  Common themes that are entertainingly explored in THE DEPARTED but despite the film's added dimension of having the character of mobster Frank Costello (Nicholson) based on Whitey Bulger, it's all curiously hollow and forgettable.

Colin Sullivan (Damon) and Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) are both moles working with Costello from different angles.  The former has been groomed by the gangster since childhood to work his way into the Massachusetts State Police, organized crime division.  Costigan - whose family members really were "family" -  is recruited by the Boston PD to cozy up to and bring down Costello.  Police shrink Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga) is involved with both of them in a plot thread that really went nowhere for this viewer.  The calculus of who is infiltrating whom gets amusingly thorny, leading to a climax and denouement that won't have anyone thinking that they've just experienced a "feel good" motion picture.  Pretty grim. You could argue, Shakespearean.

And by the ending the impact really wasn't there for me.  Despite solid performances (although Wahlberg overdoes it a bit as a belligerent Staff Sergeant),  I wasn't sufficiently involved with any character.  I felt almost as ambivalent as I did at the close of the tepid Larry Fishburne/Ellen Barkin double cross thriller BAD COMPANY.  Lots of attempted "OMG!" plot twists but little emotional resonance. THE DEPARTED is energetic and colorful, but is finally just another sad tale.  Interesting, beautifully directed, testosterone heavy, and empty.  Kinda like CASINO, though admittedly much better.

But not disposable; no picture of Marty's can be.  I like THE DEPARTED, and for many other directors this would be a golden effort.  But a filmmaker of Scorsese's caliber is put to a very high standard.  If only Paul Schrader, author of many of the director's greatest, had been there for this.  You would have had the emotional weight this film lacks.  You may have had a fifth classic for the Hall of Fame.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part III

By the late 1990s They Might Be Giants began to distribute their one-of-a-kind tunes over the Internet.  Negotiations had gone south with label Elektra and this new portal would of course prove later to be the primary method through which folks would get their music. But in 1999 it did seem quite revolutionary that Long Tall Weekend would be sold through a digital service (some promo copies of the CD did circulate as well).  I did not discover these tracks, which included a song about John and John being late for a radio interview called "They Got Lost", until a few years later when peer to peer services like Napster and Kazaa provided a platform for sharing mp3 files.  Napster would eventually go legit but in 2000.......many spent days at a time loading up on old favorites.  It was like Christmas morning.  Discovering the Giants' "Operators Are Standing By" and "Dark and Metric" was at least like Chanukah.

In 2001 TMBGs stormed back with perhaps their best more recent effort, Mink Car, on the Restless labelThe album was recorded over several years in different locations.  Some of the tracks (including "Older") were featured on Long Tall Weekend with different arrangements.  This batch is quite diverse, encompassing a myriad of styles.  Not that unusual for the guys but the sting of "Bangs" made quite a contrast with their cover of "Yeh Yeh".  Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing lent vocals to "Mr. Xcitement", and his sardonic voice is perfect to deliver some pretty obscure lyrics.  The last part of the album hits a stride with, among others, "My Man" (about paralysis); the aforementioned "Older" ("you're older than you've ever been and now you're even older, and now you're even older.."); the title track, done like a smooth jazz combo; "Wicked Little Critta" (almost a rap song, sung in a Boston accent and recalling kid street hockey), and "She Thinks She's Edith Head", which needs no description.  The fun was certainly back with Mink Car, but.....

The release date: 9/11/01.  I'm sure many excited fans did not make the record store that day.  Many of us can remember where we were when those planes hit the World Trade Center.  I was scheduled to go into work later than usual.  I turned on the Today show and saw the smoke pouring out of Tower One.  While I watched, Tower Two was hit.  It began a nausea that lasted for a solid week.  A horribly dark day.  But I still managed to drive to Barnes & Noble, figuring the new They Might Be Giants album would at least give me a smile.  It certainly did.

Side note: The documentary about the Johns, GIGANTIC (review later) shows a now chilling clip of the boys rehearsing in a hallway just prior to playing on a late night talk show on 9/10/2001.

A year later No! was unleashed on the world and I can't recall a more joyful half hour of music.  It would be the Johns' debut album designed for children. The same ingenuity is on display as always, but with far sunnier lyrics than usual that might teach you a thing or two about grocery bag contents and The Edison Musuem.  "The House at the Top of the Tree" is exhausting in its lyrical tail chasing, and "Four of Two" tells an amusing tale of one who waits under a clock. Another track, "I Am Not Your Broom" comes from the point of view of someone/thing who wants to throw off those "chains of servitude".   "Robot Parade" is a particular favorite, with '70s sounding nursery room music and a distorted vocal describing the relations between children and metal men.   In typical TMBG fashion, the liner notes explain that the final three tracks are to be played to encourage the little ones to wind down and sleep, only to have the second of those tracks be a raucous, sound effect laden rocker with a narrator explaining everything he did today.

In 2002 I got to see They Might Be Giants live at the long gone Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach, FL. Perfect, intimate venue for this show, which was lightning paced and wildly fun.  I didn't want it to end.
William Allen White, a somewhat obscure newspaper editor and politician from Kansas who died in the 1940s, had his giant mug hovering over the stage.  He is also visible in some of the Giants' old videos. TMBGs seem rather obsessed with him.
All through the concert, John Flansburgh cussed up a storm.   Not really necessary, but it did not detract from the high spirits.  The setlist was all over the place - things from most albums and plenty of seeming one-offs (made up on the spot?).  The most memorable moment of the night? The guys started tuning around the radio dial and would play along with whatever they found.  Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" came on and they had some fun with the lyrics.  Also, a sermon from pastor Bob Coy was allowed to play for a few minutes.  No blasphemy from the band. Coy in fact was preaching about the joy of music!

Next time: Some so-so albums, more kid stuff, and an unabashed return to the old sound.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

1976's THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE is one of John Cassavettes' few films to sport something resembling a plot. That certainly does not mean it follows one religiously.   I've seen an old one sheet that advertises the picture as a routine crime drama, even quite ambitiously (and misleadingly) calling it a "miniature CHINATOWN".  Distributors often misrepresent a tough to market film to lure "the great unwashed" into theaters, to dangle the idea of another two hours of chases and shoot outs.  Although, anyone who's seen CHINATOWN knows that such a description is not apt.  And on the contrary -  Cassevettes is quoted as saying "I wouldn't film an exploding helicopter.  I've never seen one, so why would I do it?".

Even critics, champions of the iconoclastic director had a rough time with KILLING, initially released at two hours and fifteen minutes.  In 1978, Cassevettes recut it to under two hours, the version reviewed here.  I've heard that the longer run time includes many extra scenes in the cabaret owned by lead character Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara).  A seedy L.A. retro palace where the stage is occupied mostly by strippers but often at the same time by men in costumes reciting poetry or downbeat stories.  Criterion has released both edits for your comparison.  Perhaps more scenes of pathetic routines would've underlined Cassavettes' points that much more effectively?

At one hundred and eight minutes, I think we have a small diamond.  It's long enough.  An immersively atmospheric wallow into both big city underbelly and '70s culture.  If you enjoy that sort of thing, this movie will really do it for you.  Even if you didn't give a damn about the story or characters, you could find enough mesmerizing sleaze to satisfy your anthroprologic bents.  THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, in its pseudo documentary style, may well be the best time capsule of its era.

Cosmo is a charismatic guy who just can't stay out of debt to the mafia.  Call it impulsiveness or an underlying self-destructiveness,  Vitelli celebrates the last payment of one loan by living large with his employees and amassing another the same day.  He likes to gamble.  In a frightening subsequent sequence, we see a waiting room filled with a group of other schmucks in hock to the Mob, including a physician who negotiates unsuccessfully to make installment payments.

Some toughs, including a guy called Flo played by the ever menacing character actor Timothy Carey, threaten Cosmo several times before someone decides to give the guy a deal - if he'll kill a small time Chinese hood, the debt will be forgiven.  It sounds too easy, and...well, see the movie if you like.

But don't expect Cassavettes to milk any suspense, or even to film a climactic shoot out with any effort at creating excitement.  Each scene is filmed in that voyeuristic style for which the director is well known.  He occupies dingy bars and warehouses with the same weary,  though observant eyes.   Lines of dialogue don't crackle with wit, but rather feel like something overheard through paper thin apartment walls.  It's a fascinating odyssey if you're so inclined.  And Gazzara is just so watchable.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Anomalisa

Here we have yet another cinematic examination of middle age malaise and regret.  A yearning for something, anything that might inspire us, something with a pulse.  Work, eat, sleep, repeat.  This cycle is familiar to many Americans.  Add to that a spouse and child and a mortgage.  What we race through youth to attain may well become mid-life shackles.  You've heard it all before.   Maybe you're living it.

We've seen it in films many a time.   Some are quite good.  Others...  So what is distinguishing about 2015's ANOMALISA? Charlie Kaufman.  Writer of such unclassifiables as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and writer/director of the grossly underrated SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.  Kaufman wrote and co-directed (with Duke Johnson) this film further set apart from other such dramas by its stop motion animation. A painstaking process that sometimes allowed one-half second of screen time to be filmed in an entire day.  Why did Kaufman choose this style? Did he feel that animation would give a fresh perspective to time worn ideas? A new way to comment on something so universal?

The screenplay is not filled with mind-bending plot calisthenics as in other Kaufman efforts.  You might find some metaphysical ideas within.  The plight of customer service expert/author Michael Stone is followed over the course of one day as he attends a conference in Cincinatti at which he is a keynote speaker.  He's an Everyman who has settled into the usual trappings, perhaps a form of rigor mortis.  Everyone and everything around him seems exactly the same.  Each person has the exact same voice whether they be male or female.  Tom Noonan contributes this melancholy, flat monotone so effectively that it can be lost on no one as to Kaufman's point.

Michael (voice by David Thewlis) does meet a young woman with a different sounding voice (courtesy of Jennifer Jason Leigh) at the hotel.  Lisa is attending the conference with her co-worker/friend, and to her considerable surprise finds herself having a nightcap in Michael's room.   The tired man's spirit is ignited by her honesty about herself, her feelings.  He recognizes in her a similar insecurity and self-deprecation.  But also a sense of optimism, a belief that life can be beautiful.  Michael and Lisa spend the night together, illustrated by a lengthy scene of intimacy that will undoubtedly make some viewers giggle.  But this is not the same sort of puppet sex silliness on view in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE.  The awkwardness of the scenario will be painfully real to some, and the artificiality of the animation does not detract from that.

But has Michael fallen in love with an idea rather than a person? Can the magic last beyond breakfast, when human flaws like talking with one's mouth full reveal we're all just humans?  Would Lisa prove over time to be as banal as everyone else in Michael's eyes? 

ANOMALISA is much deeper than that, of course.  Kaufman's cold cleverness (note the name of the hotel) is kept mostly in check, but his observance of life's mundanities and, for example, the precision of hotel employees remind us of his unusually observant, satiric eye.  But this film has a heart, a rather large one, and even as we begin to see that Michael is really just a self-pitying shlub who needs to smell the roses we can appreciate the sentiment of it all.  There is much truth in this movie, and perhaps having animated players was what was necessary to make it seem innovative again.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Barbarosa

It's pretty damned hard to live up to such a legend.  Like you stopped being human along the way, after you robbed the forty fifth gaucho who appeared to be penniless but was actually quite loaded.  You learn things like that as you wander in the Mexican desert.  Barbarosa is indeed a red-bearded outlaw played by the red headed stranger himself, Willie Nelson.  There's quite a story behind him.  Songs are sung by villagers outside pueblos.  Barbarosa is sometimes within earshot, sometimes impressed with the yarns being spun about him.

One day a fumbling farm boy named Karl (Gary Busey) happens upon Barbarosa minutes before the latter puts a bullet in a pursuer. A fitting introduction to a legend.  Karl had to flee his home in Texas after accidentally killing his brother-in-law.  Vengeful family members are on his trail.  As 1982's BARBAROSA unfolds, we'll learn that the titular character also has relatives on his trail, out for blood.   Don Braulio Zavala (Gilbert Roland) tells his nieces, nephews, and grandchildren wild, perhaps exaggerated stories of his wayward son-in-law, a man he never approved to marry his daughter.  A man who killed his son and shot off Don Braulio's leg in a drunken wedding reception scuffle many years ago.  The man with the red beard.

Barbarosa makes secret trips to the Zavala hacienda to see his wife and drop off his loot.   Perhaps he pushed his luck one too many times.  Eduardo is the latest family member dispatched to bring back Barbarosa, perhaps with "his cojones on a stick".  Will he be successful? Is it an accident that Karl, who finds in Barbarosa an eventual father figure and mentor, grows out his beard as the film plays on?  How are legends born?

William D. Whitliff's amusing script travels the spaghetti Western route with style and flavor.  Director Fred Schepisi uses many of the shots we'd see in Leone films, especially the close-ups.  Everyone has a great face in this picture. Look like they belong in pre-Civil War Mexico and Texas. The remote shooting locations are not faked.  There is much snappy, quotable dialogue. BARBAROSA is a far more thoughtful Western than many of the types of films it emulates.  Whitliff's parallel familial plotlines are beautifully woven.  In the end, though, it's all about preserving the mythology, even if a good deal of it is true.  It might even keep a family together.