Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween!


An oldie, but a goodie. Wish I'd thought of this back when I was way into pumpkin artistry.

Lots of good childhood Halloween memories, though my favorite was a party we had on the Big Night when I was 9. We had about 20 enthusiastic superheros, ghosts, wolfmen, quarterbacks, and rock stars bobbing for apples etc. I let my old tape recorder run in the corner of the living room, capturing more overlapping dialogue than your average Robert Altman film. Shrill, frantic voices engaged in fun. I listened to that tape many times for years to come.

Especially memorable about that 1978 night was that my friend Michael, a huge fan of the rock group KISS, left my shindig early so he could go home and watch the broadcast premiere of KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM. He wanted to watch it attentively. I was a bit sore about it at the time, and no, he didn't have a VCR yet. But he was dedicated to the film. That was the kind of attitude I could appreciate later in life, of course.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beware! Socialism!

The following quote is very telling, whatever the original context may have been:


"We're set up, unlike other states in the union, where it's collectively Alaskans who own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs."— Gov. Sarah Palin, quoted by the New Yorker, a few weeks before she was nominated for vice president.

Monday, October 27, 2008

But What If Zack & Miri Had a Chainsaw Massacre?

from imdb.com:


Theaters Refuse To Show Zack And Miri
27 October 2008 10:34 AM, PDT
Megaplex Theatres, which operates theaters in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah say that it has refused to book The Weinstein Company's R-rated ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO
. The theaters are owned by Larry Miller, who in 2006 refused to screen BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in his theaters, saying that it "crossed the line." Miller is also the owner of the Utah Jazz. In an interview with today's (Monday) New York Post, theater manager Cal Gunderson said, "We feel it's very close to an NC-17 with its graphic nudity and graphic sex." When the newspaper's "Page Six" column asked Gunderson why the theater chain had no problems booking the ultra-violent SAW V, Gunderson replied, "No comment."

Always kills me. I've never understood this attitude. It's OK to watch disembowlements and all manner of carnage, but not naked people and/or sexuality? Violence, no matter how graphic, no problem. Sex, uh uh. Puzzling double standard, at least to me. ALL of it can lead to corrosive desensitization....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Meanwhile......

I see that lately I have gotten far away from the original intentions of contributing to a blog. I have logged several movie reviews, music appreciations, restaurant recs, and audiology labs. No details on the goings on of my day-to-day.

Tricky business, that. So much to tell, but so little I can actually write. This is due to several reasons already discussed (scroll back, ya slacker). I could also attribute it to nothing more than unadulterated laziness, but I have been somewhat prolific this year. Just not with the dailies. So let's remedy that. It's been awhile.

This weekend:

-Sonia's father and his girlfriend returned from their summer in the Basque country in France, (near the Pyrenees) this past week. They run a chateau there for the region's high season. I got to chat with them a bit Friday evening. Later, Sonia and I watched I AM LEGEND (review forthcoming of course).

-Saturday I did something amazingly stupid; I sliced open my left palm with a kitchen knife. Pretty deep cut. It was so dramatic. Blood spurted all over my counter. Gushed, I tell you. I was convinced I hit a major artery of some sort. How did this happen? I had forgotten to defrost some salmon patties for lunch and decided to try to pry two of the frozen buggers apart with a large knife. I was all too successful. To top it off, I had no bandages or any first aid supplies around. I wrapped my hand in paper towels and sped to CVS for gauze, triple antibiotic ointment, Betadine, and paper tape. The wound was deep, perhaps 1/4 inch or so. I debated a visit to the ER for stitches. I cleaned the wound, wrapped it and waited to see what would happen.

-Visited my mother at the rehab. I unwrapped the gash for one of the nurses who offered to re-wrap and irrigated with normal saline. She felt that stitches would not be necessary.

-Went to Calvary Boca Raton with Sonia and her longtime pal, Jennifer. The original plan was to meet up at Calvary Lauderdale with Jen and her new "friend", but it turned out that he had to go out of town. A simulcast of Pastor Bob Coy played on two large screens in the front of the Boca sanctuary. At some point I looked down to find my hand covered in blood. It had also soaked my bulletin, the tail of my shirt, and my jeans. As gingerly as I could, I worked my way to a restroom. Hoping no one would walk in on this gory scene, I unwrappred the sterile gauze and applied a clean piece. My left pant leg was stained scarlet. I tried in vain to wash it. Again, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I rejoined the congregation, convinced that all eyes were on my wet spot.

-Aside from that debacle, the message was challenging and there was time at the end for introductions of leaders of various outreaches, including a special group which reaches out to HIV patients.

-Dinner at Stir Crazy at the Town Center Mall. Economical and very tasty. Far less greasy or salty than nearby P.F. Chang's. My wound behaved itself the rest of the evening. We went to Jen's house and again I marved at the front room, adorned with more religious artifacts than I have ever seen in one place. Every inch of wall and floor is covered with Virgin Marys and crucifixes. A new addition: two paintings, one of Jesus and another of Mary with floating crowns of thorns above their heads. Jen's parents are very devout Catholics. Their house is a shrine, a museum that really needs to be seen to be believed. A documentary should be made.

-Sunday morning: church at CF CP. Pastor John Poitevent preached from Colassians, closing out a brief series entitled "Grow to Go." The a/c was not working in the Himmel and it provided a good example of being forced out of one's comfort zone. One of the small group leaders came up and descibed what a blessing leading his group has been.

-We met Sonia's dad and headed to Saffron, an Indian restaurant with which he was never too impressed. He grew up in Delhi and consequently has a fiercely discriminating palatte. Having heard from a friend that the place recently had a favorable review, he felt a fresh assessement wasdue. His gf met us at the restaurant after waiting three hours to cast her ballot during early voting.

-Sonia's dad could easily warrant multiple blog remembrances from the eight years I've known him. Lately, he's been a lot easier to deal with, but a bit of the older persona came out. While our efficient waiter, Hassan, was serving our water, Sonia's father proceeded to grill him on his origins. Hassan stated he was from Bombay.

"It's Mumbai, you mean."

"Yes, OK. Mumbai, yes."

"It was Bombay when you were born probably."

Hassan nodded politely, if nervously.

"You don't look like someone from Mubai!" And so on. I was reminded of the gas station scene from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Anton Chigurh would've engaged in a similiar exercise. Well, that's overstating but it was still a bit awkward. The buffet was quite good, with the Shahi baingan, smoky eggplant cubes cooked in gravy defined by a strong taste of cashew a standout. Sonia's father discussed how the country continues its slide toward socialism. He and his gf are polar opposites politically, so it always makes for lively discourse. Today was no exception, save that the alcohol wasn't flowing as liberally as during previous times. He and I each had Kingfisher beers, but no other tongue-loosening libations.

-My upstairs neighbor, Kerry returned from a 6-month sojurn at sea. He's a charter captain and former merchant marine. He had been all over the Caribbean, Atalntic, and many points East. He had amusing stories of his passengers, including "some Russian blokes", and at least one tale that I cannot print here, this being (somewhat) of a respectacle blog. Kerry's an Aussie and sports a very strong brogue. He had grown a scruffy beard during his time away and his gf Jennifer stated without hesitation that she was not fond of it. Our landlord, Gary, also came by with his new pup, Tina, while we were chatting in the driveway.

-Visited my mother and then my grandmother at her apartment. She is still suffering with gall bladder discomfort and had an episode of dry heaves. I ran the monthly test on her ADT "life-call" device, the one she would uses in case of an emergency. As I pulled into the lot, I had noticed that someone had moved into my mother's old place. I didn't feel sad about it, as I expected I would have.

-And here I type, and it's late.

-The wound, by the way, is healing properly. Closing up nicely. Just don't let me back in the kitchen.

I need to do the basic entries more often. Good to get it journaled.

Baby It's You

The Sheik just stood there in the hall, like some mythical icon. Didn't say a word. He saw her, books clutched against her chest as she giggled with her friends among the swirls of all the other high schoolers. She went by, and he just watched her. Mesmerized. Did he know that she had eyed him as well?

Of course, that wouldn't be difficult to believe. Not too many public school students, even in mid-60s New Jersey, were clad in shark skin jackets and carefully starched slacks. As slyly played by Vincent Spano, Albert "The Sheik" Capadilupo, is like some vaudeville wraith stalking the collegiate campus in disbelief as he searches for a reason for his existence. He obviously emulates the lifestyles of the more contemporary Rat Pack, the group of martini swilling lotharios who snap their fingers and always get the best table. Dolled-up dames with gams like gazelles on their arms. Albert doesn't quite find this atmosphere in his working class neighborhood. His own father is certainly no Sinatra as he sits in his Lazy Boy, berating the kid, and berated back by Albert and his mother alike for his own lack of ambition.

Jill (Rosanna Arquette) is a middle class Jew who at first resists the advances of the Sheik. She finds him obnoxious and innapropriate. But he's persistent. He borrows his friend's hot rod and takes her for a spin, over her initial objections. The arrogant manboy eventually grows on her. But he's an alpha male who will just as soon as ignore her on a date as he will try to cop a feel in a movie theater. Perhaps just like Sinatra or Dino woulda done (wink wink, nudge nudge). That's how Italian men are supposed to act, no? Against any semblence of judgment, she falls in love. But I challenge the reader to state otherwise how sound reasoning and matters of the heart can delineate themselves in these circumstances. It tends to get messy.

It gets worse after high school. Albert doesn't actually graduate, as he was forced to blow town after committing a petty robbery. Jill is accepted to a prestigious all-girl university, a place where her instilled conservatism will eventually be challenged in a free-thinking, feminsitic environment of the psychadelic late 60s. She will transform, primarily after she takes a detour visit to Miami Beach, where Albert has landed a gig requiring him to lip synch Sinatra tunes for retirees at a supper club.

Up to this point, Jill thought she was still in love. He had dazzled her with his rebel without a cause posturing. Standing up to the nazi of a vice-principal in the cafeteria. Cavalierly whisking her away from her classes. She even forgave him when he slept with one of her friends. But then he screwed up a bit too much, and had to run away. Even now in her unease at Sarah Lawrence College, she thinks about him. Is it love? A flirtation with life on the edge? Schoolgirl curiosity/foolishness?

Her vist to Miami is a sad one. It's clear that Albert continues to live in a world of which only he understands. The high life of the ballad crooner to which he aspires, always out of reach. He's doomed to be a wannabe. He can't sing, but what hell, he looks the part anyway. He finally tells her the reason why he bills himself as the Sheik (think prophylactics). He takes her to the Fountainbleu, a night out that he undoubtedly had saved up for for months. They go back to his gloomy apartment and consummate whatever sort of relationship they had. The deal is sealed. Jill will leave and move on. Albert will eventually track her down at college. Reality will finally be acknowledged. The stylus will be knocked off the record once and for all.

I hope I haven't made writer/director John Sayles' 1983 BABY IT'S YOU sound like a bad Saturday afternoon Lifetime network flick. It's far too thoughtful to suffer such a fate. With Sayles at the helm, how could it be otherwise? What could've been a maudlin exercise in nostalgic bathos has instead become an effective story of the sorts of growing pains that define you. A focused look at how one, willingly or not, has to accept that the dream will not come true.
Albert won't go quietly, though. He clutches his cuff links in derision, damning the realization that he won't be Frank Sinatra. He won't even be a low rent Frank Sinatra. He won't have Jill by his side, either. In a painful showdown in Jill's dorm at the end, these two will scream and destroy and settle down. High school long over, a reconciliation Jill has already made, and one Albert is just finally realizing. His face registers defeat, and something far more disturbing-a questioning of what to do next, a fearful, exhausted expression of confusion into a hazy future.

Sayles evokes 1966/'67 Jersey with great care. Period music is of course, used expertly. But Bruce Springteen anthems also punctuate this soundtrack. Songs that were recorded a decade after the events of BABY IT'S YOU. But, it works. The street poetry of the Boss really underlines the dim life of a character like Albert. All flash but no hope. No consideration of the future. Just the bright sparkle of the present, short lived in the blinding wave of the inevitable, unforgiving tommorrow. That tommorow doesn't seem to have any place for a would-be lounge lizard.


Note: Check out this this webcast featuring interviews with Sayles, writer/producer Amy Robinson, and Spano and Arquette. Very enlightening discussion of this fine film.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/Back-By-Midnight/2008/08/15/Baby-Its-You

Thursday, October 23, 2008

W.


In these history-making, dark days in which we live, tragic figures seem to almost be a dime a dozen. Names we hear daily for periods of time, names that live in infamy. Dubious legacies of failed economies, broken diplomacies, gross fiscal mismanagement, abuse of power. Many names. But one name in particular (depending on who you ask, though it hardly seems debatable to me) seems to embody all of the above.

W., a new biopic about our 43rd President, George W. Bush, presents this tragic figure as a regular joe who just wanted to please his pa. And it was largely because of Bush Sr. that Jr. finds himself on a FORREST GUMP-like journey from drunken frat hazings all the way to facedowns with Prime Ministers and Secretaries of Defense. He is privileged enough to attend Harvard and Yale even though his grades are subpar and his discipline is nil. But Jr. is eventually quite aware of what he wants. What he seemed to lack in intellect he made up for in sheer tenacity. After a string of failed attempts at respectability, W. finds his purpose, through God and politics. Even with that, he still struggles with pleasing his dad.

Bush Sr. had diligently climbed the ranks as a soldier, congressman, CIA Director, V.P., and President. He believed in hard work and strict discipline. Perhaps that's why he seemed to favor one of his other sons, Jeb, so much. W., on the other hand, was a carousing lush who needed constant bailing out and a series of dress downs, none of which seemed to correct his aimlessness. When he finally pulled himself together, even reaching the highest position of power in the world, it didn't seem to quite be enough for dear old dad.

Did Bush Jr. aggressively attack Iraq because Saddam (whom dad explains that he pronounces by emphasizing the first syllable: “It means ‘Little boy who shines old men’s shoes’”) had bested his father? Was it merely an immature vendetta? Was the Texas cowboy acting on unchecked emotion?

Director Oliver Stone and his longtime writer/collaborator Stanley Weiser take us into the back rooms to witness the genesis and germination of the elaborate plot to invade a country that the President and (most of) his staff believed was linked to Osama Bin Laden. Or did they? Certainly Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) was skeptical, enough so to be in dissent with Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), and most tellingly, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss).

But Jr. had thousand watt charisma. Could charm the birds right out of the trees when he wanted to. Just ask Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffudd). Everyone fell in line. Perhaps they were subtly bullied. Well, not everyone. France and Germany rather ceremoniusly opted out of the ally pool. It makes me ill just just thinking about the anti-French and German sentiment that infected this country at the time. "Freedom fries"? Local restraunteurs pouring German and French wine into the street in protest in front of television cameras? Ugh.

Nonetheless, In March of 2003, history was made. There are weapons of mass destruction, dammit, and they will be found. Over 4000 fallen soliders later, no such weapons were located. No link to Bin Laden's camp ever proven. We get a later roundtable where everyone points fingers and denies culpability. Could it be that even General Tommy Franks played the old "it's not in my job description" card?? The President just paced in awe. R.E.M. sang about it long before he ever took office: This is my mistake. Let me make it good. (from 1989's "World Leader Pretend"). A deadly legacy. A tragic figure.

W. takes pains to also show how instrumental Cheney was to the Iraq war battle plan. Stone portrays a lighted map of the Middle East, with flashing icons representing bastions of troop presence. And oil. There's a lot of oil in Iraq. Iran, too. Dreyfuss plays the V.P. with just the right quiet malevolence. He practically salivates over that map. In another scene, while W. is stuffing his face (again), Cheney explains the "methods" (not torture, natch) of information retrieval from detainees. We all know the outcome of this.

These scenes are speculation. Weiser did not adapt a former staffer's tell-all. It's fiction, but based on what we think went on. Only the key players know for sure. What the world knows for sure is that things went horribly wrong.

The fact that Stone made this film now, and that it was released while the President himself is still in office, raised an eyebrow or two, including mine. It seemed reckless. Aren't you supposed to wait until they're dead? Additionally, given Stone's not-exactly-hidden left leaning point of view, how would W. be treated? The poor shmuck is already castigated every night on Letterman and all the rest for crying out loud. I was half-expecting a two hour smear, a greatest-hits of Bush bufoonery.

Stone instead takes a pleasantly surprising middle road, presenting a simple guy with some complex internal dynamics. Sort of like the subject of a previous Stone presidential bio, NIXON. W's brain is churning all right, even if the words often come out a little, um, inarticulately. The Bushisms that we all have come to know are kept to a minimum in Weiser's script, though two of the more infamous ones ("Fool me once, shame on, uh...") are transposed from a public forum to a private roundtable. I was thankful that we were treated to a more even-handed examination. W.'s conversion to Christianity was also handled with some modicum of respect, another surprise.

Weiser's script is well structured, jumping around in time to elucidate W.'s progression, then going back to further enlighten the viewer by showing the earlier version of the flawed man. Knowing where a character will eventually end up gives the nostalgic scenes a certain poignancy, and even narrative drive. The most recent trilogy of STAR WARS films were somewhat saved from total decay with this device.

The cast is filled with fine actors. I especially liked James Cromwell's forceful portrayal of Sr., all grit and bluster. Elizabeth Banks is very appealing as Laura, who would become Mrs. W. Ellen Burstyn's Barbara Bush was convincingly sharp. Toby Jones' Karl Rove is seen as a shadowy, crafty engineer never too far away from the action. Josh Brolin's solid perfomance as W. not only anchors the film, but brings some square jawed conviction to it. He really carries this movie.

There are some missteps, too. Glenn is underused as Rumsfeld. The script really doesn't paint a clear picture of such a key player. Strange. Even stranger is Newton's Condoleeza. Her jerky, caffeinated performance was often laugh out loud funny. And the voice! She sounded like Diane Rehm on helium. Too broad. A caricature. What was Stone thinking to allow this? If the film was a spoof (which it is not), this performance would've been appropriate. I wasn't expecting a Saturday Night Livesque portrayal. Even Tina Fey's Sarah Palin is less spasmodic.

W., of course, had earlier failed awesomely as a baseball team manager ("I traded Sammy Sosa..."). W. begins and ends on a mythical ball field, a haven of peace for the weary son. The pitch. The crack of the bat. The ball is lost in the sun. If only he could catch it. Dad would be proud. The old son-of-a-bitch would finally show some pride.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Squid and the Whale

You've doubtless heard the theories of heredity vs. environment. What if someone was a product of both? A walking, talking (perhaps not yet thinking) amalgam of all the worst and possibly some of the best traits which distinguish your maternal and paternal units. You can't do a blessed thing about your genes, and when you're still a teen, you often can't remove yourself from the web of influence of your folks. Even when they get divorced.

Frank is 12. Walt is 16. Both are jolted into reality when their parents, the once-famous author Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and his rising-star scribe ex-wife-to-be, Joan (Laura Linney) announce their split. Even before, it is obvious that Frank sides with mom and Walt with dad. You hear the impassioned defenses when one sibling lashes out against the other parent. This only intensifies when arrangements are made for dad to move out, and a rotating schedule for when the kids stay with their father is agreed upon. Battle lines are now tangible. Dad is especially bitter as he settles in a relative dump several subway stops away from the cozy Park Slope digs he once shared in Brooklyn. As we switch between households, the resentments on all sides simmer and boil over. But how did it come to this?

Bernard is a self-centered prig, the kind who, when asked what he thinks of a certain novel, proceeds to tell you that it is a "minor" version of that author and continues by telling what he believes is better. We all know snobs like this. I've been one myself, Lord help me. Such an elitist stance guarantees friction with your significant others. Bernard was once a laudable artist, having written at least one classic. For years he attempted to overcome the sophomore slump but was never able to duplicate that success. Never again able to hobnob with all the literary lights like George Plimpton at Manhattan soirees.

Today, in 1986, Bernard teaches literature to undergrads and drowns in self-loathing. Meanwhile, Joan had apparently quietly suffered for quite a while, assauging herself with affairs and her own attempts at authorship. Today, her ship has come in. In fact, after Bernard exits, one of her pieces is accepted by the New Yorker.

Where does this leave Frank and Walt? On opposite sides. Their atmosphere of curt (yet literate) parental angst has both debilitated and toughened them with a maturity of which they're not yet quite aware. The realization will come later. Until then, they make all the mistakes teenagers make, like breaking up with the girl who really cares for you in favor of a vapid, flashier model. Frank, feeling especially alienated, acts out his confusion over his budding sexuality by spreading his semen all over his middle school.

All of the characters are sexually motivated, usually to destructive ends. Joan reveals a history of adultery. Bernard engages with one of his students (and eventual boarder), and Walt, the character through whom we experience much of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, is a wreck of a confused kid who can't quite reconcile his opposite gender relationships: girlfriends or mother. With Bernard as a role-model, this is not surprising.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach bases his screenplay on many of his own experiences. Growing up the son of two authors, he evidentally experienced a sour upbringing, so denoted by amoral attitudes about fidelity, and caustically expressed feelings about those with lesser taste. I had to laugh when Bernard explains to Frank what a "philistine" is: someone who isn't interested in interesting music or films. I imagine Baumbach learned the same from his father, and despite what must have been a torturous adolescence, developed into a fine artist who went on to make interesting films like this and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and KICKING & SCREAMING.

The performances are excellent, needless to say. Daniels is just perfect as the enraged narcissist, a manipulative, severly damaged soul who somehow believes it is possible to bring his family back togther. Linney embodies the toughness such a woman would develop once the initial dazzle she experienced with a character like Bernard wore off. Owen Kline (son of Kevin and Phoebe Cates) seems to know the pre-pubescent hell all too accurately. Jessie Eisenberg dutifully emulates his character's father's fractured, somewhat sociopathic paradigm.

Baumbach originally wanted Wes Anderson (who produced this movie) to direct it. Anderson saw that the script would best be realized by the author, and knew that Baumbach wouldn't be too close to the material as to effectively express it. Still, there is at least one moment that feels Andersonian: a brief scene where Bernard and Walt watch Lili (Anna Paquin) walk down a hall. The camera stays on them for several seconds. Watch it and tell me it doesn't feel like a moment from THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS or RUSHMORE!

We all bring our own baggage to the art we experience. Again I experienced some of the sting of familiarity as I watched this movie. I grew up during the same time period as Walt. I was originally from Brooklyn (though had moved away in the early 70s). I had a father who verbally accosted pretty much everyone. He was not an author, but he had some diverse tastes, and he exposed his only son to literature and celluloid that would in some ways define the offspring, for years to come. My father and mother fought much like Bernard and Joan do in this film, but they didn't split until I was in college. At that time even, I was no less confused about life than Walt, though at least I never did try to pretend that Roger Waters' "Hey You" was a song that I had written myself.

Baumbach doesn't go to the same great pains other directors have to evoke a specific time, but he gets the mid 80s feel just right anyway, in ways that are hard to explain. It felt like the 80s to me, if only by event. This was what I had experienced in 1986. And on the soundtrack, we even hear 1970s Schoolhouse Rock tunes. How perfect. A piece of childhood, still floating through the minds of Frank and Walt, perhaps longing for the days when their family domicile had the illusion of contentment. As I watched THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, I prayed that Frank and Walt would grow up to be well-adjusted adults, perhaps to create their own art, and not at the expense of fruitful relationships. I'm glad Baumbach sufficiently survived to share this wounded little tale with the world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

We Eat 'Dub' For Breakfast

Athens, GA has long been a haven for artists, particularly musicians. An especially fertile time was the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some broke through to national and even international success, bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s. But there were also a host of other acts like Love Tractor and the DBs who remained curiosities, devotedly followed by UGA students and many other townies and beyond. My personal favorite Athens band is Pylon. Possibly the ultimate cult band.

I love how lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay screams her often unintelligible lyrics, fervent in their delivery. I always worry for her vocal folds. The crunchy jangly guitars, the ominous basslines. Loveloveloveit. The influence on laters like the Breeders is unmistakeable. To say nothing of Nirvana. R.E.M.'s members stated that when they attempted to remake Pylon's "Crazy", it didn't come close. They were right.

Check out this ~5 min. mini-doc. Somewhat bittersweet, seeing where life leads you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9OuD6xagLE

Bad Timing



They had at least one thing in common: crushing anxiety. Hair pulling, teeth gnashing frustration. A sincere desire to know exactly what the other wants.

Well, there is some clarification. They both desire each other physically. Animalistically. Sexual sparks that engulf both souls right through to their guilty bitter emptiness. And yet they continue, until one of them can take no more. Then, once the prurience has worn off as it always does, she cries out further exasperation, a litany of soul-searching that, once begun, cannot be silenced.

I don't want anything of mine, let alone yours. I just want to be allowed to give...I'm not ambitious...don't use the word 'love' again......
He is too involved now. But mainly with himself. As a research psychiatrist, he has been trained (wired?) to analyze every last particle of every circumstance. He'll compose theorems on his partner's non-response to his advances. He'll construct proofs on why her responses are incorrect. She cries out again.
I wish you'd stop defining me.
I wish you'd understand me less and love me more.
He obsesses. She finds another lover. Then another. She loves him, but can't be singular. It's not in her blood. He loses his mind. She loses hers. She falls into a coma. He finds himself at the hospital, answering questions from an investigator, who may well be as screwed up as the whole lot of them.
Director Nicolas Roeg's 1980 BAD TIMING is as painful an examination of human relationships as I've ever seen. I didn't so much watch this film as much as I eavsdropped on it. I always felt I was just meters away from the these people. I was horribly embarrased to be there. No, not just while they made love, but while they sat in silence. That was worse. It was real. I know, having been there (and been there). Anyone who has ever attempted a relationship with such a dynamic personality will feel the burn of recognition. Like one online reviewer so perfectly described, "watching BAD TIMING is like having cheap liquor poured over your old romantic wounds."
Theresa Russell is simply dynamite. Her Milena is a complex, awesomely tortured soul who you might call a "tramp", a "harlot", or just simply confused. She tears up the screen both with her alarming outbursts and her silent brooding. She's 0-60, at any given time. That sort of volatility doesn't quite fit into Alex's (Art Garfunkel) protocol. Why can't the woman just act normally, he wonders, sometimes aloud.
Milena already has a husband, a much older gent (Denholm Elliott) who informs Alex that "she'll get bored with you, too." Milena seeks affection, but beguiles men with her external beauty. They crave her, but a free spirit can't be captive. Most of her lovers get it. Alex is undone by it.
Alex gets an assignment from Intelligence. Provide a psychological profile on suspected Czech Stefen Vognic. Is he suspected of being a spy? We find that he is indeed Milena's husband. Alex also sees Milena's photo in his file. The obessession has just become even more ignited. He researches. He also curiously leaves the file open at the coffee table, in plain view for Milena to discover. Does the non-confrontative Alex want to be caught here? Is he more complex than we thought?
One terrible evening, Milena tries to kill herself. Alex comes over, watching as she struggles on the floor after her ingestion of sleeping pills. He doesn't help her. In a gradually expanding flashback interspersed throughout the running time, we learn more. Alex finally does something.
The film opens with Milena being rushed to the hospital. She is not conscious. As the film progresses, we cut back to a team of specialists who attempt to revive her. Roeg utterly dispenses with any attempt at linearity. We see Milena scream at Alex on the stairs, then we see them on their second meeting. The viewer is disoriented. Many films have utilized this technique before and since. An excellent latter day case study: 21 GRAMS. But Roeg uses the zigzag editing to create a painting that is at once striking, nausea inducing, and stimulating.
He also uses music to great effect. Any film that opens with a Tom Waits tune ("An Invitation to the Blues") automatically receives merit in my book. Later, Billie Holliday and Who songs are played at key moments, underscoring the narration. Keith Jarrett's "Koln Concert" is used stunningly at least twice during confrontational scenes. Those strident chords, thundering refrains against the mounting discomfort. This is some soundtrack. Roeg's genius with it has rarely been equalled, though certainly Scorsese and Wes Anderson have exhibited similiar mastery.
There is also Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel). An American transplanted here in Vienna. He hammers Alex with inquiries. Quietly lays subtle traps to perhaps catch Alex in a discrepancy. He is positively actuarian in his attention to details like when a radio station signs off and how a crease of a bedsheet can disprove an alibi. But he's also a student of the mind. Just like Alex. Netusil knows what happened. He prods for a confession, but he wants to know why. As we return again and again to the interrogation scenes, we watch Netusil unravel much like Milena and Alex have, and will. What is chronology in the Roeg universe?
While Russell is great, the male leads don't fare nearly as well. Garfunkel, of course, was one half of a rather famous singing duo. While his ineffectualism and academic exterior suit the part, his acting range is severely limited. At key moments, his weak performance undermines the dramatic power of a scene. You could argue that such a limp personality makes Alex the sort of cold fish intellectual for which the screenplay calls. But I think of how much more powerful it could have been with someone like, say, John Hurt. Someone who could have put across more emotion, even emotionless emotion.
Indeed, in a contemporary interview with Russell on this Criterion disc, she recalls how difficult it was to act opposite someone so inexperienced. "I had just worked with Robert Mitchum and Bob DeNiro, so it was a challenge," she states politely.
Keitel, unfortunately, also disapoints with his at times flagrantly bad performance. Far out of control. He's quiet, then he's ranting, then he's contemplative. Russell does all of this switching with great ease; Keitel comes off like a rank amateur in some bad community theater production. Bad timing? Bad choices, Harve. At one point, he removes his shirt, and then I braced for oh dear, another Keitel nude scene?! Thankfully, that did not happen.
During the questionings, it almost becomes a contest as to who can give the worse performance, Garfunkel or Keitel. How could Roeg allow this? Admittedly, the director is known for uses of his actors as mere tools to get across his often shocking visions (see THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and DON'T LOOK NOW, both brilliant films), but I just have to wonder how much better BAD TIMING would've been with expert portrayals of two screwed up males. Perhaps Roeg was saying something. The screwed up female fares better. I don't think you can claim any misogynistic point of view here.
However, the U.K.'s Rank Organisation, the film's distributor, described BAD TIMING as "a sick film made by sick people for sick people". Reading that, I think it most be a reaction to a single scene that I have not described, of what happens during the last moments of Alex's visit to Milena's apartment on that terrible night. It is shocking and awful. The rest of the film? Yes, these are sick people. But they are fascinating. So vivd a look at the confusion of love/sex I've hardly seen. Roeg dives head first into the material. And we are as exhausted as the characters by the end.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Iron Man

Boy, did this movie get some attention! Remember? Way back at the beginning of the summer? The first big screen treatment of Marvel's Stan Lee's and Gene Colan's beloved comic, the adventures of mercurial arms-dealer turned do-gooder Tony Stark? It was an out-of-the-box smash, matched only by that late entry Indiana Jones flick. For some reason, it slipped past me.

I was never a huge fan of Iron Man, but I had some of the comic books. I recall some of the kids in my neighborhood, dressed in their cheap Woolworth's version for Halloween. I was basically neutral. So my drive to see the film wasn't really there. Prior to the film's release, the derisive cries of fanboys littered the Internet with questions of why Robert Downey Jr., he of the reliably caustic screen persona, was cast in the lead. But the objections seemed to be silenced almost immediately. Everyone loved it. The critics were kind, too. I became intrigued, but not enough.

Soooooo. I have finally caught up with IRON MAN. Can you guess the rest? I know what you're thinking. You think I'm going to say something to the effect that the movie didn't live up to the hype. You'd be partially right. However, another mega-hyped superhero film of the Summer of '08 later came around and positively exceeded my wildest criteria, but we'll get back to that.

I was a bit disappointed. I still enjoyed it, but was sorry to see how bubble-gum it all was. Nothing wrong with that, in essence. And yes, I know it is based on a comic and all, but, c'mon guys. A little imagination would've made this more than just cotton candy for the brain. The first two X-MEN films had upped the ante somewhat, as did (arguably) Sam Raimi's SPIDERMAN series. Jon Favreau's direction of IRON MAN was uninspired, his blocking content with basic set-ups and clunky action. Nothing all that inventive about the cinematograpy. Just average art direction. I had recently watched the Will Ferrell vehicle, ELF, and Favreau had demonstrated considerably more directorial flair with that one. ELF!

Downey does well as the smug, billionaire playboy Stark who grows a conscience after he is kidnapped by evil insurgents in Afghanistan. Stark was there to present his latest instrument of death, a stealth missile unlike anyone has seen (Stark, an engineering genius particularly with electronics and hardware, designed it himself). After an ambush of the soldiers in his entourage, Stark is held captive in a dank cave. A significant amount of schrapnel had entered his chest, nearly killing him. When he regains his consciousness, he meets a kindly fellow detainee who sews up his chest and saves his life. Enter the snarling leader of the captors, who informs Stark that he will create a missile just for him, or he dies.

Stark builds something, but it ain't no missile. He and his new surgeon friend somehow create a suit of armor, with a crude propulsion system and weaponry which will allow them to blast their way out. It works. After a crash landing, Stark is later rescued by the U.S. Army.

Back home, Stark, irrevocably scarred by his trauma, has a complete paradigm shift. At a press conference he announces that his company will no longer produce those weapons of mass destruction. This does not sit well with the company's #2, Obadiah Stane (a bald-headed Jeff Bridges). Tony Stark eschews the construction of firearms and bombs, opting instead to perfect the suit which is light enough in which to fly but still durable enough to withstand bullets, gas, or flame. His mission: mankind, and their protection from those who would oppress them. Thus, the stage is set for corporate struggle, soul searching, and the not unrelated threat of a highly pissed off Raza (Faran Tahir), the head kidnapper we met earlier.

We also get to know Stark's loyal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow). She handles every bit of daily minutae, but is also called upon to commit corporate espionage, perform "heart" surgery, and other tasks that may or may not affect the fate of the world. Paltrow is very appealing as a modest wallflower with a reticent sexiness that Tony admires and perhaps covets. But like any good drama, the relational tension is not resolved. Of course it isn't! There WILL be sequels!

IRON MAN has all the right elements, but I wanted more. A good solid realization of a comic was just not enough. I know why now. The long shadow of a little film called THE DARK KNIGHT. Now of course, the latest in the Batman saga had come out over a month later, but I saw it first, and was utterly blown away. Chris Nolan (co-writer/director) completely transcended Bob Kane's (admittedly ambitious) source material. I had never seen a superhero film like it. As I've said before, a proper, full-length review is to follow. As a side note, Downey later fired some potshots at DARK KNIGHT, stating,

"The Dark Knight is like a Ferrari engine of storytelling and scriptwriting and I'm like, 'That's not my idea of what I want to see in a movie.' I didn't understand The Dark Knight. I still can't tell you what happened in the movie, what happened to the character and, in the end, they need him to be a bad guy. I'm like, 'I get it -- this is so high brow and so f--king smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.'"

Sorry Jr., but by comparison to DK, IRON MAN seems friviolous and slight, a bright, loud funhouse that is barely remembered a week later. Again, nothing wrong with that. I did enjoy this movie, but once you've seen something that completely obliterates the bounadries of a certain genre, there is no going back. I shoulda seen this in May.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Putney Swope

As you can see from this original poster, PUTNEY SWOPE is an in-your-face swipe in the face of consumerism. Capitalism gets a pretty good left jab, too. Timely? Possibly. Robert Downey (Sr.), underground filmmaker extraordinare, concocted this truly odd 1969 assemblage of some of the most oblique humor you'll find, anywhere. And that humor runs a wide gamut-obscure to universal, subtle to blatant, dated to contemporary, and of course, sublime to ridiculous.

Madison Ave. We spy on a roundtable of weary admen who bemoan their downed profits. They strategize, philosphize, and tell painfully unfunny jokes. The CEO comes in, delivers an incoherent attempt at a pep talk, and then keels over and dies. Since the company bylaws state that the successor is to be named by democratic means, the men take a vote. Surprise! Nearly everyone votes for the only black man in the room, Mr. Putney Swope. A truly twisted victory, as each voter attempted to vote for the least likely candidate (and the rules say they can't vote for themselves). Too bad they all had the same idea.

"The changes I make will be minimal," Putney states as he assumes the head of the table. "I won't rock the boat. Rockin' the boat's a drag. You gotta sink it!" Smash cut. Next thing we know, the stuffy old whities have been replaced with a new staff of blacks. The company's new name: Truth & Soul, Inc. Will this new regime continue the deceptive methodology to separate the public from their money?

Not exactly. But soon advertsiers are lining up in the hall. There are more accounts than ever. The dollars flood in, literally. And curiously, they are not put in The Man's bank, but rather in a large glass tank in the garage-now that's timely!

Putney lays out the rules-no ads for alcohol, cigarettes, or "war toys." Instead, acne cream and airlines provide the cash cows, and these commercials are some of the highlights of this disorganized movie. Unlike the rest of this low-budgeter, the commercials are in color.

However, the new staff produces a series of ads so clever and engaging that eventually, consumers wind up staying home to watch the ads rather than going out and buying the products! And there are internal problems. One employee known as the Arab continuously mounts his campaign against Putney, loudly proclaiming that he has sold out his "brothers". Putney fires people with barely a thought. A key employee refuses to work unless he marries her. The token white employee asks why the others are making more money for doing the same job.

"If I pay you more, than I have to pay them more, and then we're right back where we started."

"I didn't think of it that way."

"And that's why you make less money. You don't think."

There's also that white delivery guy, who continuously ignores the staff's demands that he use the service elevator, who tries to assassinate Putney.

As well, the President of the U.S., a jolly, marijuana-toking dwarf, threatens Putney's agency with constant picketers and bad press unless they do a flattering car commercial for the German model Boorman 6. But the Prez is only responding in kind to pressure from the Boorman chair, a bestacled, bald-headed fascist. And will Putney finally cave in to the requests for the contraband products we spoke of?

PUTNEY SWOPE is a frustrating experience. The opening board meeting is so perfectly timed, scripted, and executed, I thought I was watching the making of a true classic. The tete-e-tetes among a group of stuffy old execs was so bizarre and hilarious, rife with corporate jabs that Sinclair Lewis would've enjoyed.

Once Putney and his soul team take control, we get a fractured pastiche of half-baked ideas, dated gags and references, and some poor pacing. Downey has taken a truly inspired premise and essentially blown it. The last half hour really falls apart, until the trenchant (and on-target) finale. Individual scenes do work, with many very astute political and social statements. The best scene involves a series of Black Panther-like anarchists who approach Putney in their attempts to get him to finance their own agendas. Also in the room is a more pacifistic type who wants the airtime for his peaceful views.

The film is consistently amusing, even funny. I was reminded of some of the SCTV episodes from the 70s/80s. Many skits were utterly fascinating, if not knee-slappingly funny. And baffling. Much like PUTNEY SWOPE. Maybe I was born too late. In fact, this movie first screened the year I was born. A lot of the jokes whizzed right by me. I wasn't hip to the zeitgeist, you dig.

Nevertheless, this movie is still worth a look, and it is a minor classic. This is one for the time capsule. One of the most interesting asspects is that the film conatins a fair share of nudity and vulgar language, far more than was common for the time. But again, this was considered "underground."

Downey is, as you know, the father of RD Jr. On the commentary, Sr. states that Jr. may attempt a remake. In this bizarro economic age, with the possibility of the nationalization of the financial markets, it could be interesting. Imagine a commercial for the First Bank & Trust of the U.S.A.! Putney would've liked it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Once


























***SPOILERS***


How come you don't play during the daytime? I see you here everyday.

During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play these songs at night or I wouldn't make any money. People wouldn't listen.

I listen.


It was like she knew it from the moment she saw him. He, a rather diligent busker, urgently strumming his guitar and crying out his wounded lyrics on the streets of Dublin. She approaches, offers her critiques. He seems bothered, tries to politely blow her off. She learns that his main source of income derives from tinkering in a vacuum store. She has a broken down Hoover. Maybe she can bring it by sometime.

She drags the Hoover through the city like a reluctant pet. She meets the musician's father, the owner of the vacuum shop. The musician follows her to a music store. There's a piano there, and the manager lets her play anytime she wants. She plays quite well, even if the instrument itself is a bit out of tune. Would he mind playing along on his guitar, she asks. Reluctantly, he plays. They play. A collaboration is born. She knew it from the first time she saw him.
We never learn the names of the guitarist (Glen Hansard, leader of the real-life band, The Frames) and the pianist (Marketa Irglova). They are just the "guy" and "girl." This is not some sort of existential conceit, however, like perhaps Walter Hill had attempted thirty years earlier in THE DRIVER. No, I think writer/director John Carney wanted to say something here. The "girl" is like a ghost, possibly an angel. She will pass in and out of the "guy"'s life quickly. Well, at least physically. I don't believe she will leave his thoughts any time soon.
But while she is around, she will be the muse, the catalyst for the guy to finally quit dreaming and begin acting. He's in a real rut, what with his nursing the wounds over a girlfriend who moved to London and all. He's lonely, still smitten. After the guy and girl spend the day together, she ends up in his bedroom. In a careless moment, he asks her to spend the night. The awkwardness is unbearable. She leaves, he beats himself up.
But he finds her the next day. The collaboration resumes. They decide to rent a recording studio after somehow getting a fairly significant loan. The "girl" turns out to have quite a savvy for business. What a perfect partner for a stalled artist! You want her in your corner.
They recruit some street musicians and after their intial doubts ("we only play 'Lizies'"), a fairly tight little unit cuts the guy's ambitious, heartrending tunes. Leading up to and during this eventful weekend, the guy and girl share lots of tender moments, many expressed through songs. They, fall in love? We're not sure. And there are problems. She has an estranged husband back in Czechleslavakia, and of course he's still pining for his old love.
But, there's a bond, a deep one. We see it form before our eyes. The way they look at each other. We see her excitement when he asks her to write lyrics to one of his instrumentals. She's so engrossed that she runs out in the middle of the night to get new batteries so she can continue to listen, and compose. In one of my favorite scenes, the girl walks home and sings her new lyrics out loud, imaging the guy singing a duet with her. That's how she hears it, and how we get to hear it. Even though the guy has yet to hear it! We're part of the process.
But the lyrics she produces are just as wounded as his. They are born from her own previous romantic disappointments. In another fabulous moment, the guy and girl sit at a piano in the studio while she plays one of her own compositions. She breaks down before she can finish. In a lesser film, we would see these two look longingly into each other's irises and kiss and fall into bed at this point. But ONCE is a special film. A film that allows the characters to actually separate at the end, to right the messes they had started with other partners. It is bittersweet, but it is just right.
In the end, we see the girl, staring out of her apartment window, perhaps thinking of the guy, who will always be part of her. The last we see of the guy, he is making his way through turnstiles in London, on his way to his love, but still beaming. The girl is in his thoughts, too. His inspiration. To move forward, and perhaps reclaim what he had lost. She cared enough to know what was best for him. An act of selflessness rarely seen. I wanted to hug this movie.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pretty Maids All in a Row

Now here is a classic case of a guilty celluloid pleasure. The sort of movie that I wouldn't exactly praise from the rooftops, and (shudder) not in certain mixed company. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, the 1971 vehicle from notorious French director Roger Vadim, is one of the most irresponsible, baldly amoral films I've ever seen. Harsh? Consider the plotline. Michael "Tiger" McDrew (Rock Hudson) is a very popular school football coach/guidance counselor at a Southern California high school. He takes great care in providing mentorship to his youthful charges, advising them in a variety of matters that often go wayyyy beyond the classroom.

First, there's Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson). Yes, that's his name; I kid you not. Ponce has this problem. He can't stop gawking at all the hot girls on campus. In a dizzying opening credit sequence, we follow Ponce on his Vespa (how forward-thinking, man!) and onto campus as he lusts after every miniskirted coed who happens by. And it's not only Ponce with the dirty mind. Vadim allows his camera to literally go up several of those skirts, but I digress. Ponce's problem leads to priapism (look it up), a rather embarrassing situation that apparently neither cold showers nor thinking about multiplication tables can quench.

After confiding this dilemma to McDrew, who mistakenly thinks that Ponce is suffering from anti-priapism, the coach has an idea. Why not convince that luscious new teacher, Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) to "help" this kid? Just more helpful guidance.

But McDrew also "guides" his female students, in the same ways Betty will eventually help Ponce. It usually occurs in Tiger's office, right during school hours. He has this neon sign over his door that reads TESTING, which he otherwise uses when a student is actually taking a legitimate test. It also comes in handy when the coach has other sorts of sessions with his students of the fairer sex. No one will interrupt, you see. No one will know. Except the girls themselves of course.

And these girls get very attached to Tiger, enough to even do whatever they have to to have Tiger all to themselves. This won't do, as the coach is happily married with child. When his students become too attached, threatening to expose all the illicit activities with undoubtedly unfavorable results for his idyllic family life, well....the smitten little girls start turning up dead. One is found face down in a stall in the boy's bathroom. Several others follow.

The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is quite the bumbler. He puts his fingerprints all over the crime scenes. Enter Capatin Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas), cool as a cucumber and quietly obsessed with nailing the assailant. By now, I think you can figure out who the killer is. Being a clever whodunit isn't much of a concern for PRETTY MAIDS.

So what is? Depends on your point-of-view, I guess. This major studio (MGM) release from an age when free love and open minds were mainstream, seems unconscionable through today's eyes. Teachers seducing their underage students? This movie has nary a conscience. It simply can't be bothered with being disturbed with all of the destructive emotional, to say nothing of physical, fallout of such actions.

And students getting killed? Perfect opportunities for dark humor. "She was a good little cheerleader," states the principal (Roddy McDowell) at a girl's funeral. "We never practice on the day of a murder," deadpans the waterboy for the football team. My favorite: after watching several doors close in tandem on the back of a fleet of hearses for all the deceased girls, the principal, very impressed, notes "Well organized!"

Meanwhile, Ms. Betty Smith eventually relents to Tiger's request that she become a "friend" to Ponce, leading to a series of embarrassing encounters at her home. She invites the shy high-schooler over for some reading of Milton and a little hot chocolate, which gets spilled after Betty discovers Ponce isn't suffering from anti-priapism after all. Horrified, Ponce quickly excuses himself and shuffles home.

Another time, Ponce brings over a ridiculous liquor-filled chocolate duck, which gets crushed when the duo finally gets friendly with each other. As squirm-inducing as these scenes are, there is an undeniable truth to them, a fairly vivid realization of teenage hormonal drive and middle-aged loneliness. Such fantasies have been entertained by more than a few 16 or 17-year-olds. Did you ever surrender yourself to flights of fancy over that scintillating home room teacher? The scenes with Ponce and Betty are not, however, beset by the sort of smutty brio we see with Tiger and friends.

Nontheless, everything in PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is treated with what might be described as casual indifference. Almost documentary-like. The movie offers no condemantion, and almost seems to endorse the deviant behavior. Do I sound like a raging minister at this point? I should be wagging the finger in my own face, because despite my distaste for the movie, I still found it quite amusing and fun. I am glad I did not see this film during my more formative years, for what I think are fairly obvious reasons.

Several later movies seem to owe a bit to PRETTY MAIDS. The older woman/younger man angle was explored in numerous films in the 70s and 80s and beyond, such as PRIVATE LESSONS and AMERICAN PIE. The gallows humor involving dead teens was emulated in MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, which was in turn emulated by 1988's acidic HEATHERS. The latter film has deadpan observations much like PRETTY MAIDS. It's always eye-opening to watch older films and see what latter day filmmakers "borrowed" or were inspired by.

Vadim, of course, became famous for working (and being involved) with 60s sex bombs like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda. He was responsible for enduring camp such as ....AND GOD CREATED WOMAN and BARBARELLA. His first attempt at a Hollywood picture is a truly bizarre clash of an open-minded European attitude about sexuality set in an all-American landscape of quarterbacks and prom queens. And how strange to see all of these so-called high school coeds, Tiger's groupies. They all look like gatefolds for Playboy. That's no accident, many of the actresses recruited for this film actually were!

Hudson was a long way from the innocent romantic comedies of yesterday for which he became famous. The raunchy liasions Tiger and his students engage in here most certainly would've made Doris Day blush. Dickinson continues her alluring approaching middle age shtick. Savalas glides through the proceedings, chomping cigars, placing his sunglasses on lampshades; he's virtually auditioning for his future role as TV's Kojak.

So why have I taken the time to review such a sleazy movie? PRETTY MAIDS is a sly little film, a choice drive-in flick that is possibly possessing more satire than is first discernable. Maybe screenwriter Gene Roddenberry (yes, the same guy who created Star Trek) was attempting some sort of indictment of the whole post 60s scene. If he was, Vadim sabotaged it with carnal glee.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Fury

You gotta love director Brian DePalma. Well, maybe you don't if your appreciation doesn't allow for his Hitchcock lifting, wild camera dollying, blood splattering style. There are plenty of valid criticisms to level at his films, but in my eyes, those flaws are also strengths, especially for his earlier horror outings like 1978's THE FURY.

Here's a film I somehow missed all these years. This despite my lifelong fascination with his work. "The blood mysteries" as a friend once called them during a rather alcoholic evening years ago. There's a lot of blood in this story of a former government agent (Kirk Douglas) whose teenage son, Robin (Andrew Stevens) is kidnapped by an evil gaggle of fellow agents (led by John Cassavettes). Seems that the kid has extra sensory perception, telekinesis, biofeedback sensitivity, and other powers that screenwriter John Farris (adapting his own novel) throws into the stew. Cassevettes and co. see all manner of nefarious activity that can be harnessed through such a powerful weapon. By controlling Robin, "We'll have something even the Soviets don't" he cries.

Meanwhile, we also meet another psychic teen, Gillian Bellaver (a very young looking Amy Irving). Her boarding school peers think she's weird, especially after she uses her brainwaves to make model trains fly off their tracks and causes a particularly unpleasant classmmate a gushing nosebleed. Eventually, Gillian's mother reluctantly allows her to attend an exclusive institute for the psychically gifted, or something. Life is good: a caring staff (Charles Durning et al.), appropriate mental challenges, likeminded classmmates, and hot fudge sundaes as reward. Durning (Dr. Jim McKeever) is a warm, gentle academic who expounds on things metaphysical and extrasensory, all sounding like the same sort of nonsensical explanations we hear in a host of B-movie horror/sci-fi, and other DePalma movies for that matter.

But then one day, Gillian receives terrifying visions of a boy in trouble. Robin. Apparently, he had been at the very same Institute once, and things did not go well, to put it mildly. Gillian receives her premonitions after Dr. McKeever innocently grabs her hand on a staircase. By the end of the disturbing vision, the doctor's hand is spewing the red stuff. Is there a connection between Robin and Gillian that goes deeper than their merely having similiar "talents"? I won't reveal any more of the serpentine plot here.

THE FURY is textbook mid-period DePalma. His unabashed homages to Hitch fill every frame of this movie, with obvious nods to NORTH BY NORTHWEST and VERTIGO. We're also treated to the already discussed scenes where characters lecture each other on issues of science. I was reminded of all the psychology from DRESSED TO KILL. These lectures are spectacularly silly, by the way. As is the whole movie. I laughed a great deal during THE FURY. Most of the laughs were unintentional, though the director also includes a lengthy comic hot pursuit when Douglas hides from his corrupt cronies, and a funny exchange between two lookout guys. But mainly, the near operatic treatment of the screenplay merits many a guffaw.

We also get those patented DePalma set pieces, bravura sequences where the director really shows his gifts. There are several in THE FURY, but two are worth singling out: a slow-motion confrontation scene where Douglas meets Irving, and a few others who get offed in the ensuing confusion, and a grandly over-the-top final scene, one which I'm sure brought much applause from the original audiences. It is so outrageous that at first I just shook my head. But, such an ultimately foolish movie deserves such a ridiculous ending. I suppose a thoughtful treatise on the powers of the mind could've been filmed, but instead we get THE FURY, and as a rollicking showcase for Brian DePalma's undeniable talents, it is great fun.

Including the last scene. I won't say what happens, but I'll bet David Cronenberg may have been a bit influenced by it for 1981's SCANNERS. Just a thought.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Prince of Summitt Avenue

I’ve now been to Minneapolis four times. As I write, I’m flying back from a hearing aid training conference. It was easily the best such symposium I’ve ever attended. I met some great people, learned quite a bit. That has happened before, but there was new enlightenment this go round.

As it’s happened, my occasion for visiting Minnesota has always been audiology related. First, there was the American Academy of Audiology national conference in 2006. Between lectures and strolls down the Expo floor at the Convention Center, we were able to explore a city I would’ve never expected to visit. We found bastions of culture on every block. An urban landscape bespotted by the constant discovery of showplaces of great artisanship and/or cuisine. A town filled with the influences of music. Yeah, Prince is from here. I never did make it to First Avenue, the famed hall featured in PURPLE RAIN. I also never made it to the much talked about record shop, The Electric Fetus. But one never has to wander far to find worthwhile haunts in which to become immersed.

My next three journeys were captive. Hearing aid companies like to fly customers (and potential ones) up to their headquarters for weekends of learning and schmoozing, not necessarily in that order. They take care of every last detail, virtually guaranteeing that you will have no opportunity to break away and perhaps find another hidden treasure. Sure, when the talks and software trainings are done they shuttle you to cool places like the Dakota, a really swell jazzland downtown, but where is the back alley wandering? The happy accidents, ones which stay with and become part of you and cause you to beam as you tell your friends and co-workers back home of your experience?

This time, I was quite happy to be whisked away. A carefully planned excursion led us to that other twin city, St. Paul. A place somewhat discussed but never trekked. The sibling I’d yet to see. A Trailways carted 55 weary audiologists to this less popular destination, a place which announces its differences quite rapidly as you motor down 94, past the blue hued glassy structures of downtown Minneapolis.

We had a tour guide. She was merry and knowledgable, pointing out all manner of local folklore. “Didja know that Ma Barker and her brood stayed in this here apartment during the Prohibition days?” she inquired after we parked in front of an unassuming four-story brick building. “And Dillinger was here, too. Ya couldn't call the cops, 'cause they were corrupt, but one day someone tipped off the Feds and there was a really bad shootout right here. Place was shot up, full of holes!” As we made our way she continued and shared other amusing trivia and some surprising statistics. For example, I was not aware that the Mall of America was the number one tourist destination in the U.S. Yep, even more visitors per year than Disney World. Also, the MOA has a wedding chapel. AND, plans are underway to double the current size of the Mall. That's right, when they're done, the MOA will be over eight million square feet! Economy permitting of course.

I was also certainly aware of the sizable Scandanavian population, but was rather intrigued to learn that the second largest population of the state was comprised of Norwegians! Uf dah! Maybe that’s why I feel a certain coziness when I come up here, but we’ll explore that more in a bit.

The St. Paul I got to see was that of a much more Baroque, historical city, even though it is a mere ten years older than Minnepaolis. Quaint homes and business lined our route. One more impressive than the last. Quite surprising as well in this area of plenty was the fact that of those advertsing their favorite candidates, all but one front lawn had Obama signs. Our bus had a big collective laugh as we passed one palace that had a Barack tarp that was so oversized it could probably be seen from Air Force One.

The final destination was a place called the James J. Hill House. After seeing rows of stunning old mansions, many covered with streams of ivy, we arrived at what was surely the crown jewel of Summitt Avenue. A massive three story castle of rugged red sandstone. Thirty-six thousand square feet filled with hand carved woodwork, stained glass, labyrinths of sitting rooms and servants’ quarters. Our tour was conducted by quietly enthusiastic guides who articulately described the erection and daily function of this remarkable house. All the more remarkable as indoor plumbing, electricity, and even central heating (!) was at the Hill family’s disposal, in the late 1800s/early 1900s! Our tour guide also was delighted to share that originally Hill sought and later rejected the eseteemed Tiffany's when he ordered those stained glass windows which overlook the majestic staircase.

It is also important to point out that red wine is never served to visitors to the Hill House. Stains can happen. You can get as much white wine to go with your delectable hors d'ouvres as you wish, however. Additionally, the employees wear white gloves a great deal of the time for posterity and for very practical reasons.

And what of James J. Hill himself? Eventual developer of the Great Northern Railway, Hill began his transportation career at age 17 as a clerk on the St. Paul levee. After two decades in the shipping business, Hill and a team of investors purchased the practically insolvent St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878. After a dramatic reversal of fortune due to the ingenuity and acumen of James, the line was later pushed into Canada to the north and through the Rockies all the way to the Pacific Ocean to the west. This and the success of other business endeavors ensured Hill and his considerable offspring a massive amount of wealth. Nearly one million dollars of it went into the building and furnishing of this great house in which I found myself last Saturday evening.

I marveled at the twenty-four karat gold adorned ceilings. The mahogany and oak woodwork throughout this stately mansion was all original. The basement contained long rooms of steam presses made of brick, of laundry area where the servants once toiled, gloveless, with lye and scalding water over the garments of Mr. Hill and his brood. It was astounding on all counts. Now, I haven't exactly traveled extensively, but I‘d wandered gorgeous palaces before. I ‘d seen the European style government structures of Quebec City, stared open mouthed at Gothic churches in downtown San Francisco, and, in my own backyard, slowly drank in the beauty of the former abode of another turn-of-the-century entrepreneur, Henry Morrison Flagler. What made this experience so special? What distinguished it?

So, yeah, the Hill house was dazzling. As the tour went on, as I listened to each explanation of the far ahead of its time innovations of the domicile, something else snaked through my consciousness. I think it happened as my colleagues/tourmates whispered to and around me in their own astonishment. It was something outside the ancient walls. Far beyond the city limits. Perhaps even over state lines. It was the realization that there was Life beyond the humid soup of Southern Florida. Of course I already knew this. But I needed a reminder. I do every so often. I’m sure you can relate. The machinations of your workdays and responsibilities shrink your world. I’d become alarmingly centric. It happens. Then I found myself in Minnesota, at the Hill mansion and even outside in front of my hotel this morning. The air was crisp and chilly. The folks were friendly, even my fellow South Floridians who may normally act with the same cool diffidence I often exhibit that is the norm back home.

The Hills were apparently quite decent folk, as well, despite their extreme affluence.

The hearing aid event itself was very low key, quite different from the last two I attended, which were characterized by lavishness and alarmingly aggressive sales reps. The folks at this company (which is a relatively small player in the market) also seemed to embody a genuineness, a paradigm that values transperancy and good character. How utterly Midwestern. Since I like to cite films, let me remind you of that scene in David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY. Richard Farnsworth is an elderly gent who travels across a state by John Deere tractor to see his brother. Along the way, he makes a long distance call at a family's house. The next morning, it is discovered that the old man has already moved on, but left a few bucks on the back steps to cover the call. Good old-fashioned decency, I tell ya.

So at the risk of sounding, aw geez, corny, there really is something indescribably wonderful about the Midwest. I felt that way in Chicago when my two of my classmates tied the knot three years ago. I felt the same way when I saw a friend graduate in Kansas City, Missouri back in the 90s. I also fondly remember the serenity I experienced not too many years ago while sampling kringle, a thin pasty at a Norwegian bakery in Racine, Wisconsin. Heck, the way I felt driving through the rolling counytrside there, past all the farmlands. An odd peace, a calm. Words won't do it. If I could put it to music, think Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole. Actually, if I could sum up my feelings of Minnesota and the Midwest, I would just play R.E.M.'s "Find the River", one of the most gorgeous songs ever recorded.

Back in MN this morning, I thought about that large Scandanavian population. Maybe I feel so comfortable here because I was Home. After decades of sweating through a life in the tropics, my Norwegian soul fed on the cold, light air, the grey skies, the somewhat dark feel of the place. I haven’t seen my father in a while, and have had very little contact with my Norge roots in many a year. It was a part of me that was suppressed, that needed to breathe. I thought about something Garrison Keillor once said about the residents of Minnesota, something to the effect of how despair and depression were what they best understood. That’s a part of me, too. A deep, brooding introspection. But in that bleakness there is Hope. A peace that trumps any earthly dampening. But there has always been that mysterious dichotomy within: a reconciliation of the inner melancholiac and the joyous, devoted follower of Christ.

Perhaps I will never live in Minnesota, but I believe it will be necessary to go Home quite often.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Msr. Glass

This morning, NPR's Morning Edition featured a good interview with Philip Glass, the "complex minimalist."

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95313989

I first discovered Glass' compositions through my Music Appreciation class during undergrad days in the late 80s. The professor was a huge fan of the musician, and all manner of minimalism for that matter. We listened to a few "Acts" from Einstein on the Beach and I was pretty much an instant convert. Some of my classmates at the time were dissmissive of Glass' often maddening pieces, but I found (and find) his works endlessly fascinating. His "psychostrata" is so textured, so spiral-like in their narratives of singularity that it is not unlike being witness to the unraveling of a double helix, replicated (if you will) in unique ways with each listen.

I met Phillip Glass after a lovely intimate show he did at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, FL in 2000. Just the man and his piano, sans any electronic keyboards or other hardware. Afterwards, I got his autograph and told him that some filmmaker oughta do a treatise on his life the way director Francois Girard had done for Glenn Gould with THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD. He looked a little embarrassed by the flattery. Very gracious man.