Sunday, May 27, 2012

Only a Fool Would Say That

One of the better Steely Dan covers. The artist is called Ivy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Get to Know Your Rabbit

It's an oft told story: corporate drone ditches high rise office to "find" him or herself, usually by indulging a creative pursuit and often by taking to the highways to find whatever it was that was missing from the life of said drone. You may have even known one or 2 folks who chucked their golden parachutes to be happy idiots, struggling for the legal tender, as Jackson Browne once sang.

1970's GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT has a bit of fun with this old standard. Its creators are Americans (including director Brian De Palma) though much of the humor is distinctively British. For example, in the opening scenes we find Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers) swamped with an endlessly ringing telephone and secretaries demanding his signature for something or other. One caller actually gets through - a woman who announces that there is a bomb in the building which will detonate in a few minutes. The caller is put on hold. Dave Allen would've been proud. To say nothing of Peter Cook or the Monty Python crew.

Donald walks out of the building with no intent of returning. He's had it with the rat race and would rather pratice magic tricks and tap dancing. Donald's boss, Mr. Turnbull (an hilarious John Astin), will have none of this. He repeatedly shows up at the studio where Donald rehearses and even at his apartment, each time with a new draft of a letter not announcing Donald's resignation, but his "vacation". He even flies Donald's parents in from the mid-West (they're waiting in a closet) to try to convince the young man he's throwing a lucrative career down the toilet. But even as Donald's trophy girlfriend walks out on him, he's ready to be happy again.

The rest of GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT is as insanely bizarre and at times ingenious as the opening scenes. It bugs me that so many who've written about this movie give away a big twist that occurs about a third of the way in and drives the final act. It's a great bit of comic inspiration. Suffice it to say that Donald graduates from magic school (under the tutelage of dean Orson Welles) and begins touring low rent bars and cabarets around the country as a dancing magician.

Just before he boards the bus for his first journey, he discovers Mr. Turnbull a disheveled mess on a bench. His boss was let go for the usually vague corporate reasons. Donald brings him back to his apartment and gives him a desk and some paper clips, enough to satisfy the man's desire to be a bureaucrat once again. Donald will send correspondence from the road to his old boss, giving the latter a most interesting idea.....

It must be mentioned that Donald meets an attractive woman at one of his shows (Katharine Ross, listed in the credits as "Terrific Looking Girl"), a rather odd one who tells of her childhood crush on a newspaper boy and the lengths she went to to keep the subscription coming even after her folks canceled it. And never mind the sensitive brassiere salesman (Allen Garfield). By this point in the movie, these people and their behavior don't seem so odd in this patently fractured universe.

But then comes the final half hour, when writer Jordan Crittenden's script really kicks into high gear with pungent satire, some of which I bet even Upton Sinclair would've appreciated. You might wonder how De Palma got involved in this, but his 2 previous movies, GREETINGS and HI, MOM!, were nasty black comedy extravaganzas that had developed cult followings. His trademarked, light as air camerawork and dizzying direction are in full evidence here as well. RABBITT is much gentler than De Palma's earlier pics, ultimately missing the mark (the final scene is a bit of a disappointment), but lands enough knowing jabs to those ever elusive Pursuits of Happiness and American Dreams.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dresser

How intoxicating, the thundering applause of total strangers who see you not as mere mortal, but perhaps a god born with the ability to spout the prose of Shakespeare at a moment's notice. Night after night, seemingly effortlessly donning the wigs of King Lear or the blackface of Othello. The majesty does not happen without provocation. What great pains to prop the old sot up long enough just to have him sit still for makeup application, never mind to make the grand entrance Lear does! Perhaps "Sir", an aged thespian (Albert Finney) would merely fall into a pile were it not for his long suffering assistant, Norman (Tom Courtenay).

1983's THE DRESSER is the the film adaptation of a twice produced stage production (Britain and Broadway) that also starred Courtenay as the put-upon handler. He is amazing to watch. A tireless, perfectly modulated performance this is. Pure strength as he matches the power of Finney's all-out gasp as the actor in the autumn/winter of his career. Most of the film is set in Sir's oversized cavern of a dressing room, equipped with sofa and tables and hooks on the wall onto which the many garments of Richard III and other Bard legends are strewn.

Norman attends to every minitiaeu of Sir's beckon. He's as ready with a Guinness as he is with a line reading, which tonight Sir seems to be unable to find. When he does recall, he quotes the wrong play. Sir is the lead actor and manager of his traveling cast, but without Norman he may well simply bark at the walls, nary caring for a response, well into the night. THE DRESSER has a few outdoor scenes early on, including an amusing train station episode, but the majority of the film remains fixed in the theater, patrons buzzing and unfazed by the sounds of bombs landing nearby (the time period is WWII). The Germans are not enough to keep adoring fans away, away from what is sure to be another astonishing, passionate performance.

Anyone who has toiled backstage will find much to enjoy in THE DRESSER. One great scene shows the other actors and crew rattling and shaking metal to simulate the sounds of a thunderstorm. Throught the film, others in the company will watch with concern and disgust, wondering if their lead will even make it to the stage. The stage manager is steely and doubtful on this particularly eventful night which comes after Sir spends an afternoon filled with alcohol and loathing in a hospital bed.

But THE DRESSER, for all of director Peter Yates' meticulous attention to the atmosphere of the theater and the drama amongst the troupe, is really about the relationship of 2 men, one of whom carries a burden that will perhaps go eternally unappreciated. I can't hand out enough laurels to Finney and Courtenay. The complexity of their relationship manages itself to be theatrical, fascinating, and finally, heartbreaking.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Institutional, Part One**

There was a nine month gap between my first and second pharmacy jobs. I graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) in May 1991 and began my second Rx job in February 1992 at a place that I will not call by its actual name, lest there be any backlash from someone reading this who may have been familiar with it. In between, I moved to Clermont, in the central Florida area, to be near my fiancee. I worked a series of fruitless sales jobs (all commission based) and even for one week doing telemarketing for a carpet cleaning company that summer. My engagement ended. I moved back to West Palm Beach and for about 4 months I worked in medical records at a Humana Center. Not too bad of a job but hardly inspiring. I briefly dated a co-worker there, again violating the old rule.

Then, as the new year dawned I got a job at a resort hotel a little south of where I lived. I was to work in the Comptroller's office for the food and beverage department. I spent the first week on the loading dock, helping the guys move perishables and meanwhile learning the inventory units of vegetables and herbs. Trucks, all damned day. To entertain myself, I counted how many times in a day someone yelled "Get this outta here!" One of the drivers proudly showed us his can of "Fokking" beer, some European brew, the name of which he thought was hysterically funny.

The kitchen storerooms were also quite active. I watched executive chefs throw tantrums. Grabbing and flinging spinach and many other greens in the air in disgust as they were not good enough.

I was on call for spot inventories. One night, I received a call at 1 A.M. with instructions to be there at 4 for the liquor count. It made sense to do it at such an odd hour, but it was brutal on my sleep cycle.

As the weeks went on, I began to get that "gut" feeling that being what was essentially a bean counter/number cruncher was not for me. I did enjoy the cafeteria. Employess only paid a quarter for breakfast and $.50 for lunches and dinners. Given my ridiculously long hours, I frequently had all 3 meals there. Great grub, too. But I was far from encouraged, and I knew this faitly quickly. Luckily, a nurse friend of mine had heard that a local independent pharmacy was hiring techs for their institutional side: supplying medications for nursing homes, assisted living, and rehabilitation centers. All new to me. I was game.

The business had a store in front, a real old school mom and pop retail; they were still using a typewriter for prescription labels! When I went for my interview, I was lead through it and deep into the bowels of what appeared to be a converted garage. I met with a friendly but suspicious man named *Vincent, the operations director, who gave off some serious mafioso vibes (this, faithful LD readers will note, would happen again 4 years later at another place I worked), which to my knowledge turned out to be untrue. His son, *Clark, was the chief pharmacist, a bit of a playboy who drove a Corvette. Father and son did not exactly get along swimmingly. One fight turned ugly enough for junior to punch a hole into a wooden door. Junior also at least once violated the fishing off the company pier rule.

Tablet medications were dispensed in either unit-dose (individual packets) or bingo cards in quatities of 30, 60, and 90. There was a laminar flow hood for IV prep. My clinical knowledge really expanded during my 5 odd years at this pharmacy. I learned to read unreadable prescriptions, filled with doctors' Latin chicken scratch. I tagged along with Clark during his site visits, spot checking for potential violations for OSHA inspections and giving inservices to staff. I started as a pill packer and moved up to inputter, interpreting faxed Rxs that often came in reams of paper when new patients were admitted to facilities.

The co-worker dynamic was anything but boring from day one. When you place 30 odd people in a small space you're bound to have drama. As before, I had to play peacemaker between my mostly female cohorts, at one point it looked like things would come to blows. It was a monumentally stressful, horribly disorganized, angry place. I watched myself succumb to the bad vibes, even once flinging a phone across a room and knocking items off of shelves in disgust. I even shattered a glass door with a kick, but I wasn't trying to, and it wasn't in anger, just as a joke. Oops. At least I didn't push an entire counter of carefully prepared orders to the floor like junior did.

Profanity spewed freely through this workplace as well. The term "fuck a duck" was a particular favorite among some of the ladies. This pharmacy looked, often smelled, and certainly sounded like an overgrown locker room. The atmosphere took its toll, eventually.

There are so many stories about that place I don't even know where to begin.


TO BE CONTINUED....

*not the real name

**A single entry for this phase just isn't enough

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Green Zone

I'm not sure if director Paul Greengrass' GREEN ZONE will play as effectively now as it did when it was originally released in 2010. Though, I'm not so sure how topical it was then. Greengrass stated that he originally supported Prime Minister Blair's decision to join the coalition to invade Iraq in 2003, but then had increasing doubts as he did some research. The search for weapons of mass destruction became a real blind spot, a real dent in credibility for the G.W. Bush administration and the military, who, as this movie illustrates more than once, were just following orders. The link between the horrific events of Sept. 11 and al-Qaeda was never cemented. We watched the news.

The challenge for any fictional recount of such event is to be at least as interesting as that of real life. The late film critic Gene Siskel stated that a movie should be as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together. How about those actors discoursing on the Iraq war? But then again, a MY DINNER WITH ANDRE take on this subject wouldn't have the benefit of skillful action set pieces.

GREEN ZONE is an entry in the genre I like to call "Don't Stop the Presses", films that like to spring big, important revelations that in fact are not so revelatory. In the case of this film, unless a viewer had avoided any media in the previous 7 years, none of the discoveries should be surprising. Disquieting and validating, yes.

If you've lived long enough, you should not be surprised by alleged government chicanery and clandestinery. In the futile search for WNDs, the old "CYA" was also in play. GREEN ZONE treats the subject as if it is the first to educate us on how wrongheaded it was to invade Iraq. Viewers who tune in to Fox News with any reverence and credibility will continue to argue this. In fact, the channel and even some film critics derided this film for being Un-American. I wonder what the response from those parties would've been to the inflammatory Vietnam doc HEARTS AND MINDS, but we'll save that speculation for a forthcoming review.

Matt Damon, a veteran of the BOURNE series (a few directed by Greengrass), plays Roy Miller, a United States Army Chief Warrant Officer who repeatedly discovers empty sites when he and his team sweep for WMDs. He begins to question the intelligence which drove these missions, much to the chagrin and embrarrassment of the higher-ups. The story will develop somewhat like a cop/detective drama, with an informant Iraqi who leads Miller to secret high level Ba'ath Party meetings and a CIA (Brendan Gleeson, sounding again like an Irish Gene Hackman) agent who is aware of the futility of the weapons missions and knows quite a bit about one General Mohammed Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor) and his role in what may lead to insurgency or alliance with the Americans.

There is also a Washington minion named Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) who expertly dodges questions from both Miller and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) about a source known as "Magellan", and Ahmed Zubaidi (Raad Rawi), an Iraqi politician who may well be being groomed for higher office after the U.S. takes Baghdad in their quest to promote democracy. Miller will gradually learn what is really happening, though despite his maverick actions manages to escape disciplinary action from the military.

GREEN ZONE is interested in telling its story breathlessly, with several action scenes and chases to propel the pace. A lengthy sequence near the end is as frantic as any moment of the BOURNE films, though impressively Greengrass manages to orchestrate near chaos without confusing the viewer. When Miller finally connects the dots, the film offers an effective climax that can serve as either the film's main thesis or a dark punchline, depending on your take. It is an effective moment.

But, the drama of this film is not as strong as it would like to be, mainly due to the familiarity of the material. That's not to say that a screenplay has to be entirely novel to be dramatically effective, but GREEN ZONE has a healthy dose of piety that gives the impression that it is a grand whistle blower of cinema. It is not. This movie does not work in the same way as SILKWOOD or THE CHINA SYNDROME, which were strong indictments on current events (though I'm sure many conservatives who've seen those movies will cry "liberal agenda" or the like). GREEN ZONE is a fairly well made entertainment that has a conscience. An action film that poses hard questions, but far from the definitive treatment of a very unfortunate Presidental/military legacy. But be sure to watch that final shot carefully.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Last Picture Show

America Lost & Found, The BBS Story, Part VII (Conclusion)

1971's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is stunning, the most quietly stunning film I believe I've ever seen. From opening shot to fade out. I remember so clearly sitting in silence after my first viewing, knowing I'd witnessed something profound and unsettling and all I could do was remain still. Moviegoing can ideed be deemed a meditative and religious experience. A shame I couldn't have seen this film properly, in say a regal old movie palace during its original release in 1971. During a time when the BBS men were in full gear, with this and the other fine movies in this box set I've discussed over the last year and a half.

As I listened to director Peter Bogdanovich's commentary and watched the making-of docs included in Criterion's package of this landmark picture, I completely understood when he stated that he too was so moved by the way actors/brothers Timothy and Sam Bottoms performed a scene near the end that he was paralyzed into silence, nearly moved to tears. After a single, perfect take, he threw his arm around Timothy and the two of them walked quite a distance away from the set with nary a word between them. I felt like I wanted to do likewise with everyone involved with THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

The BBS Box Set is subtitled: "America Lost and Found", and of the 7 films included, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the crown jewel of this collection, most deservedly earns that description. If there was ever a town that felt lost, dissconnected, and isolated, it's Anarene, Texas. A town that never seems to change; its stillness masking an agonizingly slow death for itself and its inhabitants. A place where Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name first introduced the characters of high school football players and friends Duane (Jeff Bridges, in his screen debut) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) as they interact with assorted town folks. There's Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, also debuting), the town ice princess, her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar), the school's basketball coach's wife, and Sam (Ben Johnson, also an Oscar winner), who owns all of the town's hangouts and benevolently, quietly lords over everything.

To the uninitiated, it may well all sound like just a honky tonk soap opera. Jacy half-heartedly dates Duane, is convinced to attend a strip swimming party, meets a rich guy she wants to sleep with who, upon finding out she's a virgin, tells her to come back when she isn't. Her attempts with Duane result in his performance anxiety the first go-round. By the time they "get it right" the rich guy has run off to get married. Jacy dumps Duane and later even has sex with her mother's lover (Clu Gulager) atop a pool table. Her behavior is detestable, but she only copies what she sees in her mother.

Meanwhile, Sonny is asked to drive the coach's wife to a doctor's appointment and before long, they are having their own affair, right there in the light of the afternoon in her bedroom. The same cold bed in which she normally retreats into a ball, most likely. Ruth is an unspeakably sad middle-aged woman starved for affection and long resigned to nil self-esteem. She is not beautiful in the conventional ways like the other women of Anarene. But Leachman, usually displaying her gifts for comedy in other roles, perfectly illustrates the very fragile beauty and resolve of Mrs. Popper. Her weathered face and withdrawn body language says more than any dialogue could. There's little joy in their adultery, leading to a devastating, perhaps cathartic, yet strangely peaceful final scene. That is, before we get one last shot of the deserted main drag, of the blowing dust.

The dust symbolizes the passage of time, one of my favorite themes. The events in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW happen over the course of about one year, when some characters graduate high school, some pass away, some leave town, others don't move an inch. The film is an elegy to and yet an indictment of small town life, of isolation from damn near everything. These characters may appear emotionally dead but are full of yearning, of remembering.

The landscape may not change but relationships do, as Sam the Lion sits with Sonny and his brother by the same lake to which he once took a ladyfriend. An illicit afternoon he recalls quietly, yet with an urgency and power that is spellbinding. It is one of my favorite scenes in any movie. I loved hearing Bogdonavich describe its creation, its certainty of earning Mr. Johnson's Academy Award. I will forever be more cognizant of the appearance and disappearance of sunlight in a scene after listening to the director. In real life, too.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is a perfect film for many reasons. The natural acting. The evocation of time and place. The gorgeous black and white photography, and this film is unthinkable in color (thank Orson Welles, who convinced Bogdonavich to shoot it this way). The palpable feeling of time passing. What I've discovered over the years is also that it manages to feel like a classic film of Hollywood's Golden Age (1930s-early 1960s) without the embarrassing melodrama, laughably authoritarian sounding narrators, and overwrought musical scores that mar even the greatest films of those times. I don't say that to discredit any particular film, mind you, and I realize that every film has to be considered in light of the era in which it was made. But THE LAST PICTURE SHOW needs no such justification or apology. Its lack of any musical score at all is part of the reason it is perfect and timeless. Only the occasional incidental music drifting from someone's car radio or victrola is heard.

The film's title comes from Anarene's sole movie theater, a place to take your date, to dream of other places and pretend perhaps you're like John Wayne in RED RIVER. That Western is the final picture to play in the house, with Sonny and Duane there to watch another piece of history fade away. By then, Sam has died, Jacy's moved away, and Duane himself is about to ship off to military service. Sonny has also stopped visiting Ruth, never even calling her. Until that next to last scene. The wind still blows. Some are left to watch it. This may well be my favorite film ever.

Monday, May 7, 2012

S'Long, Harry

On May Day I learned that our friend Harry had passed from this world. His passing made the local news (online, at least). It was an unremarkable death, a heart attack in his home. He had been cooking breakfast and the unattended stove caught ablaze sometime after he expired, sending dark clouds of smoke out into his gated community. The photo on the site featured a line of emergency vehicles on the familiar main drag in his neighborhood. So that's how it ended.

I met Harry around 11 years ago. A regular at my in-laws' house for their monthly Saturday night dinners, Harry tended to dominate with his boisterousness and sheer loudness. Not unrelated to that was his love for wine; he always arrived clutching a glass jug of Gallo red. Each night he would talk old time movies and opera, two of his passions. He was the widower of a French woman, with whom he owned and ran a hotel on Broadway in West Palm Beach decades earlier. As the wine flowed, his French flowed like the very music he loved. It was consistently entertaining to be around him. He was always the last to leave for the evening, and getting him to leave was no easy task. He never seemed to take a breath, never got tired. With his energy and knowledge, I always thought he should've hosted a radio show.

Harry also liked arsenals. When not waxing cinematic, he would rattle off calibers with sometimes alarming encyclopedic knowledge. I regrettably never got to see his collection but I heard it was vast, comprehensive. In fact, he was a licensed dealer, right out of his home. The article stated that his garage was filled with ammunition but the fire never got near it. I wonder what will become of all those weapons. Likely, the state/law enforcement will seize them and be that much better armed with all sorts of Desert Eagles and glocks.

I have spoken of Harry several times here since I began this blog. One entry was entirely devoted to the night I had to drive him home in his own car. A case of retrieving the keys from someone who had a few dozen too many. When I got to his house I had my one and only peek inside, seeing a table covered with the kind of wide umbrella you usually see outside on a pool deck. It looked pretty cluttered in there. My wife and I had spoken of intervening, helping him organize his place. Time got away. I heard many of his affairs have gone forever unsettled. There is a step-daughter out there with whom he had not spoken in many years.

A memorial dinner, held at my in-laws' this past weekend, was attended by many of the usual group that had for many years listened and sometimes groaned to Harry's many anecdotes and bon mots. It took place around the same tables where the late guest of honor had for many nights held court. My wife and I were unable to attend as we were celebrating our 3rd anniversary in St. Augustine.

I will greatly miss chatting with that most unusual, sometimes infuriating and embarrassing, but always fascinating septuagenarian. May you have found Peace, sir.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What have men like George Smiley been doing since the end of the Cold War? Secret agents who live in the shadows, meeting informants in cafes or within the inner sanctums of a safe house, nudging, prodding, threatening for another piece of intelligence about the Soviets. Yes, of course the spy game is still thriving post-Cold War, post-9/11, necessary as it is to be cloaked to tease out what is vital amidst a sea of deception and noise. But during the days of the U.S.S.R./C.C.C.P., every teleptype threatened to reveal something that may suggest a fatal infiltration, a paper trail of espionage, or, perhaps worst of all for the British, egg on face.

It all made great fodder for novelists like John le Carré, whose Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a bestseller in the mid-1970s. British intel agent Smiley would go on to have several more adventures in print and a celebrated BBC adaptation in 1979 with Sir Laurence Olivier in the lead role. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has followed in 2011 with a movie of the same name, penned by the late Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. Those familiar with the story will cite its complexity, the labyrinthine manner in which to tell of what amounts to something rather fundamental and common to the spy genre: the presence of a "mole" within the ranks.

The "Circus" is the apt nickname for the MI6 British Intelligence agency, run by a Chief called Control (John Hurt). His behavior is erractic, but do not discount his clarity - he knows there is a traitor at his table. Of his employ, he suspects Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), and Smiley (Gary Oldman). Respectively, each is coded "Tinker", "Tailor", "Soldier", "Poorman" and "Beggarman." Tellingly, the Chief scotch tapes photos of each to pieces on his chess board.

After a badly botched meeting with a Hungarian general during which an MI6 agent is shot and later tortured, Smiley and Control are ousted, leaving Alleline to take the reigns and continue building their file on Soviet doings, a file known as "Witchcraft". Some time later, Smiley is recruited out of premature retirement to conduct his own investigation as to the identity of the Soviet mole, surely one of his former inner circle. He will visit several former Circus employees and begin to slowly assemble the puzzle. Periodically, a holiday party/dance from years earlier with all of the story's principals in attendance will be revisited in this movie, each time revealing more about the relationships among them.

Much of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY stays fixed on Oldman's face, a face usually deep in thought. Eyes averted. He is an expert at his job, and seemingly more intuitive and cautious than his cohorts. His silences say more than his few words. It is an opportunity for some subtly effective acting by Oldman, but also bad news for viewers who are trying to keep up with this sometimes inpenetrable plot. Smiley betrays nothing, especially not to the viewer who may often feel as if stumbling in a fog.

The litany of intel jargon (including the term "lamplighter") doesn't help. Sometimes I felt like a glossary would've been useful, much like Anthony Burgess provided for readers of A Clockwork Orange. But Alfredson, like Kubrick long before him, does us no such favors. But to everyone's credit, this film never doubts the intelligence of the viewer, and rewards the patient and observant.

But do not let your attention lapse, not even for 30 seconds. I rarely criticize screenplays for films about spies for being too involved, because that is the very nature of them. Even James Bond movies have plots that can get impossibly twisty. For a quiet film like TINKER TAILOR, the complexity is more noticeable, often infuriating for some viewers. Many would probably have also appreciated if ushers had handed out Cliffs Notes and flashlights with this picture, based on some of the reviews and postings I've seen. Should one feel like an idiot if he or she doesn't follow the intracacies of the plot? Or is it the failing of the screenwriters who have not made things clear? An age old question for film, one that this film does little to definitively answer.

I was fascinated from beginning to end, even during some of the film's lulls. There is much symbolism. Some of it is a bit clumsy - such as the repeated shots of Smiley wading through deep water, with his glasses on, of course. Hmmmm. The railroad lights and switching tracks were also a bit too obvious for my taste.

I began watching this movie with a bit of condescension: these men are just boys in adult bodies, having never outgrown the cloak and dagger games of schoolyard recess. If you really examine the job description of an agent, it reveals opportunities to retreat into base, even infantile behavior, all in some covert guise to retrieve information that will prevent some disaster from happening. I'm not trivializing the importance of the work itself, please understand. And yes, such roles are necessary for national security and all that, but examine the lengths and especially depths taken to achieve this. TINKER TAILOR therefore becomes just as interesting for its sociology as its plotting. In the end these otherwise sophisticated individuals are reduced to gossipy, vindictive, spineless nellies, no better than a group of catty high school girls or yentas at a canasta table. There is, of course, a bit more at stake with the MI6, CIA, KGB, etc. etc. That's what is so sad and frightening.

The best thrillers of this genre do just that, show the spy business for the (intriguing) mess that it is. Without being flashy in even the slightest way, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY somberly, delibrately unfolds (if not shines some light upon) its enigmas. What most impressed me was how the film looked and was shot. Drab colors, slow transitions among scenes, camerawork and direction appropriate to a story set in 1973. Many films set in earlier times lose me because they use contemporary cinematic tools that destroy the feel. Alfredson and crew have made a movie that really looks as if it were nearly 40 years old. It is almost if they found old film stock from the period. This is the correct method. It sustained my occasional dips in interest. Drink it in, and pay close attention.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Raven

I read and re-read the stories of Edgar Allen Poe well past my teenage years, fascinated with each macabre scenario and their meticulously described, often gruesome details. At the, um, heart of each story was an essay on man's sin, his avarice spread open wide. The victims were often innocent, yet, not. In the new film THE RAVEN, the fictionalized conceit is that Poe's tales inspire someone to follow to the letter the careful mechanics of the finer and more creative methods of killing. "If I had known my stories would cause this, I would've focused instead on erotica," he muses.

The setting: 1800s Baltimore. Poe (John Cusack) is creatively spent, his classic writings well behind him. He is reduced to writing reviews (the horror!) and sparring with literary critics in the local papers. He, like many writers, is also a stumbling drunk and endeared to vials of tinctures. THE RAVEN does not explore the possibility that such poisons inspired his work. Instead, the screenplay settles in to a whodunnit, a procedural headed by Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) who is able to discover after the first murder(s) how the killer escaped through a nailed shut window (has much to do with "Murders in the Rue Morgue").

The horrible deaths continue and mount, including one unfortunate, the aforementioned critic, who finds himself strapped to a table under a swinging battleax just like in "The Pit and the Pendulum". This scene is easily the goriest in the film, enough so to cause a young lady two seats down to cover her head and cry out, perhaps the response director James McTeigue would've wanted. Poe, too? I wonder if this poor girl had ever read the stories. The imagination is capable of so much worse, but why is it that when someone visualises things some filmgoers recoil and feel nauseous? Ask writers who've had their celebrated novels adapted, like William Peter Blatty. Or Stephen King, whose writings, like Poe's, often made me wonder if the author has to be a bit mad himself, just this side of acting on homicidal urges. But, THE RAVEN does not explore that idea, either.

After being ruled out as a suspect, Poe is enlisted to help the police with post mortems and to anticipate the assailant's next move. Riddles printed in red ink are left upon each corpse. The killer seems to like a good game. Adding to the plot is a young lady named Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), who Poe seeks to marry, who is kidnapped and threatened to be buried alive unless Poe begins writing daily entries for the newspaper that describe the murders and subsequent investigation, but with his own literary touches. This sickie is clearly a fan.

The ideas of THE RAVEN aren't new. I thought back on THEATRE OF BLOOD, featuring a talentless, hammy stage actor played by Vincent Price who does in his critics in the manner of death scenes from Shakespearean tragedies. Unilike that film, this one plays it fairly straight, and I only recall one big unintentional guffaw, though it's a doozy. Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (yes, you read that correctly) nicely blend a fairly absorbing mystery with all sorts of fun allusions and references for Poe devotees. As Poe, Cusack is appealingly caustic and prone to outbursts, yet he never chews the scenery or seems too contemporary. I always imagined Poe had a relaxed attitude toward decorum, and Cusack seems to verify that notion with his portrayal.

While I found THE RAVEN to be a generally well-paced, atmospheric (shot in Hungary), literate, and enjoyable chiller, far better than what I was expecting, the best that will probably come out of it is that many viewers may be spurred to seek out Edgar Allen Poe's works. Possibly those of Longfellow and Jules Verne, too.