Saturday, December 29, 2012

There It Goes.....

As each year passes it just becomes more apparent...the older you are, the faster it goes. Like someone hit the fast forward button around my late 20s and Life hasn't slowed. A bit. When I was a kid, things seemed to move at a crawl. Especially Christmas. December was interminably long in those days. I would get little sleep on the Eve. Now, I look up and it's the 26th. And I slept till almost 9 on Christmas Morn.

This year's holiday time was quite nice.  As before, my wife and I made the rounds of visiting parents and assorted relatives, but this year there were more little ones to watch tearing into presents.  My wife's step-father had a long time coming reconciliation with his elder son this year, an answer to many's prayers. The son's 2 kids joined the annual Eve at my MIL's, and it was fun, aside from the in-the-family-for-generations Christmas dish that shattered as the children ran wild.

Also: my step-father-in-law's other son's daughter - the one I've mentioned was a bit of a brat on Christmas Eve in earlier posts - is growing into a polite little girl.

We again drove to Miami to see my FIL and his longtime girlfriend. They had a beautiful 10 foot  X-mas tree on their patio and we sat near it for an excellent paella dinner.  The temps were in the low to mid 60s. It was perfect. Less so was Christmas day weather, the typical 80 degree humid fest, but that's Florida for ya. On that day we also saw my mother, still in the rehab and still not getting out of bed. I don't know what else to write about this situation.

Instead of bringing my grandmother to see my mother per usual, my wife and I drove to a different facility, where my grandmother herself is a patient. On Thanksgiving morning, she fell again, pretty much clinching a long simmering decision of mine to keep her in a "home." I've been putting it off for years now, nagged by conscience and fears for her safety.  She turned 99 this past October. For her age, she does remarkably well.  But this year I had to take over her bookkeeping. She also began to fight a bit with her aides. I started receiving calls from Senior Services, rightfully concerned for her well being and safety.  After an unannounced visit, they complained of a dirty spot on her carpeting (they were very thorough).

She had fallen a few times in the past 12 years and each time came out with little worse than a bruise.  But this was it. She just can't be on her own, not even for a few seconds. Since she's been at the rehab, a weight has been lifted. As expected, she is quite upset, missing her apartment, but also resigned to undeniable realities. Even though she is now surrounded by staff and other residents, she still complains of loneliness, something she struggled with all those years in her place. It has been by far her biggest complaint.

2012 was otherwise a fairly quiet year. We did move again, from the 4th floor down to the first for reasons you can read about in an earlier entry. At first, I had little love for our new place. The combination of no carpets and vertical blinds made the place feel cheap and unhomy, but I've learned to appreciate its abundant brightness and reversed floorplan, which is more practical. I want to rip those blinds out but who knows how long we'll be there? I could be composing this entry from New York or Chicago next year. Very uncertain.

Yes, we still hope to flee South Florida in the near future. The developments with my grandmother have gotten us a bit closer to such a step, but it is still a mystery as to when it will finally happen. There are lots of things that have to fall into place. I still wish that I can take my job with me as it remains a fabulous place to work. My wife is still trying to decide her next vocational step, and where.

But there it goes...2012. Another year filled with triumph and tragedy the world over. The Mayans, or at least those who interpreted them, were wrong. How was your year?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

2011's WE BOUGHT A ZOO is one of those reliably warm and cozy films folks tend to like because it features decent people doing honorable things. Love conquers all.  Everything will be alright. Add to this that it is based on actual events.  My viewing of it came after watching several downbeat movies, and I have to say, it was a tonic. A feel-good movie (I don't usually toss about that term) that warrants that descrption. It was nice to spend time with characters who weren't eroded of morals. That Cameron Crowe, writer and director of several wonderful films like ALMOST FAMOUS and SINGLES, had made this movie was even more encouraging.

And his dialogue is primarily what separates ZOO from thousands of other feel-good pictures. While the scenarios of a bitter, shut-down teenage boy named Dylan (Colin Ford), who lost his mother 6 months earlier, sparring with his well-meaning but emotionally inert father Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) are time worn, their words seem realistic, not so written.

This is generally true for most exchanges in the movie, which follows the Mee family, including 7-year old Maggie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), as they move into a ramshackle old house, far away from the city and its memories of the deceased matriarch.  Benjamin loves the homestead at first sight, but then learns that on the property is an abandoned zoo, complete with staff (animal and human). This includes head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a potential love interest who spends every waking hour tending to her animals and indeed delivers an impassioned line about having to shovel tiger shit.

The cliches abound.  There's a scene with Dylan, entrusted to shutting the lights in a barn, who can't help but peek into a crate filled with exotic snakes.  He of course forgets to lock the box.  There's also a mildly hissable villain on hand, Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) a meticulous inspector who delivers acid tongued retorts and earns the near violent wrath of the zoo's carpenter, Peter (Angus Macfadyen). A bear escapes and wanders a neighborhood.  An aged tiger, on his last legs, is argued over as to whether to be put down. Benjamin nearly goes bankrupt keeping the zoo afloat.

But I didn't care about the nitpicks.  When a film has a heart as big as WE BOUGHT A ZOO, it is nearly impossible not to be disarmed. Crowe may be coasting a bit with this project, but his screenplay (co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna) is (unlike many "family" films) never patronizing or insulting to its viewers. Predictable, yes, but the characters are allowed to be intelligent, even if at times their nobility and cuteness threaten to turn the movie into a sapfest. My main beef is that the film is somewhat overlong, but honestly there is little I would change. The performers are all fine.  The human ones as well.

It's nice to be able to recommend an all-ages film that earns your time.  Plus, the director works in many cool tunes for the soundtrack (and a score by Jónsi, lead singer of Sigur Rós).  It wouldn't be a Crowe film without them.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas


May your Christmas (whether or not you celebrate) be filled with joy. May a quiet Peace be upon you and your loved ones.

Let whatever stress attached to this time of year melt away as believers consider the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Father Christmas

Possibly the only (secular) Christmas song you'll ever need.



Tuesday, December 18, 2012

That Time Again

Above you see the rose and pine centerpiece I won this year at the annual work holiday party. I was the lucky chap at the table who had a gold star on the underside of his Christmas coffee mug. It also came in handy the next day as we entertained my father-in-law and others for lunch.

I've posted about my workplace holiday parties most Decembers since I started this blog. They're fun to document, even if "nothing happened". That's an accurate way to describe this year's outing, held at the local culinary institute's restaurant. It's been a good spot for lunch or dinner for nearly 20 years, I think. Students manned the outdoor bar on a sunny but awfully humid and warm afternoon. I will refrain from my usual rant about holiday weather in Florida. Other students were visible in the open area kitchen and at carving stations, serving salmon and beef and also cooking up fresh pasta. Each station had excellent offerings. The food was easily the best of the 4 parties I've attended. The dessert table was deadly good, especially one of my new favorites, bread pudding. Like diabetes on a plate.

My practice has been around for well over 40 years. Some of the employees have been there for 30 plus, so I've heard the stories of the old days.  Got pretty wild. The good ol' liquid courage brought the party animal out of even the meekest. At this year's annual gathering with this gang, I observed an interesting tone shift. The first party was quite lively - you can read the post from 2009. The next at the Greek restaurant was even livelier, complete with sword wielding belly dancers. But these last 2 have been almost reserved. Last year there wasn't one flash of potential Monday morning embarrassment. This year, aside from this white boy's attempts (again) at gyrations on the dance floor, much the same.

The dancing came at the very end of the gathering, with 2 deejays spinning lots of contemporary dance pop with which I was not familiar. Well, other than "Gangnam Style" which cleared the floor in an instant. What an annoying track that is. I did flail around to that one at my wife's cousin's wedding reception back in October, but I knew better this time (and wasn't as intoxicated).

The mood was pretty close to solemn throughout the afternoon.  There was the occasional explosion of laughter at a table, but mostly polite smiles. Why? Have folks mellowed in their advancing age? Most of the crew had been with us for awhile.  The newbies have quiet personalities. There were several regulars who did not attend this year, a few who might've stirred things up.

There could be one perfect explanation: maybe they heard the news. Like I had, when I glanced at my phone right after the hors d'oeuvres. The terrible, inexplicable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. I read only a few sentences, but enough to ensure a hollow feeling in my gut that continues at the the time of this writing. I at first wanted to chat with others about it, but then thought the better of ruining everyone's afternoon.  There was the possibility of the whole thing degenerating into a gun control debate, to boot.  It was hard to be jolly as I thought of the chaos and tears. I wondered who in our group - the majority of them parents- were aware and trying to keep a happy face.

But I think the mood of the party also reflected some of the current dynamic in our practice.  The older physicians have a more carefree, even playful manner about them, even to this day. The Halloween pictures from years ago reveal some elaborate get-ups that even the top docs wore while seeing patients. Nowadays, very sparse. The younger docs are far more serious. Less social, less likely to kibbitz with patients about the golf game they shared the week before. Even our everyday lunches in the work kitchen are a telltale - the younger docs pretty much always eat at their desks while charting. I do much the same lately, though I try to sit at the table when I can, lest I appear a recluse.

For me, some of the enjoyment was also marred by the admission of a colleague who works in our other office (who I see in person maybe twice a year) of a rather tense e-mail exchange between she and another colleague. As well as our staff gets along, there's still the occasional dust-up. The ultimate resolution of the cyber dilemma was a bit disheartening. But she did relay her exciting engagement news. She's a wonderful person and I'm very happy for her.

But listen, overall it was still an enjoyable 4 hours. Staff anniversaries were again recognized and rewarded. Laughs were shared. I'm still very, very blessed to be among such a professional group, doing what I find very fulfilling. I look forward to more parties, even without the table dancing.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shoot the Piano Player

I watched Francois Truffaut's 1960 gem SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER again this past July 4th. It seemed, I dunno, wrong. Unpatriotic, even. But then I remembered that the French helped us in our Revolution, and then went off and had one of their own. Ce jour-là, je suis aussi français.

I was also reminded what a unique film this is. A tip of the hat to the American film noir, yes, but yet a Truffaut original. A wildly stylish affair sporting jump cuts, a devil-may-care attitude, and even a nude scene. Might this been a bit much for its original audiences? Some reasons why this film was not a box office draw?

A pianist named Charlie (Charles Aznavour) is framed behind the ivories in a semi-seedy Paris nightclub. He seems sad. There are gangsters hanging around. Charlie's brother's criminal activity again invades his life. He enjoys dalliances with his neighbor, a prostitute (yes, with a heart of gold; she even watches his young son), but life is far from joyous. In earlier, more hopeful days he was a professional musician named Edouard Saroyan. That was before his troubled wife jumped out a window after confessing that perhaps the only reason Edouard got an agent was because she slept with the guy.

A ray of hope? There's an attractive waitress at the club named Lena (Marie Dubois). Charlie likes her, but has significant reservations about how to approach her. As they stroll an avenue after closing one night, we hear his neurotic thoughts: Should I hold her hand? He's like Woody Allen from another era.

The complexity of gender relations forms a great deal of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. The 2 gangsters seen earlier kidnap our would-be couple, engaging them in a tennis match of a conversation about (mainly female) behavior. It's quite funny, the bluntness of one of the men's observations about women as if they are no more than black widows, enticing predators.

This fits nicely into Truffaut's tribute to all the duplicitous dames in American noirs. A sort of heady commentary via highly entertaining exchanges among the principals. The other usual noir elements also get a workout. As the plot develops, Charlie's son is also kidnapped, Charlie stabs (in self-defense) his loutish boss at the club, and he eventually finds himself back with his brothers, awaiting an showdown with guns.

But it's all so distinctively French, so self-conscious, so self-deprecating. I laughed out loud as Charlie, in flashback, shops for books on "How To Beat Shyness", in his efforts to be more assertive. Like those American icons who filled the screen?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part III


"Everything was done to the max. No compromise. We never said 'that'll be alright.' Eventually it got overdone." - Graham Gouldman.


10cc's tunes, as you might've gathered by now, were not standard radio fare. Their witty, sometimes silly, cacophonous and euphonious compositions really put them in their own class. They were sometimes referred to as the U.K.'s answer to Steely Dan. The band's countrymen embraced their scathing lyrics (laced with punnery) and sometimes boppable melodies and made many of their singles sizable hits. But they couldn't crack the American charts. Until a majestic, otherworldly, and altogether absurd track called "I'm Not in Love," caught on in 1975. It was a smash, a song that was often programmed amongst the "yacht rock" of  Seals & Crofts and Ambrosia, but was far more musically dense.

"I'm Not in Love" was pulled from the album The Original Soundtrack, which sported another fascinating bit of cover art by Hipgnosis, the English art design group which created many memorable album covers (including numerous for Pink Floyd) from the late 60s through early 80s. Soundtrack featured a peer into a film editing machine, a frame with a cowboy in some alleged Western. Reels of film and strewn celluloid hang in the background.  The track takes the prototypical love denial piece and positively eviscerates it, while somehow remaining pop friendly. Eric Stewart's heavenly voice informs us, ad nauseam, that he just doesn't love his unnamed counterpart. In fact, he even informs them "I keep your picture on the wall.  It hides a nasty stain that's lying there"! Stewart admitted later that the song was an ode to the very phrase "I love you" and how it may lose its gravity by being repeated offhandedly so often between couples. 

The ethereal voices that open the track feature the band singing monosyllables over and over, an effect that becomes almost hypnotic.  As Steely Dan had done a few years earlier, 10cc studio wizards (the band members themselves) devised a way to loop sounds into a multi-track recorder. A likely arduous process that as Gouldman states, can be accomplished these days via an emulator (computer which duplicates the functions of another computer).

The Original Soundtrack is a fully realized work, a culmination and taming of the wild creativity and advanced musicianship that was honed on the band's debut album and the sophomore effort Sheet Music (still my personal favorite). As with that of other wiseacre duos, styles are shifted from track to track with what seems to be relative ease. A shake-your-fist-at-God lament, "The Second Sitting of the Last Supper" (with trenchant lyrics) is all heavy guitar with some sprinkling of piano. "Brand New Day" sports more lovely "pianistics" overlaid with vocals (by Stewart and drummer Kevin Godley) that evoke a "Negro slave spiritual".  It almost sounds like a Broadway show tune.  In fact, many of 10cc's songs remind me of that particular style, but with a much more sinister paradigm.

Case in point? Soundtrack opens with "One Night in Paris", an over eight-minute long suite in three parts. A short opera, if you will, with cabaret style vocal and very vivid portraits of Parisian red light districts. It is rumored that Queen were inspired to record "Bohemian Rhapsody" after hearing this track. Crazily cinematic.

And speaking of cinema, "The Film of My Love" is a very funny (and mildly obscene) love song, every verse an allusion to that most enduring of media (check the album's name!), sung by Gouldman, again in cabaret style. "Flying Junk" is the album's one misfire, the inevitable drug tune, though with some nice, Beatlesque vocals.   "Blackmail" is the darkest track, a sleazily observant tale of tabloid photographers and assorted scandals. That selection has some serious squealing guitar and the simultaneous use of the "Gizmo", a device described as a "sixteen wheeled machine you fix to the bridge of a guitar.  Depress one of the buttons and the wheel would revolve as it is pressed down on a string, creating a droning note, like a violin." This device would be, erm, instrumental in the parting of the ways of our two wiseacre duos during the next album.......

Monday, December 10, 2012

Contagion

SPOILERS!!

Whatever other qualities it has, I think director Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller CONTAGION works best as a scary Public Service Announcement arguing the importance of washing your hands. And wiping down your workspace. And for heaven's sake, don't touch your face so much! During one of my internships, a preceptor (who was a true blue germaphobe) ended one day with, "If there's any wisdom I can impart to you, make sure you scrub furiously after every patient."

That advice has proven invaluable. I encounter a lot of bloody external auditory meatii. Other orifices, too. But of course potential contagions need not be so obvious. Objects ("fomites") like otoscopes and neckties can carry millions of germs and parasites. Another good reason not to wear those damned things. And if I touch an infectious patient, all the surfaces I touch afterward are breeding grounds for infection. People go about their day, grabbing doorknobs and handrails on the bus. The contagion could quickly and easily go exponential.

A woman named Beth (Gwenyth Paltrow) is coughing at the airport during Thanksgiving weekend. She just spent her afternoon layover in Chicago having an extramarital tryst. She thinks she's just suffering a nasty cold. After all, she spent an eternity on a plane returning from the Orient. Her condition degrades rapidly once home with her husband (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis. She and her son will be dead within 24 hours. The news reports several deaths in Hong Kong, Chicago, and several other cities.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control join forces and race against the clock to identify the origin of the outbreak and whether it is part of a bio-terrorism plot. The pathogen is traced back to Beth by an Epidemic Intelligence officer named Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) whose efforts to secure funding for medical stations around Minneapolis are met with the usual red tape. By the time a large facility is approved and operational, Mears will find herself on one of the gurneys.

CONTAGION's impressive ensemble cast also features Elliott Gould as Ian Sussman, a university professor who breaks protocol and discovers within the virus a grouping of bat cells. Dr. Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle, who just about steals the movie from her more famous cast-mates), continues Sussman's research and learns of the additional presence of pig and human content within the viruses that mutates at a rate of 2, meaning that for every case of the infection, two more will be generated over its infectious period. My favorite moments in CONTAGION featured Hextal as her mind began to spin furiously into action. After she discovers a vaccine, she inoculates herself and tests this by exposing herself to her infected father (in a concise and very effective scene).

The film has been constructed to resemble a docudrama, with several scenes of medical explanations and concerned faces. There are also the expected moments of chaos - of desperate citizens looting and degenerating to violence when vaccines and food run out. Yet, the director is guiltless of overly stylizing his movie, and Soderbergh crafts CONTAGION with an austerity that is close to perfect, spurring interest from the viewer on several levels: intellectually, emotionally, viscerally. The film was shot with the RED MX digital camera and looks astonishing. The clarity of the visual is icily perfect for Soderbergh's purposes here, as coldly precise as science itself.

I found the statements the screenplay makes regarding the character of Alan (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist whose blog becomes insanely popular during the outbreak, quite fitting as well. Millions read his rants against pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment. When he corners Dr. Sussman for information, the professor retorts, "You know what a blog is, don't you? Graffiti with punctuation." Alan champions a holistic preparation derived from the forsythia plant, then pretends to be infected and cured by the substance. Once the vaccine is perfected and proven successful, CONTAGION makes clear that evidence-based, pure medicine will save the day.

If anyone reading this works in a medical office, by the way, remember: Cavicide is your friend.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Brooklyn Bridge

We made another trip to the New York City area this past October. In a case of Really Good Timing, we flew back one week before "Superstorm" Sandy made landfall in the Northeast. Thankfully, those we visited were largely spared any damage.

Full visit: wedding in Long Island and lots of family time there and in northern Jersey, Queens, and Manhattan. The diversity of our trip was amusing: one day we were attending a church service in Queens, a few days later we were watching (along with my wife's cousin and his sig. other) boot clad bartenders whoop it up on the counter tops in a gay bar in Midtown called Flaming Saddles. During this spectacle, four of us shared a Frito pie - a small bag of the corn chips filled with chili and sour cream. A real find in the continuing pursuit of Trash Cuisine.

The second to last day, we finally walked the Brooklyn Bridge. Manhattan to Brooklyn and back. Roughly two and half miles round trip.  It was a perfectly crisp and clear Saturday. Many tourists joined us, along with several kamikaze bicyclists (who have their own lane and think nothing of grazing you). I recommend this outing, which had been suggested several times by our friend Don. It is a heady thing to traverse this familiar landmark, seen in so many films and television shows and commercials. Standing above the traffic, gazing at the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. I couldn't help but think of poor Bobby Z from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, though his fall was from the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.

You may have heard that on the Brooklyn side is a famous pizzeria called Grimaldi's. In my readings, it was reported that there is always a line around the corner.  We did indeed find this, and instead joined a much smaller queue at Ignazio's, a few blocks down, with a great view of the Bridge as you're waiting.  The pizza was good, as was my pumpkin lager. The amusement of our NY trip continued as we watched who was presumed to be the owner, a short, really wise-guy looking type who strutted around, asking each table if they were happy with the food and service, suggesting perhaps that someone's head may roll if they weren't. I also watched the guy motion in some other goombah friends to skip the line.

Afterwards, we wandered the neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and to Pier 1 on Old Fulton and Water Streets. Lots of pedestrians (tourists). Great views of the City. Ferry boats. This is a good destination for families. I recommend the Bridge walk and beyond.  Touristy, yes, but a real delight.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck 1920-2012

Another solemn day for music. Many thanks, Dave. After God and my wife (to be), you (and many of your jazzer comrades) helped me through the perilous journey of grad school.

You will be greatly missed.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lincoln

There are moments scattered throughout LINCOLN where the principals, namely Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) and his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), comment upon themselves. They wonder how history will view them. Muse aloud about their public perceptions and if generations next will pidgeonhole them.  It must be a great temptation for biographers to do this. Screenwriter Tony Kushner, basing his work largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, has constructed a thorough, dense examination of the President's final months in 1865, as a second term looms with the urgency to end both the Civil War and slavery. Lincoln is shown to have a penchant for telling lengthy stories, sometimes to the chagrin of his colleagues.  Within and without them are moments of introspection, of wonder. Of how future Americans and those abroad will observe his decisions. Did Lincoln really utter such thoughts?

It's a bit of a conceit, any time characters from the past comment upon the future.  Of course, the authors of their words have the benefit of the present, and a hindsight upon which they shine a light to reveal the outcomes of earlier actions. In LINCOLN, one constituent, when considering matters of not only abolition, but of complete racial equality, a co-existence not possible while Lincoln attempts to get his amendment passed, wonders if suffrage for women could next.  Even a character in DAZED AND CONFUSED, philosophizing during a keg party in 1976, wonders aloud of the coming decade, speaking things that suggest she either has great insight/foresight or is working from a script that thoughtfully considers the eventual fallout.

This seems to be a bit of minutiae, a funny tidbit to focus upon when discussing Steven Spielberg's latest film, but it filled my mind throughout this long but completely engrossing film. The director did not bathe his movie in some sort of sentimental gauze, nor did he cast the President in any angelic light, but rather the wistfulness of knowing the future makes the events of LINCOLN so much more poignant. This is a rare contemporary film that manages to be true to its subject and matters at hand, while still allowing emotional honestly that naturally derives from both familial and political drama.

LINCOLN is an impressive achievement for Spielberg in ways that echo his most spare tendencies, seen in SCHINDLER'S LIST and parts of EMPIRE OF THE SUN and MUNICH. When I watched the trailer a few months earlier, my heart sank. It appeared that LINCOLN would be an overly fashioned costume drama filled with familiar actors in funny hairpieces. Fetishistic attention to period detail but little substance. Actors chewing the scenery. John Williams' majestic score cuing every reaction. Big, loud spectacles to match the music. Heavy syrup.

Within minutes, those fears were dispelled.  Spielberg and crew have taken the most tastefully minimalist approach. The opening scene does feature some flashes of brutal warfare, but nothing like the prolonged carnage of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  In fact, after a few such edits, the film announces its spare stylings with the President conversing with a few soldiers, one of whom recounts his Gettysburg Address. The scene feels almost spontaneous, not so orchestrated. The remainder of the film is a sober, supremely confident examination of a patient leader burdened with a heavy heart and blessed with a quiet, frequently misinterpreted savvy.  A recognizance of how to engineer the end of slavery and the rule of Confederacy in one Amendment (the 13th, passed in December of 1865).  LINCOLN moves almost imperceptibly from one observant moment to the next, but never once feeling "produced" or with some faux sense of importance, though every moment is just that. The score is spare and the art direction is letter perfect without calling attention to itself.

I mention that Lincoln, played with absolute authority and restraint by Lewis in a performance that can't be lauded enough, is not portrayed as a one-dimensionally self-serious dullard. Nor as a flawless saint. Or even Larger than Life. He is often seen hunched, immersed in thought. But he is also not portrayed as a passive or pious figure. The complexities along the road to Amendment passage in the House are numerous, with much backroom wheeling and dealing, vote courting, and even some creativity with the English language (Lincoln was a lawyer, after all). Watching the mechanics of politics in LINCOLN never becomes tiresome or boring, but reminds us 1. Compelling filmic drama often occurs merely when people are speaking to each other and 2. Little has changed in Washington. 3. For a great(er) cause, sometimes the path there may be fraught with a bit of eyebrow raising tactics. Sometimes, the end truly justifies the means. 

Lewis is surrounded by a superb cast, all of whom are quite fine. Field draws much strength as a mother concerned about her eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is itching to fight in the War. She has long grieved another son who had passed away and in an especially powerful scene confronts her husband over his perceived lack of grief.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, Congressional leader of the Radical Republicans, whose single-mindedness for abolition fires his mission (and his tongue); this performance is almost certain to garner an Academy Award nomination.  James Spader also gets to flex some acting chops as Party operative William Bilbo, one of several Lincoln enlists to solicit votes from reluctant House Democrats. David Strathairn, Jackie Earl Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, and many others are all solid.

By the end, when Lincoln sits on a porch with Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), the latter remarks how it appears that the President had aged a decade since he last saw him.  Yes, little has changed in Washington.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slap Shot

This review is dedicated to the NHL, who've yet to settle the 2012 lockout........

The fictional Charleston Chiefs are a losing minor league hockey team led by Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman). They play in an economically depressed town where thousands of jobs will be lost after the local mill shuts down. This does not bode well for the team's future. Even with Reggie's sleazy promotional gimmicks, the Chiefs are going nowhere. Games are sparsely attended.

Inevitably, Reggie learns the franchise will be shut down at the end of the season. In desperate times comes...playing dirty. All-out brawling. The addition of the Coke-bottle bottomed glasses wearing, childlike Hanson brothers trio really ramps up the spectacle. You've all heard the joke: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." More and more fans come out to the games, but there aren't many more wins. And just who is the $%&* owner, anyway?

I've loved 1977's hockey comedy-drama SLAP SHOT for many years, always enjoying its unapologetically raunchy dialogue and roughhouse humor. Nancy Dowd's script is gleefully profane and wicked. But not just to cater to the knuckledraggers in the audience who crave such things for their own sake. This isn't just a brain dead locker room epic. The language and behavior are organic to the hard pressed setting, the uncertainty. George Roy Hill, overseer of many great films, commandants the action skillfully yet allows a sometimes improvisational air. And he balances the bone crushing and cussing with some sharp observational humor. It's the sort of rowdy sports film that audiences would hoot and holler along with, like the original THE LONGEST YARD (1974). I was too young to attend the theatrical releases of those pics, but I've heard the stories, read recollections. Wish I @$#% coulda been there!

And SLAP SHOT indeed is well remembered for its plethora of foul language. According to an entry on the IMDB, the "F" word is used in it 55 times. For its time, the screenplay was considered shocking. By today's standards, it's pretty tame. But the years have been kind, and this film is just as hilarious as always. A lowbrow (yet astute) classic. And I can see how the original audiences would've treated it like a live event, a participatory night out. Who says cinema is passive?

Now, I realize that folks whistle and cheer for underdogs in more contemporary films like RUDY and THE BLIND SIDE and countless others. These films warm our hearts and confirm suspicions that sometimes the guy or gal with the odds stacked against them can defy all and emerge victorious. Even if, perhaps especially if, our own lives don't follow that pattern. We seem to have this innate desire/need to root for someone. We want heroes. SLAP SHOT and THE LONGEST YARD, conversely, focus on screw-ups who don't give a damn and are entirely self-centered who may or may not find redemption. In many cases, they're somewhat contemptible. In other words, they're like many of us, those whose lives don't quite resemble that of the hard luck saint or square jawed samaritan.

But today's viewers don't want flawed or contemptible heroes in their sports films (or in real life). It seems lately that the most high profile pro athletes are either entirely hissable (Michael Vick) or angelic (Tim Tebow). What about the poor slobs in between? Earnest, essentially good, or reformed protagonists get the box office receipts, for the most part.

But on the other hand, goofy, labored sports comedies like Will Ferrell's SEMI-PRO do well, because they only require a viewer's brain to be in neutral. SLAP SHOT manages to be sly and intelligent as well as raucous. In this era of the deification of athletes like Tebow (and no offense to the man, my targets are his fans), it's refreshing to watch Everymen, just regular joes, muddle through. And don't worry, they do turn out to have consciences. Just don't expect any congratulatory hugs or majestic scores. In fact, while the finale does involve the expected Big Game, its resolution is most definitely unlike what you would see in say, HOOSIERS (a film I love, btw).

@$#%! I wish someone could make a film like SLAP SHOT today.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 4

The clues were there, for many months. I just wasn't astute enough to piece it all together. When that August day came around in 2004, when I was told by the boss that he was selling his store to Big Retail, I was blindsided. I spent the rest of the day being assaulted by a rush of memories. Mostly small moments that seemed mundane at the time, but now all connected. It won't sound so exciting (or "smoking gun") to you, but that day the boss went nuts because I hadn't written up all of the outdated returns for that month's numbers (ordinarily not a big deal) now made sense.

We were told about a week and half before. Following ten years of running a beloved and successful mom and pop pharmacy, he had sold out to one of the national chains.  They would not assume our location, as they had recently built a shiny new store not a mile down the boulevard. This would be bad news for our patients in the retirement community, who depended on the proximity of the store as many did not drive. We also had delivery service, which I do not believe the big chain offered.

So how did our customers feel about this? We were not allowed to tell them until, the final day! Yes! The day when workers from the new store came in and began breaking down shelves and hauling things away.  Imagine the surprise. Zero time to prepare. Having your prescriptions hijacked to a new, perhaps unfamiliar place. It put us in a horrible position that day. Having to explain why we were now just telling them (we had to wing that one).  Also, having the corporate folks watching and listening like hawks, lest we steer them elsewhere, maybe to another mom and pop.  One of the worst workdays I've ever had.

And there were many who wouldn't learn of the buyout until weeks later when they were greeted by a sign. You've experienced that.  But imagine being a senior who relied upon a place that provided life or death meds. Ugh. I helped the owner break down the store for weeks afterward, having to address people at the door every day as they picked their jaws up off the ground. I had to physically restrain one lady who wanted to confront my soon to be ex-boss. Good times!

But soon an entirely different mom and pop pharmacy would open in that same plaza ...........

TO BE CONTINUED

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunken Condos

The output from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the maestros behind Steely Dan, since 1993 usually take me a few listens before I can really get into the groove. The old Dan albums instantly tickled my ears but after Fagen's glorious debut solo The Nightfly in 1982, it would be 11 years before we heard another full album. 1993's Kamikiriad was immediately pleasant but not as immediately enticing. When the Dan returned with Two Against Nature in 2000, their first effort in 20 years, my initial audition was not enthralling. A few months later, it was indispensable.

Fagen's latest, Sunken Condos, comes six years since his Morph the Cat (not a long gap by his standards), and is a real treat; a wildly entertaining ride through oh-so-familiar territory. The music in fact sounds as if the composer cribbed every instrumental voicing from the last 30 years (even some from the 70s) and concocted 9 mostly wonderful tunes. Almost like a career summary. Detractors might call it a rehash. Some write that Fagen has been recording the same tune over and over for the last 30 odd years, since the dramatic stylistic shift of SD's Aja. As expected, there is nothing on Sunken Condos that breaks new ground, but rather is more "good stuff" (to borrow one of the song titles) for devotees.  Like myself.

Fagen has often written songs from the point of view of the lecherous older man eying nubile young coeds, and right out of the box we are treated to "Slinky Thing", a funky lounge number, and then later with "The New Breed" and "Planet D'Rhonda". But as the composer's mortality and relevance continue to come front and center, the lyrics follow.

We went to a party
Everybody stood around
Thinkin'; Hey what's she doin'
With a burned-out hippie clown
Young dudes were grinnin'
I can't say it didn't sting
Some punk says: Pops you better
Hold on to that slinky thing...

Today we were strollin'
By the reptile cage
I'm thinkin': Does she need somebody 
Who's closer to her own age



From "The New Breed":

You the new breed alright
I guess you're what she wants now
You're young and strong
And you won the night
Good luck to you both
I'll get along somehow  


The first two songs are tinged with pathos. The narrator resigns himself to obsolescence in an increasingly dot.com world.  He sees the circumstance through his conquest's eyes: you're so nice, you liked my "flatline humour"...but knows he'll lose them.  Is Fagen also talking to some of his (younger) fans? 


But as reflective as things tend to get, that maybe our inappropriate troller has repented, consider the album's closer, "Planet D'Rhonda":

She's from a small town somewhere upstate
I guess she's somewhere between nineteen and
thirty-eight.........

She's always frantic now
She's never calm
She's not the type of girl 
You wanna bring home to mom
But when you need big lovin'
She never stops
Yes it's Monkey Time - twenty-four seven
The name of the planet:
Planet d'Rhonda 



The personnel behind Condos will be familiar to any Dan buff. Michael Leonhart (who also co-produced) again lends his trumpet, clavinet, and Minimoog to each track. His sister, Carolyn, continues her sultry background vocals. Both siblings have been fixtures in the Dan camp since the 90s, when Fagen and Becker reformed and began touring again. Jon Herington's guitar licks are almost Grant Greenish at times.  Just like Becker's guitar tended to be in his own emulation of the old great. Walt Weiskopf, who provided such a memorable opening to the title track of SD's Everything Must Go in 2003, again provides evocative alto and tenor saxophone.

Fagen's tunes of late have been less and less enigmatic. Morph the Cat even included interpretations in the liner notes! At first listen, Sunken Condos seems pretty straightforward, but as the songs sink into your cortices and stew awhile, you might begin to examine broader contexts. Is "Not the Same without You" a victory song for a  brokenhearted who sings to his old girlfriend, or is he singing to drugs? Walter Becker? Does "Good Stuff" tell a tale of hijacking and drugs, or is it a summary of Fagen and Steely Dan's perfectionism: "there's a special satisfaction, when a job comes off so right"?

The most curious track: "Memorabilia", a rummage through the aftermath of the U.S.'s H-bomb testing on the Bikini Atoll (island in the Pacific Ocean) back in the 1950s. Fagen directly references the Castle Bravo (nuclear device) detonation. The mysteries of the lyrics, not as common for the writer these days, harken back to Royal Scam type offerings, though perhaps this song might've worked on The Nightfly as well.  

My two favorites: the straight out blues of "Weather in My Head", which allows the artist to draw upon his influences like Howlin' Wolf (if not as growly), and "Miss Marleen", a somber reflection on the narrator's recently deceased girlfriend, someone with whom he went bowling every Saturday night. Yes, that sounds like Steely Dan humor, but the song is just the right melancholia, with all the familiar Fender Rhodes and saxes you've heard many times. Some of Fagen's tunes manage to almost make me misty ("Great Pagoda of Funn"), and "Miss Marleen" follows suit.

P.S. "Weather in My Head" was performed on The Late Show with David Letterman last week.....




Sunday, November 18, 2012

Skyfall

With each new James Bond film, I gaze upon MI6's top agent and wonder if he ever, in the midst of the violence and carnality of his typical day, thinks about all of his many previous adventures. Fifty years worth of impossible scrapes, multicultural intercourse, and copious amounts of alcohol. He even got married once. There have been a few moments in these films when a reference to the past is made, but it's usually in passing.  Like Bond, most real life people march along with their tasks, never looking back, tending to some front line urgency. Admittedly, the urgency in Agent 007's life may tend to be a bit more intense that of your uncle Bob's.

Add to this the oft rewritten Bond history, especially when a new actor fills his shoes. Pierce Brosnan's Bond's past did not include the clown suit Roger Moore had worn to infiltrate a circus to diffuse a bomb. Timothy Dalton's Bond didn't seem to acknowledge that he once was trapped under Goldfinger's laser. When Daniel Craig assumed the role of Ian Fleming's master spy, first introduced in a series of books in the 1950s, the entire career of James Bond was at its genesis. CASINO ROYALE (2006) not only started at the beginning of the Bond saga, but was also a fresh start for the film series. It was an auspicious debut for Craig, and the film is considered one of the best of the series.

After the less well received QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, Craig returns, this time with director Sam Mendes (not well known for action vehicles) with SKYFALL, a movie that at the time of this writing continues to garner very enthusiastic reviews, some of which state that not only is it the best Bond in years, but one of the best in the franchise. It's hard not to be enthused and even filled with anticipation at such accolade, when many 007 adventures have proven flat and forgettable.

The movie wastes no time. An energetic chase through the streets of Turkey that culminates in a fistfight atop a moving train fills the opening 15 minutes of SKYFALL. Craig again is in fine form, up to the physical challenges of motorcycle piloting and hard falls. We cut to Bond's superior, M (Judi Dench), monitoring the action from headquarters, spouting her usual ice cold rumination of the superagent's ways. Then, a critical moment. Fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), also involved in the chase for an important hard drive, aims a rifle at the mercenary who stole the drive, accidentally cliping 007's shoulder, sending him headlong into the drink.  It will be presumed that he is dead.

Meanwhile, the MI6 HQ suffers a computer hack and subsequent bombing, leaving survivors to set up shop in one of London's many underground bunkers (which honestly, isn't that where a network of spies should be, anyway?). Bond learns the news from CNN while spending his "retirement" on a scenic isle, where all there is to do is pound tequila and bang local cuties. A few scenes later, M returns home one night to find her top agent sitting in the dark, ready with harsh inquiries as to why she ordered that bullet.

From this point on, SKYFALL examines with some depth the complex relationship between Bond and his boss, called "mom" by seemingly everyone.  Good reason: M is the clenched jawed disciplinarian many remember from their formative years, the tough love matriarch who'll let you suffer just so you learn your lesson and wipe those bloody tears away already. M, played by a male in the Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bonds, is fiercely devoted to the agency, and will not hesitate to allow her finest to perish for Queen and country and all that. Bond is shown to be weary, bored, utterly burned out,  in the process of confidence erosion and aging perhaps finding that he has a soul after all. Does M?

I'm making SKYFALL sound more like a human drama, and with Mendes at the helm I'm sure this emphasis was encouraged. Of course the usual international intrigue is still front and center, this time with embittered former agent Raoul Silva (a creepy and lip smacking Javier Bardem) vowing retribution on his former "mom" for allowing him to lie forgotten in pits of torture years before.  This isn't the first time an agent turned bad and wreaked havoc in this series (ref: GOLDENEYE). With Silva, the screenplay allows some entertaining speechifying, tasty metaphorical storytelling, and homoerotic undertones. But it also allows some high scale mayhem, including Silva's helicopter chewing through a Scottish castle, the one in which James Bond spent his boyhood.

And it is the last third of the film that again reimagines history, allowing 007 to recall his childhood, to return to the very house where tragedies would shape the agent to come. I found this segment initially interesting, but as I thought on this scenario, of Bond bringing M to this remote location, the questions mounted: Why weren't they better armed, relying only on the hopes that his father's old gun rack would be well stocked? Why not use that GPS (utilized earlier) device Q gave Bond to call in for back-up? Why deliberately "throw a trail of breadcrumbs" to Silva when it should be obvious this rival will come with a cavalry?

But then I stopped, because every Bond films spurs such questioning, and should not interfere with one's enjoyment.

And SKYFALL, while to my eyes a bit overpraised, is grand escapism. Beautifully photographed by the great Roger Deakins. Fine score by Thomas Newman. The actors are all in top form, even Bardem, who gets to smirk at M from a glass prison that will remind viewers of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There are several amusing references to the earlier films in the series: some are verbal, some visual (see if you can tell which film is cited when Bond uses a reptile's head as a stepping stone for escape). We'll meet a new, younger Q (Ben Whishaw) and even Miss Moneypenny.......

I can easily summarize my carps with this movie but it is without necessity. The film packages the expected action and innuendo as skillfully as the best Bonds, while taking some time to quietly acknowledge the fear of becoming irrelevant in an age of rapidly advancing tech, and of getting older, and weaker. There are a few moments in SKYFALL with Bond pensively staring off......I wonder if he thought on Blofeld? Or SPECTRE? Or even Pussy Galore? Do these ghosts haunt his dreams? Plague his daytime musings, those rare moments when he's not managing his way out of yet another implausible predicament?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ride the High Country

Some of the finest Westerns examine the inevitability of getting older, of sticking around long enough to outlive your reflexes and also to gain an informed and mature perspective on living. Aging (anti-)heroes shake their heads at youthful cockiness. Maybe because they've been there themselves. Such protagonists have ridden every crag of the countryside, seen their share of corpses and haunted by the fact that those motionless forms were once compadres, family members. A great Western will also often allow the seasoned cowboy to offer guidance to the trigger-happy upstarts before the possible (inevitable?) tragedy.

Sam Peckinpah's 1962 RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY incorporates all of the above, yet feels differently  than other, oft-cited classics of the genre. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is a seen-it-all former lawman who feels the weight of his memories. He takes the occasional job, drifting around California in some unsavory places, fetching less compensation per day than he once did. Hired to guard the delivery of a shipment of gold through the high country of the Sierra Mountains, Judd recruits his former partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Life's been little better for him, as he is reduced to portraying a character called the Oregon Kid, a crack pistol shot who has a young sidekick named Heck (Ron Starr).

Judd and Gil trade stories of their glory days. They seem unfazed by the new assignment, despite that several miners have already perished attempting the haul. The pair has seen far worse, each experience adding another hard layer upon them. But while time and hardship fostered a solid morality into Judd, Gil is consumed with a sense of entitlement. He has a plan (with Heck) to perhaps double cross his friend and abscond with the gold.

Heck is an excitable kid, the kind who's prone to snap judgment and throwing a punch before acknowledging consequence. Judd takes an instant disslike to him. His efforts to impart wisdom are met with dissmisal. Was the old lawman ever this stubborn and impatient?

The journey has detours. A night spent at the farm of deeply pious Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) is filled with dueling Bible verses across the dinner table and Heck's attempts to woo Knudsen's daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley, in her debut). Problem is, Elsa is already engaged to Billy Hammond (James Drury). After an incident with her father, Elsa decides to leave and tag along with the trio, down to the mining camp where Billy works, to get married.

Billy is quickly revealed to be a real waste of a human being. After the wedding, he gets piss drunk and offers his bride to his four brothers, a lecherous gang (Peckinpah regular Warren Oates plays Henry). It is during this sequence that Heck gets some swift lessons in Life and begins to respect Judd. On what is perceived to be a legal technicality, the trio rescue Elsa and continue their ride. A posse follows.

This early Peckinpah effort has its share of violence, though far from the sort of orchestrated squib bursting seen in his later films. The action is not the draw. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY only uses its shoot-outs as reference to its main themes, perhaps a side effect of them. Themes continued in many films by the director: honor among men, "right" and "wrong", longsuffering, an overall moral code. Sometimes that code is singularly held by the main character, amongst a brotherhood of brutishness and greed. Men (not without sin themselves) who struggle with their beliefs in following justice as even those closest to them pay back with betrayal. Even as the entire West is eroded by technological advancement (remember the appearance of the automobile in THE WILD BUNCH?). Also refreshingly, women are given complexity.

McCrea and Scott embody their roles so completely, they become archetypes. Natural acting at its finest. The film itself is deeply moral, while quietly, artfully taking religious piety to task. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is rarely mentioned in the same breath as SHANE, HIGH NOON, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but it does earn a spot in the Pantheon, or least a spot on your media shelf next to the aforementioned..

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cloud Atlas

At times, watching CLOUD ATLAS is like being at the mercy of someone else who has dominion over the remote control. Constant switching among disparate tales set in very different time periods. One second you're watching the travails of a stowaway slave in the mid-nineteenth century, the next you're following the sad fate of a Korean fast-food worker in Seoul, 2144. There's also the shadowy tale of an investigative reporter, who in San Francisco in 1973 uncovers a heinous plot involving a nuclear reactor. A bisexual composer in Scotland in the 1930s. An aging English publisher who attempts to escape a nursing home in the present day. And finally, a tribesman on a Hawaiian island in post-apocalyptic times (a century after "The Fall") who is visited by a woman who seems to be one of the last citizens of a technologically advanced society. The film is episodic from opening to fade out.  But are the stories so dissimiliar?

The connections are there. The "Cloud Atlas Sextet" is composed by Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) as he apprentices with elderly maestro Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in 1936.  Some other connections are overt, like a character (Frobisher's lover, Rufus Sixsmith, played by James D'Arcy) appearing in 2 different segments. Most connections are thematic, metaphoric. The themes of freedom from oppression and individual voice snake through all 6 tales. The entire film is designed to outline how the actions of centuries ago can inspire the rebels of tomorrow. How individuals transform from evil to good and perhaps set in motion a chain of events that may cause a phoenix to rise from the ashes. Several of the actors appear in most, if not all stories.  Sometimes, they're under layers of prosthetics.

 If I watched this film again, I'm sure I would recognize many more threads. The mosaic that is CLOUD ATLAS is so vast and ambitious that you couldn't possibly get it all in one viewing.  Problem is, I have little desire to sit through this movie again.

Initially, I was excited and intrigued to see that the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy,  best known for the MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN) shared directorial duties on this movie (they helmed different episodes). Each director has had his/her share of misfires over the years. This time, the collective imagination should've resulted in something, well, better. The 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell is said to be a challenging and untenable work. I read an interview with the Wachowskis, who've stated more than once that they are bored with traditional filmmaking and storytelling, that Cloud Atlas was a irresistible challenge to adapt. Its very nature is perhaps doomed to failure. Why hasn't anyone adapted Gravity's Rainbow? Someone tried The Bell Jar once, with mixed results.

CLOUD ATLAS does somewhat successfully weave its stories together in the macro sense, the overall message. But the individual episodes, other than the Neo-Seoul segment, are half realized, dramatically incomplete. Any one story could've been its own film. As intriguing and occasional exciting as the 1973 segment (with Halle Berry as the reporter) is, it felt like a puzzle with several missing pieces. Not necessarily complicated, just lacking in explanation. The story was lightly developed at best.  The 2012 segment, with Broadbent as the poor shlub who is trapped in a nursing facility, is clearly intended to lighten the movie with its (mostly) comic tone. Football (soccer) fans may especially enjoy that story's climax, but while this story did fit in with the filmmakers' philosophical m.o.,  it just feels frivolous.

But what I think really does in this movie is the "After the Fall" piece, featuring Tom Hanks as, Zachry, a clan leader of a Neanderthal-like tribe who continuously fights bands of ferocious cannibals and visions of an evil, overgrown lepracaun looking fellow who is apparently meant to represent either Zachry's guilt or dark side. This episode will tie the movie together in ways that I found clumsy and flat, though the ideas behind the "Cloud Atlas" area Zachry and Meronynm (also Berry), a "Prescient" (part of an advanced society elsewhere) search for are fascinating. It's too bad that this entire part of the movie is so campy and dull. Plus, the primitive dialogue spoken by these characters gets annoying quickly, even when it's unintentionally funny ("Tell me true-true"?!). It at least confirmed to me that the English language will finally, entire degenerate after years of the continued infantilization of society.

It's all too bad, because this had the makings of something special, especially with the assembledge of talent. I'm tempted to call it a noble failure: grand, heartfelt intentions and many good (some even borderline great) scenes, adding up to a real mess. The mid-section of the film does have some effective editing and at times becomes quite exciting and even exhilarating. The 2144 segment is easily the most successful, the most grim, and appropriately forboding. CLOUD ATLAS finally just feels like a misguided gasp of miscellany, a project that may well have proven unfilmable. But it is worth at least one look. There's the problem: this movie needs more examination than a single viewing can allow. Check back in 5 years.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

I wish I could've watched Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM in a carpeted, wood paneled room while it unspooled on a Super 8 projector.  Anderson in fact decided to shoot his latest film in 16mm, giving this set in 1965 story a look and feel as if really made then, appearing like a lost reel retrieved from your uncle's attic. And the movie plays like that same (possibly eccentric) uncle reading a story to your 10 year old self, warmly tucked in bed or perhaps around a campfire.

MOONRISE KINGDOM tells the tale of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a 12 year old misfit who has decided he no longer desires to be a Khaki Scout. His exit from camp sets off a search party led by neurotic scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and a local sad sack policeman named Sharp (Bruce Willis). Meanwhile, when similiarly aged Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from the home of her attorney parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the search parties grow and join forces.

Suzy is an even bigger misanthrope than Sam. She seems a suitable case for treatment even at this early stage of her life. A lovely flashback shows how the youths meet, backstage at a church play where Suzy is dressed like a raven. After much letter correspondence, they agree to meet in the wilds of New Penzance, the island somewhere in New England they both inhabit. Anderson never shows anyone living there besides the Bishops and the Khaki Scouts. Well, there is the Narrator, played by Bob Balaban, who warns of a dangerous hurricane that  will occur during the film's climax. He goes into great meteorologic detail. Late in the film, he even interacts with some of the characters.

This is a colorful movie, in any sense of the word you can figure. The art direction alone could merit a Pinterest page or a display at Anthropologie. I'll bet you can freeze the stills as the camera spins 360s around the Bishops' home and never see every single item.. I've read accounts of Anderson's obsessive attention to detail, right down to the pitch tents - apparently the director found material that would've been used to create them in 1965. Most viewers would not know or care, but I recall Richard Linklater's commentary for DAZED AND CONFUSED as he recounts how one fan recognized that a beer keg spigot was about 3 years anachronistic.

MOONRISE KINGDOM is a warm movie, but not in any immediate, traditional sense. There is always a certain chilliness in Anderson's characters, an inquisitive aloofness that makes them come of as glib. I was reminded of the family in Anderson's ROYAL TENENBAUMS several times, and MOONRISE also has much in common with all of the director's other pics, particularly the family dynamics of FABULOUS MR. FOX and LIFE AQUATIC. These characters are not prone to lenghy literary speeches, but rather staccato witticisms. Everyday mundanities are seen so clearly as to be hilarious.

The initial  viewing of an Anderson film is almost blindsiding in quirk, but later you recall the nuance. MOONRISE KINGDOM is like a fairy tale for older children, or more like a fairy tale in which the characters step out and comment on themselves, are self-aware enough, but don't necessarily verbally comment on their actions. It always feels like Anderson is speaking through them, and that is not a criticism. These are lovely fabrications of character - real behavioral patterns fashioned with the absurd. The eccentricity is virtually unchecked this time (note the continued use of Benjamin Britten compositions on the soundtrack), as if Anderson was allowed to realize the most fanciful of his musings.  You could enjoy MOONRISE on that alone, but I was also quite taken with the emotions of this film, such as they were.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 3

I was not happy. I had just zipped my pants when I heard the bathroom door fly open. For a second, as I turned my head, I was ready to unload on the co-worker who brazenly dared invade the one place I could find a bit of solace. But there to greet me was the barrel of a gun, a Magnum, I would later learn. "Stay your ass in here," was all the gunman said. I remember the words clearly, if not his appearance. The incident lasted all of ten seconds. He slinked backwards and joined his accomplice as they fled the drugstore. I peeked through the crack, just in time to see the figures push through the front door. My co-worker screamed after them, calling them things that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I remember thinking how ill advised that was, as these guys had weapons. But they had just hit a pharmacy in a busy shopping center at 5 in the afternoon. There was no looking back. Er, almost.

One month later, one of the two criminals returned, again at 5:00, again waving a large gun. This time, we were all (including the boss who had been away for the last hold-up) standing behind the counter. The gunman again asked for a specific narcotic. If there's any bright spot to this story, it was that we were able to get rid of some expired meds when we filled the guy's duffel bag. In the month since the first hold-up, we had installed a security camera (after significant encouragement from the PD), its lens inconspicuously positioned between two glucometer boxes on a shelf behind the cash register. This time, I got a good look at him. And it all went down on tape. By that evening, his mug was on the evening news. A month later, they finally caught up with the guy. That's an interesting story - the guy's car broke down and a few minutes after the police began to help him, he was recognized.

My recount leaves out many details. But it fits my recollections. It all happened so quickly. Particularly that first incident. Having a gun pointed at me. An image I'd seen in countless films and TV programs. A very different experience in real life. You've heard how an intense moment, however brief, can see like an eternity, like time had slowed. It wasn't exactly like that, but rather I had long enough to perceive a flash threat, a potentially fatal anticlimax to my existence. My life did not flash before my eyes, yet in a second the immediacy of the situation sobered.

We sat and gave depositions and later testified in court. I won't soon forget the cold eyes that stared off into space but occasionally met mine as I gave my recount. He received a sentence of several decades. He had multiple counts against him, including the armed robbery of another pharmacy not a mile away from us. That was 2001. A bad year for many reasons. Another mom-and-pop pharmacy east of us (and one of the pharmacists there filled in for us frequently) was robbed early one Sunday morning. That's not news, as our place had also been hit overnight several times during my tenure, but this one turned into a really ugly scene. A teen found himself face to face with a police dog and both met their ends when some of the equipment in the store (oxygen tanks?) ignited after gunfire was exchanged. The commonality: narcotics.

Many addicts out there. I saw so many walk in, zombified. I made many verification calls and reluctantly filled a lot of oxycodone scripts. It became demoralizing. Some customers/patients would request specific generic manufacturers, right down to the markings on the pills. We witnessed a few illicit sales in the parking lot. Saw several of our patients die. No wonder I was so burnt out.

TO BE CONTINUED

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Argo

Ben Affleck's third effort as director, ARGO,  is one of those stories that just has to be true, because it is so unlikely. As with other "based on true events" bits of fiction, the historical accuracy verifiers will be all over this movie, explaining in all caps on forum boards how many things the movie got wrong. You could read the history and pick your own holes in Chris Terrio's screenplay, which depicts a secret mission to rescue a group of United States diplomats from Tehran during the tumultuous events leading to the lengthy hostage crisis in 1979. Do liberties taken with the facts hurt this film?

I gauge a film's success on how well the filmmaker delivers on the initial premise. The tone, the point of view, the intentions are usually established in the early scenes. ARGO opens effectively with a rapidly edited (though not the hyper cutting we see in other current movies) montage and narration of the siege on the American Embassy in Iran. Militants would hold most of the staff hostage for over 400 days. Six workers manage to flee and hole up in the residence of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The State Department brainstorms methods of extracting the diplomats, each scenario summarily shot down by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) who has seen enough (and uses a fair amount of logic) to predict dire outcomes.

An insane notion occurs to Mendez one night while watching a movie on television: concoct a fake sci-fi film, "Argo", complete with ads in Hollywood trade papers to make it seem legitimate, and convince the Iranians that the diplomats are actually a film crew there to scope out the landscape for their low rent STAR WARS-like opus.  The plan: Mendez, posing as a producer, will fly to Tehran, bring the escapees to a busy plaza to scout locations to make everything seem authentic, then fly with them home. There will be fake passports and much bluffing to the arts consulate and airport security.. This is a true story; "the least bad idea we have," states Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to superiors.

ARGO does not consider, in its many observant Hollywood scenes, if this movie were real, what tax benefits there would be for shooting in such an "exotic" locale. Maybe ask William Friedkin, who perhaps recklessly shot part of THE EXORCIST in Iraq.

Makeup guy John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are hired to build the ruse, to set up a fake studio and even hold a public line reading with the actors (including Adrienne Barbeau, in some era appropriate casting) in full costume. The Hollywood scenes are at times uproariously funny and on target. Much credit must go to the actors - Goodman and Arkin have perfect chemistry as weary industry vets. Arkin gets a laugh in nearly every one of his scenes, often quite ribald.

ARGO very deftly balances the absurdity of L.A. politics with that of D.C. and the Middle East, never allowing the seriousness of the hostage situation to be comprised to produce just another glib Tinseltown satire. Affleck may be guilty of using some time honored filimic tools such emotive scoring and a tender sub-plot involving Mendez's estranged wife and young son, but he is easily forgiven as he impresses with tight, no frills direction and solid storytelling throughout. He milks the tension and suspense of the climax for every bit of its worth: real, old-fashioned, white knuckle, crowd pleasing filmmaking. Some of that suspense, it must be mentioned, comes at the expense of historical accuracy. The Canadian government apparently drove the Argo mission and the film ignores this, as an example. Several scenes were added "for dramatic effect" and perhaps you might say it wasn't necessary.

I'm not a stickler for to the letter detail of real life events with cinema unless the director aggressively tries to establish that. But honestly, a fictional film's merit should never be measured as to how close to real life the events depicted are.  The only time I join in the fact check malcontent chorus is when an author recounts an event for his or her book and plays fast and loose. As meticulously detailed as ARGO is, it is nothing close to being a documentary. Even if it was, it should('ve) be approached carefully. Many impressionable viewers who don't read anything beyond a headline or a Twitter post may be apt to believe every event presented here as truth, just like many bought into every point in Oliver Stone's JFK, but don't blame the filmmakers.

This story in fact is quite interesting at showing that how sometimes the make-believe can even save your life. In some tangential way, I was reminded of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Varying degrees of spoilerage

The horror genre in film has proven to be remarkably malleable during its existence. While earlier entries were dead serious (or at least intended to be), later films began to become spoofy, referential, and even self-referential. Some were designed specifically to parody the exploits of monsters and vampires and their shadowy confines, to elicit knowing giggles. Others tried to have it both ways, simultaneously tickling and scaring the audience. I can reference back to the age of Abbott and Costello, following with many silly Mad Magazine type parodies.

In the early 80s, films taking aim at the ever popular slashers were opening every few months (SATURDAY THE 14th et al.). AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in 1981, was one of the first truly successfully horror films that infused a wicked sense of humor. John Landis' film also worked in many clever references to terror forefathers like Lon Chaney and the sorts of films in which he appeared. It all worked - compelling narrative, groundbreaking effects, fun references, a cheeky yet forboding attitude.

This year's THE CABIN IN THE WOODS tries very hard to succeed in that vein. You might note that I haven't referenced Wes Craven's SCREAM and its sequels. I do consider the first few entries in that franchise to cleverly satirize the horror genre (and its fans), while being fairly eerie movies in their own right. It would seem inevitable that CABIN would be best compared with SCREAM, but I disagree. Craven's films were fixated on a very specific type of horror - the slasher, the slice and dice. CABIN takes on seemingly everything writers Drew Goddard (also director) and Joss Whedon (who produced) could imagine: zombie flicks, torture porn (HOSTEL and SAW films). And yes, all the monster and vampire movies. It feels closer to the spirit of AMERICAN WEREWOLF, but is ultimately more like a prepubescent boy's imagination gone unchecked.

The scenario is classic: a quintet of undergraduates, each fitting neatly into an assigned label: jock, whore, stoner, nice guy, and innocent, head to the mountains for a weekend in a cousin's ancient cabin for some old school R and R. There isn't a cell phone tower within miles! On the way, they meet the predictably ominous gas station attendant who tries (none too hard) to warn them of forthcoming peril. He's plenty ornery and spits on the ground a few times.

The cabin turns out, yeah man, to be way cool and all, but what's up with that 2-way mirror in between bedrooms? Upon discovering this, nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams) prevents Dana, the "virgin" (Kristen Connolly) from removing her top in the next room before a drop of drool escapes his lips. Later, the group discovers a basement filled with lots of weird artifacts and a book with verses written in Latin that has a grisly back story. Dana is encouraged to read the words aloud. Is it a coincidence that zombies suddenly appear outside? Of course not, but the reasons are not why you would think, especially if you've watched EVIL DEAD one hundred times. If you have not seen CABIN IN THE WOODS, I suggest you stop reading this review now.

The entire scenario, it turns out, is being engineered by 2 technician pencil necks (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, in some inspired casting) who pull switches to manipulate every action in and around the cabin.  Their boss is some important figure "upstairs". The pair make wisecracks, express boredom, and collect money from an army of co-workers who pool to see how and when each kid gets it. The entire thing is scripted, and to ensure things go as planned, drugs are pumped through the vents of the cabin and even outside, mainly to impair judgment but also to increase libido. If you've seen 1 or 2 slashers, you know what happens to horny teens. But what if the stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), is already so high he is immune to the drugs? What will happen if all (or at least most) of the kids don't die?

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS gradually reveals, especially in its eventful third act, why an organization would perpetuate such a cruel game and also why the hell this too-clever-by-half film exists in the first place. It is not just another crappy latter day horror flick that looks bad (and I must say that the cinematography here is as poor as in any number of contemporary thrillers). I will not reveal exactly what occurs, or the final moments with its hasty explanations and bizarre (but ultimately lame) conclusion. But Goddard and Whedon, who have a lot on their minds, reveal, I suppose, that they are essentially geniuses, albeit with a 13 year old's disorganization of thought and over-the-top enthusiasm. But to get an idea, consider this quote from Goddard:
"The horror movie is merely the jumping off point for the inherent questions about humanity that the genre suggests. Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify, and destroy youth? And this is not specific to the genre, or movies in general, or our present day culture. We've been doing this to youth since we first began as a people and this question-the question of why-is very much at the heart of CABIN."
While I can see (and am intrigued) why the men pose such interesting questions, their movie again merely plays like that young boy imagination gone out of bounds. Kitchen sink? That scratches the surface. The latter part of this film, while crazily entertaining and impressive, goes a bit astray of the filmmakers' intentions, calling attention to itself, then concluding with ideas that breathless schoolkids would frantically scribble in short stories to impress their like-minded friends. Frustrating mess, this movie, but worth seeing nonetheless. It does manage a genuine scare or 2, as is not as silly as other horror spoofs, but still a bit immature, methinks.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cry-Baby

In the mid-80s, Baltimore's own John Waters did something most unexpected: he directed a PG-rated musical called HAIRSPRAY. Those familiar with his underground films like PINK FLAMINGOS and FEMALE TROUBLE (to say nothing of EAT YOUR MAKEUP) must've had quite a chuckle. His new film did not feature grossly overweight transvestites or actors eating dog excrement. Instead came a satiric but gentle poke at early 60s America, a transitory time as the straight-laced, lily white culture of the 1950s was giving way to civil rights marches and school integration.

1990's CRY-BABY backs up a bit, to the mid-50s, but casts a similiarly squinted eye toward the zeitgeist, though this time our protagonists include rough, other-side-of-the-tracks type called "Drapes" in addition to the patently clean cut "squares". Caught between them is a "good girl" named Allison (Amy Locane) who falls in love with Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker (Johnny Depp). In the earliest scenes she sighs with boredom over her privileged life and cardboard boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer). Next thing she knows, she's onstage at a local hangout singing onstage with Cry-Baby and his wild friends and family. But the "squares" show up and cause a ruckus. Cry-Baby ends up in the slammer.

Along the way, there are lots of songs. CRY-BABY is a snarky, yet affectionate spoof of '50s low budget teen musicals. If you've lain awake nights hoping to hear Mr. Depp sing, look no further. He brings a whole lotta energy and heart to it. Not to mention confidence. Contrast this with Matt Damon's hesitant jazz vocal in THE TALENTED MISTER RIPLEY, or anyone's solo in Woody Allen's EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.

Nearly everyone in CRY-BABY's eclectic cast gets to croon. In typical Waters fashion, that cast includes former glam boy Iggy Pop, former porn sensation Traci Lords, and former SLA member Patricia Hearst, who has the film's funniest moment during a courtroom scene. Waters' stock company players like Ricki Lake and Troy Donahue and Mink Stole (the latter two who play the parents of one of the Drapes, a tough chick called "Hatchet Face") are also present. The songs are appropriately goofy, over-the-top paeans to teen love, meant to evoke all those silly American International pics. Maybe even GREASE.

Goofy and over-the-top is an accurate way to describe CRY-BABY. Right down to a climatic game of "chicken", no teen musical staple is avoided. And Waters loves to revel in the seedy lifestyles of the Drapes. My favorite such moment is Cry-Baby's grandparents' (Pop and Susan Tyrell) unveiling of a custom-made crib for their next future grandkid. Next, we see the spotless world of the squares, staging a talent show filled with vanilla Pat Boone-like tunes. It's hard to tell if Waters is leveling the same scope at each social group, though I suspect he had equal fun lampooning the cluttered Drape landscape along with that of the spotless squares. And I think it's clear with which group he'd more identify.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shivers

SPOILERS!!

Writer/director David Cronenberg's SHIVERS (1975) is simultaneously one of the most unsettling and hilarious movies I've seen. I laughed out loud many times, moreso than during aggressively marketed and branded comedies like THE HANGOVER. The laughs were sometimes deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, many other times not. I also laughed, I believe, as a defense mechanism to the unfolding dread, the highly uncomfortable (and even more scarily observant) scenario. Like when people are frightened or faced with something highly unpleasant. While it's easy to poke fun at what at first glance is a cheesy, amateurishly acted, ultra low-budget, 70s-to-the-hilt gross out, the subtext for many would be plently disturbing.

On an island off Montreal is a luxury high rise with all the ammenities a Yuppie could indulge. In the effective opening credit sequence, we're presented a slide show of the interiors and exteriors of the Starlite Island complex, its condos gleaming with modern accoutrements and its swimming pools Olympic sized. A narrator informs us that residents also have their own retail shops and deli. There's also a medical clinic with a doctor who'll make house calls as late as 9 or 10 P.M. The early scenes show prospective residents, a young couple being interviewed by our narrator, discussing floorplans.

But meanwhile, just a few rooms over, an elderly man is wrestling with a schoolgirl, eventally stripping her of her blouse and pouring acid on and cutting into her abdomen before slitting his own throat. Familiar Cronenberg territory, or as one critic stated about SHIVERS, "sets the disgusting pattern for most of his subsequent pictures."

It is explained later that the killer was an esteemed university physician who had been experimenting with man-made parasites to aid with organ transplants. His creations, however, once mainfested, cause sexual disinhibition in its hosts, perhaps a result of the doctor's thesis that man has become too much of a thinking being, ignoring and suppressing primal urges. This fits in well with Cronenberg's repeated themes of physical evolution and fleshly metamorpheses. Remember James Woods' final line in VIDEODROME?

The parasites are red, appropriately phallic looking slugs that manage to travel throughout the Starlite, infecting almost everyone, spread through any sort of contact, not just sexual. One infamous scene shows a parasite climbing through the drain of a tub and entering a bather's er, orifice. Other times the little troublemakers are transmitted through kisses. This is relevant as every victim suddenly becomes uncontrollably aroused. This essentially being an exploitation movie, the opportunities abound.

And the director spares us very little with his "attack scenes". Boundary pushing? Good taste? Consider the scene where a man (squeezing what looks like a jelly donut through his fingers) attacks a woman and her very young daughter in an elevator. Or two children on a leash, barking like dogs. Or the finale, a man overtaken in the Starlite pool by armies of naked condo dwellers. SHIVERS is an extravanganza of sex and gore, enough so that the Canadian Board refused to assist Cronenberg with funding for his next few films. In an interview, the director reported that after an article ("You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It") damning SHIVERS was published in a national magazine, he was kicked out of his Tornoto apartment due to "decency rules"!

But I have to be fair. SHIVERS is not just cheap smarm. The elements of sex and violence are explored, to my eyes, not for titillation but for clinical analysis. Most intriguingly, as to their similarities. Cronenberg is almost downright medical with his films, adopting a scientist's objective approach to physiologic/psychologic decay. While some of the characters do expire, most are merely transformed. Evolving. Some might say regressing. Others might agree with the doctor who created the parasites, observing a return to the primal, what makes humans, animals.

You might also say, irrational, but there can be an argument there. The "victims" in SHIVERS (also known as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) may not be mere lower brainstem zombies mindlessly eating flesh, but rather more cunning in their efforts to recruit others to join them. As the mob grows, we may be reminded of George Romero films, as each of the newly infected salivates and extends arms toward new "recruits". Cronenberg may be arguing that the doc was right, that, speaking microcosmically, the Starlite resident were mindless, repressed consumer zombies before they were infected, and now they are liberated. Your milage may vary on that point.

I read an interesting take - that SHIVERS is a parable for the invasion of American mores and values on Canadians, something the director denies. There is no denying that this film will get you thinking, if you're not too busy covering your eyes, being outraged, or laughing.....