Friday, August 1, 2014

Elysium

The final scene of last year's ELYSIUM is so problematic, so open for viewers to say "Hey, just a second!" that I feel an entire movie could be erected around it. Not asking for a sequel, mind you, but what is presented as a solution is in fact just another problem that undoubtedly would branch off into several more. Worst of all, I found myself agreeing with some of the criticism from conservative viewers who cried "Liberal pap!"

In the mid-twenty second century, Earth has become an overpopulated and dangerous hellhole policed by robots. This confirms that my 7th grade English teacher correctly predicated that one day we would all be robot polishers. The "haves" in response made their escape and created a luxury off-world habitat called "Elysium", a place with fake grass and endless croquet matches and parties where frilly cupcakes are plentiful. Where everyone's life resembles a Ralph Lauren advertisement. As a seeming raspberry to those poor 99 percenters back on Earth, Elysium is always visible high above in the sky.  Each resident of Elysium owns a "med-bay", a device that can cure any illness and reverses aging.

The Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, in a less than inspired performance) rules with a platinum fist and is quick to unleash lethal force on those unauthorized immigrants who attempt to pilot a ship to Elysium. She's also plotting to take over the Presidency.

Back in a ravaged Los Angeles, ex-convict Max (a bald Matt Damon) lives a miserable life working an assembly line. Like many, he has dreamed of escape to that netherworld above his entire life. But his efforts to go straight never seem to work out. His attempts to reconnect with a childhood friend are generally rebuffed. And then one day an industrial accident (involving radiation) leaves him but days to live. Through his underworld connections, Max plots to reach Elysium to save himself and maybe even a few others.

Writer/director Neil Blomkamp, who really impressed with DISTRICT 9 a few years back, suffers the oft-cited sophomore jinx. His heart is in the right place as he creates another cry for social justice within the sci-fi framework. However, this time his head seems to have wandered, as his solutions to the problems of health care, class warfare, inequality, and immigration (addressed in the earlier movie) don't register as well this time around. The questions are still, if not more, valid at this later date but the answers here are pat, unbelievable, wishful thinking at best.  It is alarming how simplistic and one dimensional ELYSIUM is.

Elysium as a utopia should have been fertile ground for some thoughtful exploration. Rather, Blomkamp makes this world simply a vapid playground for the wealthy, an attempted caricature of full tilt fiscal conservatism.  Worse, a solution to society's ills?! It is never shown with any complication. Meanwhile, those on earth are all dirty and desperate, trying to achieve that literal pie in the sky, again with no examination of the potential dilemmas that would inevitably arise. I would not have expected what amounts to a fairy tale from Blomkamp. I was a bit disturbed that my old GOP persona was screaming in my ear. But anyone with the ability to rationalize and think critically may have similar difficulties. Especially after that closing scene.

But...as a fast paced, kick ass adventure ELYSIUM often scores. Despite many blurry, frantic fight scenes that may make you wonder who hit whom. This whole "shaky cam" method seems to be the norm these days, and it has proven to make some viewers downright seasick. But otherwise this is a highly entertaining fantasy. Though having the follow through on the salient points this film raises would have made it so much better.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Cosmopolis

 
Some spoilage

"I apologize in advance for this movie," I told my wife as COSMOPOLIS, director David Cronenberg's 2012 feature, began. I knew enough about it to surmise that she would hate it, a view evidently shared by thousands.  She squirmed from the first minutes. When I told her I was thinking of purchasing the disc, she promised to "throw it in the dumpster."

To my surprise, she lasted a full hour, though I think she dozed a few times. Despite some potent imagery and the occasional bit of extreme violence or sexuality for which the director is well known, the talkiness (and the denseness of the dialogue) of this will easily somnolesce the weary.

So there's the first rec: if you decide to take this journey, you need to be awake. Cronenberg adapts Don Delilo's novel with heady ideals intact. Mind expanding, you might argue.  Complaining that many of the themes in COSMOPOLIS, as expositioned mostly through dialogue, degenerate into philosophical blather is not necessarily inaccurate. The director has always sought to make a medium that often works best on mere visual and emotional levels more intellectual. But never at the expense of arresting visuals. With THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK's cinematographer Peter Suschitzky behind the lens (the tenth time for Cronenberg), all the moreso.

Gliding through Manhattan traffic, frought with gridlock due to Presidential caravans, protestors, and funeral processions, in a luxury stretch limousine is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He's young, extremely wealthy. One of those corporate wolves.  He manages assets and speculates currencies.  Today his mission is to make his away over to his favorite barber. Business is conducted from the car.  The destination takes far longer than expected due to the aforementioned and a series of pick-ups and stops with colleagues, prostitutes, doctors, and his wife, with whom he seems to have more a business merger than a marriage.  At one point, someone states "The future is impatient.  Destroy old industries.  Or find new ways to exploit them."

Each encounter reveals more about Eric and his fragile world. After a series of bad trading choices, that world rapidly collapses.  Protestors/anarchists looking to occupy something deface his limo with graffiti. He learns there's a hit man on his trail. His doctor finds that his prostate is asymmetrical. It makes perfect sense that by the time he reaches the barber, he is given an asymmetrical haircut. Was that the detail that he was missing? In the search for cold precision, perfection?

Conversations during COSMOPOLIS are not the usual ping pong back and forth you observe in most films. Everyone speaks with a clipped, staccato delivery, yet with exhausting verbosity. When someone asks a question, it is never answered, at least not directly. Perhaps this device would've worked even better for the overall theme of the movie if Eric were an attorney?

Unavoidably, I was reminded of several other films. One was FIGHT CLUB, with its numb protagonist who longs to feel something real, visceral. Describes many Cronenberg protagonists, no? Eric allows his lover to inch a laser sight dot from an arsenal along his body, encouraging her to "do it." Later, he shoots himself in the hand.  New flesh? Thus, COSMOPOLIS fits comfortably among the director's resume, with strongest resemblances to CRASH, eXistenZ, and NAKED LUNCH.

Pattinson is appropriately zombie like in the lead. Perhaps Cronenberg selected him based on his sleepwalking performances in the dreadful TWILIGHT movies. I was a bit distracted by the actor's (deliberate?) efforts to imitate Christopher Walken, though. Good thing Paul Giamatti shows up at the end.

And by the final scene, a character actually remarks that he believes the fungus between his toes talks to him. Out of context, it sounds as absurd as anything possibly could, but within this filmed essay on the corrosiveness of capitalism, often exemplified with scientific metaphors, it makes sense. Perfect Cronenberg territory.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Wiseacre Duos, 10cc, Part IV

 
By late 1975, the distinctive songwriting halves of 10cc: Kevin Godley and Lol Crème and Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman had become somewhat more fractious.  You might well have placed a "versus" rather than an "and" between each wiseacre duo.  The manic stream of consciousness of Godley/Crème was no longer meshing or co-existing as well with the more commercial, popular music instincts of Stewart/Gouldman. Such volatility would lead to an inevitable split, though one more fine album would be produced, 1976's How Dare You!

The tone was even darker, decidedly more downbeat this time out, but the humour and irreverence were just as wicked as ever.  The album is probably their most cinematic, filled with vivid, sometimes lurid imagery that may even rival the songs on Katy Lied, recorded by another wiseacre duo a year earlier.  Themes of schizophrenia, megalomania, divorce, frigidity, one's "first time", it's all there in facetious, meticulously arranged tunes. The foursome were all versatile musicians and songwriters. They used the studio as an instrument itself. I can just imagine the post-production wizardry, especially impressive in the days before computerized mixdown and the like. And rather than hire an army of session musicians, 10cc sought to expand their sound in other ways. Godley and Crème were utilizing a device called the "gizmo", which was a blessing and a curse. Hold that thought.

How Dare You! opens with the dreamy title cut, an instrumental that segues into "Lazy Days", a gorgeous tune that does indeed sport a cheesily placed spoken bit at one point, difficult to say if it was intended as such. "I Wanna Rule the World" is a sing/rant from the point of view of a mini-despot, though examine the insane lyrics and tell me it doesn't sound like the 43rd President of the United States. Eerie.

"Iceberg" is the album's other truly bizarre track, a cabaret style lament of love gone horribly wrong. Hilarious and head scratching, with some great harmonizing and a pig squeal at the end. It will either appeal to your sense of the odd or have you deem it mere rubbish. Also, "Art for Art's Sake", a U.K. chart hit, is a cut on fame and the record biz (with a great jam finale). "Rock and Roll Lullaby" is a doo-wopish rumination on mental illness. "Head Room" is sung by who seems to be a young boy curious about intercourse. "Don't Hang Up" shifts expertly between minor key and up tempo to tell the sad story of a failed marriage. Most filmic of all, "I'm Mandy, Fly Me" with its seemingly porn movie title is about a guy who is saved from a plane crash by angelic, supernatural stewardess.  The mid-section of that tune is just, er, heavenly.

All of the songs have rich melodies and smart ass lyrics, in that great 10cc tradition. It is a sad thing that compromises could not be made for the quartet to remain a unit and create more greatness, but it wasn't to be.  But How Dare You! is a suitable bow, a final gasp of genius before G & C would spur off on a separate career and S & G would trudge on under the 10cc name, though some critics would later dub them "5cc". In our next installment we'll compare the very different paths the men who were 10cc would take.

But back to that business of the gizmo, or "gizmotron." The device, developed by G & C with assistance from a physics professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and technology, is a small box comprised of six wheels which bow the strings of a guitar when attached to its neck.  The resulting sound, which boasted a long sustain before decay or fadeout, was very similar to that of a violin, even an orchestra. The gizmo was initially used on the Sheet Music album, and other artists like Siouxsie and the Banshees and even Led Zeppelin would put it to use.

Here are the guys themselves with a little demonstration. They don't make the greatest interview subjects, by the way, and the editing of this piece is a little suspicious.

Gizmo


It is reported that Godley and Creme's increasing interest in the gizmo was, at least in part, the cause of tensions within 10cc that lead to the schism. Whatever the truth, G & C would continue to use the gizmotron on some very ambitious projects to come....

TO BE CONTINUED

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Little Big Man

Spoilers

Jack Crabbe, 121 years of age, sits and with great pain recounts his sad history to a reporter.  A life that was largely shaped by Native Americans. From his adoption by the Pawnee after they slaughter his parents to his accompaniment of Chief Old Lodge Skins as he attempts to pass away atop an Indian burial ground. In between, what you might call an epic unfolds.

By 1970, the "epic" was hardly a new sort of event at the local cinema, but LITTLE BIG MAN had an attitude that set it apart, announced a harbinger of the Hollywood to come, for a little while at least. It was released in an era when the mainstream was starting to resemble the underground. Movies that threw down the shackles of Hayes' code censorship, that began to more explicitly examine the underbelly of American life. And what better canvas on which to undertake such an examination than during the era where Native Americans clashed with those pioneers who would seek to overtake them? You might say the natives were wrestling with an immigration problem run seriously amok.

Previously, American Indians were portrayed on screen as gross caricatures, as convenient bad guys against clean cut Caucasians. Gradually, more thoughtful films emerged. LITTLE BIG MAN, based on Thomas Berger's wry 1964 novel, portrays the U.S. Cavalry as the villains and America's original residents far more sympathetically than seen before.

Between them is Jack (Dustin Hoffman), latter dubbed "Little Big Man" for his bravery despite being short in stature. His travails lead him from the Cheyenne camp to that of the white man and back, a few times.  He meets and becomes associates with a snake oil salesman, a sexually frustrated,  Scripture-quoting reverend's wife (Faye Dunaway) who spouts verses about temptation, Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), and even General Custer (Richard Mulligan). LBM gets married a few times, but loses his wives to the race that raised him. 

Director Arthur Penn and co-screenwriters Berger and Calder Willingham's treatment of  LITTLE BIG MAN is both deadly serious and (at times) bitterly satirical. There is mastery in so many scenes, often playing on multiple levels. A good example: Little Big Man is passed from sister to sister one lusty night in order to impregnate them. Is there irony in the white man perpetuating the race? The dialogue and rhythm of that scene is a choice glimpse into Berger's method.

Custer is portrayed as a maniac, a bit daft, yet dangerously cunning and aware. He agrees to hire LBM as a scout years after they first meet, noting that everything the young man ever uttered was a falsehood, deeming him a "reverse barometer."  The two will find themselves amidst the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Punctuating the film are unsettling bursts of violence, orchestrated deftly by Penn, who had done likewise with BONNIE AND CLYDE a few years previous. The violence is an unnamed character throughout the film, serving as a Greek Chorus of sorts, and a reminder of the realities of the New America.  This intriguing personification is like the sober guy in the room taking over the narrative when the entertainingly drunk and smug co-yarn spinner gets a little too cute; a perfect balance for this tale. That describes nearly every scene. The journey is long. Left to reflect upon it all is Jack Crabbe.

LITTLE BIG MAN can be seen as one of the progenitors of the later would-be epic, films like FORREST GUMP and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. A central character who meets a wide assortment of characters who he influences and by whom he is influenced.  But, the film eschews sentiment and piety at every opportunity. Its circular narrative is both a revisionist Western and a howl of pain at the treatment of Native Americans. The characters and events are based on fact, but this story plays as if J.D. Salinger (as channeled through Berger) had re-edited your high school history text.   The performances are fine across the board, with special mention for Mulligan, who I was mostly familiar with from his sitcoms; he portrays a brand of lunacy here that is skillful and frequently hilarious.

When the Chief (Chief Dan George) at last lies on the burial ground, he wishes to leave this world. It is not to happen. And here we still are.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Even Better........

Another instant classic from Al's latest.  This is sorely needed.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Still Crazy, Again

Knowing that "Weird Al" Yankovic is still doing his thing indicates there is some small remnant of my "good old days."  Days that with each year (and each old school celebrity passing) grow dimmer.

The former high school valedictorian has been doing funny song parodies for well over three decades. I bought several of his records in the 80s, which featured spoofs like "Girls Just Want to Have Lunch", "Another One Rides the Bus," "Like a Surgeon",  and "Eat It." I had to wonder how awkward it was for Yankovic to get permission to record his ditties, from all those hubris soaked celebs. As if by answer there was a funny sequence in his 1985 mockumentary THE COMPLEAT AL which showed him entering Michael Jackson's hallowed inner sanctum to ask if he could use lyrics like "It doesn't matter if it's boiled or fried just eat it!".

Al also did several other tunes, originals like "Buy Me a Condo" and "Nature Trail to Hell" (an ode to slasher movies) to round out his mega selling albums. Don't forget those polka medleys! I also enjoyed the times Al took over MTV Veejaying duties ("We'll paint your mother pink!"). And his videos were just as imaginative as the songs, with a particularly funny one for "Fat", a riff on Jackson's "Bad".

So all these years later we have "Tacky", a much appreciated take on Pharrell's earworm "Happy." It is the first single from Yankovic's new album Mandatory Fun.  Here's another amusing video, with special guest stars!



Many thanks, old friend.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS, the new film adaptation of the wildly successful, as-of-this-writing still running Broadway musical, is primarily aimed at undiscriminating Baby Boomers who remember when they first heard Frankie Valli's impressive falsetto on the radio back in the 1950s. I attended a matinee with dozens of them recently, and they ate every bit of it up. As we were exiting, a lady in said demographic complained to the teenagers waiting to clean the theater: "I can't believe the (Palm Beach) Post gave this a negative review. Probably written by a bunch of kids! This movie was perfect!"

That's being very generous, but I still enjoyed the heck outta this movie. Despite some reservations, I had fun. I've always had a fondness for show business tales, especially those involving the evolution of a band. There is a formula: musicians meet, discover mutual interests/talents, form a group, become successful, suffer infighting, split. This formula takes its blueprint from real life, of course. Like a group of Bellville, New Jersey guys, one of whom being Mr. Valli, discovering their ticket out of the 'hood.  A place where stereotypical Italian parents warn you to be back by curfew as they slurp spaghetti and local big fish mafiosos tear a C-note and tell you to come back with the other half when you need a special favor.

Valli, who was born Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), is headed for a career as a hairdresser before joining hustler Tommy DeVito (a magnetic Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to eventually form the Four Seasons. There are several false starts and paying of dues along the way. Tommy and Nick, with a weakness for petty crimes, find themselves in and out of jail. Mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) encourages Frankie to lose the shears and work hard at his God-given talent ("the rest will follow"). After, yes, Joe Pesci (Joey Russo) introduces the boys to Guadio, who had a hit with "Short Shorts," the rest is history.

The early scenes of JERSEY BOYS feel like GOODFELLAS-lite, but with fewer F-words and almost no violence. Though someone does hurl that patented Joisey insult "your mother's ass!" at least once.  It makes you wonder how differently the movie would've played if Scorsese had been called upon to helm Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's script instead of Clint Eastwood. Certainly the energy level would've been far more amped. Eastwood's ultra laid-back style is as recognizable as any director's stock in trade, and while the lighter tone of this project makes a good fit, it also allows some mild frustrations. Like a tendency for scenes to drift on and on, without a clear idea of how to conclude.  At times, it's almost as if the actors, appearing baffled, are waiting for their boss to give them some indication of what to do next.

Some of the leads reprise their stage roles. I thought everyone was well cast. Eastwood gives himself a (interestingly timed) cameo, sort of. Walken, the only big star, gets to display those indescribable mannerisms, a bit more subdued this time. My only disappointment was with Renée Marino, who plays Frankie's wife, Mary. Not her performance, but how little the script gives her to do after her dynamite first few scenes. She is swallowed by the script's clichés, as a now alcoholic left at home wife, yelling at her husband for being on the road too much and being a poor father. It's a shame, after her electrifying entrance, that she's seen for the rest of the picture merely clutching a glass.

There is some grit in JERSEY BOYS, but nothing you could call edgy. What coulda been another raunchy slice of life ala MEAN STREETS, THE WANDERERS, or even SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is rather some rose colored nostalgia, sanded down for your protection. And hey, no issue here, that's the film's (and play's) aim. To make its core audience feel good and maybe get all misty. To sing along.

Even within a very artificial landscape, Eastwood creates a believable mid 20th century canvas, right down to the plastic covers on couches. The barbershops. The cars. And each character stops within a scene (sometimes mid-song) to offer his take on the events ("Everyone remembers it how they need to"). The standard things: success causes rifts in marriages, power struggles, ill-advised debts, creative differences. There are scenes of wild parties, battles with intoxicants. One character's daughter dies way too young.  But the real reason for the whole affair: we're there  for the making of all the Four Seasons' hits, including "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." Tough to resist, especially for those greying audience members who think music went downhill when Bobby Darin started singing protest songs.

And to be fair, there are some unexpectedly pointed moments, like at the end, during a 1990 reunion of each Four Season as they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nick turns to the camera and explains why he quit the quartet in 1965: he felt like the Ringo Starr of the group.