Saturday, August 30, 2014

You'd Prefer an Astronaut?



Hum's You'd Prefer an Astronaut is one of the soundtracks of the '90s that has survived the weathering of years largely intact. The soaring, heavy guitars and "shoegazing" have badly dated some efforts, but not this one. Very much of its time yet still fresh. Released when "new rock" and "alternative" were in full bloom, when radio found a new format.

I've written before of my encounters with stations 99-X in Atlanta in 1995 and The Buzz back home in West Palm Beach later that year.  I first heard "Stars" in early '96, I think. Somehow it was so appropriate.   Not just lyrically, but the lonely, dreamy, almost science fiction sound of it was perfect accompaniment to my single life.  I had moved back to W.P.B. from almost a year in Georgia.  I was very content in my new life for awhile, nearly a recluse.  But eventually I realized I needed some social contact.

From that emerged a sort-of relationship that went south over a silly and ultimately unforgiven mistake (made by me). Then, a potential fling with my downstairs neighbor that never went past the first date. Later, a summer all alone.  "Stars" always seemed to be playing somewhere.  Matt Talbot's weary voice a melancholy commentary on whatever he was singing about - and my own travails. Music forever married to those days, but still as thrilling and fascinating as ever to hear now.  The entire album. Check it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Stay Hungry

One of the pleasures of viewing older films or television programs is witnessing a latter day star in his/her salad days, paying dues. It is the sort of amusement that wouldn't have existed during their original releases/airings. As an example, I've enjoyed seeing actors who would go on to collect Oscars on goofy sitcoms from the '70s or '80s. Arnold Schwarzeneger would never become a serious, respected actor, but he did have a successful career on the big screen, usually body slamming or shooting people. He would also become the governor of California.  

Prior to that, he was a very successful bodybuilder from Austria. Give the documentary PUMPING IRON a look sometime.  Arnold's charisma shines through in every scene; he's a natural for the camera. He also appeared in a really awful picture from 1970 called HERCULES IN NEW YORK (his voice was dubbed) and had cameos in a few others. 1976's STAY HUNGRY, his first substantial credit, is a highly unusual (even for its time) and individualistic drama with the bodybuilding subculture as a backdrop to a familiar plot: rich kid attempts to purchase a local business to make way for a high rise and later has a change of heart.

That business is a local gym, where Mr. Universe hopeful Joe (Schwarzeneger) and cute receptionist Mary Tate (Sally Field) work (and seem to be an item). Craig (Jeff Bridges) is a parentless trust-fund baby who spends most of his days either asleep on an inflatable in his swimming pool or at a country club. There are a series of letters from his Uncle Albert (Woodrow Parfrey) who in voiceover throughout the movie inquires as to when the young man will finally find a purpose.

Craig nominally works for an investment firm that is looking to erect a skyscraper on the gym property. Craig is enlisted the oversee the purchase of the gym, but after bonding with Joe and falling for Mary Tate, and finding himself enamored with the physical fitness lifestyle, he cannot go through with it. Craig also begins to question his aimless existence.

Sounds fairly standard, but STAY HUNGRY is rather a subversive, sometimes patently bizarre drama of manners. Director Bob Rafelson (also co-scriptor) stages the expected culture clash scenes, such as a party at the country club where the WASPs don't reckon well with the earthiness of Joe, who's there to perform with his bluegrass band, and Mary Tate, clad in a revealing dress and clueless to upper class behavior.

But the fitness culture, becoming more mainstream by the mid-1970s, is also taken to task, shown to be prone to narcissism as much as that of the white glove crowd. Some of the oddest moments in this movie occur in the gym - a fight involving the heaving of barbells and a pair of hookers who attempt to service their charges/targets on exercise equipment. And a surrealistic finale, with a group of bodybuilders lining a city street (in Brimingham, Alabama!!) to prance and pose, much to the delight of onlookers, who attempt to join them.

For many viewers, the strangest scenes may come when Arnold picks up the fiddle and gets down with his bluegrass ensemble. These are moments that I guarantee are far more entertaining now than they were in '76.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Do the Right Thing

 
I've seen and thought on Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING many times since that matinee at the Cross County 8 Theater in 1989. It would be one of the most memorable movie going experiences of my life. The audience was largely African-American. The mood was very different from my usual times there, seeing trashy horror films with very vocal audiences. This time, there was hardly a peep, from the opening images of Rosie Perez throwing punches to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" to the last shot, a pull away down a littered Bedford-Stuyvesant street the morning after a riot.

Honestly, I was a little concerned. The tension was thick in that theater. I was in the minority that day, and it felt as if many of the eyes in the audience were burning on my friend and me even before we got up to exit. But we left without incident. I don't recall any really dirty looks or utterances. Maybe it was all in my head. Isn't that often the case? How suspicions develop, fester, and perpetuate?

DO THE RIGHT THING takes place over the course of one long, sweltering summer day in a Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn't exactly seen the benefits of trickle down economics. It is almost exclusively African-American. The people we meet pass their day on stoops or on street corners, offering commentary on passersby, the Korean couple who opened a grocery, each other. Some are trying to raise kids, perhaps with an absent parent.  There is a old drunk called Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) who attempts to woo Mother Sister (real life spouse Ruby Dee). A mentally disabled man hobbles around, stuttering and trying to sell pictures of MLK and Malcolm X.

All are standing and watching, perhaps their lives and opportunities flashing by. There is one white guy who bought his brownstone and maybe thinks it's chic and cool to live in the "ghetto." Perhaps someone with a few bucks who hopes to be on the cusp of the inevitable gentrification to come.  Or maybe that's all wrong, maybe just what the other residents have in their minds, their own prejudices formed. He doesn't ingratiate himself when he accidentally scuffs the Air Jordans of a local called Buggin' Out, who in response tells his nemesis to "go back to Massachusetts."

That young man, played with ferocity by Giancarlo Esposito, is far from content with just hanging out and shooting the shit. He stalks the block in protest against Sal's Pizzeria, a popular joint owned and operated by Italian-Americans Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Working for them is delivery boy Mookie (played by Spike Lee).  Buggin' is mighty pissed that Sal has no black figures on his celebrity wall, demarked by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino.

And then there is Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), more a potent symbol than a real person. He blasts his boom box, playing "Fight the Power" and nothing else. He wears brass knuckles that spell LOVE and HATE on either hand. In one scene, a sort of breaking of the fourth wall, Raheem explains the constant struggle between the two. So goes this movie.

I don't want to spoil DO THE RIGHT THING for you by giving away what occurs, invisible audience, though by now they're hardly secrets. If you're a filmgoer to any serious degree, you've either seen or heard about the fiery climax. A confrontation within Sal's that boils over into violence and tragedy. A brilliantly staged, absolutely harrowing catharsis that echoes the real life disturbances of Howard Beach and so many others. It is a stunningly acted, directed, and edited bit of cinema that assaults and stimulates in roughly equal measure. A "heat of the moment" sequence that will leave any thoughtful viewer quite troubled.

Why? There are obvious reasons. HATE seems to have taken the prize. LOVE shoved into a corner. As you replay these scenes, you begin to consider each point of view. Then it hits you, they're all wrong. All of them. Sal for his outburst and sudden aggressive action. Is he blameless because he was pushed beyond reasonable tolerance? Or did it take such a test to show his true colors, behavior and words that refute everything we've observed of him before that scene?

Raheem is wrong for brazenly aggravating Sal. Disrespecting his business, the general peace. Yet, we may agree with some of his gripes, the catalysts that drive him. Buggin' is perhaps the match that lights the wick, eggs Raheem on. He's wrong for his instigating behavior throughout the movie. Mookie is wrong for his ultimate decision, from which the film's title derives. Everyone does the wrong thing. Things that only further drive themselves apart, create more fuel for the fires of caricature and stereotyping. More suspicion. But none of the characters would see it that way.  And we can understand why each would think the way they do.

Spike Lee, despite the words of his detractors, has not fashioned a biased, racist polemic. The film is angry, and rightfully so.While the critic who called DO THE RIGHT THING "dynamite under every seat" may have been correct, this film is not a call to violent action. Not a rabble rouser. Lee's examination of a society of individuals who've been left merely to peer through the storefront of the American Dream is very sobering, very real, never mincing words or ideas. The so-called land of opportunity is not a level playing field, despite what your average tea partier might tell you these days. Some may choose not to leave the 'hood, to lazily swill and complain, but many are trapped. And not always by their own bad decisions.

Every character in DO THE RIGHT THING is drawn realistically, riddled with flaws. There is no one to "root" for. Thank God. I wish more films would have the balls to makes their players so complex.   As an example, Mookie is no hero as he wastes time and neglects his girlfriend and child.

Spike would never make a better film than DO THE RIGHT THING, or even one as good. There are plenty of fine movies in his cannon, some with moments as powerful as what is found in DO THE RIGHT THING, but it seems as if Spike put everything he had into this one. Created as if this was his last film.  Certainly his most defining, his "lightning in a bottle" moment. This is absolutely essential viewing, no matter your creed. It is a film to be viewed and discussed, more than any other I can think of.

At the end, the local DJ Mister SeƱor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson) is left to offer his post mortem, his take on what he saw and couldn't believe he saw. And it's still happening.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fruitvale Station

2013's FRUITVALE STATION may be viewed as the cinematic equivalent of an attorney's (posthumous) case for a worthwhile life. A life worth reconsidering. Prior evidence revealed years of bad decisions and jail time, perhaps spurred on by unchecked rage and immaturity. Then came a day of repentance. But also, reckoning.

The defendant: a young man named Oscar Grant who recognized his downward spiral and took preliminary steps to reset his path, over the course of one day.  An eventful day of failure, accountability, realization. An effort to make things right for himself, his girlfriend, and his young daughter.  But time had run out.

The indications were apparent: Oscar, for all his flaws, was able to put his woes aside and help out strangers in need.  He attempts to get his old job back at a deli, and despite an altercation with his former boss, stops and takes a moment to assist a young woman, desperate to impress her boyfriend, who needs advice on how to cook soul food. Later, while in the city for New Year's Eve festivities, he convinces a guy closing up his shop to let the ladies in his posse (and also another stranger who happens by, who's pregnant) to use his restroom. Small gestures, but nonetheless revealing that beneath the quick to anger predilection was a desire to being a positive force in society.

While waiting for the women, Oscar chats with the pregnant woman's husband, who reveals the dramatic turnaround in his own life. He even gives Oscar his business card, and an invitation to call upon him for a possible job. Perhaps the "in" Oscar needed, validation that his decision to end his drug dealing career by dumping a bag of weed several hours earlier was correct.

But anger makes Oscar his own worst enemy. On the train back home, he will be goaded into a fight and subsequently subdued by transit police. There are words exchanged, overreactions by Oscar and his friends and the cops.  Eventually placed face down on the cement at the Fruitvale station, he will be the victim of a hastily fired shot from an officer's gun. Oscar will not live to deliver on his promise.

FRUITVALE STATION is a tight, entirely involving drama.  Writer/director Ryan Coogler is occasionally guilty of heavy handedness, such as a (nonetheless effective) scene with a dog hit by a car; foreshadowing rarely gets more obvious. Otherwise, Coogler gets out of his own way and lets the (true) story tell itself.  A story that has unfolded too many times. It's likely that as you're reading this another tragic tale in this vein is making the news. As I write, there's Michael Brown, and the continuing daily fallout in Ferguson, Missouri.  Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Clement Lloyd all those years ago in Miami. How many more of these stories will we shake our heads over?

In movies such as FRUITVALE STATION, there are always some liberties with the facts, the timeline of events. Filmmakers sometimes arrange moments for dramatic effect, and even if that is true here I found the picture to be genuine, to earn its emotions without being too manipulative, even during the expected big scenes, as when the Oscar's family gets the terrible news at the hospital.

Michael B. Jordan III, perfectly cast as Oscar, leads a fine cast of unknowns. He embodies a character we feel we already know well, that guy we know has potential but has allowed his vices to dictate his actions and inactions. Jordan explodes in anger, positively smolders at times but in quieter moments, like at his mother's birthday party or with his daughter, reveals a tenderness that melts his crippling appetite for destruction.

Whatever your final verdict on Oscar's fate and how his legacy should be viewed,  and also of the law enforcement officers involved, this is an hour and a half worth spending.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Haywire

"Girls can't fight!" read a typically obtuse posting on the Internet Movie Database's site.  It was for the recent TOTAL RECALL, one of several ill-advised remakes that nonetheless featured the skills of costars Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, doubtless the result of many hours of stage combat and perhaps even tactical training. It came off fairly convincingly.

Mixed martial arts champ Gina Carano, the lead in 2012's HAYWIRE, really can fight. She placed third in worldwide MMA competition. She's the right choice to play ex-Marine Mallory Kane, hired operative for a mysterious organization with government ties. She gets to kick a lot of ass. Take that, pinhead imdb poster!

But can she act? In a glossed up B movie like this, much can be forgiven in that department. Especially when you're able to beat the tar out your male co-stars. Such as that opening scene, when she repeatedly slams Channing Tatum's head to the floor with her knees. Or when she takes on a double-crosser played by Michael Fassbender, practically destroying an entire hotel room. An ex-boyfriend/co-operative played by Ewan McGregor will also feel the wrath, after she learns she has been deemed dispensable. And when her father (Bill Paxton) is threatened, well, you don't really need any Harold Pinter dialogue to tell that tale.

The spy plotting in HAYWIRE is distressingly routine. Lem Dobb's script offers nothing new, or even a unique take on the events, but genre fans are usually pretty undemanding. The movie is like many others you could find on Cinemax after eleven P.M., though without the gratuitous nudity and sex. That will be bad news for certain viewers; Carano is very attractive. Where is Andy Sidaris when you need him?

Instead we have Steven Soderbergh in the director's chair, a bit surprising. Was he trying to work in as many genres as he could before his recent retirement? Like Alan Parker before him? The articles I've read found Soderbergh explaining that he was weary of studio politics and just felt he had run out of stories he wanted to tell. One piece quotes Matt Damon as saying that the director felt he was more of a stylist than a storyteller.  I don't disagree. When Soderbergh was focused he created some unique cinema, such as his far more ambitious previous collaboration with Dobbs, 1999's THE LIMEY.

But aside from some brain neutral entertainment, HAYWIRE does boast a refreshingly unglamorous heroine whose hair actually doesn't stay in place after a scuffle. Carano gives the movie some cred, some that might be lacking if say, Angelina Jolie had been cast. And that final scene, the one where Mallory finally confronts another two face played by Antonio Banderas, should leave you with a wry grin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Goodnight, Parry

This may be one of the hardest of all. I've devoted space to eulogies of those who greatly influenced me since early on in the Lamplight Drivel saga. Folks like Paul Newman, James Gandolfini, even Jim Carroll. This year alone we've lost Philip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis. It would be painful enough to report that Robin Williams had passed, far too early at the age of 63. But that his death is a suspected suicide makes it that much more devastating. More evidence that those who slave to make us laugh, those who seem to always be "on" may be the saddest of all.

Comedians are awesomely complex individuals.  So are many actors.  Williams excelled at both, leaving us many hours to (re) visit and savor. So imagine the tempest within, a restless id that was rarely suppressed, though admirably he would calm down long enough to occasionally deliver serious performances, free of the usual mania seen on stage or in his sillier outings. Like many of my generation, I first learned of the man from his role on Mork & Mindy, the late 70s sitcom.  Mork, from the planet Ork, was a tidal wave of energy not seen elsewhere. The show was your usual Gary Marshall silliness but Williams' endless improvisation made it special. When that other king of improv,  Jonathan Winters guest starred, well, the comic universe damn near imploded.

My father bought Williams' comedy album Reality...What a Concept and let me listen along, much to my surprise. This was the man unbound, uncensored, free of network standards and practices. I heard the album so many times that when I read or hear snippets these days they're as familiar as my own name. I also enjoyed Williams' HBO specials. I clearly recall the opening of one of them, shot in San Francisco. In voiceover, the comedian explained his love for that city, the draw of it.

Williams would begin a long film career after Mork & Mindy ceased production. One of his first was a film I still hold dearly, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.  In my review from a few years back you can read why this is so. But Williams really pulled it off; he proved he could power down and act. In films like MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON, AWAKENINGS, GOOD WILL HUNTING, INSOMNIA, and ONE HOUR PHOTO, he showed the world he could do it completely straight, with discipline, even. He really disappeared into those roles. In THE FISHER KING, my favorite Williams picture, he channeled his patented energy into a role that required everything he had. Pathos leavened by humor and uncertainty. That may have described the man himself, how he felt.  I wish someone, anyone could've talked him down.  Rest in peace, good fellow.  You will be missed.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Looker

 
S P O I L E R S

1981's guilty pleasure supreme LOOKER has turned out to be quite the prescient motion picture. What was once considered merely a slick, wildly entertaining bit of eye candy to many moviegoers may in 2014 be seen as prophetic, accurate in its forward looking point of view. With former physician and prolific novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton as writer/director, this is not at all surprising, even considering his hit and miss resume.  His investigations as he developed this project back in the 1970s led to companies that utilized tomography for digital facsimilies of individuals for television commercials. Computer recreations of real actors.  Imagine the possibilities.

Fictionalized Digital Matrix is such a company, and Reston Industries, led by a villainous CEO (James Coburn) uses their scanned images in advertisements for cars, household chemicals, etc. TV viewers are being hypnotized (literally, as will be revealed) by impossibly beautiful models, many of whom are patients of Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), and one of whom is his main squeeze, Cindy (Susan Dey). When some turn up dead, the good doctor is Suspect #1. After damning evidence is planted in his office, Roberts goes on the lam to investigate Digital Matrix and RI, discovering some very high tech exploitation, which critics may argue is an accurate phrase to describe this movie.

And there's also the L.O.O.K.E.R. (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Response) weapon, a regular looking gun which emits hypnotic light pulses and renders targets clueless as to how much time has passed. Like wondering how your Porsche ended up in a fountain during a chase with the bad guys (including former Philadelphia Eagle Tim Rossovich).

I have to admit that much of my 13 year old self's interest in LOOKER, despite the sci-fi premise and cool tech, were the women. Especially Ms. Dey, having aged favorably in the decade following The Partridge Family. I was mesmerized by her, unconcerned with multiple plot holes, like why (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD!!) Reston was killing off the models. I've read that an alternate made for TV edit explains this. But honestly, I don't care. I don't think the movie does either.

Crichton's film is relentlessly cheesy, especially seen nowadays, but as I recall from my frequent HBO viewings, so it was back then. The themes of the potential evils of advertising, the obsession with physical beauty, and TV addiction are all still very relevant but the film settles into popcorn logic early on. Despite Crichton's pedigree. His novels sometimes go into great scientific detail, but his movies usually play more like an 8th grader who thinks he knows everything.  This would be especially true of 1984's RUNAWAY, which imagines a future where robots run amok.

But LOOKER (by now you can observe the multiple meanings of its title) does have one of the most amusing finales ever: a series of commercials that play a bit differently than intended. My and I assume many others'  jaded 21st century perspectives would likely bat nary an eye at such if it ever made the airwaves. I do expect someone on the nightly news to go all Howard Beale any day now.