Monday, August 22, 2016

Citizen's Band

As a large segment of the American public were obsessed with CB radio at the time, 1977's CITIZEN'S BAND (aka HANDLE WITH CARE) was predicted by its filmmakers to be a breakout hit.  It's funny what catches on and what doesn't.  For SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, director John Badham recalled his doubts about taking on the project as "disco was dying" when the film was released. But Paramount had not only a box office smash, but a cultural phenomenon.  Unfortunately the same studio did not have the same success with Jonathan Demme's slice of Americana.

In a fairly recent interview with Demme and his lead actor Paul Le Mat, both recall that they learned how CB users were too busy playing around with their radios at home or on the road to go see a movie.  That was the culture.

So why was the same year's SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, with CB radios so integral to its plot, a runaway hit? With the changing Hollywood paradigms - small, quirky character dramas were out and loud "event" movies were in - a film like CITIZEN'S BAND would either go unnoticed or met with apathy.  Since there were no car chases and such.  It makes me wonder if the film would've had an audience in 1971, when a large sampling of film goers appreciated a movie that cared more about the complexities of relationships than physical mayhem.

Demme also described his attraction to Paul Brickman's observant script, and it's a gem.   A multi-character mosiac that nonetheless spends enough time with and nicely fleshes out each of its frustrated subjects to (at least this) viewer satisfaction.   Many are identified in the credits by their citizen's band handle:

"Spider" (Le Mat) - a good natured CB repairman who tirelessly volunteers for Emergency Channel 9, the Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams,  rescuing those in distress, including a stranded trucker called...

"Chrome Angel" (Charles Napier) - a bigamist married to "Portland Angel" (Marcia Rodd) and "Dallas Angel" (Ann Wedgeworth), who meet and learn the awful truth on a bus ride to meet their husband in common.  How this story line progresses and resolves is a tribute to both homespun and absurdist humor.

"Electra" (Candy Clark) - Spider's ex-fiancee who still has feelings for the guy despite her current relationship with....

"Blood" (Bruce McGill), Spider's brother and the local high school basketball coach.

"Papa Thermodyne" (Robert Blossom), former truck driver and the father of Spider and Blood.

There's also a homely prostitute called "Hot Coffee" (Alix Elias) who discovers that purchasing a mobile home will solve her dwindling clientele dilemma.  Also, a teen who reads pornography over the airwaves and a ranting and raving neo-Nazi called "The Red Baron".  Both will get their due when Spider sneaks to their houses and cuts their wires and rips down their antennas.  Part of his volunteer duties is to make sure no one is abusing air time, you see.

Today's viewers will likely note the similarities between CB culture and the online community, with its multitudes of cloaked and anonymous posters, creating personas they may be too timid (or flat out unable) to assume in real life.  I'm not old enough to recall if the Citizen's Band obsessives were so hot to "have their ears on" as to not put down the mic occasionally and actually have a cup of coffee with someone. 

Jordan Cronenweth, with whom Demme would later collaborate on STOP MAKING SENSE, again does some choice cinematography, especially in the scene where he bathes overhead light over Spider and Electra during a locker room kiss.  It's a moment as heavenly as you're likely to see in a movie, and nicely prefaces some of the work Cronenweth contributed to BLADE RUNNER.

Seek out CITIZEN'S BAND.  Some will take the trouble simply out of curiosity to see Demme's first non-exploitation pic and future RISKY BUSINESS writer/director Brickman's early effort.  It's an enjoyable quirky, folksy comedy for those who enjoy social portraits that respect their subjects while maybe poking a little fun at them. A sitcom premise that cuts a bit deeper.  Films like SMILE, A WEDDING, etc.  The '70s had many of 'em.

My only carp with the movie is its finale, which brings all of the characters together for a yahoo feel good rally.  It feels like an outtake from yes, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.  A studio/test audience mandated sell-out.  If that was the case, it did not translate to big ticket sales. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Jason Bourne

In case you're wondering whether to bother with JASON BOURNE, the rather unimaginatively titled new fifth (including the Jeremy Renner movie in between) entry in the Robert Ludlum adaptations, consider what unfolds in its two hours:

1. Lengthy sequences of CIA employees in a control room tracking Bourne (Matt Damon, resuming the role) all over Europe.  Several call out his coordinates while their superiors, cyber ops head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) grunt less than vague orders not to lose him.

2. Shots of Bourne quickly shuffling down streets, through crowds (even a riot this time) never once breaking a smile.

3. Characters saying "This ends TONIGHT!" or "This ends NOW!" or some variation.  Sadly, no one utters "Failure is not an option!" or the old stand-by, "I'm too old for this shit!"

4. Fisticuffs shot in extreme close-up with an ASL (Average Shot Length) of about three milliseconds.  Which one threw that punch, anyway?

5. Suspense at the airport as customs agents run Bourne's umpteenth ersatz passport.

6. Julia Stiles, also never smiling (does anyone in these movies?), reprising her role as Nicky Parsons and unwisely meeting Bourne in a public place.

7. Pulse pounding car chases that leave such a wake of destruction if you were to pan back and survey the wreckage, surely there would be multiple deaths.  The final chase between Bourne and "The Asset" (Vincent Cassel), an old nemesis, actually goes for broke and has the latter's stolen Police Humvee just plowing through lanes of vehicles, sending them flying every which way.  It's a moment that FAST AND FURIOUS fans will eat up.

And so on.  There is also a flashback involving Bourne's father that is shown in a blur but eventually his assassin's face will be revealed after the fourth or fifth repetition.  The screenplay is filled with all these familiar elements in what is an unabashed effort to please longtime fans.  But the story itself may leave them and many others wanting, even as it shoehorns in a Zuckerberg/Snowden type character who runs a social media company that the CIA may be planning to use for total surveillance of our great country.  Timely, but dealt with superficially.

Bourne learned his identity a decade ago and is reduced to participating in illegal bare knuckle brawls as he stays off the grid.  Is it anticlimactic to bring him out of the shadows? Damon himself said any attempt to rehash the story was fruitless, that "the story had been told" but nonetheless he and director/writer Paul Greengrass return to the well.  And while I snarkily laundry listed all the BOURNE cliches, I had a whale of a good time with this latest entry. This is a very exciting flick!  The breakneck pace prevented any serious considerations of the plot or Vikander's so-so performance.  Tommy Lee Jones' pock marked face is just right for the role of a weary, crooked CIA Chief, and his presence adds to the old school charm.

Depends what you're looking for, I guess.  While JASON BOURNE isn't entirely brain neutral entertainment, I think if you approach it that way you'll yield maximum enjoyment.  You could always go watch TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY for some balance.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Save the Tiger

The world that we used to know
People tell me it don't turn no more
The places we used to go
Familiar faces that ain't smilin' like before
The time of our time has come and gone
I fear we been waiting too long


Many American males will become Harry Stoner in one way or another.  If you've seen 1973's SAVE THE TIGER, and you're an American male over forty, I defy you to disagree.  For all the problems with Steve Shagan's script, the basic, universal recognizances of lost youth, lost opportunity, bad choices, and erosion of morals will ring so very clearly.   For some more than others, of course. Certain readers will shake their heads and explain how blessed they are, how their faith and/or morals have informed their decisions.  But it may be difficult to believe there isn't some tiny twinge within even them of longing for the past, a time when everything was golden, or at least, in their minds, right.

Boy the way Glen Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days.

And you knew who you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man
Like Herbert Hoover again.

Didn't need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days. 


By the 1970s, middle-agers depressed by the sights and sounds about them were recalling those glory days of the 1940s.  When jazz filled the air and baseball was king of the past times. When life was less complicated.  I hear people my age say things like that about the 1980s.  It's no revelation to note that every generation longs for the moments of the one before.  Some feel their best years are behind them and now they are merely marking time, waiting to die.  Especially if they are stuck in deadening job, trapped by a mortgage and perhaps family obligations.   Some despair enough to slit their wrists. 

Jack Lemmon plays Harry to an seemingly effortless perfection, so embodying this character that SAVE THE TIGER sometimes felt like a documentary.  For many, it will seem that way.  Harry is shown, in a long opening scene, waking up with dread as he faces another day at his garment factory, a business with fewer returns each season.  This sequence plays longer than with which we may feel comfortable.  Harry flips on the TV, showers, chats with his wife, brushes off nags to visit the doctor.  It sets up the film very well.  When we follow Harry downtown it is understood why he was so reluctant to get out of bed: bickering employees, fickle customers who expect to be serviced by prostitutes, mob connected would be financiers, and an important trade show.  There is also a meeting with a professional arsonist, the only option Harry sees as a way out of certain financial ruin.

Harry's demoralization grows as the day wears on.  He wonders what happened to him.  How he's come to spend $200 a day on his lifestyle with a house in Beverly Hills and a daughter in boarding school overseas.  He takes comfort in his memories of ballplayers.  The hippie chick he picks up stares blankly as he reminisces of a lost time.  When they list their favorite musicians the divide is clear, first somewhat funny but eventually crushingly sad.  The corker may be when Harry calls his wife (who just flew out of town) to remind her of a romantic getaway they shared long ago.  She hangs up on him, her face suggesting that she too feels out of date but is embarrassed to admit, especially to hear it in her husband's pained words.

SAVE THE TIGER, directed by John G. Avildsen,  is a flawed but very effective study of relevance, compromise, denial.  Things those over 40 men (and women) can relate to.  How sad and frightening it is to realize that your youth culture and stamina is now someone else's punchline.  With each favorite spot in your town knocked down by a crane you feel another piece of yourself dying.    The despair can be paralyzing.  Maybe you just need to stop and watch the youth of today as they build their own memories. It may energize or further depress you.  Either way, it all just keeps rolling.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Big Trouble in Little China

For me, seeing 1985's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA for the first time last year was a strong confirmation that nostalgia often trumps taste.  To clarify - I'll bet that if I had seen the movie when I was sixteen I would be among the sizable cult who rave over John Carpenter's iconic film, who fondly remember their multiple viewings, possibly with (similarly) intoxicated friends.  I suspect that if I saw movies like the original FRIGHT NIGHT or THE GOONIES or THE LOST BOYS for the first time as a forty-something, I would have a similar reaction.  Impressionable mind and emotions as a young man? Yes.  Yearning for that time in middle age?  Somewhat.  I re-watch many '80s films and get that warm feeling that yesteryear things are known for, even as I see deficiencies in them.

Carpenter was clearly going for camp.  Homages to martial arts and Charlie Chan pics.  Also, adventure serials and Tarzan epics of the 1930s.  It's obvious at every moment that the director loves these genres - there isn't a whiff of a hint of condesencion or irony - and his direction of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is as skillful as ever.  John Lloyd's set design is marvelous and the trio of editors create a lightning pace that is just right.  The screenplay ("adapted" by W.D. Richter from a previous one) is a hodge podge of cliffhanger and Chinese mysticism with lots of narrow escapes and amusing dialogue.  The characters are expectedly broadly drawn and colorful.  Carpenter contributes another effective electronic score, this one rife with '80s fluorishes.  So why didn't I have a better time with this movie?

Kurt Russell plays motormouth trucker Jack Burton.  Many of his lines are funny.  He really loves his rig, so when it's stolen by mysterious forces he's plenty pissed. Joining him are restraunteur Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong), the spunky Gracie (Kim Cattrall), and several others to rescue Wang's fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from the dreaded Lo Pan (James Hong), a powerful sorcerer.   Pan likes green eyed women, eventually deciding to marry both Miao Yin and Gracie.  Actually, Pan is trying to reverse an ancient curse that has rendered him both as a hobbled old man and an apparition of sorts and needs the ladies with the green irises as sacrifices to the gods.  There are also three supernatural figures ("storms", representing weather elements) who serve Pan and wreak havoc everywhere.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA's action is set mostly in San Francisco's Chinatown. Actually, within an entirely fabricated recreation of it.  The sets are fascinating, as are the costumes.  Richard Edlund's visual effects are very good for their time, and I think I actually prefer them to the CGI of today.  So again, what's the problem? I think it's the tone - too silly.  Whimsy taken a bit too far.  The movie should've been darker, with a rougher edge.  Oh, there's a significant body count, lots of fights, shootouts, but everything is just so goofy.

The actors have fun with their screwball byplay, but for me it didn't quite fit in this movie, a Western transplanted to an Asian setting.  Russell is in good form, and his approach is right.  I feel the entire project should've been rethought.  Perhaps Carpenter should've emulated Richter's BUCKAROO BANZAI, an eccentric film that you could call silly but never too much so.  Despite my opening thoughts I'll bet if I'd seen that film for the first time yesterday I would've loved it just as much.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

War

U2's War from 1983 continues to be my all-time favorite in the Irish rockers' canon.  A raw, politically charged batch of tunes that remains lyrically relevant thirty plus years on.  "Sunday Bloody Sunday" thunders in on Track One with a military-like strike of drum and wail of guitar that signals a new direction for the band.  A commanding, sober damnation of the troops who would gun down civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland but also an elegy to those unarmed civilians who perished.  Lead singer Bono's vocals reach heights not heard on the previous albums, powerful efforts themselves.  The addition of violin became signature to the tune.   "New Year's Day", about the Polish Solidarity Movement, continued the battle cry and also dominated charts around the world.   No longer was U2 just a cult band.

The rest of the album is filled with exciting, memorable compositions that forewent overproduction and just cut and burned like pure rock and roll should.  "Red Light" utilizes somewhat eerie backup voices (from Kid Creole and the Coconuts) to tell a story of prostitution.   MTV hit "Two Hearts Beat As One" is a good old fashioned love song.  The anger roars back in "Seconds", about nuclear war (the sampled vocal bit within was later quoted in THE BREAKFAST CLUB).  The infectious "Surrender" is an intense workout for The Edge's guitar and Bono's voice and is a great driving song.  "Drowning Man" is a somber, downbeat sounding yet entirely hopeful prayer/assurance that has haunted me since high school.  I recently awoke from a dream (borderline nightmare) in which this song was playing, and what prompted this entry.   It is still my favorite cut on the album.

War concludes with the spare "40" which takes its lyrics from the Psalms.  That song, plus the imagery of faith and linkage to Isaiah in "Drowning Man", and the lyric "to claim the victory Jesus won" in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" were excitedly quoted by my friends at church back in the day.  Breathless were they to inform me that this big secular band was actually Christian.  I was excited about that too, then even more impressed later that the quartet, which includes Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums, did not brandish their faith as a weapon or marketing strategy.   They were not and still aren't polished, gleaming saints.  Rather, regular guys who cussed and got pissed about the things anyone aspiring to Christianity should get pissed about.  Made for great music.

Sláinte, always, gentlemen.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Miles Ahead

Did Miles Davis ever run around Manhattan toting a revolver, threatening record executives and firing rounds during a car chase? Unlikely, downright improbable, though with what I've read about the mercurial musician, it's almost plausible.  Hard guy.  I didn't know him, of course, but the crusty personality of the real Miles might very well fit the behavior of this fictional one, played beautifully, raspy voice and all, by this year's MILES AHEAD's witer/director Don Cheadle.

Yet it's valid criticism to level at this bio - why the hell are we seeing Miles in scenes that would feel more at home in some assembly line Hollywood action flick? Why did Cheadle concoct a story of the great jazz trumpter, seen in his inactive period in the late 1970s, racing around NYC trying to retrieve a tape of his latest recording that has been stolen by an up and coming young musician? Why is Ewan McGregor (overdoing it) playing a Rolling Stone reporter who seeks to interview the legend but gets caught up in the chase? It all seems ill conceived to me.  I read that Cheadle got the blessing of Davis' relatives for his script, a story the director states suits the spirit of how Miles might've told his own story.

Maybe.  The unconventional method and plotline in the context of a biopic is an interesting idea, and I think I get what Cheadle was aiming for, but it often plays like a low grade action thriller.  That is, except for numerous flashbacks to the musician's golden years, collaborating with the likes of Gil Evans and his troubled marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).  These scenes are expert in their evocations of a lost era, though the bit where Miles is bloodied up by the police is as timely as ever.  In present day, Miles sits in a cluttered apartment popping narcotics and haunted by memories, mainly of Frances.  MILES AHEAD does not dive headlong into all the press of Davis' spousal abuse and infidelities, but we're given enough. The scenes with them are the best in the movie, and along with other moments that display why Miles was such a genius hint at what MILES AHEAD could've been.

I did like some things in the film.  While it's cliche for artists to dismiss their earlier, popular work, that idea gets plenty of mileage with Davis repeatedly frustrated that fans and DJs only seem to want to talk about Kind Of Blue; "I've made fifteen record since this," he growls to a young coke dealer, a kid who's used the classic album to get girls into bed.  Miles himself only listens to Sketches of Spain because it prompts sweet (though painful) recollections of Frances.  When we finally hear that elusive stolen tape, well....let's just say there will be eventual, further salvation in his music (stay through the credits).  Cheadle's journey to that moment is an odd one, though.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

I almost wish Rick Linklater had been there to film my earlier days, cruising endless circles around the parking lot at Lake Worth Beach, or years later, smoking a clove cigarette during a work break with my co-worker/girlfriend.  And all the endless philosophical rambles in between.  I only have somewhat hazy memories to call upon, thinking about those laid back moments that played out during what many call "halcyon youth".  I desire this because Linklater has a talent for capturing people during their most unguarded moments - good and bad - and making it all feel organic.  So real.   Be fun to watch, not in the hopes that his objectivity would reduce my disorganized memory to actual images but because his style happens to foster a sort of unreal reality.   Plausible events that might be a few degrees off what really happened.  The way we tend to remember things.

Writer/director Richard Linklater has made a few documentaries but his main output consists of fictional characters who resemble those with whom you grew up, shared classes, and maybe even a joint.  But you don't have to be a stoner to appreciate his point of view, sometimes seen through a central character or maybe even several.  Or, as with several moments in 1993's DAZED AND CONFUSED, through some almost celestial omniscence.  An otherworldy eye that sees clearly yet selectively. 

This year's EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! has been called (by the director himself) a "spiritual" sequel to DAZED.  Apt.  The method and purpose are similar.  Many script elements and events are likewise.  Both films feature the joys of hanging out, philosophizing, extended bong hits, pinball, and foosball.   We are not seeing an update of the earlier film's characters, though some of the new ones may remind you of them.  This time we spend a weekend (before classes begin) with collegiate baseball players at a fictitious college in Texas in 1980.  The guys form an unofficial fraternity, living in their own houses on the edge of campus and certainly behaving like frat animals.  They came to get drunk and get laid, and they're all out of beer.  They really seem to have one track minds, although on the diamond they're all business.

But we don't see that until nearly three quarters into the movie, a wise choice on the director's part the more you ponder it.  Prior, the teammates are mostly seen getting high and cruising chicks.  Lots of bravado and testosterone.  Freshmen intimidation.   And, tellingly, they're extremely competitive about everything.  Friendly ping pong matches turn ugly.  Knuckle flicking contests get bloody.  Egos are easily bruised.   They also can't understand all the other students on campus, those not on the baseball team.  What is their purpose anyway, man?

That the film takes place in a very transitory time is as integral to EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! as 1976 was to DAZED AND CONFUSED.  1970s hedonism and free spiritedness is still the zeitgeist in this fall of 1980 world, though indications are about that the party will soon end.  Check the film's tagline - "Here for a good time, not a long time."  One character utters this very line as he is asked to vacate the pitcher's mound during practice. Why? The school's administration has discovered his transcript is phony, that he is a thirty year old who wasn't able to make the pros and has flitted from university to university in an attempt to keep that party going.  Growing up's a bitch, brah.  This story thread may well be the film's central theme.  Remember Wooderson?

But the movie is also great fun.  Blake Jenner, as a freshman/former high school baseball star who finds himself among giants, leads a very appealing cast of mostly unknowns.  Depending on your tolerance and sensibilities (and if you were ever picked on by guys like these), you may recoil at watching the exploits of a group of arrogant men/children who often act like, yeah, douchebags.  Why would you want to spend two hours with these misogynistic knuckle draggers? The actors (and Linklater, basing some of this on his own college days) make their characters engaging and sometimes even likeable.  There isn't one um, slacker in this cast; they all nail it. You can't help but get caught up in their continuous efforts to attract the opposite sex, once pretending to like country music 'cause a lot of the girls like to line dance.

The plot sounds like any other lame brained '80s youth film ala PORKY'S or GORP, but Linklater again manages a point of view that makes everything fascinating, rather than just repugnant. Like a really cool documentary, sorta liked DAZED.  He does throw in a sex montage, complete with gratuitous topless shot, but maybe he was winking at those type of movies.

The dialogue, as usual, gets much deeper than your average teen comedy.  Some have criticized the film, saying that guys like this usually don't have such self awareness or at least don't verbalize it.  But in Linklater's irresistible, fascinating universe, the unlikely is possible.  Based on truth, but...  Like that story you tell your other middle aged buds about your wild prom night.

P.S. - Another great soundtrack:   mostly "classic rock" but also some disco, country, and even punk.  Brian Eno and Frank Zappa are featured! I also finally learned the title and artist of this groovy song from my elementary school days: Sniff 'n' the Tears' "Driver's Seat".  And yes, Van Halen's song bearing the film's title is in there, too.