Saturday, August 1, 2015

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I cannot recall a more hotly anticipated film in my lifetime than 1999's STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE.  A sixteen year wait had elapsed since RETURN OF THE JEDI.   The excitement was unbearable.  I was thirty at the time of PHANTOM's  release and the lead up to it was like waiting for Christmas Morning - when you're ten.   I attended the midnight sneak at a neighborhood theater with hundreds of other certifiables, despite having to work the next day.  Of course it would be worth it.  And George Lucas was back in the director's chair!

Within minutes I felt the enthusiasm drain away.  It was clear early on that EPISODE ONE was an unfavorably different sort of STAR WARS movie than the ones with which I grew up. The choice for deliberate pacing, so effective in the original, EPISODE IV, was deadly this time.  When it was over, I remember thinking that if this had been the first movie in the series, it would have never become the phenomenom it was, or perhaps even gotten a sequel.  Regardless of when it would've been released.  It was that underwhelming.  I wrote it off.

But when it was released on video, I gave it another shot.  It did not improve.  If anything, I noticed even more problems with it. And no, not merely because of the presence of Jar Jar Binks, an entirely computer generated creature, the first of such in the series, and almost unanimously disliked by the public.  This attempt at comic relief was disastrous, and Jar Jar's Jamaican accent was no help.  The main problem was a screenplay that did not set up a compelling or even adequate back story.

The characters of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) - Obi-Wan Kenobi's (Ewan McGregor, doing a knowing take on a younger Alec Guinness) mentor - and Queen Amidala/ Padmé (Natalie Portman) are also just not that compelling.  So the business of a war stemming from the taxation of trade routes (and a ship blockade) is even less interesting as a movie than it probably sounded on paper.  I realize that the saga had to have a genesis, but George, seriously? Those Senate and Jedi Council scenes are pretty dull, despite the presence of Sam Jackson as Mace Windu.  And an army of droids for battle? Zzzzzz.  Did you show this screenplay to anyone?  Or should I ask, did you listen to anyone's advice? Not that God has to heed anyone else in His universe.

But Darth Maul? He is an inspired creation of evil, a suitable badass, so nice job there.
The (eventual) sad metamorphosis of Anakin Skywalker was a natural for rich drama.  In PHANTOM MENACE he is nine years old (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy who races pods and builds droids, including C-3PO.   His talents are evident to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who sees potential in him to become a Jedi.  The Council senses something ominous about the innocent boy, voicing their reluctance.  The seeds are sown.  Too bad the most interesting element of this exposition - often an admitted tedious process for storytellers- is simply a lengthy pod race, the outcome of which determines Anakin's freedom.  It is a fine action set piece, with a little dark humor thrown in (Tusken Raiders deliver sniper fire at the racers).

In the end, what drives PHANTOM MENACE and its sequels is the fascination with What Came Before. As mediocre as the "new" trilogy would prove itself, those films do give Episodes IV, V, and VI even more depth.  So that's something.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Your Audiology Tutorial, Auditory Processing, Part II

NOTE: Part One was posted in November 2010.  Um, sorry for the delay...

Recently I was the substitute teacher for a graduate class of Speech Language Pathology students.  The topic for the session was auditory processing, which has been defined a few ways:

"A deficiency in one or more of the auditory behaviors.  (An individual with an auditory processing disorder) is unable to attend to, discriminate, recognize, or understand auditory information and therefore has trouble making sense out of what is heard" (Yellin, 2004).

or:

"Difficulties in the perceptual processing of auditory information in the central nervous system, and in the neurobiologic activity that underlies those processes" (ASHA APD Working Group, 2004)


In the earlier entry I began to list the sub-tests typical for an APD battery.  Continuing.....


-Staggered Spondaic Word Test (SSW): a dichotic (different signals simultaneously to both ears) listening test with bi-syllabic words presented partially overlapping in time, one to each ear.   The SSW is designed to assess auditory integration and the brain's ability to handle a more challenging environment for word understanding.  It considers "order effect", omissions, substitutions, and more in its highly complex scoring system.

-Phonemic Synthesis: an evaluation of the smallest units comprising a word (phoneme) in terms of the patient's awareness of them and the ability to fuse two or more together. Such skills are critical for reading.  The test requires the patient to respond with a word after hearing stimuli that consists of a set of phonemes separated by one second intervals.

-Auditory Continuous Performance Test (ACLT): Assessment of a patient's attention.  He or she is asked to respond when a target word (one version uses "dog") is announced among a list of "distractor" words.  The test is lengthy and almost becomes hypnotic for some participants.  It can be easy to lose track, especially for those diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  An "impulsivity" error occurs if the patient responds to something other than the target.

The SCAN (Screening Test for Auditory Processing Disorders) is also sometimes implemented.  With versions for both children and adults, the SCAN is made up of several sub-tests including competing words/sentences, filtered words (distorted), and figure ground (identifying messages in the presence of competing noise). Some clinics may only use this set of tests for their evaluation.

Additionally, the Token Test can assess auditory comprehension skills in its evaluation of the patient's responses to verbal commands that become more and more complex.  A set of plastic colored tiles of various shapes are used and the tester will begin with something like "point to the blue circle" and progress to "place the blue circle on the orange square..." and so forth.

Treating an auditory processing disorder usually involves a modification of the learning/communication environment. Distance and background noise are factors that affect communication.  The most common strategy: preferential seating in the classroom.  Placing sound absorbing materials such as stuffed animals or even tennis balls can help.  Acoustic tiles are recommended.  Managing auditory overload is key. Assistive technology can improve the SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) in the room.  An FM system - devices worn by both student and teacher for wireless communication- is commonly used.

Audiological approaches involve attempts to strengthen a patient's localization skills, sequencing and memory, phonemic synthesis, the ability to recognize speech in noise (noise desensitization), and multi-modal integration.  Compensatory strategies can include the rephrasing of words, written and verbal assignments, and "chunking" - the breaking down of long messages or lists into smaller components and grouping concepts or objects together.  Computer programs like Fast Forward and Interactive Metronome have documented results in assisting with treating APDs. 

Not every audiologist performs the APE battery due to time constraints, reimbursement difficulties, and sometimes even lack of interest.  Call around.  Most audio clinics/ENT offices know of someone to whom you can be referred if their provider does not conduct these evals.  Universities with an Au.D. program and the school board in your area are good sources.  

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Danger: Diabolik

1968's DANGER: DIABOLIK, for all of its eccentric sets and occasional flashes of psychedelia, was a bit surprising in its rather flat presentation.  The trailer suggests a garish, over-the-top James Bond/Matt Helm-like adventure with excess in every frame.  Despite a scene where the two main characters make love on a spinning bed under and among millions of dollars, and a tracking shot of a line of hipsters smoking buddha, the movie goes about its tasks with a low profile, with less energy than expected.

To boot, John Philip Law is his usual expressionless self in the lead, a master criminal called Diabolik who seems quite fond of the high life and has a statuesque girlfriend Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), though like many such individuals may get off more on the difficulty to attain/keep them. He's a walking comic strip (in fact based on a real Italian source), sometimes clad in fetish gear as he works.  Inspector Ginco (Michel Piccoli) has been forever trying to apprehend him and capitalizes on the publicity surrounding a costly emerald necklace, certain that Diabolik will be tempted to steal it from the Saint Just Castle. The movie, by the way, takes place in a generic European country.

Rival criminal/mobster Valmont (Alfredo Celi, perfectly cast) also wants Diabolik and makes a deal - under duress- with Ginco in exchange for leniency if he can nab and deliver the elusive thief.  The plot will further involve laughing gas, melted gold, exploding train tracks, and two faked deaths.  It sounds like grand fun, and DANGER: DIABOLIK coasts on its '60s vibe alone, but director Mario Bava (better known for horror flicks) fails to give the movie any real zip or pace.  It's serviceable and competent, but unimaginative.  Far too long, too. Not the expected grindhouse guilty pleasure.  Bava's screenplay dutifully goes through the paces, but it all feels stale, despite a few eye filling moments and attractive vistas. Ennio Moricone's score is deliciously overwrought.

But I really dug the sets, especially the underground fortress in which the finale plays out.  Diabolik's pad is also very cool.  Maybe some Bel Air or Palm Beach residents sought a similar look for their cribs.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Supervixens

Spoilers Within!

Say what you will about Russ Meyer, the man responsible for some of the cheekiest, most bitingly satiric, and most blush and groan inducing softcore of the 50s-70s, but you have to admit the man knew how to direct a movie.  Really had a handle on pacing, shot composition, transitions, and narrative drive.  His screenplays, which featured some unusually sharp dialogue for this disreputable genre, have musings on social and political issues with a bit more erudition than you'd typically find.   This was often due to film critic Roger Ebert's frequent collaboration (sometimes under a pseudonym, and who could blame him?).  The main draw for a Meyer movie were those impossibly buxom women and scene after scene of lascivious liasions, of course, but ol' Russ usually had it both ways - a merry plunge into carnality while meanwhile offering winking commentary on it.

1975's SUPERVIXENS is sometimes considered the CITIZEN KANE of sleazy drive-in sex romps.  Not entirely overstated.  It's a lengthy (for this genre), caustic, delirious adventure through the desert as hapless Clint Ramsey (Charles Pitt) tries to clear his name after a dirty cop named Harry Sledge (Meyer favorite Charles Napier) kills Clint's crazily oversexed, patently evil wife SuperAngel (Shari Eubank) and pins the murder on him.  Clint's journey involves several detours, each with a lusty female who also has the word "Super" in her name.

One cannot accuse Meyer of homogeneity with his women as several ethnicities are represented. One is even deaf!  All insatiably horny, true, but none (other than SuperAngel, but she's evil so it's O.K.) are mere victims.   In fact, female empowerment is a running motif here.  Or are they just manipulative?  What would Gloria Steinem have thought of this movie? Or even Erica Jong?  Were they familiar with the similar girrrl power on display in Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL!??

That said, Meyer's films sometimes also include some potent violence.  BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, probably Meyer's best known work, had some such moments. SUPERVIXENS features a surprisingly gruesome death scene for SuperAngel in a bathroom at the hands of Harry, who was insulted due to his lack of potency.  The scene goes a bit far, too far, and further than such a mostly lighthearted film would be expected to.  But while many drive-in comedies that package sex and violence keep both fairly light, Meyer's violent scenes are relentless.  Is there more commentary here?  A sobering slap to the audience who are there to be simply be titillated? Is there some maturity in the director's strategy? Was Ebert an influence? Maybe, but there are many viewers who also crave this sort of red meat, and don't care if the tone of the picture is uneven.  And would miss/not care about any serious undercurrent.

But the silly Benny Hill type moments predominate in SUPERVIXENS, and Meyer always shows sex scenes for what they are - completely absurd.  Some of the outdoor unions are especially uproarious.  Ebert once said, "There's nothing as ridiculous as someone else's sexual fantasies and nothing as intriguing as your own." 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Star Wars (No, not THAT one!)

Thursday, July 16th 2015 was a Hall of Fame awful day. I mean, really bad.  I almost wish I could tell you about it.  But there were two events in the entertainment world that assauged at least a bit of the aftertaste that day. Criterion finally announced their release of MULHOLLAND DRIVE (coming in October).  Knew that one was coming.  But later that day I discovered that Wilco was offering a new, free album! Called Star Wars! With a fluffy white kitty on the cover!

The album is a little over one-half hour.  Many songs are under three minutes.  Is this a throwaway effort? After a few listenings, I would say no, but I don't expect any new converts, especially when Nels and company perpetuate that grinding dissonance, as on "You Satellite".   As before, I detect some Beatlesque elements in the vocal and guitar. A bit of Sonic Youth, too.   Some tasty, albeit brief, licks on "Pickled Ginger". "Cold Slope" grabbed me on first listen with some staccato phrasing, doubled on the axe.  Tweedy's voice gets some filtering here and there. The melancholia still comes through.  Like just about every Wilco release, it's a grower, soon to be indispensable I'm sure.  Nice job, guys.

NOTE: Star Wars will get an official release on CD in August and on LP in November.  Currently, there are a few ways to download it for free, including through iTunes.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Fletch

There never was a better showcase for Chevy Chase's detached, deadpan shtick than 1985's FLETCH.  In a career littered with far more misfires than successes, Chase more or less played the same indifferent smartass each time.  Many comedians (and actors, for that matter) are stuck in a certain recognizable persona with which they willfully exploit no matter what the script gives them to do.  Chase dined out on the same trademarked mannerisms so many times you wonder how he would've played Willy Loman had he been given the chance.

FLETCH is based on a '70s mystery novel by Gregory MacDonald and has maybe a similar tone but otherwise is far astray.  Chase interprets the character of L.A Times reporter Irwin Fletcher as a tired, sardonic, quick witted slacker who's behind on his alimony and his deadlines.  A big story involving drug trafficking on the beach, with a possible tie to corrupt cops, is brewing and Fletch has spent weeks trying to assimilate with a group of derelicts to get the inside info.  This and many other plot developments allow Chase to don an array of disguises.  Sometimes fake teeth, nerdy hornrims, or an afro.  He uses so many aliases throughout the film one almost requires a scorecard.

Fletch is also approached by a wealthy man named Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) who offers him $50,000 to kill him.  Stanwyk alleges that he has bone cancer and would rather not be around once things deteriorate.  He also wants to ensure that his wife receives the benefit of his life insurance policy.  A carefully detailed plan is explained.  Fletch, skeptical as ever, agrees to the offer but naturally begins an investigation.  Some troubling discoveries are made in between rectal exams and narrow escapes from attack dogs.  Is there a connection between Stanwyk and the activities on the beach?

Andrew Bergman's screenplay maintains interest with the central plotline.  The mystery is actually fairly engrossing.  I wonder how a more faithful adaptation - without the near non-stop wisecracks- would've played.  It would've been a different movie.  As is, it's a showcase for its star.  And a damn good one if I do say so my damn self.  Chase is actually a good fit here.  What should've been an unfortunate collision instead becomes a Star Vehicle that actually doesn't warm the back of my neck.

Director Michael Ritchie guides the moody celebrity quite well through all manner of genre business, including the inevitable car chase.  I prefer the quieter scenes, ones observant of behavior, as when Fletch travels to Utah to visit Stanwyk's parents. It's like something out of an Ansel Adams painting with dialogue penned by Will Rogers or Garrison Keillor. The dead on Americana commentary in this scene is reminiscent of Ricthie's films in the '70s like SMILE, THE BAD NEWS BEARS, and THE CANDIDATE.

I suppose you can enjoy FLETCH without being a fan of Chase, but it really helps if you enjoy his smugness, his sarcasm.  Much of the movie's dialogue has a permanent fixture in pop culture lore.  There are even burritos at Moe's inspired by it.  You may find yourself quoting the film almost involuntarily.  I certainly felt a grin that night I told a waiter to "put it on the Underhill's" tab and he got it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Shattered Glass

It's interesting that the story that would be the genesis of New Republic reporter Stephen Glass' downfall involves a computer hacker who is given a job at the company whose system he hacked.  The article, a complete fabrication by its author, nonetheless does mirror those times when a victim is so impressed by their oppressor's craft that they can't help but offer them some sort of alliance.  Reward their acumen.

As I watched 2003's SHATTERED GLASS part of me kept thinking that instead of canning the guy maybe New Republic should've rather been impressed with this obviously talented writer and reassigned/referred him as a fiction editor somewhere.  Yes, make him apologize to your readers, say his mea culpas and then take the guy out for a celebratory scotch, already.

Of course there are issues of journalistic ethics, plagiarism and a myriad other concerns.  And I'm certainly not advocating the sort of methods Glass employed.  Maybe I'm just a snark who is mindless and disrespectful of the scared code of journalism and "reporting the truth".   Another unpopular view I sometimes hold regards "insider trading" in the stock market: if we engage in this capitalistic game which is essentially a legal horse race anyway, those with privileged knowledge perhaps should win.  You can't create a zero sum game and then cry foul when someone gets an angle.  Yes, I know.  Thus speaketh my evil persona.  I rub my face and remember my faith, my morality.

Glass' story (which unfolded in the late 1990s) seems less shocking with each passing year.  With media outlets' hysterical 'round the clock reporting.  Highly respected news anchors falling from grace over partial truths.  Many younger folk get their news from the likes of John Stewart.  My wry self might respond, the news deserves a Daily Show treatment anymore.  Domestic and world events (and people's reactions to them) are increasingly beyond satire.  But maybe it's always been that way, and now we just have more reporters.  Keep in mind I'm not downplaying the seriousness of much of the terror and oppression in the world.

Billy Ray, who cites Woodward and Bernstein as childhood heroes, wrote and directed SHATTERED GLASS.  His work is competent but strangely uninspired.  A bit like a fairly well crafted TV program.  Many viewers seem fairly easy to please regarding this sort of method.  With all the cries of how much better  many television programs are than films these days, I'd guess that several folks will give SHATTERED GLASS high marks.   The film remains compelling if you're already interested in the subject.

Hayden Christiansen does fine as Glass, though if you watch interviews with the real guy you'll see that the actor really soft pedaled the creepier aspects of his personality.  I was squirming during a DVD extra as Glass attempts to explain his way out of several questions.  Would a more accurate portrayal have made the film better? Different, for sure.  A deeper psychoanalysis of the guy could've allowed a mini classic.  I did enjoy the relationship between Glass and his new editor, Chuck Lane (an excellent Peter Sarsgaard), the latter of whom gradually learns the truth.  This element of the story elevates things a bit.  But overall, SHATTERED GLASS is a essentially a watchable, reasonably compelling drama that draws inspiration from a film like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN but doesn't come anywhere near its mastery.