Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another Whirlwind Christmas

Another slice 'o my life for the curious.

Christmas 2009 was strangely indifferent for me until about 1 week before the Day. I found myself mired in conflicting feelings, moreso than years past. I've long reconciled that all the earthly trappings are just colorful diversions, relating not to the true celebration of Christ's birth (actually in August?). This is hardly news, this acknowledgment of the commercial versus the spiritual, the temporal vs. the eternal. Even Charlie Brown and friends covered this nearly 45 years ago.

Still, I really enjoy all the glitter. I grew up with it. My mother decorated our houses with great patience and style. We had a tall and wide living room tree, and I even had my own in my room. Both were adorned with a mind-boggling array of various ornaments, some dating back to the 1950s. I grew up here in West Palm Beach, FL, so of course a white Christmas was never even a possibility. I recall exactly 2 Christmas Days when it was chilly; most were sickeningly warm and humid. While everyone laughed and bragged about wearing shorts, I sulked, spouting caustic remarks even as a little tyke. I recall playing basketball one 12/25 and almost getting punched because of my sarcasm.

I gradually realized that Christmas would always be disappointing if my yardstick was that of colorful storybook visions. Movies, TV programs, books, songs, they all portrayed some wonderland filled with bundled up smilers carting shiny packages while they tread through the snow and waved to their neighbors. The air would be frosty and filled with carols. Everyone would be happy, all the time. For most, this does not reflect reality. The magic, when not fully realized, began to fade a little bit more over time. With each year, I began to feel that Marty Robbins was right; Christmas was for kids, anyway. But also, all I really wanted were some cooler temps, please!

This year I passed through weeks of holiday music and parties without feeling "it." Even though I was incedibly blessed, filled with worship, not caught up in consumer frenzy, giving the thumbs up to and very pleased about the Advent Conspiracy, I still felt numb. I still hang on to this idea that Christmas should feel a certain way. If I don't feel it, I become indifferent. This is a problem.

I remember discussing "feelings" with various mentors in my church youth group. It was agreed that just because you don't tremble or weep, it doesn't mean God isn't working. This was certainly opposite of what televangelists were saying and doing. I also did see the occasional healing service, where hands would press on foreheads and bodies fell backward. Where the sick would exclaim their Hallelujahs at the touch of Jesus. My own conversion experience, at a youth camp when I was 17, was a very emotional time. Had it not been, it wouldn't have been any less genuine. So, while I know that the Spirit moves despite my internal feelings barometer, I still seem to have this need for the visceral.

Now, that does not mean I will act out like characters in Chuck Palahniuk novels, fueling a need for some brutal catharsis, but I still seek the creature comforts. It is a process. I'll check in again on this thought next year, Lord willing. One positive side effect-I no longer get down in the dumps post-holiday. This is actually because, about 2 years ago, I finally, honestly understood that Christmas, its true essence, is with us all year. It was no longer just a trite thing to express, but truth. I also realize that acknowledgement of this Peace is entirely up to me.

BTW, the week before and through the Day, I did get some morsels of the trimmings. To appease this thirst for the ornamental. Oh, and the weather did turn chilly leading up to but not on Christmas Day. Then, it got chilly the day after. Dangit. Someday, my wife and I will escape this humid wasteland and get some cold X-mas cheer! What was the temp in Bethlehem again?

Highlights of a busy Christmas weekend (not chronological):

-2 separate trips to see my father-in-law in Coral Gables. We saw various relatives on Sonia's side, enjoyed great Indian food, beer from Holland, decadent desserts. All in this gorgeous home built in the 1920s by the same architect who designed the Coral Gables city hall. There are some fascinating details to this that I will eventually outline. Miami is far from my favorite place, but CG has undeniable charm and beauty.

-Christmas Eve with Sonia's stepfather's son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter in Jupiter. Several friends also brought their kids. The wee ones danced to country music (and Modest Mouse!) and tore open presents. It was a bit alarming at one point, as one of the girls kept asking "where's the rest?" What was that about inherent goodness? Not having to be taught to be greedy? Right. OK. No soapbox here. As we were leaving, several of the kids were completely engaged in Wii skateboarding.

-Visited with my mother, who remains in the same nursing facility. Her health is good, improving even, but she remains bedridden. Depression and fear are imposing adversaries. It will be 3 years this Feb. I have avoided entries on this topic, as it is draining, but perhaps I should make more effort. It does help to talk and write about it all. I have some ideas that I plan to finally put into action for her rehab, so stay tuned. Anyway, we brought her some turkey and ham with trimmings and also joined my grandmother there. We later took grandma to see the dazzling display of house lights/displays on a local street, famous for its spectacle. This is the type where thousands of lights border eaves and front lawns, where inflatable Santas wink at passersby. Every house on Gabriel Lane participates, and have for many years. It is gaudy, but great fun. My grandmother was filled with open-mouthed wonder. It was like experiencing Disney World with a child. I was struck with joy at this simple pleasure. We made her lonely world a bit brighter for a little while.

-Grandma also received a pink Snuggie from us. Yeah, OK, go ahead and laugh. She loved it, and it is perfect for her, for the handful of chilly nights we do get.

-I had purchased extra chocolates during my shopping and it was handed out to the family members of an abuela (and 2 doors down neighbor of my grandmother)who passed away on Christmas Eve. Several generations were packed into a small apartment to mourn. My wife (who speaks Spanish) and I visited for a bit. Many in attendence described how impressed with my grandmother they were, how even at 96 years of age she made her way over many days to see their relative, a lady who also had a long, rich life. It was a sad but still hopeful gathering. They were all very sensitive to how my grandmother would receive this distressing news. I was humbled. We haven't told her yet.

-We met an out-of-town friend at a PF Chang's (Holy MSG!!!) for a lively evening of catching up, including his very candid disclosure of his difficulties with his sister. She and the entire family need your prayers.

-A late lunch at Darbster, a new local vegan restaurant. How could I not have composed a post on this yet?? We've been there 3 times! Great place. Keep watching. Better yet, make plans to eat there in the near future. Remind me to tell you about the "chocolate" mousse.

-Spent part of Christmas Day at my mother-in-law's, with her usual fun group of friends, including Harry. I've written about him several times, as faithful readers will note. He had been asking me for months about a 1940s film called UN CARNET DE BAL. My research found, you may recall, that it was only available on VHS from Amazon Francais. Forty-one Euros (~62 U.S. dollars) and a few weeks later, I received an intriguing, stamp-laden parcel. Inside, along with the tape, was a short note in French (basically a "thank you and enjoy"). The tape was from a private seller. We left the videocassette and note in the envelope and gift wrapped the entire thing, for authenticity's sake. Harry was thrilled, as he had not seen this movie in many years. Criterion, are ya listenin'?

We also joked that Harry, a widower, could strike up a correspondence with this lady overseas, ala 84 Charing Cross Road. One never knows.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Vivah Sanskar

The wedding festivities had begun on Thanksgiving, one day before we arrived. My wife's cousin, a young man of Indian descent, was celebrating a union of matrimony that entailed several days of fascinating Hindu rituals. A Mendhi ceremony (application of henna to the extremities of the bride) occurred on that Thursday. A puja was also held that day; this is a gathering where various food, drink, and ornaments are offered to a deity by family members and loved ones. A previous puja had been held in the home of the groom last summer. I had missed the earlier one as I was busy in lovely Timonium, MD, learning about intraoperative monitoring.

Friday night: a Garba/Raas party. The bride and groom and family and friends gathered to witness spectacular dance routines and then participated in joyous dancing that culminated with the rapping/clicking of drumsticks wrapped in colorful materials. The evening began with one large circle of revelers, slowly rotating collectively and individually with 180 degree turns and hand claps. A smaller circle, circumscribed within the larger, had begun in the center of the hotel ballroom. One circle moved clockwise, the other, counter. The drumstick dance was also performed in circles, with hypnotic patterns of clanging amongst participants (including yours truly, for a little while at least). There was an impressive array of cuisine for all the famished guests.

Most of the guests were clad in ornate garments that night and all weekend. The women: saris, embroidered choli, bandhani dupettas. The gentlemen: kedias. My wife wore three different saris throughout the weekend, all of which required time and patience to apply. She was not used to the process, and for each preparation we gazed into my iPhone for assistance, watching numerous instructional videos on YouTube. Methodical pleating, folding, wrapping. There was some teeth gnashing and trial and error, as well as some trips to the ladies' room when the veteran sari wearers saw our attempts, but the results were quite pleasing. Sonia looked beautiful. We had planned on getting a kedia for me before we flew up, but we ran out of time.

Saturday morning: the Vedic Hindu marriage ceremony began with the groom atop a white horse, bringing up the rear of a procession of gyrating guests and a drummer banging on both sides of an elongated "meddale" kettle. It was quite a scene, this festive push down W. Jefferson Blvd. in downtown Ft. Wayne, IN. It was 9 in the morning. A woman who had witnessed the spectacle from across the street even joined in the procession, clapping and dancing along! She shouted out a "thank you" as the groom reached the front doors of the hotel, stating that Ft. Wayne didn't typically see such energy so early in the morning, any morning!

The ceremony itself, it must be noted, is dictated by 5000 year rituals prescribed by religious texts known as "Vedas." These texts descibe the marriage as a union not only of bride and groom, but entire families.

The procession ("Baarat") continues. The groom is showered with rice and flowers by the bride's mother upon arrival. The bride is carried in on a wooden seat festooned with pillows and flowers. At the front of the auditorium, she will adorn her groom and his family with garlands. The "stage" is an enclosure anchored by corkscrew columns, the "roof" covered in flowers. The bride and groom are seated in the rear middle. Their parents and siblings and cousins seated on either side, closer to the edge of the stage. The priest, or Maharaj, will be seated next to the groom. A scared fire, or Agni, will burn in the center of the stage during the ceremony.

The ceremony more or less followed this structure from hereon:

Ganesh Puja: Another ceremony, similiar to the aforementioned pujas, desgined to please Lord Ganesh (Hindu god). Ganesh will be invoked throungh prayers and proclamations, asking for removal of obstacles and prosperity to the marrieds.

Madhuperk: The parents of the bride wash the groom's feet with milk, ghee, curd, sugar, and honey. Also, the bride's siblings and cousins playfully try to steal the groom's shoes. This illustrates one of several humorous activities during the ceremony to balance the seriousness. The groom will later negotiate for the return of his shoes.

Antarpat and Manglashtak: A curtain is symbolically placed between the bride and groom by the families, signifying their separateness. The Maharaj chants verses, and the curtain is removed.

Varmala: This exchange of garlands between the bride and groom is described in the wedding program as to "symbolize love and respect for each other and a surrender of ego..."

Kanyadaan: The parents of the bride give away their daughter ("Kanya"). The father pours sacred water, a ritual symbolically denoting this practice.

Hastmelap: As the bride and groom join hands, the priest places a cotton thread around their shoulders. The thread embodies a binding together of the partners.

Granthi Bandham: The couple's outfits are tied together to represent their unity in God's presence, as well as that of the Agni (fire), and families and friends.

Agni Puja: Agni is offered prayers for the removal of evil and ignorance.

Mangal Pheras: The "Pheras" are prayers spoken by the couple separately as they circle the fire four times. The Pheras describe humanitarian values, the earning of wages with honesty and integrity, an acknowledgement of love, a pursual of contentment. Once the prayers are all spoken, the bride and groom will race back to their seats, the first there is said to "rule the house" in another attempt to lighten the seriousness of the rituals.

Mangal Sutra Bandham: The mangal sutra is the Eastern equivalent of a wedding ring. Here, a gold chain that is blessed by family members and then given by the groom to his bride.

Sindoor: The groom applies a special powder into the bride's hair (at the part).

Saptapadi: A series of seven vows are spoken.

Kansar Bhojan: An exchange of sweets between the bride and groom, in a symbolic display of sharing.

Akhand Saubhagyavati: The bride's married female relatives whisper favorable wishes into her right ear.

Ashirwaad: After the exchange of the traditional rings, the newly marrieds bow to their elders, asking for their blessings. Flowers are bestowed on the couple afterward.

Vidai: The finale of the ceremony arrives as the bride and groom depart.

That evening, a reception that followed the more Western traditions of cake cutting, toasts, and shaking your groove thang (though mostly to Indian artists)commenced. More incredible Indian cuisine, buffet style. I also did a few shots with the groom, his brother, and some of his work colleagues. The bartender said it was a Kamikaze, but either my tolerance has risen or he was fibbing. I felt nothing.

But what an incredible weekend. The generosity and warmth of the families and guests was nothing short of astonishing. May the bride and groom have a lifetime of blessing and prosperity. It was an honor to be in attendance.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ten Best of the 00s

This decade almost past, I find I must compile a "10 Best" list for film. Problem is, I see a fraction of the amount that I once did. Been a very busy 10 years. I'm sure I've missed several things that might've possibly made the list. Also, for me to rank what I consider to be the ten best films of 2009 would especially be a challenge, seeing as that is about how many I actually viewed in the theater this year!

From 1997 on, I began to write down every film I watched. Before I started logging, I spent a month or so very carefully going through Leonard Maltin's annual almanac of film reviews, listing what I had seen in my lifetime. I'm sure I still missed some. Then, I noted each and every movie I would see from thereon. I had some spare time recently and read through this decade's list. Was it a stellar ten years for cinema? Not really. Many of my favorite auteurs were active, but did not necessarily create new masterworks. Martin Scorsese, for one, was fairly busy. What of THE AVIATOR, GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE DEPARTED? All potential classics, but all fell short of that. Good films, mind you, just not the same caliber of say, TAXI DRIVER or RAGING BULL (to say nothing of MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS). In fact, I think I might have to post a career thus far retrospective on this genius sometime.

For now, in no sort of order, here are the 10 films that I feel were the best of the decade:

1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) Joel and Ethan Coen have long been favorites of mine, creating both serious and more playful works, but this film really floored me. The Cormac McCarthy source material was promising enough, but the Coens chart their own poetic course, while remaining true to the author. This serpentine story of chance, aging, longevity, and perspective on all of those is a stunning entry on the writer/directors' already impressive resume. It was especially welcome after the missteps of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS.

2. HOTEL RWANDA (2004) The Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Rwanda in the 1990s was another bloodstain on the pages of history books, a jaw dropping period of genocide that did not get as much mention or airtime on cable news as that of the low speed O.J. freeway chase. Director Terry George conversely takes a long and poignant look at this tragedy and a pair of men who, through their diplomatic and business skills (Nick Nolte as a U.N. rep, Don Cheadle as the manager of an upscale hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kingali), save over a thousand of the lives caught in the crossfire. Never telegraphed or stagy, this film examines humanity in the face of savagery, and the sometimes costly outcomes of such. A strong, unforgettable film experience.

3. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008): The Batman franchise got a favorable retooling when director Christopher Nolan assumed the helm earlier in the decade with BATMAN BEGINS. For the follow-up, he creates a stunning morality play that entirely dispenses with good guy/bad guy simplicity. Each character wrestles with personal demons and unimaginable choices. The allusions were thick with the political and the theological; the action and effects top drawer. A commandingly dark and exhilirating film, especially noteworthy for Heath Ledger's amazing turn as the Joker.

4. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000): What to say of this curious film, containing a mere 40 or so shots in nearly 2 and 1/2 hours? You may imagine that it allows you to really absorb the scenery, in this case, the utter blankness of it. Overcast skies, drab villages, dead oversized whales. Hungarian writer/director Bela Tarr's moveable art exhibit makes little attempt at a taut story framework but is very concerned with time. You'll feel every second of it, either to become hypnotized or infuriated.
I was transfixed.....

5. THE NEW WORLD (2005): When director Terence Malick has a film released, film student/lover, you re-arrange your schedule and attend. Period. His 4th film in 33 years, THE NEW WORLD spends its ample running time in 17th century Jamestown, Virginia. A famous expedition of this area, well documented in history books and animated Disney films alike, led to its ultimate settlement, and a variety of tribal and natural drama plays out. We follow Native American Pocahantas and Englishman John Smith over the years, the dynamics of their relationship, and that of the natural wonders around them, comprising the core of the film. I can't really describe this to any sort of satisfaction. As with Malick's other pieces, this is gorgeous, contemplative cinema. Not recommended for deficit attention spans.

6. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004): From the mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman comes a distinctive, typically unique scenario that actually earns its pathos. A woman (Kate Winslet) torn apart and frustrated by her relationship with her boyfriend (Jim Carrey in his best role) decides to utilize the services of Lucuna, Inc., an organization that will erase something or someone from your mind. Joel, said bf, discovers this and then plans the same course of action. Funny what happens on the way to oblivion and the Never Was. Director Michel Gondry imaginatively realizes an imaginative story, the details of which are best discovered on your own. It's meditative, sad, and hopeful. And who hasn't at least once been a member of the "dining dead"??

7. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001): Originally conceived as an ABC-TV pilot, David Lynch's elegantly weird story involves actresses, interchangeable personas, and tiny elderly people who are screaming. You are firmly in the Lynch dreamscape, and like that of most of his films, it takes adjustment and more than a few viewings to get something that ressembles a clue. What a beautiful nightmare, though, his best since BLUE VELVET (though I loved the far less eccentric THE STRAIGHT STORY from '99 as well). Really great showcase for the actresses, too. Silencio.....

8. ZODIAC (2007): Based on a true life puzzle, David Fincher's superior, near epic drama details the obsessive efforts of lawmen and civilians alike to unravel the mystery of a serial killer in 1970s San Francisco. Another film based on the very same story was released a year earlier (THE ZODIAC), and the differences are as startling as Fincher's film is virtuoistic. This is great storytelling, meticulously stylish filmmaking, everything. Maybe the actors have forgiven their director's penchant for a Kubrickian amount of takes? If this is the result, perhaps sleep and breaks are overrated?

9. PAN'S LABYRINTH (2007): Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro writes and directs what is essentially a cinematic fairy tale, filled with elements of the ghoulish and wide-eyed wonder. What appears to simply be a Tim Burton styled nightmare is really a complex parable of no less than principality and faith. Our heroine, Ofelia, is a young girl trapped in 1940s Franconian Spain, following the country's Civil War. Guerillas still threaten the landscape, and mysterious faeries and fauns tantalize Ofelia with games and tests that will determine many fates. Del Toro has masterminded a lush, sometimes brutal tale that both enthralled and haunted me. One of the best of its year.

10. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2005): One of the best examinations of the uncertainty of aging I think I'd seen since HARRY & TONTO and GOING IN STYLE from the 1970s. Jack Nicholson is a retired actuary who decides to pilot his RV cross country to visit his daughter and her underachieving fiance. Writer/director Alexander Payne's surefooted odyssey takes Nicholson into the netherlands of life's third act with equal doses of hilarity and pathos. Rare to see a film handle both elements so beautifully. Also boasts another of the great "cry" finales (see also: THE ICE STORM).

Runners up?

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMAURAI
TRAFFIC
ALMOST FAMOUS
25th HOUR
THE PIANIST
MARIA FULL OF GRACE
CITY OF GOD
AMELIE
NINE QUEENS
BABEL
BROKEN FLOWERS
CAPOTE
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
UP
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
28 GRAMS
SIDEWAYS
......

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters

The Adult Swim portion of Cartoon Network's broadcast day has, for a few years now, provided viewers with a sampling of some of the more off-color and sometimes violent content afforded by a medium that was once relegated to innocuous fare: cute forest animals and the like. Cartoons aimed at older audiences have been around for decades, though. Not just patently adult works by Ralph Bakshi et al. Even Mr. Walt Disney and the merry men at Looney Tunes spiced their animated shorts with more sophisticated humor.

Finding sophistication in AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FOR THEATERS, or the Adult Swim show upon which it is based, takes a bit more effort. As other raunchy latter day cartoons like South Park and The Simpsons have recently leapt to the silver screen, so go the exploits of Meatwad, Master Shake, and Frylock. Our three main characters are, respectively, a meatball, a milkshake (pistachio flavored, by the way), and a levitating box of French fries with a Van Dyke. The premise of the TV series: this motley band of food, amateur detectives all, have united in a ratty New Jersey suburb to battle Dr. Weird, a rather insane individual who (ineptly) plots world domination. Meatwad is the dimbulb, Shake the grouchy leader, and Frylock, the rational, even-tempered one who actually gets work done. Their misadventures provide many a collegiate with some late night guffaws and occasional belly laughs. Ready made cult piece, this series.

How does it fare as a feature? Ask a dyed-in-the wool fan. They could better answer. I like the show, have spent some nights here and there laughing (and scratching my head) along with it, but I never became a fan-atic about it. The fans might tell you everything that's wrong with this movie. Maybe how it betrays the series' characterizations and all. I dunno. The movie is just as oblique as the show. I am certain that a high percentage of the jokes whizzed right past. Still, I got what I expected.

...COLON MOVIE involves the central trio with Dr. Weird and Carl, the trio's hairy and overweight neighbor who constantly sports wife beater tees, yet again, but also McPee Pants, a rapping spider, Oglethorpe and Emory, creatures from the future, and a robot who bills himself as the Ghost of Christmas past. It is the latter character who, for me, best exemplifies the crux of the humor of series creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis. GCP's voice is an often unintelligible metallic echo that is guaranteed to piss you off within 10 seconds of hearing it. So of course he gets a lot of dialogue. We also have Walter Melon, a slice of watermelon who seems bent on thwarting anything Meatwad and company try to "accomplish". And how about a miniature Neil Peart? Yes, the drummer from the Canadian rock band Rush. One of his trademarked wicked drum solos plays a major part in the plot. Quite surprisingly, the real Peart did the voice for his pint-sized counterpart. Other famous folks lend their vocal talents as well.

The plot also leaves room for two creatures who appear as like renegades from an 80s home video game, Err and Ignignokt, and a sinister exercise machine. And so on. The opening sequence is easily the best thing in COLON MOVIE, as we see the familiar cartoon snackies from the famous old "Let's All Go to the Lobby" short film begin to sing a little pre-movie ditty (the lyrics are amusing). Then, other snack foods wielding instruments violently take over and do a blistering heavy metal throwdown warning viewers to leave if they don't understand the plot, not bring crying babies into the theater ("leave the seed outside"), and not try to sell pirated copies later. The music is courtesy of Mastadon. It is such a great scene that I knew the film had nowhere to go but down after it.

You read all of this, and you're either (perhaps) guiltily intrigued or completely immune. Most will either love it or hate it. I felt both ways as I sat through this nonsense. And no, I did not partake of any chemicals while doing so.


P.S.: The film's DVD commentary is often even funnier than the movie. Having singer Patti Smith offer her opinions alongside Maiellaro and company might've seemed like an odd inclusion, but it works.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Round Midnight


Dale Turner slumps in a chair onstage and plays his tenor saxophone every night, the sad notes floating through bellows of cigarette smoke and drifting into another lonely 1950s Paris evening. There to catch the sorrowful but beautiful tones is Francis, an equally sad and lonely soul who finds comfort in those sounds. Night after night he leans against the walls of the hall, not a franc to spare to get a proper seat inside. It hardly matters, as the notes are crystal clear in their desperation, even in the alleyway.

Eventually, Francis will meet Dale, and adopt him to some degree. Nary a bite for himself and his young daughter, yet he will offer the jazzman ceaseless and generous hospitality. He feels it is the least he can do in return for all the elation he has been given. Dale, however, is gravely ill, his alcoholism and drug addiction eating away with increasing mortality. It won't be long, the two men realize. But Francis, beaten down in his own lack of success as a graphic designer, has found a mission.

Warner Brothers, the Hollywood studio that released the bittersweet 1986 film ROUND MIDNIGHT, might well have commissioned such a sterile description for their film as what I provided in the above paragraphs. As I write more and more reviews, I find that simply recounting plot points is often a bore. What makes films fun to write about are how they make me feel, how they affect and speak to me, what memories they evoke. This film, reflected upon some nearly quarter century after first seeing it, still provides me some warm and haunting imagery, much like any great jazz piece would.

ROUND MIDNIGHT was one of the first "art" films I would see in a theater. I was still in high school, still attending movies like RAMBO and ALIENS. I was not really a fan of any sort of jazz, yet this movie intrigued me. I saw it at the Carefree, an old single screen palace of yesteryear that had recently converted from second run to arthouse. I would also see Errol Morris' THE THIN BLUE LINE and Fellini's AND THE SHIP SAILS ON there about the same time. I had been viewing more ambitious fare on cable for years, but seeing such films in a theater was like an awakening of some kind. Being in a movie house for any film, even with idiot audiences, is just magical. I knew the wonder of seeing pics like the STAR WARS trilogy, TOP GUN and other noisy spectcles; seeing and hearing the quieter, more contemplative works in this environment was a rebirth, and the true genesis of my Serious Filmgoing.

ROUND MIDNIGHT was a far more deliberately paced film than I was used to. I remember feeling a bit confused and uncomfortable in my seat, unsure how to react. Perhaps I kept expecting an explosive to detonate under Dale's chair. Eventually, I settled in. I gradually appreciated the rhythm, and not just that of the music. There was actually time to drink it all in, the pauses, the telling roadmaps we see on each character's face. We didn't just hop from one set piece to the next in this film. When it was over my father and I silently left and rode home. Very reverent. This was not our norm, as we would usually be very chatty after we saw something. Such would have been inappropriate for a delicate film like this. It might've fractured the sweet vibe, cat.

I bought the soundtrack the following weekend. A completely different experience for someone so immersed in the rock and pop of the day. I recall actress/siren Lonette McKee's (Darcey) silky rendition of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" Of course, the film's lead actor was famed jazz great Dexter Gordon, and he and cohorts (among them Herbie Hancock, in a small role) would create their music right onscreen. Captured on the soundtrack, it was no less mesmerizing, soothing, dissonant. I now had both recollections of the movie and some new imagery to savor. Despite my fondness for this collection, it would be another 13 years or so before my jazz appreciation would blossom. Ten years following that, I would listen to Coltrane and Dolphy with perhaps the same passion exhibited by Francis. There is a seduction, but also a peace, there.

The film, however, would become and remain a favorite from my first viewing. French director Betrand Tavernier does not direct with a heavy hand. He makes this film feel effortless, like nothing had to be rehearsed, orchestrated. That is not to say that ROUND MIDNIGHT is bereft of style. The recreations of 50s Parisian saloons are quite vivid. We see it all in a muted deep focus, dreamlike, yet tangible. Of course, great music just flows omnisciently, infusing everything. The musical personnel lean and slouch and smoke endlessly behind their shades. Their salty exchanges, often barely audible. Gordon, floating around, calling everyone "Lady", inhabits this world naturally, just like he did in real life, and just like legends Bud Powell and Lester Young (upon whom the character of Dale is based)did decades before. He hangs his hat in rooms with visible ductwork and steam pipes. It does not take too much examination to see the sad poem that is his (and was their) life. Mr. Gordon himself would pass on some years later.

Late in the film, Dale returns home once more to New York City, for meetings with a fast talking agent (Martin Scorsese, I kid you not) and a rather toxic drug dealer. For so many of the jazz greats of the middle 20th century, the H was as addictive a muse as were the notes. Dale Turner's trip back west is a poignant coda on many levels: a man returning to his home, the expatriate dream now a memory. ROUND MIDNIGHT also views this journey as a homecoming for jazz itself, back to its birthplace. Unlike Dale (and Dexter) himself, his music, in all its free form complexity and beauty, will live on for years to come.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holiday Passages

In the middle of the frivolity yesterday, I recalled many of the previous Christmas/holiday work parties I'd attended. Regs will note that I've documented a few here. Some were extravagant, others, bargain basement. Some were after hours, others during the time we'd normally be working. Most involved a gift exchange, a "white elephant" kind or some sort. I remember once wrapping a gift (mere minutes before it would be torn open) in the parking lot of a bank across from my workplace. Ever the procrastinator.

I remembered the faces, if not all the names. I've had lots of co-workers, most of whom are now just fuzzy memories. Yesterday, I joined my associates and superiors at an upscale restaurant downtown for an afternoon celebration. It had all the ingredients: embarrassing attempts at dancing (me), racy gag gifts, just-fair cuisine, unusually candid conversations, and at least one person who went far afield from their normal behavior. Alcohol can be blamed for some of the above. I say this with no denouncement, no Baptist judgment (though please refrain from calling me a Baptist).

The event was very enjoyable, the hosts very gracious and generous. Elegant appreciations were voiced for our daily efforts. I have been truly blessed in my new workplace. The parties of years gone by had provided a few hours of amusement and then evaporated. I look back on most with a smile, a few with a groan. After the last silly cackle and dancefloor misstep of 12/11/09 have been forgotten, the warm feelings will remain.

Thanks, everyone.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Art School Confidential

I found myself staring into a twisted metallic nightmare that was being displayed as art at a huge annual festival in Miami Beach this past weekend. I imagine its creator wanted to evoke feelings of dread, disturbance, possibly even nausea. It pretty much did. I wondered if the result was true to his/her vision. I also saw two very unique replicas of human heads, both only about an inch wide, but several inches long and high. The profiles looked scarily real, but when you walked around to see the faces, the canthal distance almost non-existent, it was truly disturbing. The heads drew hordes of the curious; more people hovered around them than that of some of the other collections, including a deluxe showcase for Dennis Hopper's fever dreams. Was it the gimmick that ignited word of mouth? Was it a gimmick at all? One man's gimmick is another man's mantlepiece.

My guess is that the artist responsible for the heads wasn't necessarily trying to capture mass atttention, he just felt compelled to create art that compelled him. In fact, I think all the best ones do this:create for yourself, rather than trying to ride the coattails of the flavor of the moment, the pop phenom du jour. Such honesty abided, your audience will follow.

It's too bad that Jerome (Max Minghella) doesn't subscribe to this point of view. His obvious talent could really give birth to something extraordinary, if only he wasn't trying to mimic every famous deceased wunderkind before him. Or even the other geniuses whose work can fetch thousands or millions even if they just sneeze on some canvas. Additionally, under the proper tuteledge, he could find some much needed reference points, maybe even some clear directive that can make the flower bloom. Instead, he has Professor Sandiford (John Malcovich), a rather disorganized fellow himself, prone to aloofness and ambiguous advice. He oversees classes, instructing his budding Rembrandts to paint themselves, a few nudes, but he might as well be elsewhere as he curses into his cell phone in vain attempts to get his own work public.

There is also Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a local former prodigy now slumped over in alarming squalor, a bottle rolling by his feet every time Jerome visits him in his disgrace of an apartment. Jimmy was once a bright light, maybe even a next big thing. All he offers now is corrosive commentary on what the pursuit of the artistic life brought him.

Director Terry Zwigoff's 2006 ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, another adaptation of a Daniel Clowes graphic novel (following GHOST WORLD), seems to be an indictment of the art world and those who seek its rewards. For these characters, the process is not enough. Jerome has badly romanticized some idea of the artist's life, picturing himself a Picasso or Dali. He wants the charmed ivory tower existence badly, and will sell his own talent out at any time to achieve that. The irony in this film is that Jerome is very gifted, but surrounded by hacks who get all the attention.

One is Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a fellow student who perpetuates the nightmare Jerome had in high school-losing all the girls to the all-American jock/stud. Even in the heady world of art school, filled with discrimating (yet still beautiful) females, the alpha male takes all the marbles. Not only will the ladies fawn, but other students and even profs will heap praise on the golden boy. Jonah also does not suffer from the same mentalities so many artists (and aficiandos) do; his lack of pretention allows him to create his popular masterwork: a painting of a pick-up truck. It is a smash on campus, constantly, favorably interpreted for its simplistic brilliance. The value of sujectivity gets a real work-out in this film.

When first revealed, this painting brought uncontrolled guffaws of laughter from me. The fact that Jonah is celebrated of course speaks volumes about how as a society (macrocosmic or otherwise), we applaud and embrace the banal, the mediocre. But Zwigoff is equally swift in denigrating those who feel they were born with irrefutable taste and talent. One of Jerome's roommates, Vince, is a film student with his own case of artistic myopia. He accosts everyone for their lack of taste, yet is working on his own film that is so blindingly awful you almost feel Clowes and Zwigoff have gotten a bit carried away. Well, yes, they have. There is also a subplot (entirely unnecessary) about a serial killer on campus. Opportunities for satire may have existed with this thread, but they're not utilized. All this storyline does is add minutes to the running time.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL does not really succeed as a choice jab at the art world, so open and easy a target. There are very effective moments here and there, some insights on the trivialities of the art world and the absurdity of playing tastemaker. The finale makes a sad but true summation of what it takes to make it in pop culture, though perhaps the way this statement and some of the plot strands come together is a bit weak and clumsy.

The filmmakers' previous effort, GHOST WORLD, instead was a successful examination of those who are trapped in their self-created bitter worlds of scorn, unable to appreciate something that moves them, rather just sneering at everyone else for not liking something. Some of the characters in that film were unwilling and/or unable to move on with their lives and instead of creating, they merely tear down. In the end, though, there is some recognition, self-awareness. ART SCHOOL characters are not, ahem, drawn as vividly or with a much apparent thought. They are really no deeper than Saturday Night Live cariacatures. Perhaps that was the idea this time. Jerome and others are so immersed in their pursuit of illusions they can't (or won't) take time for some perspective on themselves. They are defined by their desire for some modicum of fame, and usually end up being also-rans AND clueless about the masterworks they so emulate.

I was also reminded by this movie of a creative writing course I took in college my sophomore year. Each week, we were required to produce a piece of fiction that would be critiqued by 5 or 6 classmmates. I composed some serious things that semester, the subjects of which ranged from the disintegration of familial relationships to alcoholism to death. Which assignment got the highest grade? Which was the best received by my peers? A silly missive I wrote in all of half an hour, the one where I documented the time I slipped off a seawall and fell into the Intracoastal Waterway (true story; maybe I'll describe it to you sometime). It was a huge success, enough to actually be selected for the school literary mag! Sometimes you reach for grandeur, and you get a handful of air. Other times you create something you feel is inconsequential, and end up with an accidental sensation. For all of its failures, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL understands this quite well.

Nonetheless, the best thing about Zwigoff's cheerfully profane film, for me, are the laughs. That's what have stayed with me. Some of the funniest moments I have ever seen on film are here. There is mostly broad comedy, something the director apprently continued with BAD SANTA (haven't seen yet). If you decide to watch ART SCHOOL, tell me that these scenes are not comedy gold:

1. The unveiling of said pick-up truck painting
2. Jerome's first attempt at a date (girl with the stuffed animals)
3. Vince's first scene, in the dorm
4. Jerome's dinner back home with his family, and his parents' reaction when he states that he has a girlfriend.

That last scene is such a perfect ballet of stage blocking,editing and acting, so utterly hilarious, that I think maybe Clowes and Zwigoff should've just tried to make an out and out straight comedy instead of a seriocomic damnation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Quadrophenia



(potential spoilers)

Jimmy Cooper, frustrated with burgeoise normality weeks after an electrifying, life-changing holiday weekend away, needs a release. He downs amphetamines and slam dances to ska, but that's only part of the Mod lifestyle in 1960s Great Britain. Mods also like to ride Vespa and Lambretta scooters and dress quite fashionably. They are the counterpoint to the Rockers, leather jacket-clad regular joes who would rather tear up the asphalt with Harleys and listen to Elvis. Presley, that is.

So Jimmy eventually returns to Brighton, the scene of a massive scuffle between the Mods and Rockers. The weekend had been filled with violence, color, energy. Life was teeming. There seemed to be some purpose. He could finally breathe. Then the police flew in and retrieved order. The law won. In more ways than one, Jimmy will discover. Before he joined in the fracas, he had ducked into an alleyway with this girl he fancied. He had had perhaps his first intimate encounter there. Filled with potent memories, he finds the town distressingly still now. Rather than energy, he finds ennui. Tourists everywhere. Tranquility, fer fook's sake! Even worse, he finds that alleyway, now indelibly marked with sadness, since his crush has since taken up with one of his mates. The rush of excitement, dead and gone. He tortures himself, lingering there far too long, the scene itself perhaps defining the rest of his life if he lets it. Everyone has such a location, a place we acknowledge either with a shake of the head, tears, or perhaps we're still there, doomed to be haunted by its memories.

Director Franc Roddam's blistering 1979 QUADROPHENIA, a stylish, loose adaptation of The Who's 1973 rock opera, if nothing else, understands with great urgency what it is that leads to Realization. Metamorphosis. Have you ever stood at an impasse in your life, a fork at which your must make a decision? Of course you have. Sometimes, it is very clear that whichever path you choose to take may well determine your fate. You can choose to cling to an illusion, or grow, even if "growing" actually means compromising some of those fist-pumping ideals you held so tightly. Does education come easily?

Jimmy (Phil Daniels) is our angry young man, careful in dress, worshipping footballer Pete Best and American R & B alike. He thrives on shoving the Establishment's tenets right back at them. He's like a lot of youths have been. But he reaches a valley, a place so low it seems pitching off a cliff on one of those scooters is the only answer. A place at which he arrived when discovering one of his Mod heroes, Ace (Sting, in an early role), the apparent leader of it all, is not only working for the Man, but is also just a lowly........

.....BELLLLLLLLLLLLL-BOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!........

It's a great moment, a moment of crushingly clarity. A stone cold sober reminder of the dangers of worshipping the wrong people and ideals. How to respond? Does Jimmy really want to join the famous club of those before him, those who leapt from Beachy Head, the site of multiple suicides? The opening scene may answer that question.

The music of the Who is so thunderously powerful, even if this film had failed dramatically, it still would've hit hard and where it stings (no pun intended). Roddam has fashioned such a thoughtful, kinetic cinematic exercise from beginning to end, we're just numbed. The plot is totally recycled 50s rebel greaser fodder, but the themes of lost youth and cleansing by fire are so relevent, they smolder. This was the second Who album to be filmed, after Ken Russell's outlandish 1975 TOMMY. Roddam does not create the garish smorgasbord of eccentricity that Russell did. He opts for a serious, clear-eyed examination of alienation and restlessness. Such a restlessness can drive us in any direction. Anywhere, Who songwriter Pete Townshend first argued, as long as it isn't at that fork.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Another Hometown?


I used to really look forward to out of town trips. I didn't get to travel much as a child or adolescent, so in my 20s I leapt at opportunities to blow town. Get away from humidity and palm trees, the very thing so many others were seeking. I would go to places like Carrolton, GA or Ogunquit, ME for various reasons, always encountering disbelief from residents when I stated how refreshing it was to be out of FL. It's all about the weather. So much of this country shivers while we here in the tropic zone don short pants yet again, even as we're hanging candy canes on pine trees. I've seen the envy in their eyes, from coast to coast.

After years of out-of-towners, I reverted to being content with my home base. It is a beautiful place, and I am very fortunate, even on my knees in thanksgiving. These days, I'm reverting yet again. Years of oppressive heat and unpleasant people (not everyone, of course) has had me thinking outside our fair state's border, again. Somewhere with seasons, for starters. A place where perhaps the spirit of being neighborly is more prevelent. I'm just as guilty of being closed off, so I include myself in my chastisement. I've ducked in public places when not wanting to be recognized, even by dear friends! For shame.

On this very blog I've described the strong connections I've felt in certain cities: Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis. Not just preferable climate but just a more generous, communal feel. South Florida, comparatively, is a very odd place. It seemed quite normal to me as I grew up, but I knew nothing else. I lived in NYC until I was 4, but otherwise, I'm a West Palm Beach native. Over the years, people would settle here and move away, illustrating how transitory this place is. Many would wonder aloud why people acted so strangely. The sense of entitlement, the neuroticism, the sociopathy. As I get older, I'm beginning to think that having summer all year 'round (more or less) has created some sort of warped perspective. You may well disagree, but having seasons creates some sort of well grounded order, a sense of when to do things, when to move on. Having favorable climate all year just murks it all up. That's my take.

So, my wife and I had occasion to travel to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, last weekend. The purpose: my wife's cousin was getting married. They are Indian, the bride's family residing in this NE Indiana town. I had no idea that such a population was so large there. Someone at the reception informed us that there were about 500 families of this culture in Ft. Wayne, and most knew each other and had regular weekend get-togethers. Ah..

The wedding was amazing, but we'll talk about that elsewhere. In between events, we walked through a nearly deserted downtown area. We arrived on a Friday afternoon. The high for that day? 39 degrees Farenheit! Maybe that's why we were mostly alone in our wanderings. It was apparently the first real cold of the fall; in fact, our shuttle driver informed us that some tiny flurries had been visible that very morning. Chili from a nearby Wendy's never tasted better.

Across the street from our Hilton was the Botanical Conservatory, an indoor/outdoor collection of gardens and artwork that provided a very pleasant Sunday afternoon. A talking oak tree greets you as you pass the kiddie area. One garden was lush with greenery and poinsettias; another was a replica of a Southwestern desert landscape, with children's artwork strewn amongst the cactii. Christmas music was playing in the first garden. A current exhibit also showcased several of the notable downtown structures. A very worthwhile way to spend an hour or so.

The day before we explored the Conservatory, we had stopped at its front desk to get some info. Jane was on duty, and what a panic she was. We asked her what the cost of living was in Ft. Wayne. "It's the cheapest place to live in the world," she exclaimed, citing a news source. She then unfolded a city map and proceeded to circle sections of town, explaining which areas were "old chic" and "new chic", where and what to avoid. She brought her finger down on a spot a bit north of the center where "some gays really beautified the neighborhood." But her best bit? After a lengthy rant on how poor the public school system is in Indiana (and the U.S.), she elucidated: "It's modeled on the German system. Kindergarten and all. It's designed to train kids to be good little prols!" Proletariats, I assume.

Our downtown wanderings also led us to a very old looking spot called Power's. We were gazing at a government building when some savory scents wafted towards us. Smelled like some good burgers were being cooked up. Once inside, you have yourself very tight quarters, with a wraparound counter, one booth, and a few other spots to chomp your burger by the front windows. Also, one of those old plastic Pepsi Cola boards with the slide-on letters announcing all the grub. Three haggard looking women commandeered the joint. I had a cheeseburger with extra onions. It was mighty good. I've learned that Power's has been in this very spot for many decades, and looks it. That's why it caught my eye.

Cindy's, another old-timely looking dining establishment, also caught my eye, but we didn't get there. We saw this after our trip through the Trinity English Lutheran Church on West Wayne Street, across from the library. The church is over 150 years old, the first English-speaking congregation in town (Trinity English was a branching out from the German-speaking St. Paul's Lutheran closeby). An usher led us through the main sanctuary, a gorgeous masonry filled with stained glass and pipe organ. The most interesting aspect of the architecture: additional wings were added onto the existing structure, without compromising any of the original fascade. Yes, you walk out of the old sanctuary into a newer room, the wall being comprised of stone and even the original gutters! You are standing in what was once a parking lot! I'd never seen anyone do this before.

What struck me on these chilly, nearly deserted walks was this sense of community, proximity. It has long been a goal of mine to have everything within walking distance: work, church, grocery store. I have almost achieved this in WPB these days. A few years back, it was quite different. I worked in Boca Raton, went to school in Ft. Lauderdale, church in Palm Beach Gardens, and lived in Greeancres! Ridiculous! You should've seen my fuel bills! For you non-locals, there're a lot of miles in there. I was in commuting hell most of the time. I'm what you call a non-fan of sprawl.

Ft. Wayne, at least its downtown area, struck me as a place where I could participate in a neighborhood, a real-life community. One of my earliest memories was living in Brooklyn, enjoying what was called a "block party." The entire block would come out, share food, hang out on the stoop, communicate. Not behind some swinging metal gate or wooden arm, either. That sounds pretty good to me.

Ft. Wayne also struck me as being a good place to have grown up. Being a Florida boy, I feel as if I missed out on a lot of things so many others had. Not just snowmen, either.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession



Obsessive, indeed. My own insatiable love of film began in 1977, when I was 8 years old. The two box-office champs of that year, STAR WARS and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (two more dissimiliar films you were unlikely to find) ignited some mysterious thrill in my subconscious. I saw both films multiple times during their original runs.

The obsession continued. Every Friday I would grab the "Poster" scetion of the Palm Beach Post to absorb the new movie ads and their reviews. The Sunday "Arts and Entertainment" portion of the New York Times was even better, though frustrating as I would gawk at all the titles that would never make their way to South Florida.

Then it got, in retrospect, a little concerning. As I learned of the workings and possibilities of cable programming, their schedules filled with unedited theatrical films, I became increasingly intrigued. I started creating my own movie schedules, writing lists of films. I would program movies in particular order, perhaps like a DJ would segue music. Of course, most of the films I listed were unseen by me, due to restrictive ratings or just being unavailable. But I read about films quite a bit, even at age 8 and 9 being very cognizant of the classics, the contemporaries, the camp extravaganzas, the documentaries. I dreamed of overseeing my own network, just one endless festival of cinema.

Jerry Harvey was another such misfit. Only a fascination such as his could have made the term "director's cut" mainstream. Five years after Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH was released, Harvey arranged for the original, longer version of that masterpiece to screen at the Beverly Canon Theater in Los Angeles. Intact cuts of films by Bertolucci and Leone would also be showcased in revival cinemas. Harvey would also go on to rescue Michael Cimino's full-length HEAVEN'S GATE from a British vault.

In between, an L.A. cable station called "Z Channel" would become the sort of venue I fantasized over: a 24-hr. parade of all sorts of cinema. Uncensored and no commercials. From 1974 until the late 80s, Z Channel would air an impressive variety of classic arthouse like THE 400 BLOWS, CHILDREN OF PARADISE, LA STRADA, and ANDREI RUBLEV. Cult favorites such as ERASERHEAD would also be shown. And yes, even commercial hits were played in the mix. A good balance, I believe. Nothing but "stellar cinema" would be as limiting as the reverse. A filmgoer's education should be selective, but I think one can't really understand and appreciate the medium without exposing themselves to a bit of everything (almost). Accordingly, Z Channel was solely available in the L.A. area, thereby very favorably influencing a spate of future filmmakers such as Tarantino and Jarmusch. Film school, in a box.

In the 2004 documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, we learn not only about how such a maverick station influenced so many, but also of the madness within its brainchild. Jerry Harvey was, by most of the talking head accounts in this movie, a caring and generous individual. His devotion to Z Channel, as well as film preservation, was legendary in the business. But he was also quite tortured. A major catalyst involved the suicides of both of his older sisters in the 70s. These events would perhaps influence his difficulty with his attempts at marriage. How much it influenced him in his decision to murder his second wife (before turning the gun on himself) in 1988, might only be conjectured.

Many of the interviewees in this doc do just that, in between a liberal sampling of clips from so many of the films that graced Z Channel. Director Xan Cassavettes (daughter of John) weaves a mostly seamless pastiche of footage and discussion, about 50/50 on Harvey's life and his obsession. Either subject could fill its own 2 + hours. At times, Z CHANNEL gets a bit frustrating for this reason. Just as we're engrossed with Harvey's life, the doc switches gears. Then, as the film geekery reaches a crescnedo, we're back in Harvey's Rorschach of despair.

However, this film still works on both accounts. It would also serve to further frustrate me that I was not around to subscribe to such a channel. Z would degenerate, following Harvey's death, into a mishmash of programming that would include professional wrestling and other sporting events. In 1989, it would sign off forever; its final film, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

As it was, when my family started receiving HBO and Showtime, my jones for film deepened, perhaps reaching the level on par with that of Jerry Harvey's. With Z Channel, I may well have never left the house.....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Conversation



Harry Caul is the sort of fellow who slips in an elevator and remains unnoticed, even if it's just you and him. His unassuming appearance is your standard drab rumpled raincoat and blank expression. He may make eye contact with you for a split second, but he's usually too self conscious. He'll get off on some floor and remain unseen, part of the wallpaper. If he ever committed a crime, eyewitnesses would have the damndest time recollecting his features with any distinction or accuracy.

In other words, he's perfect for his job as a surveillance expert. As clandestine as he already is, perhaps passersby may not give him a second glance when he's somewhere he perhaps shouldn't be, carefully mounting a microphone in an attempt to capture a lunch hour chat outdoors. Typical job for a wiretapper. He works with precision, usually solo. Sometimes he needs collaborators in his spying, using a guy wearing a mic, other techs wearing headphones in a nondescript van just yards away from the target. The conversation in question will be the basis for a sinister plot. This is to be no concern for Harry, as usual. He's employed to document, record, not interpret.

But Harry already has blood on his hands. A previous assignment led to three deaths. He knows this, but guilt isn't part of it, at least not the job. He'll visit a priest to confess petty shoplifting on his own time, but a job's a job. Part of his studied, unwavering focus in his work stems from a reconciliation that ethics, responsibility, even civic duty are distractors that only muddy the water and prevent accuracy. The information he collects is just that, pieces of oxide on tape.

This new assignment requires the use of several microphones placed atop different vantage points. Harry will distill the separate recordings into one, a process we get to observe. Writer/director Francis Coppola patiently guides us through Harry's craft, never rubbing our noses in his (or Harry's) technique. As Harry listens, he suddenly feels compelled to play detective. This is an unadvised deviation, but he can't help himself. He listens over and over, the clarity of the words indeed suggesting something quite evil is being planned. The implications, the tone of words will reveal themselves through layers of both tape and mental clarity. Or insanity. For the first time, Harry will be led to intervene, perhaps becoming undone in the process.

THE CONVERSATION is one of the best films ever made. I'm not one to just throw such a statement out there. I've seen thousands of films. The accepted classics, generally agreed upon masterpieces that I likewise admire and laud. I've also seen many sleepers that sneaked up on me. Coppola's 1974 film is both, a quiet gem that, in my opinion, is as disturbing and fascinating as any of the great films of Bunuel, Ozu, Welles, Bresson, Antonioni. Such a simple scenario, explored not with grandiosity, but rather a beautifully modulated central performance by Gene Hackman (reputed to be his favorite role) and script by the director.

The statements made about privacy are as salient as ever. In 1974, the Nixon tapes were likely on the minds of many viewers (comments?). What a timely subject this must've made! Surveillance has, of course, exponentially grown technologically since then. Are we ever truly alone? Harry will wonder this himself during the devasting closing scene. Are we supposed to hear the words of others? Are we playing God by eavesdropping? Harry may well be asked that. His choice to intervene on his latest case prompts some theological questions. Does God have a conscience?

Part of the brilliance of THE CONVERSATION is the stillness. Deliberately edited, minimally directed, patiently acted, this film allows us to really ponder the central dilemma. We're there when Harry, after attempting to be a bit social at a party, has a nightmare that contains those haunting words from the conversation. The words he hears over and over. Sleep provides no relief. He'd kill us if he got the chance. He also hears a train horn. We're not sure if a train is really chugging past Caul's San Francisco apartment; its wail making its way into the dream.Like when you leave the radio on as you sleep. Or is it a memory? Is there really an audible call?

By the end, Harry will pay for his involvement. His evolution from detatchment to participant will be raw and painful, but perhaps will save his soul. Or damn it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

X: The Unheard Music



The Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late 1970s was a seismic revolution in music appreciation. I didn't say "in the music industry" because the record labels in the same town seemed oblivious to this powderkeg. There were too many units of Air Supply and Boston and various softer fare to be shipped. Relatively safe, radio friendly music was what kept the shekels flowing. Who the hell was going to play this cacophanous noise? It didn't fit any known radio format. Only college stations, on the far left of your dial, would give 'em a spin. How, er, "punk rock" of them.

Elektra, a divsion of Warner Brothers, was a bit different. To their credit, they would sometimes sign acts that didn't always conform to the predictability of most pop, acts like X. Acts that dispensed with the usual ingredients. Say "melody" to a punk musician or fan and you're likely to get a sigh, or roll of the eyes, or maybe even a middle finger. These were angry, dissonant howls of pain. Shredding guitars, polyrhythmic, pounding drumming, and even feedback was used in the mix. Not necessarily anthems with which you could sway with your cigarette lighter or swill your Budweiser; these were atonal chants, filled with nausea and truth. As Moby states in the liner notes of X's retrospective collection, Beyond & Back, The X Anthology:

"I loved X because they represented such a cool confluence of elements. They were so American and so punk rock and they somehow embodied this timeless poetic archetype of American desolation and exhuberance. Kind of like 'I'm drunk and depressed and it's too hot outside and there are diapers in the front lawn but life is so fucking special I'll go out and shoot out the windows in my car cos i'm full of rage and joy."


Bands like X, Black Flag, Germs, and many others (featured in the potent 1981 documentary THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION)were also self-commissioned as a response to what many called "dinosaur rock". The earlier 70s (and continuing) rock sound was dominated by stadium playing rock gods and "silly boys with lipstick on" glam lads. What had even been worse for the future punkers, the dreaded "prog rock" they had had to suffer with for years. King Crimson, Genesis, Yes. All guilty of creating epic long dirges of sci-fi reaching, philosophical blathering. Punk rock was the antidote: short, fast, staccato hit-and-runs that knocked you senseless before you knew what hit you. And the lyrics. All wounded tales of real life. Romance always ended in jealousy and separation. Vomit and shards of glass were everywhere. There were political rantings, too. The Clash would go on to rail in song after song against Thatcherist London. Sid Viscious would spout profanity on the BBC. This was a revolution, on both sides of the pond.

Back in L.A., Ray Manzarek, former keyboardist for The Doors, checked out X and was smitten enough to produce (and play on) their first few albums. The Doors, of course, had been signed with Elektra as well. While Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins blew out their vocal folds pretty much all of the time, X's lead singer Exene Cervenka also allowed for some glorious harmonizing with bassist John Doe. Indeed, many of their tunes reflected their love of Opryland-style twang. It was an odd combo, the punk sensibility meeting Hank Williams, but it worked. Rockabilly and bluesy. X's country leanings would even later result in a punk-free side project: The Knitters. Even folk influence would charge later X tunes, perhaps invoking the spirit of Woody Guthrie!

But we're here to speak of the 1985 doc, X: THE UNHEARD MUSIC. By the time it was released in a very limited theatrical run, the band had long since blazed their trails, had their legendary stands at the Whisky A Go-Go. The later albums were increasingly disappointing, the nadir coming with the overproduction on Ain't Love Grand!. Producer Michael Wagener made everything sound positively hair band. X goes Posion? Warrant? "Burning House of Love" is a good example. Album version = post production dreck. Live version on Beyond & Back = stripped down and groovy.

THE UNHEARD MUSIC is not a traditional documentary. Firstly, it is not a filmed performance; in fact, there are precious few live shots, period. The ones provided are potent, but more would've been appreciated. If you want to see some live X, you'd have to check out URGH! A MUSIC WAR (only bootleg DVD so far). The songs in this movie are lip synched by the band in a studio. It still rocks. Take this movie's advice: play it LOUD.

We also do not get an abundance of band interviews, at least not the sort where the artists sit and talk about themselves to the point of narcissism. There are recollections of the early days, but not filled pointed insight. This band had a lot of drama, particularly between John and Exene, who were a couple for many years. Much of their music told their true life stories, the emotional bloodshed that was occuring. Of course, so did that of Fleetwood Mac. I think of all the perhaps unwatchable, unguarded moments between Exene and John, but the movie doesn't attempt to be a fly on the wall.

This movie is a cinematic collage. Pieces of lots of things that don't seem to connect at first glance. We hear record execs explaining how the music industry works. They tout more traditional acts, politely explaining that X just doesn't quite make for neat categorization (and slick marketing). Then we cut to steam-of-consciousness visuals. The most mesmerizing for me involves a journey through L.A. neighborhoods, set to the title track. We trail behind and around an entire house behind transported on a trailer. Slowww journey, destination unknown. We see the blur of streetlamps and tailights. The driving force of the music, unexplainably fitting to such a quiet visual. It's almost philosophical, the implications of which will doubtless differ from viewer to viewer. I was strangely reminded of the floating plastic grocery bag from AMERICAN BEAUTY. If that clicks with you, you may get the essence of my gist, here.

We also get a taste of the spirit of what it might've been like to be in a sweaty pit at an X show. "We're Desperate" from the group's fabulous debut record, Los Angeles, is given a frantic, machine gun edited assault of visuals that pounds with the force of a Wilhelm scream. A roundhouse of photos, artwork, animation. If we slow it down you have what reseembles the most disturbing coffee table book ever. Beautifully grotesque. The centerpiece, however, is "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts", accompanying war footage. Unabashedly left-wing, and extremely powerful. Partisanship, actually, should not figure into it. Strong meat.

I suspect some X fans will be disappointed with THE UNHEARD MUSIC. Those expecting the typical ingredients. This is no tabloid tell-all, no filmed record. This is a rough assemledge of the ideas of the band, the aura. Director W.T. Morgan spent 5 years piecing this movie together, and it plays like the cinematic equivalent of a rummage through someone's box of keepsakes. All that impractical stuff you amass over the years, yet can't quite discard due to the strong sentimental value.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dazed & Confused



In all likelihood, when someone brings up the 1993 film DAZED AND CONFUSED, you'll immediately think of something like what you see in the above photo. Especially if you've never actually seen this movie. The advertising campaign did not help, as the posters featured the ubiquitous 1970s yellow happy face, the "Have a Nice Day" logo. Things were altered a bit, as the happy guy's eyes were now quarter slits, the familiar smile a bit crooked. When I asked people what they thought of the film (I didn't see it until 1997), I got, "stoner classic, maaaan!" or some variation.

Just great, I thought. Did I want to spend an hour and a half with a bunch of potheads doing that annoying falsetto stoner laugh, or worse yet, spouting a bunch of pseudo-philosophical bullshit that only makes sense to the similiarly impaired? I skipped the original theatrical release; the movie remained unseen by me until one lonely summer Saturday night four years after its release. I had just had a fight with my girlfriend. We were setting up my new apartment. I can't recall what the fight was about, exactly. She sped away and I was left with an empty apartment. I sat and brooded for awhile, then decided to go rent a movie. Something lighthearted and funny, as they say.

That damned happy face gazed at me from the shelf at Blockbuster. "Pick me, buuuud." I was resistent. I read the synopsis on the box and was not encouraged. Then I figured I might as well spend time with people who were at least having a good time. I sure wasn't. Fictional people, but what the heck. I just prayed the movie wouldn't be too stupid.

My viewing that night not only cheered me up, but began what has become 12 years of admiration.DAZED AND CONFUSED has become one of my all time favorite films, especially since Criterion issued a deluxe 2-disc set in 2006, complete with a greatly anticipated (and candid) commentary track by writer/director Richard Linklater. The set also includes screen tests and interviews with the actors while they are in character. Hearing them speak of their roles, learning from them and the director as to the care in preparation that was taken in the creation of these parts has really deepened my appreciation. You really get to know these people. Certainly, they will remind you of people you've known.

They're not just types, but three dimensional portrayals, filled with nuance and a refreshing lack of flash. There were no big stars in the cast. At the time, Ben Affleck (O'Bannion), Matthew McConaughey (Wooderson), Parker Posey (Darla), and others were just starting in their careers, perhaps debuting in their first professional gig. They and others would go on to varying levels of fame, but in DAZED they were just faces, their anonymity perhaps working in their favor during the original release. This ain't no star vehicle, no megastar ensemble. Everyone is just right in their carefully written parts, chosen because they were right, not because they were stars.

Linklater sets his film on the last day of school in 1976 in a Texas suburb, one similiar to where he grew up. Fairly autobiographical. The director's attempts to capture place and especially time are letter perfect. Very careful attention is paid not only to all the artifacts of the period: the clothes, the cars, the trinkets, but also the attitudes. Everyone seems shellshocked, hence the film's title. Years of turmoil had raged across American soil. Wars, assassinations, and the disgrace of the President left everyone more than a little dazed and confused. This was the mid-1970s, a chunk of that most curious of decades.

Curious for me beacuse even though I was around, I was just a child. In '76 I was seven years old. A first and second grader, way younger than even the youngest in this movie. But I remember the scene, the mood. The "Spirit of '76" banners indeed were everywhere. The older kids chased us around the neighborhood just as it happens in this film (not paddling us, thank goodness). I spied some of them smoking in the boy's room, the alleys, behind the backstops on the baseball field. I was too young to know what they were smoking, but I'll bet it was often the herbals the characters in DAZED partake. These characters, especially the perpetually high Slater (Rory Cochrane), almost make a religion out of the practice. They're not thinking of schoolwork, they're constantly planning the next meet-up, the next party. And there will be beer and particularly some mary jane there, dude. They won't be fazed by a house party that is foiled when someone's parents figure out what's up for the evening. They'll just find a new venue, perhaps an open field with a large moon tower. Nothing's changed much, although getting the word about about such gatherings is sooo much easier with texting these days. In '76, you had to find a pay phone (and hope you had a dime in your pocket).

My high school years were not exactly like this. I did not get high and though I did drink here and there, it was never to get blitzed. My co-workers at my first job at a fast food joint were all potheads, but I wasn't interested. I didn't often go to many parties like the ones seen in DAZED, either; my social calendar was primarily filled with church activities. You know, pizza and Coca-Cola while Amy Grant played in the background. Choir practice. But many of my high school classmmates did schedule keggers in the woods west of town. Maps would be passed out on Monday morning advertising the following weekend's festivities! I attended one or two reluctantly, mostly feeling like Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi)-out of place.

But, DAZED gets it all right, regardless of the time period. Kids will be kids. Cliques will form, those who think too much (and verbalize to that effect) will be relegated to the social margins. As Linklater states, "(during your high school years) it just isn't sexy to have a worldview." The more affluent will run mainly with their own. Those who just want to party will likely be accepted, at least part of the time. There will also be at least one guy, like Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), who will run with pals in different social circles. He'll josh with his teammates on the football team, play poker with the intellectuals, smoke with the stoners.

As you watch this movie a few times, you inevitably will start seeing yourself in one or more of the characters. I identified with Pink, as I did have close friends in wildly different strata. I could certainly commiserate with Mike, the tortured, overanalytical guy; Tony, always pontificating on Life; and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the freshman who's getting a quick lesson in high school politics. I knew guys like Benny (Cole Hauser), straight-arrow jock; Jodi (Michelle Burke) the cheerful, down to earth girl who just wanted to have fun without anyone getting hurt; Darla, the bitch on wheels who delighted in tormenting those who dared carry fake Gucci purses and the like, and many others.

What makes this a movie a classic for me? It sounds merely like a filmed party, right? There isn't any real interest in a "plot" here, as the camera meanders from one character to another, just like it did in Linklater's first film, SLACKER. We get to spend about 18 hours with a wildly diverse bunch, all beautifully realized. What separates this film from legions of others is the tone. This is no drenched in nostalgia wallow. As Linklater states on the commentary, the 70s were a crappy time, but it was the "only time we had." Every teenager finds him or herself in a similiar dilemma.

This look back at a simpler time is presented in a way that might be described as curious. Like maybe the aliens from Michelle's (Milla Jovovich)song came down and filmed the proceedings, the mores of a different culture. It plays like the coolest documentary you've ever seen. DAZED rarely goes for the best camera angle, the most romantic point of view (other than a close-up of somone rolling a joint). It just documents. Moves the camera around to capture what people are doing, but something off to the side may be more interesting.....? Maybe we'll drift over there, maybe not. Linklater's filmmaking style employs many of the techniques used in 70s films, so as to add to the feel. I kept waiting for the trademarked panning shot that dissolves into something else, like we saw in so many films of that era, but didn't get it. If you watch the sequence in 1978's SUPERMAN, where the superhero is kneeling in the desert over a lifeless Lois Lane, you'll recognize it. Otherwise, Linklater nails the look.

The soundtrack is rich with what is now called classic rock, with familiar songs by Aerosmith, Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, KISS. Also, lesser knowns like Black Oak Arkansas. Every track is well used, not just narrating but also offering commentary to a scene. Lots of directors do this. What I like here is how Linklater creates this sense that these songs are constantly on the minds of the characters, ringing in their heads with their every move. Note Wooderson's swagger into a pool hall as Dylan's "Hurricane" fills the soundtrack. Actually, the deft use of Ted Nugent's hypnotic "Stranglehold" is an even better theme song for McConaughey's character, suggesting this seductiveness that the character oozes, even though he's actually just a 20-something hanger-on still carousing with high-schoolers.

The best thoughts I've read about DAZED AND CONFUSED described the film this way: for all of the film's accuracy in depicting 70s suburbia and its associated ennui, this is not a film of how it was, but how it is remembered. Like a dissconnected daydream. Linklater admits that DAZED was his opportunity to "make things right" by giving characters the cool muscle cars he never had, the follow-through on getting back at class bullies, etc. As we age, we tend to idealize those high school years.

When I watch this film now, I approach it as if it is one of the character's latter day musings. Decades later, long out of high school. Let's say Pink, in 2009, is stuck in a boring meeting, or maybe just kicking back after a long day. His mind takes flight, recalling his halcyon youth, idealizing all those good times after the football game, all the beer blasts, the illicit encounters in the woods. Maybe they happened, maybe they didn't happen quite the way we see it here. But he's making it right, just like Linklater did. He smiles and remembers uttering the film's immortal line, "If these are the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Watchmen



Disclaimers: This review is based on the "Director's Cut" and contains spoilers.


WATCHMEN has proven tough for me to review. I am not very familiar with the beloved comic. I have no knowledge of the considerable backstory of this highly involved story. I'm not sure if director Zack Snyder's big screen version does the tale justice. Reports are that it is slavishly faithful in its adaptation (by David Hayter and Alex Tse). In and of itself, I count that as a good thing. We've all experienced the disappointment of a filmed novel. Usually diluted, sometimes almost changed beyond recognition (see: SIMON BIRCH). Once in a while, a director's vision will be an improvement (see: LOVE STORY), but most of the time the viewer is left wanting. We've covered this ground before, invisible audience: how can anything measure up to the grand images you've conjured in your head? It's a recipe for frustration.

The fandom of the Watchmen graphic novel are a tough bunch, I'll bet. They're fiercely loyal, ready with their fine tooth combs and rifle scopes alike to approach this movie. I can only report on the movie itself. How it succeeds or fails may elude me in terms of the original ideas. After reading my review, I suspect some fans may level those scopes in my direction as well.

Superheroes are continuing to be re-examined in contemporary cinema. You don't see innocent, clean-cut treatments of do-gooders like the 1960s Batman or the Christopher Reeve SUPERMANs lately. Today, we get tormented, conflicted sociopaths who may be compelled and/or driven to punish evil, but have a bitch of a time taming their own demons. Makes for some high drama. Last year's Batman sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT reached for very dark places, finding that very thin line between nemeses. Good vs evil? Is it that cut and dried? The line is not only blurred in WATCHMEN, but obilterated. With characters like Edward Blake, AKA The Comedian, effective at dispatching criminals but also an abusive lout who engages in attempted rape and murders anyone he fancies, we are in very different territory than before, especially for a DC comic. At least as far as the movies have shown us.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose death sets this story in motion, was a originally a member of a 1940s group of caped crusaders known as the Minutemen. None had the usual superpowers of X-ray vision and levity, but rather a serviceable amount of brain and/or brawn and no fear. They were respected by citizens and feared by lawbreakers. The Minutemen took out the trash that the police force could not.

Time marched on, and age wore on the heroes, just like it would upon anyone. New blood came on the scene, assuming the roles of savior, defender. One such subject was a physicist named Jon Osterman. He began as an innovative researcher, but one day found himself the victim of one of those lab accidents you often see in movies where he is trapped in some sort of particle chamber, his colleagues unable to unlock the door to rescue him. Osterman undergoes some serious metabolic (and metaphysical) changes. He emerges as a blue, unfortunately often buck naked, muscular titan dubbed "Dr. Manhattan" for reasons that are certainly relevent for the time period. Now, a bona-fide superhero with super powers was born.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is what you might call, yes, a deity. He is omnipresent, able to see backward and forward into time at any moment, able to teleport to the surface of Mars and not need breathing apparatus. In one sense, he's kinda like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time. "Time" as we measure it does not apply to him. He occupies space, we can see and hear him, but he's in another dimension (actually so is the entire world of this story). He becomes a (perhaps the) key member of a new batch of heroes. The Watchmen.

Times change. By the 70s, society has grown weary of these vigilantes, enough so to picket them when they show up to rescue someone! Ah, how we love to knock our gods off pedestals. In this alternate USA, President Richard Nixon (who would go on to serve 5 terms) has even banned the Watchmen from doing their work. "Badges not Masks" the protestors yell. The Watchmen begin to retire, to mainstream themselves. One, Ozymandias, "the world's smartest man", reveals his identity to the world and assumes a business mogul's mantle. He uses his real name, Adrian Veidt, one that becomes as symbolic as that of his costumed persona, what with that last name adorning fearsome buildings (and flying elephants advertising restaurants) all over the city. He has a bit of meglomania in his blood, explaining that "the only person with whom I felt any kinship with died three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander of Macedonia, or Alexander the Great, as you know him."

Dr. Manhattan has not retired, of course. He's too powerful. He ended the Vietnam War in a mere week when Nixon sent him to intervene, after all. Why hasn't he been likewise successful with the Cold War? WATCHMEN's action takes place in 1985, and in this alternate world, much like the real one we perhaps remember, relations are chilly between Eastern and Western comrades. So tense is the arms race that Nixon keeps updating the Doomsday clock and the Def-Con status. Perhaps Manhattan can't quickly fix things because neutralizing threats is more difficult. Even being all knowing may not provide the answers. It certainly doesn't preclude him from not intervening when the Comedian cold bloodedly shoots a Vietnamese woman who's carrying his baby. Manhattan seems maybe taken aback; the Comedian gives his verdict. "You could've turned the gun into steam, the bullets into mercury..... but you didn't, did you? You really don't give a damn about human beings. You're driftin' out of touch, Doc. God help us all." Sounds like the "god" many people curse?

Another Watchman still at work is the tormented Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, in by far the best performance), a lanky man clad with an odd mask with constantly shifting ink patterns. He's a bitter soul, the victim of a tough upbringing (aren't they all) who lurks in grimy alleyways and does all the dirty work. As he narrates in his gravelly brogue, sounding like Clint Eastwood, he explains that he's thoroughly disgusted with the justice system and its rehabilitative bent. There's no rehab, just justice, in his world. Meteing out punishment to the wicked is his only reason for existence. He's not conflicted, just pissed, and he directs this energy toward ridding the society he hates of scum he hates even more. If he's also some sort of god, he's not very loving or forgiving.

The murder of the Comedian sparks concern among both the Watchmen and their forefathers, the long retired Minutemen. More are soon picked off, then even some of their evil arch-rivals of many years as well. Rorschach initiates an investigation. Nite Owl II, ne Dan Dreiberg, has been out of action but suits up again, joined by another second generation fighter (and girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan), Laurie Jupiter, or Silk Spectre II.

This is a huge, ambitious film. Snyder is obviously in love with the source material, and his enthsiastic (if imperfect) direction manages to call attention to itself at almost every turn. It's a visual feast. Tis must have been spectacular in IMAX. I saw it under optimal conditions myself, on a 72 inch HD television with a Blu-Ray disc. There's no denying that the pallatte is full of color, especially during the impressive title credit sequence, which documents the Minutemen and Watchmen through history, their interactions with key figures like JFK and even Andy Warhol, all set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'".

WATCHMEN takes itself very seriously, as is the tendency of these sorts of epics. The older SUPERMAN films worked so well because they contained a generous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor; a lot of send-up in addition to some straight faced storytelling. Maybe it's just the age we're in. Why so serious, indeed? Now, I'm not opposed to a sober narrative free of cheeky gags, but even a hint of relief prevents something no artist wants to occur, the unintentional laugh.

And there are lots of them in this movie. I laughed all the way through, in fact. Yep, I can hear the rifles cocking, the torches being lit. But guys, how could I not laugh during the following scenes?

1. While Dr. Manhattan is having relations with laurie, we see two sets of his hands carressing her. Turns out there are 3 Manhattans trying to pleasure her at once! She freaks out, gets dressed. She doesn't like that. It IS kinda weird. But the big laugh for me came a second later, when she discovers a fourth Dr. was still working in the next room all the while! Talk about multi-tasking! Laurie really doesn't like this. "All of my attention was on you," the Dr. insists.

2. Dr. Manhattan is usually naked. He's blue from head to toe. This is inherently ridiculous, good intentions for the integrity of his character or otherwise. Sorry, but male nudity is just silly. When he appears at public engagements,of course he does wear clothes. Other times, he sometimes wears a thong. Uh, how about keeping that on there, doc? You could spare a little more CGI, no? The only upside here is when he occasionally grows to giant size, towering over a building, we are spared a view of his mega sized blue junk.

3. Any scene during which we hear Dr. Manhattan's voice. At times, I thought I was
listening to HAL from 2001.

4. Frustrated with Dr. Manhattan's inability to be human and caring, Laurie seeks the comfort of Dan, who at first suffers from some um, performance anxiety. Later, when Dan decides to be Nite Owl II again, clad in supersuit and all, we see in a rather explicit scene that his potency has returned with a vengeance! Hmm, I'll bet this will fuel a few role playing fanatsies for the audience. But even better, when Nite Owl and Silk finally get it on, we are treated to Leonard Cohen's cover of "Hallelujah"! C'mon, guys! Really?

5. During a prison sequence (Rorschach gets himself jailed), dwarf actor Danny Woodburn turns up as one of the many irate criminals who Rorschach was responsible for originally apprehending. He's apparently the ringleader of a gang of much larger, similiarly angry convicts. While I'm sure Woodburn wants to be taken seriously as an actor, it's just hard not to laugh when you see him, esecially after his work on Seinfeld. This is just one of my things-I couldn't stop laughing at the Russian accents in EASTERN PROMISES, either.

6. Self-consciously symbolic dialogue throughout. An example: Laurie puts on a pair of Nite Owl's night vision goggles. Nite Owl: "Even in the darkest places, that mask helps me see things clearly" (something like that).

7. Speaking of Laurie, yes, as played by Malin Akerman, she's very cute but the acting is quite awful.

8. Dan (Patrick Wilson) is also made to look like mid-80s Chevy Chase (think the VACATION movies or FLETCH) when he's not being Nite Owl II. Even the glasses!

Snyder also supplies lots of homages in WATCHMEN. THe most obvious is his virtual restaging of the war room scenes from DR. STRANGELOVE. This time, we've got Nixon holding court, cussing profusely as he contemplates the Russians' next move. Kissinger is next to him, filled with pessimism. The angle of the shot is identical to Kubrick's: the shots are filled with the same overhead lights, the arc of the table, the line of faces at the tables. What's missing? Potent satire. If Snyder was going for that, he failed.

Other films I thought of as I watched this movie: DARKMAN, UNFORGIVEN, and of course, THE DARK KNIGHT. Before that 2008 stunner, we were treated to a lengthy trailer for WATCHMEN, so the connections run deep. I couldn't help but be reminded of that earlier, much better film, at the conclusion of this one. Dr. Manhattan is banished from earth for allowing some really awful things to happen (see it and find out). He did not intervene, did not prevent certain destruction. Because of someone else's actions, he is deemed a pariah, even by the President. Similiar things happened to Batman, if on a much smaller scale. Interesting parallels. Very different results.

Oh, one more movie I thought of. Remember that silly superhero spoof MYSTERY MEN, the Ben Stiller vehicle featuring a disparate group of misfit superheroes? I'm guessing the filmmakers weren't trying to evoke memories of that one, but they certainly did. Oops!