Friday, April 29, 2011

Chicago

Some weeks back my wife and I flew to one of my favorite cities: Chicago. The purpose (as if one needs one for such a cool town): the annual AAA (American Academy of Audiology) convention. Regular readers may recall that I've described this annual event over the past 2-3 years. It is a large (this year, over 7,000 audiologists and industry people, the highest attendance ever) gathering for the purposes of continuing education for the clinicians and wares hawking for the exhibitors: hearing aid companies, publishers, earmold factories, etc. etc. Last year's event gave me a certain amount of pause as I reflected on how my attitude towards the event changed since my inaugural trip to Washington D.C. in 2005.

This year I had similiar ruminations, noting how comparatively few of my old classmates and professors I saw, but the ones I saw were significant - including the preceptor who was my clinical nemesis back in school. Oh, the drama. As I've said, then and now we get along just swell outside the clinic. We exchanged hugs and kisses and all that. She had left Florida and began a post in another educational facility; she seemed quite content, if a bit greyer in the follicles.

This year I spent more time alone than in the past, and was just fine with that. I had no particular goals in bittersweet reunions, though there were a few. I was happy doing my thing, going to the sessions I wanted to (mainly vestibular and tinnitus related), then meeting my wife for a night on the town after each day's business was done.

Oh, and as always, the hearing aid company Starkey threw a big bash - this time a private Blues Brothers concert at the House of Blues downtown. Yes, it really was Dan Aykroyd as Elwood, with Jim Belushi filling the wide black shoes left by his brother John as Jake almost 30 years earlier. Great, energetic show. Despite these guys being in their 60s, they were falling on their backs and propelling themselves back up as they blew into harmonicas. Starkey thankfully handed out foam earplugs at the door; it would be the first time I ever utilized them. It was damned loud in that place, an old opera house, I believe. The plugs were quite efficient: not a cymbal crash or bass note was lost, but the levels were just lowered to a safe region that would not cause Temporary Threshold Shift.

Outside of my travels within the McCormick Place Convention Center (a gargantuan venue, easily one of the largest I've ever seen) we walked what seemed like most of the city, past Soldier Field and the Shedd Aquarium (my wife hit it one afternoon along with the famous, also gargantuan Field Museum) and Rush Street, where we had the (in)famous deep dish pizza for which Chicago is well known. We ate at Giordano's, but Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due and Gino's are longer established. Near Rush, we had drinks with a cousin at the cozy 5th floor bar at the Peninsula Hotel. I loved this place; plush furniture, dark, woody, fireplace, incredible drink selection (the spirit and even non-alcoholic lists were extensive).

We also visited Millenium Park, within view of the Chicago Tribune building. The above shot features the "bean" a steel oval structure you can walk under. It endlessly fascinates vistors with its convex reflections of a magnificent cityscape. Interestingly, during one of my afternoons at the Convention, my wife decided to take in a movie after her first visit to the park and its famous bean. The movie: SOURCE CODE, set in Chicago. Jake Gyllenhaal et al. racing around all the locations my wife had just seen! Surreal. Earlier that day, she had also walked through the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park. Ever see FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF? Recall the scene when Cameron becomes hypnotized by this famous work:
This work is titled "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette" by Georges-Pierre Seueret. My wife snapped this and several other well known pieces. Wish I had been there with her that day - it would've been surreal for me as well.

This was my 3rd visit to Chicago. The first was in 1999, when I lucked into Cubs tickets and got to hear Harry Caray sing during the 7th inning stretch. In 2005, we went to see see two of my classmmates tie the knot in the suburbs before we looked down from the top of the Hancock building. I love this town. Something so inviting, relatively peaceful about it. Still coolly urban but not rife with the sort of unease other cities often have. The Midwestern genuineness seems to be alive and well there, despite rampant political corruption and the sort of corrosive crime we see elsewhere. My view remained untainted, even as we saw some of the more depressed parts of the city. Difficult to put into words. It's another town that feels like home. Might even be worth braving those punishing winters and lake effect snows someday.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Natural Born Killers

If you brandish a critical eye towards films and filmmaking, you'll eventually be able to note if a director has "got it". Someone who knows the craft, and/or has worked as a director or part of the crew, can break down for you the tech, can tell you how to block, coax "business" from the actors, etc. That's part of it, but there's also some unexplainable quality that distinguishes a scene or an entire movie, something that you can't put into words. Something beyond "great use of Widescreen" or "wow, great dolly" or "impressive tracking".

It was clear to me long ago that Oliver Stone was a director who had "it". PLATOON impressed me for many reasons, but mainly for how Stone encouraged (not overly dictated) a chaotic atmosphere that felt real (and he knew the territory). As silly as I thought WALL STREET was, it was clear that there was a stylist behind the camera. TALK RADIO was even more impressive in that regard. Even as Stone's films became long winded, rambling (but still interesting) attention deficit fests (JFK, THE DOORS), there was still an electricity, a cinematicism that was undeniable. By 1994, NATURAL BORN KILLERS was unleashed. My enthusiasm came to a grinding halt during a viewing one sad afternoon.

If you're familiar with this movie at all, you'd think the opposite to be true. This is an insanely creative, frantic piece of cinema. Like some of Stone's more recent at the time, it was a wonder of editing. But, sometimes the reach exceeds the grasp. Sometimes you get carried away and lose all of your original intentions. This movie sets out to satirize our sensational media, its fixation with violence, and the human monsters who mete it out. It goes to great lengths to illustrate how we've all become numbed to the most horrific events, eventually even pushed past that to champion murderers and other assorted fiends. The media is a big and easy target. What happens when the movie you're making is just as lurid and violent as the thing you're taking to task?

Producer Jane Hamsher disagrees that that last sentence would apply to NATURAL BORN KILLERS. She and Don Murphy produced this film, an adaptation of a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (a story in itself). In her entertaining book, Killer Instinct , Hamsher relays some of the on-set intrigue, how Stone ran the production like a martinet overlording a team of minions, how shooting in a real prison with real prisoners got out of control (as these scenarios tend to, we've learned), and so on. She also devotes ink to explain her bewilderment as to critics' reception of this film. Many said what I said above, and she wonders through the latter pages of her memoir how many "just didn't get it". Oh, I got the message, all right. Two hours of bludgeoning really got the point across. Oh, and that very last scene, where we see an insulting montage of clips of O.J. and Tonya Harding? I think that was included for any dimbulbs in the audience who might've thought this movie was endorsing violent behavior. I think most of us "got it". But, I'm only calling things as I see it.

Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) become celebrities as they murder hapless folks across the U.S.A. Some might call them a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, though they're quite a bit cruder, even moreso than the antiheroes in KALIFORNIA. In Stone's film, the victims are judged to be deserving, most of the time. Mallory's abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, first seen in an awkward sequence attempting to send up sitcoms)had it coming, and so did that kid at the gas station who tries to have his way with her. But many others are just caught in the crossfire as the duo races across the Southwest, soon with an equally repugnant reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) taping their exploits. Along the way, they'll get caught and escape a few times, leaving bloody prisons riots in their wake. It all makes for great television. We are told this over and over. And then told again. This movie isn't in-your-face, it's a full-nelson to the ground.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS was released several years before reality TV left its vapid impint on the nation's viewing habits. Seen today, it seems prescient. But shows like COPS were already around, and the aforementioned O.J. circus had recently shown the world a group of supportive Angelenos as they cheered when his slow moving Bronco passed on an L.A. freeway. In other words, this film's targets were ripe for the pickin'. I would've loved to have seen how Tarnatino had approached this, but instead we get Stone and co-writers Dave Veloz and Richard Rutrowski's thoroughly obvious, simplistic essay that simply does not know when to quit. Less is more! And to think there's an even longer Director's Cut!

It is an ordeal to watch this film at times, and not only because of the violence (though that will turn off many viewers). I was wincing at Stone's wild histrionics, his embarrasing attempts at making a statement through stylistics (the POV from the slow moving bullet in the diner scene is an example), his leaden approach. The film is directed and edited like what appears to be an acid trip (I can't tell you for sure, of course) that just pummels you with jump cuts and blunt imagery. The score by Trent Reznor is appropriate and selected songs by Cowboy Junkies, Leonard Cohen, The Specials, et. al, work well, but to what end? An obvious one. Sound and fury in and of themselves are not the most effective ways to make your statement without feeling the need for a shower afterwards. As I said, Stone's got the eye, but he really let it wander with NBK.

But, in amongst the manure are several pointed moments, most especially when Mickey and Mallory stop at an Indian reservation. Stone slows the pace and some of his tricks (words projected on the killers' bodies) actually work, but it's temporary. Over the years, I've thought about the moments in NBK that do work, and how much more interesting (and less vertigo-inducing) this film might've been. I don't usually advocate for remakes, but.....

Part VI, The Great Overrated

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mrs. Miller

Her falsetto reaches some dizzying heights on "Tomorrow Never Knows" too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kick-Ass

I did not grow up with superhero films like this. No, I instead marveled at Christopher Reeve in a red and blue cape and Lou Ferrigno painted green. Sure, there were also darker comic strip films like CREEPSHOW and HEAVY METAL, but caped crusaders' exploits were family friendly adventures with only the mildest of innuendoes and moderate violence. It is not 1980 any longer.

Many comic books were harsh and bloody, their pages filled with crushing physical and emotional brutality. Once I realized there were more interesting, tormented souls beyond what the League of Justice displayed on Saturday mornings, I began to see that the 70s/80s SUPERMANs were diluted and sanded down for your protection. Tim Burton introduced a heavier take with his BATMAN series in the late 80s/early 90s, and more recently WATCHMEN gave us R-rated superhero episodes.

Taking it a step further perhaps is director/co-writer Matthew Vaughan's 2010 midrange guilty pleasure called KICK-ASS, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. It's loaded with over-the-top violence and gore and rude language, much of it courtesy of a sweet 11-year old girl named Mindy who also goes by the name, "Hit-Girl". It's a deadly accurate moniker, as this kid can waste flanks of bad guys with pretty much any weapon you can imagine.

Mindy's mentor is her father, Damon/"Big Daddy" (Nicolas Cage, playing it with some eccentricity), who, as we learn in a nifty sequence employing comic book panels, was once a cop who sought to bring down a sleaze known as Frank D'Amico, a local mobster/drug dealer. D'Amico got Damon framed on some bogus charge, and after a stretch in the joint, Damon re-invents himself as Big Daddy, a powerful superhero who has an impressive arsenal. He makes a life out of seeking vengeance against D'Amico. After his wife dies giving birth to Mindy, Damon trains her to become the pint-sized slaughterhouse that is Hit-Girl.

Meanwhile, we also meet Dave (Aaron Johnson), a geeky high schooler who dreams of being a superhero. When your reality is bleak (girls ignore you, mother has passed away), it is natural to want to emulate the life of someone powerful and fearless. Dave orders a goofy green cape off the Internet and begins to stalk rooftops, realizing quickly that superhero work is dangerous stuff. Having not been born on another planet, bitten by a radioactive spider, or blessed with unlimited financial resources, he quickly finds this gig impossible. Then a few unfortunate, life-changing things happen and before long, he's actually holding his own against a gang that has cornered some luckless dude. Dave's brazeness (certainly more than those batons he wields) emerges victorious and the baddies walk away. A kid in a diner captures the entire episode with his phone.

Soon, the clip becomes a YouTube sensation. Dave dubs himself "Kick-Ass" and becomes yet another anonymous hero. His alter-ego fills the Internet and supplies fodder for reporter and late night comedian alike. But Dave still has no superpowers and can't really fight. He does have nerve and attitude. Would that be enough against a real foe, someone like D'Amico, who watches the media coverage and thinks this Kick-Ass guy may threaten his empire?

Dave and Mindy and Damon's stories soon overlap, the former realizing the other two are the real deal, able to put down societal scum with efficiency and force. An alliance forms. The tone of the film will darken a bit, but curiously KICK-ASS, despite a generous barrage of carnage, remains essentially an underdog story in which you root for some decent people. Bad people even have a change of heart at times?! Underneath the harshness, this is little different from the innocent cartoon escapades with which I grew up. How such a frantic, of-its-time film maintains such a tone is a tribute to the filmmakers.

But. Mindy (Chloe Moretz) does pepper more than one sentence with some dirty words, even the vile one which one of my old schoolmates called "the c u next Tuesday" word. Recall that she's 11 years old. She dispatches D'Amico's goons with gunfire, fisticuffs, and knifery in all parts of their anatomies, with some graphic bursts of gore. This disturbed some critics, but its description is much worse than how it plays. It isn't as disturbing as it sounds, strangely enough. Or maybe I'm just jaded? The violence here is so over stylized that it never feels realistic, never becomes disturbing the way it would in a more grounded film. This does exclude a torture scene late in the movie, it must be noted.

Vaughan and company have created a swift diversion that is great fun if you like this sort of thing. KICK-ASS is chaotic and sometimes ugly but is fast-moving and satisfying on some visceral level. Just don't let your kids watch it. You know, those who would most be attracted to it. On second thought, maybe A SAFE PLACE director Henry Jaglom had it right: Hollywood has long made movies for overgrown adolescents, by overgrown adolescents. Just look at the slate of new releases for 2011.....

Monday, April 4, 2011

Strange Fruit

Any time someone waves a Confederate flag, I wanna wave this right back.....