Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Christmas '08 was nice, low-key. I noticed far fewer outlandish outdoor displays in my neighborhood and beyond this year. A reflection of hard economic times? Likely. Those January FPL bills must be horrendous. I imagine people hear drumrolls as they tear open the bills (or open their e-mails). A notable exception was the Lake Osborne home of one Amanda L., who had a cookie exchange party. This house was decked in lights from the city easement all the way to the backyard. Th party itself was also delightful, a chance to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in 5-7 years. Thank you, Facebook. More on you later.
I got my first real tree. Love it. I will take it down in a few days. Last year I spoke of how I used to get ultra depressed after Christmas. But these last two years I've just looked ahead. Too much going on to get mired in all that wallowing.
No Christmas pageants for us this year. I miss seeing and participating in them, but my reservations keep me away. Very real and valid reservations. I'm not disparaging those who partake, but I feel like my worship experience is very different than that now. It has a place, just not in my world. For now, anyway. Being in a choir again would be a blessing. My last experience started with joyous rapture, then went down in flames. Another entry, someday.
So we saw several family and friends. Most doing well. All concerned about the usual things. They are the real treasures. Not the cashmere sweaters or high tech coffee equipment (though I do dig 'em). Just having time with these folks is the real joy. The One whose birth we celebrate imbues it all with His grace. "Happy Holidays" would only serve to depress me if the glitter was all there was.
There was so much more, but these words are enough. 2008 was, in the Dickensonian sense, filled with good and bad times. Micro and macro. 2009 is potentially a very interesting year. Maybe it will be the year I Stop Worrying and Love the Lord. Without my own self imposed baggage. I'll let you know how that goes.
Happy New Year!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Because it's an escape.
The television program in question is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The country is India, more specifically Mumbai. Known as Bombay until 1996, Mumbai has become the second most populous city in the world. With the name change sprouted associated affluence. Commerce flows from the multitudes of corporations that have outsourced their staffs to this Indian capital. Condos and skyscrapers dot the landscape in stark constrast to the piles of rubble just meters away. More than 60% of the population lives in slums. What do the nouveau riche think as they gaze from their bay windows to look down on rows of tin roofed shacks? Are the socialites and tourists uncomfortable when they gaze upon the masses of dirt poor citizens who carry babies as often to get more panhandling money as they do for more legitamate parental responsibilities?
So this TV show, an Eastern version of the popular American phenomenom, is a smash. No wonder. The city streets remain littered, the job prospects few for the residents who never had the sort of opportunities of those who've come to bask in their wealth. The show provides hope. See how masses of Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Tamils, and Sindhis alike huddle in front of store windows to find televisions, to watch perhaps a fellow Mumbaiite take a crack at millions of rupees.
Jamal is such a contender. A lowly chai runner for a telemarketing firm, the teen continues to confound the show's host and the growing legion of viewers as he gets every question correct. He gets as far as 10 million rupees! How is this possible? A poor boy who hailed from the slums of Dharavi or its equivalent? Impossible! The show's host certainly thinks so, enough to have the boy ambushed one night by the police and taken for interrogation, which includes torture.
Jamal is tough. Finally, the Inspector lays off the electric shocks and lets the kid talk. We learn the story of Jamal's childhood, filled with pathos. Along the way, we are shown how the boy would come to learn about famous Indian poets, footballers, and a certain American whose likeness graces the $100 bill. Knowledge that would get him closer to those millions. How could Jamal know about Ben Franklin, and not know that Ghandi is on the rupee note?? It doesn't make sense to the Inspector. But as each Millionaire question is recalled, as the Inspector (and viewer) are recounted a tale of tragedy that shapes Jamal, we learn as well.
We learn that the knowledge we acquire as a result of life experience is the sum of who we are. What we are exposed to (voluntarily or otherwise), ingrains us. Sculpts our worldview. But the triumph of the human spirit can also trump even the most corrosive influences. That little thing called Love can indeed conquer all. When we meet Jamal's childhood crush, Latika, we are treated to an emotionally charged journey we won't soon forget. Love may temporarily be violently shoved aside in the midst of corruption and avarice, but it cannot be buried. It will emerge victorious. It will transform even the most jaded.
Director Danny Boyle's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is an exhilirating cinematic treat. It isn't merely watched, but experienced. With a kineticism that reminded me of the director's TRAINSPOTTING from over a decade ago, this movie runs and jumps and frantically tells this tale with the sort of enthusiasm that isn't seen too often these days. Underneath the flash is a fairly traditional narrative. Boy grows up poor. Is separated from sibling and childhood love. Is reunited. Escapes peril. Gets opportunity. Loses girl. And so on. In the wrong hands, this story could've been syrupy and gag inducingly cute. Boyle doesn't pour on the sentiment, but rather allows the inherent goodness to flow freely. I won't say if Jamal "wins" on the game show, but how that very term is defined is really the whole idea of this film. Pretty simple, really.
Despite Boyle's many darkly cynical films of the past, SLUMDOG is unabashedly hopeful. Took me by surprise. I wasn't sure what to expect with this. Certainly not such a positive, even gleeful movie. I would even go as far as to say that if Frank Capra were alive today, cranking out films in Bollywood, he'd make something like this. Filled with vivid evocations of Indian life (rich and in want), bouncy music, hyperactive lenses and editing, and an indomitable spirit of joy, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. My small theater was full, and the appluase was there at the end. It would be comforting to know that a worthwhile film such as this becomes a box office champ.
A great film? I have to think that over. As I said, the screenplay is a bit conventional, and many questions will likely flood your mind if you think it all over too hard. When that happens, remember that infectiously festive end credit sequence. The parade of life. The ultimate joy. That makes it all worthwhile.
NOTE: The film's "R" rating is really unnecessary, in my not so humble opinion. No one should be excluded from seeing this wonderful film. There is some violence but far less than say, THE DARK KNIGHT, which was inexplicably rated PG-13.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
So what happened one year ago? Anger. Bitterness. Strife. I don't recall any holiday jingles with those words, but they hung heavily. First though, I have to identify a few of the players. You had the Bitchy Front Desk Receptionist, forever growling if you got too close to her, or dared to punch holes in documents yourself (that was her domain). You also had the Instigating Office Manager, who seemed hellbent on not getting along with the BFDR.
And there was the battle. BFDR made herself a plate with all the (mostly catered) goodies for the party. She did this about 15 minutes before anyone else. Her reasoning was that she had to continue to man the phones and be present for anyone who checked in (the office does not close for lunch or holiday parties). IOM was not pleased, and she loudly stated that it was a crass thing for the BFDR to do.
Words were exchanged like schrapnel. It got louder by the minute. The rest of the staff was embarrassed, mainly because the patients could hear this nonsense. That's crass, ladies. But I found myself chuckling despite the venom. While the women fought, the spirited baritone of Burl Ives droned on in the background. Despite his repeated advice, a "holly, jolly Christmas" was not in progress.
The two combatants would not remain at the office much longer. We got a new office manager who is very friendly and outgoing. We went through 2 more receptionists through the year before the current one, who is also very friendly and sharp. Other personnel shifts included about three allergy nurses and other support staff round robin. Turnover was high in '08. There was one rather unpleasant incident recently involving one of the former allergy nurses who returned to get her last paycheck. Apparently, there was some disagreement as to what that $ amount was to be, and there was some shouting. This time, the doctor herself was involved. Again, the patients could hear it. Argh.
But now the crew seems stable and they actually get along. Thus, we had a wonderful little lunch and Secret Santa exchange around the waiting room tree today. Everyone hugged and kissed and thanked. Not at all like the negativity of last year. I thought of this as I watched the staff today. I was relieved. A good cross section of employees, finally. And some fine people as well.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
That's generally how I feel about writer director Sophia Coppola's 2006 MARIE ANTOINETTE, a lushly photographed but frustrating gaze at the charmed life of a former Archduchess of Austria who becomes the Queen of France in the eighteenth century. Coppola gamely tries to frame it all through Marie's (Kirsten Dunst) point-of-view; the politics, the financial considerations, the mounting disintegration of her kingdom-not really of her concern. She loves her high life filled with endless parties and fabulous garments. Savoring truffles and various libations took priority over Versaille, which would fall a few years after her becoming queen at the age of nineteen. I understand the m.o., but it still doesn't really work.
Dunst looks the part and even conveys at times some of what I imagine Coppola was trying to say. But the actress' voice is flat, her performance seeming to lack in confidence. When she is required to look bored or cheerful, she just appears like she is waiting for something (direction?). As Louis XVI, her king, Jason Schwartzman seems like he will burst out laughing at any moment. Like a permament unsuccessful-attempt-to-conceal-a-smirk is always gracing his youthful visage. This is especially true during the scenes where the King and Queen spend many awkward nights before their marriage is finally consummated. The other actors are fine but underused, such as Rip Torn and Judy Davis.
The whole affair is, listless. My patience waned more than once as we drifted through scene after scene of a vapid life. Attempts to add a contemporary touch by utlilizing 80s New Wave songs was here nor there to the film's success. It all felt like an ambitious thesis, filled with lovely passages and color, yet far adrift from whatever statement it was trying to make. Odd failure, this film. If there were not indications of a serious theme, but rather a mere bubble-gum romp, I might've felt the film would've been more successful. MARIE ANTOINETTE seems very conflicted, wanting to um, have its cake and eat it too, if I may make a weak allusion to the infamous alleged quote of the Queen's. Can a work of art be a feast for the eyes and ears while engaging the heart and mind? Well, of course. If you have some bandwidth I can name you several examples.
Instead, we have with this film a screenplay layered with poignancy that just doesn't quite transfer to film. I bet it would make a good read, however. A novella or such would allow us to get a deeper understanding of this (revisionist?) young lady. As a movie, it's just all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) is about many things, I believe. What resonated most effectively with me was this insane notion of peace. The possibility of being in harmony with others, and oneself. The former may be possible for many but the latter is a daily struggle for many more. The latter also seems to be what drives man to dissatisfaction, to declare war on his neighbors, his brothers. War, in my opinion, has its basis primarly in a low self esteem that can be manifest as greed, disillusionment, lust, fear, and many other toxicities. Sin, basically.
Josey Wales lives on a farm with his family in the sort of domesticity we don't expect to see in Clint Eastwood characters. Then one day a group of Union renegade soliders (these are the last days of the Civil War) burns his life to the ground. A long scar on his face reminds Wales of all he has lost. Another day, another group of renegades (Southeners this time) show up to recruit him for vengeance. Vengeance for a lost war, but of course Josey has other scores to settle. After a wearying tour, all but our antihero and a young upstart abandon the mission and saunter toward home, only to be slaughtered by the Union caderie. Surviving this ambush, Josey begins a long game of cat and mouse with the murderers, who post a hefty bounty on his head. Town after town from Missouri to Texas, Wales evades the worst of human motivations, usually manifest through the barrels of revolvers. What can a man beset by a war-centric land do but respond in kind?
This theme was explored by Eastwood many times. The DIRTY HARRY films were accused of being fascist as the protagonist ignored the Miranda rights of city vermin to mete out justice. The scum and villany are protected by what? Not in the Eastwood universe. As Josey, Clint presents another larger than life prescence who laconically empties the chambers, but also seems a bit more beaten down this time. With each disposal of enemy, he loses a bit more of who he once was. Perhaps the argument can be made for those who go off the deep end and commit unspeakable crimes; they are a product of a slaughterhouse of a world. So why doesn't everyone in that circumstance commit atrocities? What fine line prevents any of us from raping and pillaging? Or doing such in the name of "vengeance"? War (civil or otherwise) calls off all societal bets. But who dares to rise against the tide?
Along his journey, Wales meets an elderly American Indian who had undoubtedly seen many a massacre and exploitation in the name of war and uh, colonization. This race is shown throughout the film to be tolerant and open to peace, yet ready to brandish violence if neceassary. It is no wonder that Indians all but embraced this film, one of the first not to present them as tomahawk throwing hellions. There are lessons for all of us, here. I wish there were more examples of fiction of this caliber.
Or, the viewer can just enjoy the movie as a rich action and period piece. Bruce Surtees' photography helps to create very evocative Western atmosphere. Surtees would go on to lens other Eastwood Westerns, including the first of those I would see on the big screem, 1985's unsuccessful PALE RIDER. I remember gasping at how vivid were his visions, even with a lackluster screenplay.
Eastwood very ably directs this long but never dull tale. Originally, writer Phillip Kaufman (THE RIGHT STUFF, THE WANDERERS) began to oversee, but Eastwood took over fairly quickly. And honestly, who else could direct this icon? Only a handful of other directors have attempted to direct the star since the 80s, with little success. I mean, who else could completely grasp the near mythology? What Eastwood does is all his own. Since the 1960s, the actor has steadily created a legion of men who rewrite the rules but are still subject to them. And mortal, too. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES would certainly make an interesting double bill with Eastwood's 1992 Western howl of pain, UNFORGIVEN. Is this "peace" I spoke of finally achieved at the end?
"I couldn't wait until it was over," the clerk retorted when I asked her if she had heard it. This was hilarious to me, as I imagined it would've been to Fagen and his old musical cohort, Walter Becker, who was brought in to produce the album. She didn't give any specifics, even as I prodded her. "It was just so, boring," she offered. She was clearly not a hopeless fanatic like myself. As I recall, she was clad in an oversized flannel shirt, the official outfit of the Grunge Nation at the time. Of course Fagen's latest wouldn't thrill her. My assessment (likely accurate, if a bit broad) of her taste was that she favored the industrial noise of Trent Reznor and the crunch of Mudhoney and Nirvana. Funny thing, I was most likely in similiar dress when I bought Kamikiriad, as I too was full into what was once called "alternative" music. Later that same year, I found myself in a sweaty mosh pit getting kicked in the head by someone's Doc Martens during a Breeders/Nirvana show. But no matter how dynamic my tastes, I would and will always have room for anything the former Dan duo would produce.
On the drive home from the record store, I was immediately satisfied with the familiar soft beats. From Note One, it was like the reintroduction of the compnay of an old friend. Warm synthesizers. Smooth, yet poignant horns. That unmistakable sound, all their own. Yet it wasn't precisely Steely Danish, despite Becker's not only producing but also playing bass on every track. One of them, "Snowbound" had been a collabortion dating back to '86. This album reflected a gentler, more romantic wistfullness that was rare on a Steely Dan album. Walter may have participated, but the stories and tone were all Donald's.
It was a concept album, even though Fagen hated that term. In the near future, a middle-aged man takes his new souped-up vehicle on a fateful journey through places called Flytown and "Funway West." The car runs on alternative fuel, is somewhat aerodynamic, and even has a hydroponic garden in the back. Wrapped in a sci-fi package, Kamikiriad is a journey from youthful optimism to disillusionment to renewed hope. To some, the sound was antiseptic. Too controlled. And it was very controlled. By now, Fagen's fanatacism for the perfect groove was measured in milliseconds. Technology was allowing computer sequencing to utilize the raw materials of a musician's take and correct any miscue. Not even miscue; the process enabled entire bars to flow flawlessly, perhaps to a degree that was not humanly possible. Again in the engineering hotseat was Roger "The Immortal" Nichols. He more than knew the territory with Fagen, and was able to commandant something this most fussy composer could at the very least, live with.
Kamakiriad shifts gears, so to speak, among pretty ballads and faster stomps, though melancholia prevades every track. The first single, "Tomorrow's Girls", describes a race of aliens that look very much like the fairer sex. As they invade the Jersey beaches, all the hapless males craving attention are entranced. It's a concept worthy of B-grade sci fi. Fagen often stated that he found science fiction a useful genre through which he could talk about the present, particularly regarding current unpleasantries. "Tomorrow's Girls" has often been cited as Fagen's lament over his break-up with a longtime girlfriend, perhaps someone who became rather alien to him.
A few years later, Walter Becker finally released his own effort, with Fagen as producer. Eleven Tracks of Whack sounded even less like a Steely Dan album, to this listener. A deeply personal collection of folk and folk rockish tracks wrapped in the usual slick production, Eleven spans twelve tales of pensiveness (alas, the twelfth track is not of "whack", but rather an uncharacteristically sweet ode to his son Kawai) eminating from the soul of a man who had already seen several miles of bad road in his 44 years. Becker had been touched by tragedy after the death of his girlfriend in 1980 ("Junkie Girl") and another friend ("Surf and/or Die"). The romantic longing, the hollowness of bachelorhood was explored in "Girlfriend", a disarmingly genteel track that has a nice after hours feel. Not exactly lounge lizard but close, without the requisite cheese factor (though some would doubtless argue that). "Book of Liars" is another effective story of an untrustworthy significant other. Just about every song had that mordant sense of humor, though age had begun to reveal a more reflective side of the artist.
The album is not easy to enjoy. As one critic dryly noted, Becker's voice is a "born irritant." I shelved the disc after a few tries, going back to it every so often. It took a year for me to appreciate it. It grew on me, yes, but moreso I began to have a begrudging affection for it. Like a self-destructive friend-I pray for him, enjoy his company sometimes, but still keep my distance lest I get infected. My feelings about this album are pretty much the same today.
Between Kamakiriad and Eleven Tracks of Whack, Fagen and Becker relented and once again used the Steely Dan name, to tour. The first such outing since their shows in Santa Monica 19 years earlier. The tour was a great success. The came another. And another. 1994's Alive in America would be the duo's first official live recording, though it revealed some disappointingly flat versions of songs like "Third World Man" and "Josie".
Some critics did indeed state that SD's concerts were less than spirited in those initial reunion years. After the novelty of hearing songs that had never been performed live had worn off, there was only the feeling of familiarity. That would shift, as the army of musicians drafted by Fagen and Becker would begin to improvise in this far looser setting. Being out of the studio and in front of the fandom would ultimately be very freeing for our composers. It freed them from their need for the precise, as well as their earlier aversion to performing. By 1996's "Art Crimes" tour, dare we say that the boys were enjoying the process?!
There was great fun in switching up the arrangements of "Reeling in the Years," changing the opening guitar riffs to a horn section. "Dirty Work" was now being sung by a guest female vocalist (Bonnie Raitt was one). Fagen also derived some glee as he changed the lyrics of several chestnuts, inlcuding his insertion of other names for 'Aretha Franklin' in "Hey 19." It seemed that Fagen and Becker had eschewed their disdain for the past, and rather embraced something very positive and satisfying. It went on for the rest of the 90s.
So of course the next logical step was............
to be concluded
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Geraldine (Claudette Colbert) and Tom (Joel McCrea) can't make the rent again. The latter is an architect trying to secure the funds to open an ambitious (for the time) airport, but for all of his acumen, the funds are not flowing. Never mind that Geraldine wears lavish gowns and the pair lives on Park Avenue; that's not important in this universe. Anyhow, Geraldine manages to get her hands on some cash, quite generously donated by an old coot known as The Wienie King. Despite this, she decides that she and hubby would do better apart. Financially, at least. Geraldine hops a southbound train in the hopes of landing a rich fellow. Tom is dejected, and in pursuit. The Wienie King re-appears and gives Tom the money to catch his bride when she arrives in Palm Beach, that sun drenced land of debutantes and endless soirees.
Geraldine initially meets a gaggle of rich nincumpoops known as The Ale & Quail Club. Then she meets a rather daffy aristocrat named John D. Hunsacker III (no points for guessing who he is modeled after). He falls for her immediately. Even daffier is his sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who falls for Tom. There's also a guy running around named Toto who speaks in a language known only to himself. Just your typical slapstick calculus.
Or not. Sturges was a master of not only deft comedic choreography, but also serpentine plots that are resolved in ingenious ways that may not be logical (particularly to a 21st century viewer), but are within reason in this universe I spoke of. The ability of Sturges, for example, to build three jokes off of one is pure genius. We saw it in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and THE LADY EVE, produced a year prior to THE PALM BEACH STORY. We did not see it in Peter Bogdonovich's multiple attempts to recapture this sort of whimsy in the 1970s and beyond (save the wonderful PAPER MOON). We also did not see it in George Clooney's ill-fated LEATHERHEADS, released earlier this year. Not easy, that comedy stuff.
Check the opening credits of this one, with its double wedding montage. Or the A & Q Club's rifle orgy on the train. Wacky, that universe. It is a fun place to be, what with eccentric behavior at every turn, and that dialogue. It comes fast and furious. I was exhausted by the time we reached the amusing finale. When you get there, you may find yourself saying aloud, "twins"???. Don't sweat it. If you think the words are friviolous, there's no denying that the music is the work of a maestro.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
You know how it goes. The priorities, oh, the priorities! Been up to my eyeballs in work projects, for one. I take a lot of my work home. Additionally, there are research projects and journal articles to absorb and produce. I wouldn't have it any other way. If I were just a 9 to 5er I'd be certifiable. The mind numbing routine of those hours, however, still kills me. But, I have to say I do enjoy having nights and weekends off.
Thanksgiving was enjoyable. Sonia cooked an entire feast for her folks and mine, though regrettably they were not all at the same table. I assisted with the prep, and we look forward to more culinary science experiments for God Yule. We hadn't cooked for T-Day since 2002, Sonia's second year in grad school in delightful Monterey, CA. It's fun!
I got my first real Christmas tree on my own. After years of the fakery, I finally have the smell of pine (and yes, all the damned needles) to enjoy. White lights. Red bows. Elegant little tree.
LOVING what has proven to be a cool fall. More cool days than I can remember. If it could stay this way until April, I'd be plenty happy.
Last night we enjoyed an evening with Sonia's mother, stepfather, and their neighbor, Harry, for their monthly dinner gathering. Harry's 76 and loquacious. Particularly when he downs the vino. The running gag is that his glass is never less than 3/4 full below the meniscus. He also lugs around a gallon of red for each visit. This tends to unwrap his tongue quite easily, and he talks without a pause for breath for hours. About what, you ask? Cinema, for one. His knowledge of film is encyclopedic, particularly for those made in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He knows the most arcane bits you can imagine; he could probably tell you what Billy Bitzer had for breakfast. Having just seen THE PALM BEACH STORY (yes, review forthcoming), we had a real whale of a time.
Harry also collects guns. His knowledge of arsenals is even more specific than that of film. Fascinating stuff. I've yet to see his collection, but he promised to bequeath something to me. Hmmmm. Years ago a friend and I visited another friend who ran a local bar and saw his stash-a living room filled with automatic weapons, as well as a revolver or dozen. My mouth was on the floor. When Harry talks of his pieces, I picture something similiar.
Today has been quite perfect: worship at Christ Fellowship, running into friends and mentors at the PB Toojay's, nap, great movie (another future entry), an invigorating run/jog up and down Flagler Drive, and divine weather. Going to see my mother now.
There. You're caught up, invisible audience. We now return you to your music and film appreciations. Er, eventually.
Friday, November 28, 2008
I still feel like they do that, but lately I've become more receptive to their versatility. No two songs sound the same. Really something. Occasionally, their cleverness becomes cloying and their cynicism (to say nothing of taste) goes over the line. But slowly I'm diggin' 'em. They were not part of the original blueprint, but maybe they will rate an entry in the future, after I've absorbed their catalogue and learned more about them. At the rate I am going with the WD series, that is entirely possible. Stay tuned?
A fan's video for "Zoloft":
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The problem of Shakespeare. It has wracked the psyches of countless students and actors alike. Al Pacino, legendary actor and luminary, takes it somewhat further. In addition to his agonizing preparation for the titular role of Richard III, Pacino decided to get out of his own head and ask some colleagues what they think of Shakespeare's tragedy-the words, the strings of words creating thoughts. And what words! The speak that causes contemporaries to almost immediately feel removed from what is essentially, like all of the Bard's great tragedies, a tale of the erosion of humanity manifest in crushing betrayal and the final "silence". The beautiful music, the rhythm of the verse; to one, a beautiful melody, to others, a brick wall of boredom and confusion. Indeed, Pacino wonders aloud, "What's this thing that gets between us and Shakespeare?"
In 1996's LOOKING FOR RICHARD, director Pacino attempts to find out. The colleagues of which I spoke include the actors in the current New York production, folks like Kevin Spacey (Earl of Buckingham) and Alec Baldwin (Duke of Clarence). We see them around the table, doing read-throughs. Then we see them acting out the drama. Splices between these scenes are effective. But then we hear them pontificate on what each scene means, what the whole Skahespeare pardigm is about. Pacino listens, interrupts, adds his own two cents. He takes the camera out of the theater and quizzes the man on the street. We get the expected cross section of responses to the Shakespeare inquiry: bewilderment, indifference, mild hostility. Shakespeare intimidates people. Especially Americans. The most interesting interview involves an English actor/scholar who explains the dilemma his thespian compadres west of the pond face: they add inhibition, they feel that because of the long shadow of history, perhaps the Brit pedigree itself, that the pursuit is hopeless. The American actor is so concerned that he cannot convincingly convey the poetry and anguish, or to even understand. This perfectly illustrates the way many of us feel.
LOOKING FOR RICHARD is not exactly "Shakepeare for Dummies"(although, at one point Pacino waves a copy of the play's Cliffs Notes). Rather, the film is a somewhat post-modern assemblage of the actual performance of the play (indoors and out) mixed with assorted discussions of interpretation. Lots of points of view to consider. What credence should we give the average joe versus the scholar? That very point spurs an amusing debate between Pacino and an actor as to the value of opinions. Are all opinions equal? Why should what the stuffy Ph.D. pontificates be worth more than that of the theater patron who may have, as a teen, rather have made out with his girlfriend than watch the damned play (referring to, quite amusingly, the esteemed actor Kevin Kline, who has done more than his share of Shakespeare). Hilariously, the film then cuts to one of those stuffy wits who admits he has no idea what a particular scene means.
The movie is quite interesting, but it meanders. Any one interview would've been satisfying to watch for its original duration, rather than the mere seconds sprinkled throughout the film. Then we see large chucks of the play itself-well mounted and supremely well acted by the aforementioned as well as Harris Yulin and others. Pacino had originally wanted to just "film the play" but felt that a doc attempting to deconstruct would be more effective. He was mostly correct. Besides, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh (who is also interviewed briefly) have already done definitive cinematic versions.
Projects such as this also court the danger of becoming a vanity piece. We see Pacino in all his neurotic, hammy glory here, enough at times to make me almost wish that Robert DeNiro would come out and shout some verses from Ecclesiastes in iambic pentameter. One sequence that made me squint a bit involved the performance of the key scene of Richard attempting to find the good graces of Lady Anne (Winona Ryder), intercut with a lip smacking Pacino, very playful as he hangs off a piece of metallic art in a park. When the scene between the characters reaches the crescendo Pacino had just predicted, we get his face full frame, shouting "Aha!" OK, so who is supposed to feel stupid now, Al?
No matter. A small quibble. LOOKING FOR RICHARD is a real find for the faithful, and those interested in rolling back the meaning. I don't think the movie will win any Bard converts, but one never knows. It doesn't always happen overnight. Pacino spent 3 1/2 years putting together this movie, perhaps gleaning deeper understanding at the exhausting end.
I have been a devoted fan of Shakespeare since about 7th grade. Interestingly, it was in part due to a classroom screening of Franco Zeffierelli's 1968 take on Romeo & Juliet. When I began to delve into the text, I was put off, yet so intrigued it became an almost herculean effort of obssession to comprehend. Pacino also feels this way. Before the cameras, he pulls back the well worn binders of his paperbacks and analyzes every beat of the trials of Richard. He goes a bit mad.
So do his business partners. If you've seen other films like this, where an actor or some other notable gets some film stock and a budget to shoot a labor of love documentary, you get the obligatory scenes: the producer reeming over the budget, the police showing up to kick the principals out of a location due to a lack of work permits, the general questioning by everyone as to why this project was undertaken in the first place. All of those scenes are here, with the added dimension of the producer quite unashamedly admitting he's never understood this play. Another telling moment at the end, as Pacino's Richard lies dying: a studio guy looks on, "It's over, right? That's it? I bet if I tell him we have ten more reels of film stock available he'll want to somehow keep filming this thing."
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Gilliam To Tilt At Windmills Again
21 November 2008 1:34 AM, PST
Director Terry Gilliam disclosed Thursday that he plans to restart production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote next year after securing rights from the insurance company that paid out $15 million when the movie's sets were destroyed by a flash flood in 2000 and one of the stars of the movie pulled out following a serious injury. Speaking at a tribute to him Thursday night by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in London, Gilliam, who created the graphic images for the Monty Python TV shows and movies before launching his career as a film director, said that he now believes that God stepped in to "save his ass" on Don Quixote when the storm occurred. "I was in some way relieved that it did fall apart," he said. "Because I didn't have the money to finish it. It's a good thing it went down when it did because I would have got the blame for going over budget. I think this time we will make a better film."
This is encourgaing news to an unabashed Gilliam fanatic like myself. After seeing 2002's documentary LOST IN LAMANCHA, I think I became almost as obsessed as him to get this picture made. Better late than never! Fingers crossed!
Friday, November 21, 2008
Did you realize that noise induced hearing loss is the #1 compensable on-the-job malady? That iPod earbuds can pump up to 130 decibels in your ear canals? That noisy households can affect your child's speech development and cognition? These were some of my subpoints today. Any interested readers can contact me and I'd be happy to send you the Power Point. I will work some of it into future entries in the occasional series "Your Audiology Tutorial."
Mr. Segal is a tireless advocate for the rights of the hearing impaired. He has lobbied state capitals and corporate headquarters alike to mandate accommodations for the hard of hearing in hotels, airports, restaurants. He is a believer in education, something I can surely get behind. Segal has single-sided deafness, and wears a bone anchored hearing aid (which utilizes the mastoid bone to conduct sound directly to the inner ear). So, he knows how hearing impaired un-friendly society can be. My hat's off to him for his diligence and care.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Writer/director/enfant terrible/rabble rouser Lars von Trier is either a certifiable madman or a cinematic genius. Oh, but what a fine line! I have seen several of his films, and all have wildly impressed my not easily impressed self. BREAKING THE WAVES is one of my Top 10 of the 1990s. THE ELEMENT OF CRIME is an arresting sci-fi debut from 1984 (shades of BLADE RUNNER, but all his own). THE KINGDOM is one of the most unique, trenchant satires ever. DANCER IN THE DARK is a heartbreaking, thoroughly original tragimusical. I greatly anticipate Criterion's release of EUROPA (American title: ZENTROPA) in December.
Now, after watching DOGVILLE, I am stunned into the recognition that I have just spent three long, brutally painful hours of my life being toyed with, manipulated, and thoroughly probed. Hitchcock said he liked to play the audience like a piano. Lars von Trier instead breaks out the scalpel and slashes, sometimes with marked precision, other times indiscriminately, as if he is blindfolded. Then, he lets us bleed. Slowly.
Much has been written and discussed about the director's anti-American sentiments. Much I have heard about DOGVILLE states that this film is his ultimate magnum opus on the subject. A film which savagely depicts the ultimate ostracization of an outsider to a closely-knit community.
To wit, Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a woman apparently on the run, who stumbles into a 1930s small town in the Rocky Mountains. The kindly local son-of-the-town-physician and resident philospher, Thomas Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), pities her, offers protection. His intellect is also curiously stimulated by this development, this sudden deviance from the daily blueprint.
The town of Dogville is very small. Only a few blocks, in fact. Everyone indeed knows everyone else. There are shopkeepers, apple orchard harvesters, delivery men, assorted tradesmen, cleaning ladies, the cognitively challenged, the more shrewd, husbands, wives, children, and yes, a dog. Thomas Jr. holds regular meetings at the town hall, holding court akin to a preacher, mixing damnation of these insular folk in his tirades with the more routine daily bits of business. No one pays much attention, until the day he introduces them to Grace. They cock their eyebrows in deeply uncomfortable suspicion. It is decided that Grace has two weeks to prove her worth, her place in Dogville. At the end of this trial period, the townspeople will cast their votes.
It is awkward at first. The town's clockwork precision has no need for a strange woman soliciting philantropy. Even the local blind man refuses her help. Perhaps guilt overcomes Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) when she relents and allows Grace to rake a garden, an activity that is not needed. Soon, all the townfolk have Grace toiling at things not needed. She's quite good at such things.
The vote is unanimous. She is allowed to remain. She befriends each one, gets to relate to them in ways perhaps they had never been privvy to before. Her encourgement enpowers each of them. She becomes part of their extended family. So of course, popularity has the inevitable backlash. Society seems to love to build up and then destroy our heroes.
Perhaps it would've happened even if those gangsters hadn't shown up, asking for the whereabouts of a certain young woman. Maybe the ugly tide turning of betrayal would've still befallen Grace at the hands of Dogville even if the police didn't come around to post handbills offering a reward for the return of that same certain fugitive lass. But happen it does, in ways that are often excruciatingly painful for Grace and the viewer alike.
DOGVILLE is not a fun movie. It is not at all pleasant to watch, and at times, it is quite unbearably difficult to endure. It is also punishingly long at just under three hours. Was that much time necessary to tell this tale? Did we need all that early exposition, followed by scene after scene detailing the rise and fall of a mysteroius young woman whose tale ressembles that of so many literary characters before her? If von Trier is creating an essay on the evils of a xenophobic America, did we need so many brutal scenes (including rape) to put a fine point on it? It's all up to you, dear viewer.
One of my takes after days of contemplation, however, is that DOGVILLE is a biblical tale disguised as said anti-America tract. This ground has been covered by the writer/director before, to some degree. At the end of BREAKING THE WAVES, Bess sacrifices her life so that her injured husband may live. During the climax, she is pelted with debris on the way to her death as she walks a path that might well represent the Via Dolorosa.
In DOGVILLE, I don't think we are merely looking at a closed America, but rather a representation of mankind at large. It starts with the central conceit of the movie; instead of the usual sets, the town of Dogville is shown on an obvious soundstage as a series of chalk outlines with no walls or doors. Very theatrical. It takes some adjustment for the viewer. At first, it almost seems like some actor's exercise run amok.
We see right through the invisible walls of the family across Elm Street (that street name also designated in chalk, right on the path) . So does God. Of course He sees through walls just like we do in this film, sees through the imaginary roofs, and sees into men's hearts. But so does Grace. See where I'm taking this? The ugliness which befalls the young lady as the town turns against her echoes another previous figure in history. And that point is hammered home with increasing dread for nearly two hours during the film's midsection.
Then. That last half hour. Read no further if you do not want to know the outcome. The town, after imprisoning and humiliating Grace in every imaginable way, finally decides to turn her in to those gangsters we saw earlier. A parade of shiny cars arrives. Thomas Jr., who may as well be Judas Iscariot by this point, leads the pinstriped men right to her. But the tide is about to turn again. Grace is removed from her Dogville shackles and led into one of the cars. There's her father, the head mob boss played by yes, James Caan. Grace had fled from a life of crime and death, only to become the recipient of scorn, jealousy, and brutality in the company of "common folk." Dogs, they are. All of them.
Grace is offered a chance to return home with dad and assume responsibility as a mafia daughter. She will have power, be a decision-maker. She balks. She needs air. She takes a walk on the outskirts of Dogville. She looks at her former friends, a town filled with souls who brutalized every ounce out of her after their initial warmth. The film's narrator speaks:
They don't deserve to live. Not a single one.
After a philosphical tete-e-tete with dad, Grace decides to bring all manner of vengeance against her tormentors. Kill. Them. All. She orders the mafia henchman to waste every last citizen of Dogville, even an innocent infant, and we see that and several other murders. Hear the awful screams, see the expressions of horror. Torch the town, she orders. Out come the flamethrowers on these invisible walls. By the end, Dogville is completely destroyed. Wiped off the map. Except for that dog. Moses. That's the dog's name. I was reminded of Exodus in some odd way.
We read in Chapter 34, as the second tablets of the law are ordered to be chiseled by Moses himself. Verse 6:"....The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness."
Verse 7 continues, "maintaining love to thousands, and forgiven wickedness, rebellion, and sin..." Grace endures, allows a martyr's existence for months as the town destroys her. Yet, she takes it all in stride, never lashing out or even raising her voice to the horde. The horde, mankind, a sinful world, if you ask me. Then, the second coming, a rapture of one. Destruction for all the rest......"Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sins of the fathers to the third and forth generations." We do indeed see the destruction of multigenerations at the end of Dogville (DOGVILLE). All filthy dirty guilty as sin. American or not.
As unsettling as this sequence was, truly the most disturbing thing to me was how I felt as it played out. I was cheering her on. I wanted her to get her revenge, God-imagery or not. They wronged her. I spent nearly three agonizing hours watching this woman suffer and you're damn right I wanted to see her unleash this justice. It was primal, born of the most base desire for bloodlust. Like I was merely watching Charles Bronson pop round after round into those scumbags for the 800th time in DEATH WISH 8, not an ambitious art film.
Then I stopped. The director had just made me realize I am a citizen of Dogville, and perhaps no better. This is the flip interpretation-perhaps von Trier was not making Grace into God but rather a flawed human who herself is not better than the bloodthirsty mob. "For the sake of humanity" I wanted her to get even. Even when the children were wasted I felt vindication. I became sick to my stomach. The audience, played like a piano. I hated and loved von Trier by the end.
These are my takes. Lars von Trier had a much more global, universal intent for DOGVILLE, despite other interpretations, and despite an end credit sequence, showing slides of dispossesed presumed U.S. citizens living in assorted squalor, perhaps the aftermath of violence. David Bowie's 'Young Americans" plays over the credits. Hmmmmm.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Turns out I had twenty years worth of passes in front of Rhythm Cafe. It was one of those places I had always intended on checking out, but just never got around to it. My loss, because our first venture there last night was a real treat. Plenty of personality: lots of kitschy touches such as pink fringes over chandelier lights and a mirrorball, but also a decidedly upscale feel. A line of understated artwork across the main wall, though around it more campy artifacts. Ecelectic music floating through the air. One minute, Janet Jackson. The next? Hey, isn't that Cabaret Voltaire? And cozy? You bet. The atmosphere reminded me of a few NYC joints I'd darkened during my many trips there in the 90s.
We were meandering down Dixie last evening when those lights caught my attention again. Curiosity finally got the better of us. We walked up to the door to examine the menu. Another sign: RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED. Uh oh. But, we got right in.
The menu is concise, but dishes are well chosen. I had the chicken saltimbocca, one of the Friday Specials. Succulent chicken breast adorned with prosciutto in a tasty sautee. The red cabbage was a fine compliment. Satisfying dollop of "smashed" potatoes on the side. I recommend you wash it all down with some Warsteiner beer.
The star dish of the evening, however, was an appetizer Sonia tried. Wild mushroom tart. Fantastic. Portabellos in dried plum sauce over a flaky crust layered with porcini mushroom puree. I could have ordered four of 'em. A must if you go.
We did not have dessert, but the owners make their own ice cream, including rum raisin. We'll be sampling that on a return visit!
Most entrees are in the over $20 range, but salads are all under $10. Check this place out; it's a funky little gem. Any eatery that lasts for two decades in WPB is clearly fulfilling some need, and doing something right. Indeed they are.
Friday, November 14, 2008
"He thinks he's God, and he's in for a surprise when he can't fix everything. An even bigger surprise is in store for all his supporters."
For all my Obama rallying, I too was and am disturbed by the seeming deification of this man by a large group of his supporters. He has become more of a symbol, his humanity seemingly eclipsed by something far bigger. Unavoidable, but I hope and pray that our new President doesn't believe his own press, whether it is invective from windbags like Rush Limbaugh OR choruses of praise from the Democrats or anyone else.
There is only one God, and I think Mr. Obama knows this. I'm excited about this new Administration as much as anyone, but my friend does have a point. Let's not get carried away.
I hope that Barack Obama lasers his focus, keeps his ideals, and for all of his drive and good intentions, realizes that mistakes will be made. That the economy, the wars, and health care will likely not be solved during this (first?) term.
Let the pundits of all stripes yell and blog to their hearts' content.
Roll up your sleeves, sir.
*God doesn't think He's the President, har har.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
However, the unwelcome guests may have some understandable motives. The males in the dinner group are dealing in drugs. Rafael being the head dope, and always worried that he is the target of a kidnapping or assassination attempt. He lives in constant fear, crouching in his country's embassy suite, spying on that curious young hippie who arrives daily to sell wind-up toys on the square below. Nonetheless, he carries on his liasions with Madame Theveont, only to be interrupted by...Monsieur Thevenot, and those questionable types downstairs. And how about that priest who takes a job as the Senechal's gardener? He must be rather suspicious.
But wait a minute. I'm merely recounting the plot. I'm dancing about architecture, as a wise soul once quipped. This is a Luis Buñuel film. Master surrealist. Creator of L'AGE DOR and LOS OLVIDADOS. No one else like him. What other filmmaker would dare create a scenario out of a group of dinner guests who refuse to leave the dining room, staying long enough to starve and die, as in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL? In 1972's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, the dinner guests never do get to enjoy that meal, but rather walk and ride endlessly through town to attend another abortive attempt at that great social event, the great leveller. Food. We all have to eat, right? It brings us together. Well, sure, the peasants dine on stale bread while the Senechals dine on baluga caviar, but you get the idea. The partaking of a meal is an open communion, of sorts. Well, not in Buñuel's later THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, where the openness of eating and the privacy of defecation are reversed, but pardon the tangent.
When the party tries to have a meal at a restuarant, they are interrupted again, by mourners saying prayers over a corpse in the next room: the chef. Later, they are invited by a general (who, with his platoon, interrupted a previous meal) to his house for a feast. Once they arrive, they are horrified to find as a curtain pulls back that they are on a stage, in front of a theater audience. Worse yet, these bourgeoisie face a far more disturbing realization, they can't remember their lines!
What is Luis Buñuel trying to say? Certainly he is skewering the importance of appearences. How else are we to react to the scene where the aforementioned priest first arrives at the Senechal's chateau, stating that he indeed is a priest looking for work as a gardener? And what then when we find he is ejected because he is in commoner's street garb, but then embraced when he returns in full priest regalia? Clothes maketh the man.
There is so much more. DISCREET CHARM is a really a series of vignettes, barely strung together by the device of the principal charcaters' vain pursuits of any sort of food or drink, and the ability to experience a period of time where one of life's simplest pleasures can be treasured. When the ladies lunch at a cafe, they are informed by the waiter that the establishment is out of tea and even coffee. That's OK, because the ladies are then are interrupted by a soldier who relays grim childhood stories.
The theme of interruption, not just of meals but also illicit meetings, sleep, and even life itself, is constant. Searching, over and over. For what? The idyll of some utopic facscade? Seems positively dystopian, even amongst the most lavish of backdrops. The interruptions keep coming, but when things really get weird, we find that we are a pawn in the old it-was-only-a-dream device. Sometimes, we find that a character was dreaming that another character was dreaming. You think David Lynch might've been a Buñuel fan?
How does the viewer connect the dots among all of the disparate elements? I'm not sure that is the point. I imagine you could really study this film, making theses out of all the political, social, and religious references. Some are obvious, many are cloaked. All are fascinating. DISCREET CHARM is like a moving piece of art. A work that somehow scampered away from its creator and slinked onto theater and television screens. And I bet he was more than happy about it. Subversive piece, this film. An absolute must for the filmgoer's education. I suspect it will continue to manifest itself like a fungus in my thoughts for eons to come.
(part trois, cinematic gustatory trilogy)
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Shelly Honoured Two Years After Murder
Late filmmaker/actress Adrienne Shelly will be remembered next week (beg17Nov08) when a script she wrote before her tragic murder has its first public reading at a New York ceremony in her honour. Shelly was killed in November 2006 by construction worker Diego Pillco - convicted to 25 years in jail after pleading guilty to strangling the WAITRESS director. Pillco had been renovating another apartment in the New York building at the time and was caught by Shelly trying to rob her apartment before the tragic incident.
Her satire entitled "The O Letters" is set to be unveiled at the second annual Adrienne Shelly Foundation gala at New York University on Monday.The script revolves around five letters discovered in the year 4046, written to someone named Steadman by a woman who signs them O. Among those set to attend the event include Shelly's WAITRESS co-stars Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell, and Jeremy Sisto.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Of course, those movies were merely in glorious two dimensions. Who was to know what was to come only a few decades after my first exposure to the magic? In the mid-1990s, Pixar, a company that had begun as a division of Lucasfilm in the late 1970s, released its first film, TOY STORY, to a chorus of wows. Computer generated animation was certainly not new but the general public had never seen anything like this. Characters and backgrounds seem to occupy actual depth. While WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? had dazzled us in the 80s with its animation/live-action combo, with its characters changing dimension and size as they moved through scenes, the Pixar gang had upped the ante, raised the bar to which 2-D animation will possibly never rise. Including those of the Disney Studios other films, even the aforementioned new classics.
So, it was inevitable that these two titans, who had worked together for some time, would eventually officially merge, but not without some difficulty. There were disagreements over the marketing and distribution of the Pixar films, and a handful of those pesky creative differences we always read about. However, the fine print and legalese were sufficiently smoothed over and a collaboration was minted. Then, in the mid 00s, Disney acquired Pixar.
So much for the history lesson. Lest I sound Disney partisan. I stated all that to illustrate how Disney continues to produce films that always seem to reduce me to a wide-eyed eight-year-old. All the Pixar films I've seen have done this, including my most recent, RATATOUILLE.
We first meet Remy, a country rat, as he is racing from the shotgun blasts of a rather scared/ticked off granny. Remy and his family and friends have lived a cozy existence in the octogenarian's kitchen ceiling at her farm, and the jig is finally up. Before the close knit group scatters, we learn that Remy has absorbed the cookbooks of one Chef Gusteau, a famous French chef who made his name known throughout Europe with his namesake 5-star restaurant. These studies have only sharpened Remy's already impressive senses of taste and smell. He had spent his days on the farm berating his rodent brethren for their acceptance of leftovers and assorted refuse. A discerning pallatte has no place for the mere discarded apple core!
After surviving a drag down the river rapids, Remy finds himself all alone in the big city. Paris. He quickly discovers that an apparition of Gusteau is suddenly there to guide him in this unfamiliar territory, leading him into....Gusteau's Restaurant! But we learn that the chef himself had recently passed on, and the eatery has fallen into mediocrity. Remy scampers through the kitchen, noting the staff pecking order, which includes a rather clumsy young man named Linguini, hired as a busboy. Remy also finds a way to drop a few ingredients into a large pot of soup (he can't resist). The concotion makes its way to the dining room and is a big hit. The current owner, the sniveling Skinner, mistakenly believes that Linguini created the soup, and gives him a shot at joining his staff.
Linguini can't even boil water without creating a disaster. He learns that the pesky little rat was actually responsible for the delectable broth, and through machinations too involved to describe, the pair teams up to make Gusteau's a raging success once again. Of course, there are several complications along the way, including that cute lone female chef, a fearsome restauarant critic named Anton Ego, and the reuinting of Remy with his family before we get to the triumphant finale.
RATATOUILLE is grand fun. I marveled at the master shots, containing more detail than I could possibly process during one viewing. Each still can be frozen and analyzed for its fastidious care. Techniques are employed to apply organic textures and movement to the food we see onscreen. Three dimensional lighting and shadow effects bring every morsel into sharp focus. It is some tribute to the animators that their artificially created culinaries still inspire mouth watering. The lighting, the color; it's all amazingly realized. Even a compost pile is eye-filling in its intricacies.
The filmmakers interned in American and French kitchens to get a sense of how things operate, how dishes are adorned. I briefly worked in a luxury hotel's food and beverage department several years back and got some first hand observation of the process. The diva-like executive chefs, the shuffling support staff. The array of herbs and sauces. It all came swirling back to me.
Director Brad Bird (THE INCREDIBLES) again utilizes a breathless pace and wicked sense of humor. There are many sly winks and jabs at the French and their proclivity toward, eh, pretension. Anton Ego, for example, gets many laughs, what with his derision of Gusteau by comparing him with Chef Boy Ardee and later, his childhood flashback after savoring the Remy designed dish, yes, ratatouille. The choice to not have Remy be able to speak to the Linguini or any of the other humans (he does communicate in English with his animal cohorts) was also wise, as that would've made the movie too cute, in my opinion. The relationship between Remy and Linguini, in its slapstick (but silent) ballet owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than say, Scooby and Shaggy, thank goodness.
Pixar also always knows how to tug at the heart then send you out with a wide smile. Their films are never smarmy or cheesy (pardon the pun), but rather reminiscent of the golden days of family entertainment, when Walt still drew the cells himself. Warm, colorful, and smart. A treat for the heart and brain alike. And the eyes. Oh, and for RATATOUILLE, the tongue as well.
(part deux of cinematic gustatory trilogy)
Sunday, November 9, 2008
I met Edson Souza while I was an undergraduate at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) back in the late 80s. He would ride his bicycle all over campus, always clad in smile, always filled with the love of Christ. He would say, in his strong Brazilian accent, even to complete strangers who jogged down Flagler Drive: "You know what the "hell" is? Hell is my life before I met Jesus Christ."
Edson was a waiter in Rio de Janiero in 1987 when then PBA president Claude Rhea came in and found himself highly impressed with this young man. Rhea offered Edson a scholarship to the college right on the spot. Souza would go on to get his Bachelors of Science in Business and later, his MBA in International Business.
He scored a solid job in Atlanta but quickly felt led to return to his native Brazil to oversee a ministry for those in the slums, the same favelas in which he grew up. He founded the New Hope International Ministry, a non-profit, non-governmental organization in 2001. New Hope stresses training programs focusing on vocation, education, and athletics. Their stated mission is:
".to identify at risk children and provide a Safe House environment that will offer them hope and opportunity in the midst of the poverty, danger and hopelessness of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. We reintegrate the children and young people of these poor communities by alleviating the social exclusion that affects them spiritually, socially, and to improve their educational opportunities so they can live productive and wholesome lives."
We got to have dinner with Edson and his wife a few years back. This past Saturday, my friend Don Harp, former alumni director of PBA, updated me on the ministry and reminded me that they need support. I wanted to give them one more outlet here.
Jenna (Keri Russell) is also a profoundly depressed young woman. But she doesn't really mind being a waitress. She has two close confidants at her side as co-workers: Becky and Dawn (Cheryl Hines & Adrienne Shelley), as well as a randy old coot (Andy Griffith, absolutely terrific) whose cantankerousness brightens her days, and she gets to make those pies. "You should open your own pie shop," saith her co-workers more than once.
That doesn't seem likely in Jenna's future. Her depression is deep, her self-esteem nil. Her lout of a husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a lunkhead extraordinare. His raging jealousy prevents her from owning her own car, demands her tip money every night as he picks her up, and begs for constant re-affirmations of his manhood. He says her pies are "alright." Jenna sighs defeat and is resigned to her fate. Then one day, she discovers she is pregnant.
This is not good news. The child, she feels, has just sealed her fate. She can now never escape her sentence with Earl, who upon learning the news, insists that Jenna promise that she'll never love the baby more than him. Her co-workers are far more excited, and give her a book which encourages new mothers to write letters to their unborn. In voiceover, Jenna composes brutally honest thoughts to her future offspring, the sort of expressions that reek of hopelessness, regret, and bitterness. These are not mushy love letters.
The new local gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), is a sweet soul who obviously has an eye for his new patient. Jenna is embarrassed and puzzled by his demeanor. He compliments her! He loves her pies! Against their better judgment, they have an affair, despite his also being married.
WAITRESS is a film that folks used to call "sleepers": small films of which no one expecting much, that really deliver. The raw materials for a basic cable potboiler are all there, but writer/director/actor Shelley instead creates a surprisingly sharp look at the social order. The expectations of individuals as mates, employees, friends, are all observed with a keen eye, sharp tongue, and wounded heart. One could easily say that WAITRESS is "bittersweet", but that is too easy, and not quite accurate. There's more bitterness than sweetness, and it feels real.
I can't recall a film that so unflinchingly details a woman's loathing for her upcoming pregnancy. In another movie, the pregnancy would be Jenna's salvation from her bleak life. Instead, it only reminds her of Earl, especially since the whole mess began six weeks ago after he got her drunk. Idiot.
The film also passes no judgment on the illicit activities of Jenna and Pomatter. But it doesn't bathe their liasions in any illusion, either. Both characters are mired in loveless unions, but the fault may not lie entirely with their mates. Shelley's script allows Jenna and Pomatter to be deeply flawed, sometimes selfish people. Their spouses, the aforementioned Earl, upon closer inspection, is simply a wildly insecure man without a shred of self-esteem himself. His asinine behavior makes the audience hiss and rally to Jenna's defense, but there are moments when his persona drops, and we see the hurt in his eyes. Pomatter's wife is a resident MD, who is seen only once, but obviously consumed in self-love and likely prone to overpower her husband.
Jenna's co-workers are also a bit lost. Becky has a (discussed but never seen) much older invalid husband at home who has lost his memory. Dawn places personal ads and then only allows five minutes for her dates so she doesn't get stuck if she doesn't like them. But their commiseration strengthens their resolves. And then there are those pies......
Shelley, an actress perhaps best known for her work with Hal Hartley (her turn in TRUST is my favorite), was murdered just months before the film's release, a stunning tragedy that indeed casts the film in a different light than would have otherwise been seen without such prior knowledge. To have such an achievement as a maiden voyage only makes things sadder. We have been denied more thoughtful analyses, more stories with the appropriate bite.
At the end, Jenna has her baby. Several events occur after this point and I'm no spoiler this time. But the ending was more than satisfactory to me. It all made sense, and I shared in the bitterSWEET triumph. Yes. You see that? I think, for once in Jenna's life, the sweetness won out.
(part one of cinematic gustatory trilogy)
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Now, I'm sure that many Christians are praying for Obama. And our country. I'm one of them. He most certainly has his work cut out for him. The more I think about this victory, the more exciting it is. But the wet blanket of reality was flung over my head this morning when I heard the outcry from my supposed sister in Christ. Well, I'd rather hear the cheers of African-Americans, vindicated at last. I want to hear the tinkle of glasses around the world, the cheers of non-Americans who look toward an Administration that won't devalue them, even if they disagree with our policies and actions. There is much to anticipate. I look forward to a new age, a cessation of the Age of Mediocrity in which we've lived these last eight years. Mediocrity in education, diplomacy, fiscal responsibility and accountability, forward thinking in medical research; the list goes on.
We live in the United States of America. Not the United States of Christians. Or the United States of any other one religion, race, creed, or orientation. We are over 260 million individuals with different ideas who are protected by laws which allow us freedoms not readily available everywhere else. I'm very Jeremy Bentham in my ideals for USA paradigms; it's not the United States of Me. Put another way, denying groups certain rights who don't agree with us ain't cool. Marriage will always be between a man and a woman in my eyes, and as the Scriptures tell us, in the eyes of God. But not everyone believes in My Savior, and I have to respect that as I pray mightily for them. I would expect the same respect from my non-believing fellow Americans.
In other words, we should never confuse the two kingdoms, heaven and earth. I believe that I was born to love the Lord, and be an example for Him. Part of those duties is to show His love, and angrily trying to deny rights to others is NOT part of that package. Valuing the rights of all my earthly breathren IS.
Abortion is a different animal, and I cannot use the word "rights" in that discussion. It is a grand tragedy, but one of many. We allow slaughters of citizens of countries who we think are guilty of various things. We allow millions in our own backyard to remain destitute and dispossessed. There are areas of this nation that are as barren as parts of many underdeveloped countries. Take a walk through the South Bronx sometime. There are real live people who need assistance. And no, not all of us have the same opportunities, lest we trot out the old "they could really get a job if they wanted to" jive. Hopefully that will change.
I agree that the church should be a major facilitator of outreach to the poor and weak. There are numerous examples of this arund the country. However, (socialistic tendency alert) the government has the resources to implement real, effective programs, that don't merely empower laziness or complacency. No easy task, but one of the reasons I voted for Obama is that in him I see potential for the engineering of effective governmental action. And I am more than willing to pay a little extra for that, just like my utilitarian bud, Mr. Bentham.
Back in '92, when Bill Clinton was elected, I recall being downright depressed. And scared. I was still a hardcore Republican in those days. I walked around using terms like "bleeding heart" and "treehugger." I had dear friends who were believers who dared to think differently and not fall in line to the usual conservative protocols. It didn't make sense to me then. But I got older, and started breaking away from my guilded cage. I saw other cultures, other ways of life. People are bleeding out there. Far from the confines of my little Christian subculture. There is far more with which to be concerned than, to name one, others' sexual orientation, a fixation that continues to baffle me. The real world howl of pain, of real time hurt, was now something in my face, not just on television. It burdened my heart. At first, quite negatively. Then, I was catapulted back in the direction in which I continue to strive. Thank the Lord. Best thing that ever happened to me. I think back on my old self with great embarrassment. Youth truly was wasted on the young.
OK, rant over! May the Lord bless Barack Obama and our country, and all would disagree with my words. I appreciate the indulgence. I guess this is what blogs are for, huh?
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Perhaps not as big a gasp as the one that would escape the lips of my Christian brethren when they learn that I'm voting for a baby-killing Socialist, but a gasp nonetheless. I do not intend to write a lengthy blog on why I support Obama, as my views are most certainly in the minority among Christians. It's pointless, really. If you want a summary that jibes with my point-of-view, read.......
I listened to Obama's interview with Rick Warren again this past weekend. I liked what he said about being a follower of Jesus-"I have to get out of my own way." I hope he honors that mantra as President.
While I support Obama on many fronts, I feel his very expensive campaign is nonetheless guilty of ugliness, of smear tactics and negativity, perhaps as bad as McCain's. I'm fed up with both parties, frankly. So, the loved one I mentioned, who is also fed up, has decided to "throw away her vote" as two of her friends exclaimed last month when she announced her plans.
Going for an alternate candidate of any stripe is a vote nonetheless. An exercising of a right. How does "change" really happen? In one fell swoop? Sometimes a revolution or coup does occur overnight, but mostly bit by bit. If enough people vote Green, Independent, Libertarian, or even for a Republican or Democrat not on the ticket, perhaps a message will be sent. Perhaps we won't have to hear people say they are voting for the "lesser of two evils" anymore.
We may not live to see this "change." But I hope enough people act on their hearts, and vote for whom they feel would govern most effectively, and especially not feel bullied by their peers, political party, or church in any way. Maybe someday a third party will be a contender after all. The idea, to me, is progression. Might've sounded funny to people once upon a time when someone saw a future where women and minorities could actually vote, too.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
(at least one SPOILER)
I avoided this movie for many a month, certain that they had botched it. Certain! I'd seen enough trailers, read enough reviews to discern that Richard Matheson's classic 1954 novella had been bastardized, possibly beyond recognition. Another Hollywood case study in how to muck up great source material.
I was (mostly) correct. I AM LEGEND takes its title from Matheson's story but is pretty much an in-name-only affair. So much of the basic story is reworked that well into it I just threw up my hands and wondered aloud why they even kept the orignal title.
To be fair, this is not merely Will Smith versus the undead, as I would've expected. This could have been far worse, with Smith's take on scientist/general Robert Neville a gross re-imagining, an amped up wiseass who blasts those zombies with his arsenal and then knocks off a one-liner as their sinews land on the ground in a smoky, bloody pile.
No, Smith is appropriately solemn as the last survivor on earth, a physician who had assisted in the development of a cure for cancer. The "cure" instead caused the mass extermination of the human race, leaving survivors as a mob of flesh craving mutants who come out at night (sunlight will fry 'em). Each night, Neville barricades himself in an apartment, his old family dog his only companion. By daylight, he trolls the empty landscape of Manhattan, forraging for food and supplies, and even working his way through a video store's alphabet for something to do during his limited downtime.
What sort of life is this? Survival, pure and simple. Each day, he airs a broadcast across the AM airwaves, calling out to anyone who may hear him, to see if there are any other survivors who have remained uninfected. He waits in the city each day, occasionally seeing a stray deer that he attempts to bag for dinner.
Neville also has a lab in his basement. A dead mutant lies on a gurney, an experiment. The doctor tries different serums in order to reverse the strain that had erased mankind. His trials on rodents so far a failure. Survival is the goal, yes, perhaps for mankind beyond him.
Then one day, someone answers the radio call.
Being a fan of a printed work virtually guarantees that the movie will disappoint. I have experienced this several times over the years, with adapations of classic literature and potboiler alike. When a story with which you are intimately familiar is reduced to actual images, how could it possibly satisfy? Exceed? Very rare. I always try to appraoch the movie as a separate entity, art with its own life. It's difficult. After seeing SIMON BIRCH, a very loose adapation of the wonderful John Irving novel, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, I was depressed. It almost sullied my appreciation of the book.
But the key words are "very loose." Think of it that way. The source lives on. Much like the original film does when a terrible sequel is produced. Matheson's I Am Legend is one of the most taut, devastating stories I've read. His science fiction is well plotted and airtight; logic is never forsaken for plot turns.
The same cannot be said for the movie. I don't usually get too hung up on implausability in movies, but if the story sets ground rules and the film keeps changing them, we have a problem. For example, how do these undead mutants, victims of a debilitating plague, have superhuman strength? They leap from 4 story windows and heave Smith through the air as if they have creatine in their bloodstreams. Hmmm, maybe they do, though screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich never explain. rather, they just make a host of unfortunate changes from an already perfect novella.
Such as? The undead are just, I don't even know what here. Zombies? In the book, they were vampires, which certainly made sense in terms of the search for an antitidote blood serum. These undead, in Matheson's story, also pounded on Neville's door nightly, their unbearble shrieks so horrifying that Neville eventually soundproofed his house. These undead were also once people the doctor had known, lending a real poignancy to the scenario. In I AM LEGEND, the undead are an anonymous CGI mass. We don't care about them and barely about Neville.
The locale was also changed from Los Angeles to New York City. An interesting choice for such an end-of-the-world tale, but the abandoned city landscape is only peripherally explored. It would've been far more interesting to have the protagonist wander the ruins of more familiar landmarks, with the potential of post-911 statements to be made. Director Francis Lawrence and his production designers-cum-computer programmers do not exploit the location for any real interest.
The one change that does work is the presence of Neville's dog. He is the only lifeline to sanity remaining in Neville's existence, the one thread from his former, happy family life (which we see in flashback). One day, Neville ironically gets snagged in one of his own traps (designed for the mutants) and blacks out, hanging upside down. By the time he awakes, it is sundown, leaving him just minutes before the armies of the night will stalk. The dog circles on the ground, barking up to his master. A pack of mutant dogs gets loose, carefully running around the last patches of sunlight. Neville finally escapes, but not before he and his pup tangle with the evil canines.
Neville races home with his injured pet, frantically trying to nurse him to health once back in the lab. No innoculation will work. He falls on the floor, dog in his arms. He looks down to see the horrible redness in his dog's eyes, the same to be seen in the sclera of those maurading hordes out there. The dog has one last sad whine before he attempts to infect his master. The camera stays on Smith's face as he strangles the animal. The sadness of this scene is very powerful.
It is unfortunate that when the finale of this film comes, in its unwisely reimagined resolution, the power of the dog scene could not be duplicated. I just felt cheated.
Walter Becker dropped by Village Recorders, the site where many a Steely Dan track had been recorded and overdubbed, one day in 1986 during the laying down of basic tracks for Zazu, the debut album for model Rosie Vela. His old partner in snark, Donald Fagen was there playing synths along with their former producer, Gary Katz. Becker liked what he heard, even playing a little keyboard himself. The whispers began: they're recording again. Our wiseacre duo was collaborating. Unbeknownst to each other, they had even chosen the same track from Zazu as their favorite. The symbiosis was still intact. After a session one night in NYC, Becker and Fagen walked sixty blocks home together. They were back? The whispers grew louder.
The communication resumed, despite the fact that they were living 5000 miles apart-Becker in Hawaii, Fagen in the Big Apple. Discussions of song ideas commenced, even over poor long distance connections. They even got together to pen a song, "Snowbound", which would emerge later. But most of the material written was relegated to the Scrap Heap of the Merely Very Good, in the eyes of our perfectionists. The keen ears were still very much in play, though Becker had already begun to loosen up, having worked with more spontaneous artists like Rickie Lee Jones and Michael Franks. Fagen, however, was as critical as ever.
Time and again, he attempted to follow-up his 1982 gem, The Nightfly. He would even get as far as having teams of musicians and engineers, occasionally having something recorded and mixed. But he was never satisfied. More fodder for the vault. I imagine there is much music in the vault that never saw the light of day, and would make for some great bonus tracks, if only Fagen and Becker would ever permit! They are notoriously recalcitrant on this point, much to the frustration of the fandom.
The artist was blocked. He was producing, but the ideas were trite, uninspired. Perhaps Becker was just the grit he needed for his romanticism? But even at this late date, it wasn't gelling. Fagen needed some distraction. He found it as a semi-regular contributor to Premiere magazine in the late 80s. The first piece was a direct recognition of his silenced muse. A highly readable rumination on the state of his dry spell. He discussed, here and elsewhere, how many artists are lucky to have a few good years. He cited Burt Bacharach as an example.
Later entries were tributes to Henry Mancini and an interview with Ennio Morricone (during which Fagen's tape recorder failed). The most intriguing one was his acknowledgement of "Lakmania", an obsession with Lakme, an opera by the French composer Leo Delibes. Parts of the baracole had played in THE HUNGER, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, and I'VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING. Interesting read:
Fagen's cinematic interests also led him to once again compose film scores. BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY was a 1988 Michael J. Fox vehicle in which the star was attempting to shed his wholesome TV persona for someone darker, flawed. It detailed the downward spiral of a yuppie in the toxic nightlife of NYC. Based on Jay McInerney's well-regarded novel of the same name, the movie rather half-heartedly attempted to evoke the despair of an empty existence, and the afterburn of intoxicants and the subsequent fall-out. Seemed like relevant material for Fagen.
His contribution, "Century's End," was a bouncy single, replete with sly lyrics and ultraclean production. It stuck out somewhat awkwardly on the soundtrack, as the other songs were mainly dance hits. Fagen also wrote a verse or two for the title track, heard over the climax of the film, where Fox trades his dark sunglasses for a loaf of bread, a rather contrived scene that I'm not going to analyze any further, though it perfectly illustrates my disappointment with the film. Fagen was also disappointed with the experience for a multitude of reasons, including the distraught over having to co-compose music for a traumatic death scene.
With little result to recount from his other pursuits, Fagen eventually decided to play live again, albeit in small venuses around The City, including the famed Elaine's, so prominently mentioned in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. Later, Fagen was convinced by his girlfriend to play regular gigs at the Lone Star Roadhouse, where he played classic soul songs of the 1960s like "Time is on My Side" and "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love." His reluctance to play live was soon trumped by his sheer enthusiasm for the songs that had inspired his young self all those years ago in the Jersey suburbs. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, Fagen found new reason in his life. His "Rock & Soul Revue" was becoming a habit, played at various locations around the city, growing larger and larger.
Eventually, stars like Boz Scaggs, Charles Brown, and Phoebe Snow would join Fagen onstage for these dates. The audiences were responsive but restless. Where is "Reeling in the Years"? "Peg"? Vocal sections of the audience would not make hidden their desire to hear the Steely Dan songs that were never played live following their original releases. Fagen was insistent that his new show was not designed to be a showcase for his own work. The urgency of his fans' cries for SD material only make him more resistent. He even stopped the show a few times to address this issue.
"Steely Dan is dead," Fagen would say in a radio interview in the early 1990s. He was contented, heck, reinvigorated with his current outlet. His partner, Walter Becker, continued to produce albums for a variety of artists. Despite their continued association in between stints at their new jobs, the future was not promising for a reunion proper.
But all was not dark. Fagen began to slowly incorporate his old tunes into the Revue shows. Michael McDonald, a frequent background singer on Steely Dan songs, joined him for choruses of "Chain Lightning" and "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More." "Green Flower Street", from The Nightfly, popped up from time to time, and was featured on a 1991 recording of a trio of shows from New York's Beacon Theater. Becker had joined his partner on stage for a solo or two.
Fagen's creative juices flowing again, it was time for the long-awaited follow-up.........
to be continued