Friday, June 29, 2012

The Killer Elite

Have you ever watched someone deliberately sabotage their work? Approach a project with the intent of burning it to the ground? While in grad school, I sat stunned as a classmate brazenly presented a Power Point prepared by someone else and claimed it as her own. She did nothing to hide this, as some slides had the authors' names clearly designated.

She also stammered and appeared as if she threw the thing together not 10 minutes prior. The embarrassment and disbelief was thick in the auditorium that afternoon. It was squirm inducing but also morbidly fascinating. To watch someone crash and burn so throughly, so dramatically and have it seem like it was premeditated, utterly calculated. Or maybe it was the side effect of burnout? Apathy. Our program was grueling, and maybe she just had enough. Most people at that point take a leave of absence, or withdraw. The drama limited to a written letter. Not my classmate. She either lit the match herself or simply watched an already smoldering hulk reduce to ash and did nothing to stop it.

Watching 1975's odd THE KILLER ELITE was a somewhat similiar experience for me, without perhaps the immediacy. Of course I never socialized or knocked back a brew with director Sam Peckinpah as I had with my classmmate, but having studied his films over the years and read interviews, I feel as if I have some understanding of his point of view; I'm a great admirer of his work. His films were in the great tradition of the macho cinema of Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and William Wyler before him, but taken to lengths the Code would've never approved in the earlier decades.

So how disheartening it was to watch this claptrap of a movie. In THE KILLER ELITE, the CIA employs the services of private agencies of hitmen/spies, people like Locken (James Caan) and Hansen (Robert Duvall). Their assignments include escorting defectors from Communist countries and protecting dignataries. Locken and Hansen have long been a working team and good friends. But friendship is cheap when a rival agency (still under the auspices of the CIA) buys off Hansen to kill one of the defectors he's supposed to be protecting. Hansen will also fire shots into Locken's elbow and knee, leaving his compadre to suffer an agonizingly long rehabilitation.

The viewer also suffers. For some reason, Marc Norman and Sterling Silliphant's script spends an inordinate amount of time with Locken as he learns to walk again. Peckinpah sets nearly a fifth of this movie in the hospital. I didn't mind the idea of the film taking its time to establish a relevancy to the overall storyline, but, when you establish in the opening scenes that the film is to be a popcorn thriller (note the idiotic opening crawl), you can't grind the pace to a halt. In the context of this movie, one 30 second scene would've given us the information we needed. If THE KILLER ELITE had been a thoughtful drama (like Caan's earlier BRIAN'S SONG), the many and lengthy rehab scenes would've been appropriate.

The plot then involves Locken's eventual return to action (he even learns some martial arts during his hiatus) and new assignment to protect an Asian client long enough so he can return to his mother country, where, as the man says, he will be killed anyway. An airport ambush, uncharacteristically awkwardly staged by the director, almost does the client in. Is it believable that Locken, ambulating about with a cane, is sufficiently healed to get back in the game? Even as he assembles a team of former cronies for this new mission, the whole thing is pretty implausible.

What Locken also doesn't know is that his own agency has also hired now-nemesis Hanson to assassinate the Asian. Seems that their superiors Collis (Arthur Hill) and Weybourne (Gig Young) are at war with each other and vying for power. Spy story fodder indeed, but as good a stage as any on which to set an effective tale of revenge.

Doesn't quite happen that way. In fact, several scenes suggest that the actors and director didn't give a damn about this movie (and may have not so passively tried to sink it). Peckinpah was a mere gun for hire on this project, a job he was lucky to get as he had become a pariah in the studio system. But to say his heart wasn't in it is an understatement. What to make of a scene where Lochen meets the not-quite-there female employee/assistant of one of his cronies, the getaway driver, Mac(rumpled and gruff Burt Young, best known for his turns as Pauline in the ROCKY movies). The woman just stands there adrift, completely spaced out. Then Caan becomes distracted as he speaks with Mac, himself going into the fog. This goes on for over a minute, as if everyone (crew included) fell asleep. I watched it again and wondered if I missed something.

How about the scene in the strip club, where Hansen is outlining his mission with some other agency goons? Why does Peckinpah repeatedly cut to the dancers on stage when important plot points are being discussed (we still hear them speak, but the noise of the club almost drowns them out)? Sure, once or twice for the requisite topless quotient (though this is a PG-rated film), but.... Bizarre.

My favorite has to be the scene with the thoroughly dumb cop Locken and company encounters while hightailing it from a downtown shootout. After pulling the gang over, the officer discovers that Mac has retrieved a bomb from under the vehicle. Rather than citing them for something or other, he instead grabs the explosive from them and runs away (we hear the blast a minute later). Was this supposed to be off-the-wall humor? There's absolutely no effort at comic timing here so I can only again conclude that someone was trying to sabotage this movie. Maybe everyone was in on it. A perfect tax write off?

But the nadir comes during the climax set aboard a military vessel, where everyone meets for a final showdown. A group of the sorriest ninjas you've ever seen engage in fights with the "good" and "bad" guys. The choreography is so third rate that it seemed as if there was no direction at all. As if Peckinpah hung up his bullhorn and went home, hoping maybe the second unit would take over. So goes the whole movie. If you like cheesy 70s dramas with (unintentional?) laughs, this may be worth a few minutes. But how sad to be saying this about the man who directed THE WILD BUNCH, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, JUNIOR BONNER, and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

She Thinks She's Edith Head



Or some other cultural figure, we don't know a lot about....



Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wordplay

For a period in the mid-2000s I had to work on Sundays, something I was not at all thrilled about. To make matters worse, I had to work in Boca Raton, but that's another story. The drive was a good 1/2 hour plus, and those dreary mornings were made a bit more palatable by NPR's Weekend Edition, specifically the regular segments with Will Shortz, a puzzlemaster who edits the infamous New York Times crossword. He would present a challenge for listeners (and WE host Lianne Hansen) such as "You'll be given two things in the same category. You name the only other thing in the same category that fits between the given things alphabetically. For example, given 'Mars' and 'Saturn', the answer would be 'Mercury.'"

I would play the game aloud along with the caller, and sometimes I was quick on the draw and other times left in the dust. I marvelled at how rapidly people could think and respond.

If you've ever attempted the NYT crossword, you know what a formidable challenge it is. Now imagine being timed. The contestants at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament are able to solve them, in some cases, in under 5 minutes. I do the crossword at least twice a month and only occasionally do I even complete it, much less in record time. The 2006 documentary WORDLPAY introduces us to Shortz and several others who design and solve those puzzles over which millions obsess. This would include notables like former President Bill Clinton, former New York Yankee pitcher Mike Messina, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and the Indigo Girls, all of whom appear in this movie. Stewart sits in his office, doing the crossword in pen (a mighty brave thing) and yells "Bring it, Shortz!"

And I wish WORDPLAY had spent more time with the famed puzzlemaster. Early on he sits and gives a brief summary of his early life, how he was able to create his own major (enigmatology) at Indiana University, how he came to be Editor at the Times in 1993. Most amusingly, he reads some of his "fan" mail, many somewhat hostile from baffled puzzle nuts. But then Shortz is mainly seen hovering in the background at the 2005 Tournament, officiating while people such as Al Sanders, Trip Payne, and Tyler Hinman are given more screen time.

WORDPLAY also spends quite a bit of time with Merl Reagle, one of the Times puzzle constructors. He explains how such things are made, pointing out how some words (including bodily functions) are never at his disposal. He, like the others featured in WORDPLAY, are always looking to solve riddles or create them. When he looks at a Dunkin' Donuts sign, we moves the "D" to the rear of "Dunkin'" to create "Unkind Donuts". When he sees the words "Noah's ark", his anagram mind rearranges the letters to create "No, a shark".

Director Patrick Creagon ingeniously uses graphics, square by square, to display Reagle's building of a new puzzle. How fascinating to learn how much more intricate puzzle construction is than merely finding how to fit words horizontally and vertically, but also to use clues for each answer that fits into an overall theme. Whizes like Payne (also a constructor) are able to call upon lateral thinking (and encyclopedic knowledge and recall) in practically milliseconds to fill in the squares. The final round of the ACPT has the three finalists (listed above) standing before giant white board crosswords in front of an audience. The suspense is almost as palpable as it if we were watching a sporting event at tiebraker. Hinman, a mere 20 at the time, would be the youngest contestant to ever take first prize.

WORDPLAY is a bit long at nearly 90 minutes. An hour would've been sufficient. But this is still great fun for those whose crosswords and cryptoquotes are sitting half done on the coffee table.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Freebie and the Bean

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 2

If there's no other reason for you to make the effort to see FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, take it for what's it's worth that Stanley Kubrick deemed it "the best film of 1974." I am endlessly fascinated as to what would've appealed to this most enigmatic of film directors. But often I mistakenly feel that an artist would only appreciate things that are similiar to his or her work. To wit, Kubrick also publicly stated how much he enjoyed Steve Martin's THE JERK! I laughed out loud when I read that Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, too.

Richard Rush, the director of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, like Kubrick, had a sparse output, making only 3 films in 20 years. He helmed THE STUNT MAN in 1980 (his signature film, and well worth catching) and THE COLOR OF NIGHT in 1994 (a tawdry mystery with Bruce Willis). As with other talented filmmakers with short resumes (Paul Brickman, for one), you wonder why they didn't produce more. Someone once said that artists only have a few good years of creativity in them. Maybe that was true for Rush, as by COLOR OF NIGHT his inspiration seemed to have long since gone out for ice cream and never returned.

But FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is purely inspired lunacy. It's essentially a buddy cop film, the kind that became very popular in the 80s and beyond (48 Hrs., the LETHAL WEAPON series), filled with fast, wiseass dialogue, combative behavior, blazing firearms, and lots and lots of chases. Car chases, motorcycle chases, chases on foot. And destruction. A plethora of destruction. The most I've seen in a movie with a terrestrial setting excepting maybe THE BLUES BROTHERS. If this many things were destroyed in San Francisco in real life, people in that city would unlikely be able to afford car insurance.

This movie, however, is far loopier than any typical cop thriller/comedy. James Caan and Alan Arkin play the respective "lawmen", longtime partners who seem to possess a sort of telepathy between them. They verbally and physically abuse each other throughout the film, their loud, non-stop, overlapping arguments (are they ad-libbing?) will either entertain or irritate you, likely both. The plot involves their efforts to keep a local racketeer/mobster named Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen) alive long enough for them to introduce what they think is a smoking gun to put him away.

But hitmen targeting Red are coming out of the woodwork. Primarily a flamboyant, psychotic homosexual (Christopher Morley) with a penchant for convincing disguises and kung fu. A very broad portrayal. In 1974, this sort of outrageous caricature was more or less acceptable in a Hollywood production (and this film, while not well known these days, was a box office hit).

Evidently, so were the truckloads of ethnic slurring and racist jokes found here. Observe other police dramadies from the same period (BUSTING, THE SUPER COPS, THE NEW CENTURIONS, THE CHOIRBOYS). Nonetheless, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN did ignite a bit of controversy over its far from PC-screenplay, though I imagine it would cause far more of a ruckus if someone tried to make a movie like this today. Valerie Harper plays Arkin's Latina wife with about as much subtlety as Carmen Miranda or Ricky Ricardo (although she has a very funny and well performed extended scene with Arkin late in the picture). There are also barbs directed at Poles, African-Americans, even Texans.

I grew up in an era where Eddie Murphy's riffs on "faggots" were considered OK in mainstream entertainment, so maybe because of that, and a general jadedness and desensitization from watching thousands of movies (and um, Life), I didn't find FREEBIE as offensive as some of the folks who've written about it. It did not seem that mean-spirited to me. 48 Hrs, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, SOUTH PACIFIC (remember the song "You've Got to Be Taught"?! Though clearly, a social statement was being made there), and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE were far more inappropriate in terms of political correctness.

And you have to consider when FREEBIE was made, as with the other films discussed. That approach will yield the greatest enjoyment of this movie, a true 70s wallow. No wonder Quentin Tarantino loves it (he also presented it at a festival). It is a beautifully acted and directed steamroller of a movie. My favorite bits feature a fist fight that destroys an entire restaurant, the infamous "car flies off freeway into bedroom" sequence, Freebie's attempts at piloting a motorcycle, and the duo's standoff with a perp in a bathroom stall. This is one crazy movie. Critics were not kind, my favorite line coming from the New York Times' Vincent Canby, who stated that he believed the film had been directed by a car.

For Mr. Kubrick, maybe it was a nice break from the rigors of directing BARRY LYNDON.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Institutional, Part II

My days in institutional pharmacy saw a few regime changes. When I started in '92, it was a family run business that had been around since 1979. As you read last time, it was a mess, literally. Housed in a what used to be the garage behind an old tackle store, the scent of mold was strong in ancient carpeting and the lighting dingy. Put frankly, there was shit everywhere. The unspoken motto seemed to be, "if there's a space, shove something in it". Hallways were narrowed by stacks of boxes. When fire marshalls came a calling, worker bees were recruited to haul everything somewhere else.

And management? Sporadic. The head guy was loud and occasionally iron fisted in his style but yet laissez faire at the same time. His son was even less consistent. The staff of techs were unruly, emotive. The hardest part of the job wasn't the actual work, but rather handling all the mood swings and outbursts. Also, disruptive nonsense such as the ex-husband of a tech calling in a bomb threat, or the boyfriend of another tech (and son of administrative co-worker) causing a ruckus by writing "I LOVE YOU" in shoe polish on the tech's windshield.

The employee shenanigans never really changed in my 5 off and on years there but in '94 we were bought by a regional firm, with occasional visits from corporate folks who oversaw a few cosmetic changes to the facility (the expression, "you can't polish a turd" was bandied about at that time). The pharmacy maintained a sizable load of accounts (nursing homes and rehabs) from Ft. Lauderdale to Okeechobee. The new company made no sweeping staff changes. We had the same duo of billers throughout, two older ladies who got very jolly in the afternoons for reasons that I won't speculate upon here.

I moved away twice during my tenure. First, to the Atlanta area in early 1995. I went to work for a similiar business in Tucker, outside the I-285 perimeter. Interestingly, the main boss and head pharmacist were also father and son, but far less combustive. In fact, they were very cool. This pharmacy was everything the one in S. FL was not: organized, efficient, clean.

But....I had a nemesis in the tech supervisor named *John who sported a white beard that earned him the moniker, Papa Smurf. He was infuriating to work with: smug and non-communicative. I used his (company owned) van to visit sites stretching south to Macon and west to Carrollton. I delivered meds and serviced oxygen equipment. I loved the days I traveled as I had no one looking over my shoulder and 99X on the radio. But that van was unreliable, stalling me out one time on the side of I-20. John insisted his brother-in-law had just worked on it. I'm not a person fond of confrontation, but when I returned that day he and I had a rather loud conversation.

The other debit of the Atlanta pharmacy: the group of techs I worked with. They could've cared less about the job, and may as well have been packing Skittles instead of meds. Now, I can bitch about the techs I worked with in Florida, but at least they were knowledgable and somewhat reliable. The women in Georgia were just clock watchers. I never really got on with them very well. It may have been cultural, but I had always had friends of different races and persuasions. I consider myself pretty easy to get along with. This group also seemed to resent the pharmacists and pharmacy interns they worked with too. It is unfortunate to report that within that workplace was a microcosm of Atlanta: lower paid African-American techs and Caucasian professionals. There was daily racial tension. Then I came in, a white boy from Florida. And I hung with the pharmacists, because I could actually have dialogues with them. I never really felt comfortable working there.

I also won't mention the time one of the techs stabbed her boyfriend right in the parking lot because he was late picking her up. Or the other time one late night I consumed a co-worker's Frosty that had been sitting in the frig for a week. I found myself in the boss' office face to face with the co-worker the next morning, grilled as if on trial. Should I also leave out the time I had an accident with the van? Though, it was my fault.

I returned to Florida and my old job later that year. Things hadn't really changed, and I had the best hours: 3-10. I loved that schedule. I was a night crawler in those days, not fond of waking up early (still not) and I relished the 11:00 wake ups. But a year later I had the itch to move to New York City and I found an institutional gig there...what happened?

I've already told you! Scroll back to the "New York" series from last year (repeated efforts to insert links to older posts are fruitless).


TO BE CONTINUED


*Not the real name

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prometheus

SPOILERS! ARRGGHH!

Oh, where to begin with PROMETHEUS? So much to be said, so little of it good. This gargantuan new release, 20th Century Fox's summer "tent pole", is director Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, with a greater emphasis than usual on the second word. For a film that really, really wants to stir our minds with considerations of origin of species, evolution, creation, DNA, history, and faith, it's well, really lacking. Many films with such aspirations fail to develop potentially intriguing ideas in their screenplays. This film started with less than half baked notions and proceeded to assemble some of the most unappealing and just plain dumb characters and scenarios I've ever seen in such a high profile, highly-anticipated film.

In the year 2089, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave mural they believe to be a map to a faraway moon where the secrets of mankind's beginnings lie. Elderly zillionaire CEO Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce, under layers of makeup) funds a mission to that moon aboard a state-of-the-art ship called the Prometheus. Joining the duo are a group of biologists, geologists, and assorted support crew. Lurking around is Vickers (Charlize Theron), the mission director who warns the eager scientists not to touch anything, especially dormant aliens or shiny medical equipment. There is also an android called David (Michael Fassbender) who monitors the hybernating crew (the trip has a 2 year travel time) and uses that time to absorb new languages and watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

Destination finally reached, the crew explores a hollow cavern filled with mysterious cannisters and a large, alien-like corpse (an "Engineer"). They were right! That "star map" back on Earth indeed led them to the authors of the universe! While in the eerie cavern, and despite any possible reasoning, the scientists remove their oxygen helmets and feel comfortable just sucking in foreign air. Yes, there's talk about zero CO2 levels and their high-tech headgear that tells them the air is safe, but wouldn't you think that there may be some probability of airborne contaminants floating around such an environment? You know, with a milleniums old alien sarcophagus and all? But I've lost count of how many movies use their characters' stupidity to drive the plot. I call these characters in PROMETHEUS "stupid" because, they're supposed to be brilliant scientists and all. And not for one second of screen time do they act in such a manner.

It only gets sillier. Shaw retrieves the alien head and brings it back to the ship for analysis. After a few ill-advised incisions and injections, the head explodes like an egg in a microwave. Through this it is discovered that the Engineer's DNA is an exact match for that of humans'. All humans? The subject is dropped.

Meanwhile, that rascal David has secretly swiped one of the cannisters and performs his own experiments, discovering a strange black fluid within. Why does he spike Dr. Holloway's drink with it? This causes the poor doctor's body to be ravaged with an infection, with tentacles failing from his eyeballs. But before this happens, he has intercourse with Shaw, who right before that tearily laments her sterility. The next day, following Holloway's horrible death, it is discovered that she is suddenly 3 months pregnant with...something.

At this point, we get the film's single most ludicrous scene: Shaw climbs into a machine that performs various surgeries; just touch the screen and choose your procedure. Oh, but wait, the machine's only calibrated for males! Makes you wonder why this equipment is located in Vickers' private quarters?! Shaw has no time to waste - she orders a C-section and our dear director treats us to an intense, gory, and entirely improbable sequence as the abdominal cutting begins. A nasty alien offspring is pulled out. The machine does a quick staple job. Then Shaw climbs out and other than croaking a few moans, is able to join crew members as they return to the cavern! She's covered in blood, and nobody bats an eye at her! She's able to run in a heavy suit, post surgery. Sure.

There's so much more, and I'm tempted to keep going lest you be tempted to sit through this farrago. And many will be tempted, as visually PROMETHEUS is highly impressive. Astounding art direction, meticulously detailed sets (many not CGI), stellar special effects. Just as you would expect from the stylist who helmed the original ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER. In IMAX and 3-D, PROMETHEUS is at times breathtaking. It's worth the extra bucks to see it, if you must watch.

But unless you're a hardcore sci-fier or Ridley fan, you really should avoid this movie. I know that "it's all about the visuals" with many films like this, but the indications are that the film wanted to be profound and intelligent. It doesn't come within a mile of either. The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof is so muddled, so filled with incomplete ideas. It takes the time to try to establish that "The Engineers" did create the human race, but makes no effort to try to explain why they want to destroy it. What of Shaw's devotion to her faith (she wears a cross around her neck and states "this is what I choose to believe" more than once)? There are no scenes attempting to explain the scientist's reconciliation of "blind" faith and hard data, other than a brief "who made who?" conversation that lasts about three lines of dialogue.

And why does David cause so many problems? Is he trying to smuggle one of alien life forms back to Earth? To have them wipe out humans and perpetuate a new race? From where humans came (note the opening scene)? Is he undertaking someone's agenda? Or are David's flaws and maliciousness because the writers are trying to say that even perfect machines are imperfect? Efforts to equate him to a HAL 9000 are unsuccessful here.

I'm also still in shock over how paper thin and unlikable the characters in PROMETHEUS are. Very badly written, with motivations and behavior that made no sense, such as when Dr. Holloway, having just discovered the alien he was hoping to find, dons a hoodie and gets drunk. Not celebratory drunk, but moody drunk. Why? What the hell prompted that? Is he like the guy who gets depressed when he's up 40 large in a poker game? Are there scenes missing? I'm not jonesing for a Director's Cut.

I was unimpressed with the performances, excepting maybe Fassbender, who based his android posture on David Bowie in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and Sean Young in BLADE RUNNER. Theron really phones in her performance, likely the worst (and certainly the least expressive) in her career. Maybe this was, um, by design? Like she's actually an android herself? There's some teasing to that effect, unresolved.

You may have read that PROMETHEUS was conceived as a prequel to ALIEN. Through the rewrites and personnel changes, this project grew into its own animal, but there are still links to the 1979 film, including the very last scene. But also, much of the plot of PROMETHEUS copies ALIEN, to no avail. The earlier film was a riff on the 1950s' science fiction film IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, and in many ways a high-tech "who goes there" or "10 Little Indians" plot, but so well cast and even philosophical at times. Not to mention scary. PROMETHEUS does have some brief spine tingling moments and palpable atmosphere (something I often champion), but it's not enough this time.

And of course, Scott's BLADE RUNNER is one of the most thoughtful, deep, emotional, and elegaic sci-fi films, ever. And it set standards for visual effects like few other films have. PROMETHEUS does not earn the right to even be a piece of slime on the earlier films' shoes.

NOTE: In July I'll be posting a review for the 2010 sci-fi/space epic film MOON, which cost a fraction of PROMETHEUS' budget but still looks fabulous and has an insightful script. Might I suggest you rent that instead of watching Mr. Scott's travesty.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Fighter


Total Spoilers!

I just didn't see it coming: a hopeful climax. Not knowing the the true story of Micky and Dicky, I would've bet, based on the first three-quarters of 2010's THE FIGHTER that this picture would have a bleak, sorrowful ending. Everything seemed to point to a shattering scene where Dicky would take his last breath. This time, I'm (mostly) glad I was wrong.

But, as relieved as I was to learn that this story had a happy ending, I felt the film's electricity drain away in the last half hour. Director David O. Russell paints a very vivid portrait of working class Lowell, Massachusetts from the earliest moments, focusing on Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a promising up-and-coming local boxer, Dicky Eklund (Christain Bale), his self-destructive, crack addicted older half-brother who was once a contender himself and Micky's trainer, and their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), their manager. THE FIGHTER takes a harsh, clear eyed take on the conflict Micky feels of family versus career. For most of the way, the film confidently, stylishly recounts this story, set in 1993.

Dicky's sole claim to fame is his win over Sugar Ray Leonard in a 1978 bout. Though some say Leonard actually just tripped, it became Dicky's high point, something about which to boast, a laurel on which to rest. But he would soon willingly lose himself in the pleasures of intoxicants; he watched the little black dot way too long as Trent Reznor once sang. As Micky comes into his own as a fighter, Dicky tries to impart his strategies, but to say he's a poor, unreliable role model is understatement itself. To only make this point more lucid, HBO (who aired his fight with Sugar Ray) is filming Nicky's life, every sordid detail, to produce a documentary on crack addiction.

Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), another coulda been a contender who dropped out of college and abandoned her athletic abilities to become a bartender. She gets closer to Micky and begins to see his family dynamic as a toxic cycle of apathy and failure. Alice is a slipshod manager, setting up fights with opponents out of Micky's league (including one who allegedly "just got off the couch", but then pummels the poor guy). Micky's many sisters are a sad collection of stay-at-homes, all living with mom, all going nowhere. It's only a matter of time before Charlene faces down the other women in Micky's life (in a both hilarious and horrifying scene), and the most corrosive influence of all, Nicky. Baby brother will make tough choices. Sometimes family loyalty can be a very damaging option.

I've described your classic underdog scenario, and the script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson follows many of the standard developments one would expect in this sort of story. Certainly, you know there will be a crucial match at the end. Along the way, Nicky will rise and fall, rise and fall. This is meat-and-potatoes drama, raw elements for a satisfying movie. Like REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, THE CHAMP, and ROCKY before it. It does not disappoint. The bonus is that Russell gives this formula a lot of juice, a shot of adrenaline with inventive, restless cinematography and editing and a just right pace. He manages a good balance of tone, shifting seemelessly between comedic and dramatic moments, sometimes within the same scene. Russell gives all of his pictures an almost quirky edge, regardless if the material itself is off center, that is hard to explain but you know it's there. Like in THREE KINGS and SPANKING THE MONKEY.

Need I mention that the acting is simply explosive? Bale very believably inhabits the narrow frame and character of Nicky in ways I can't recall seeing in his other roles. He was very deserving of his Oscar win. Likewise for Leo, who I've only seen a few times prior. She yells and throws plates but also has a quiet resignation of Nicky's inevitable downward spiral, expressed in ways both seen and felt by the viewer. She somehow transfers those feelings to the viewer. That's acting. Wahlberg's role is less flashy, perhaps even (arguably) yeoman's tasking but still strong and unddeserving of being overshadowed by the others. I also liked Adams' atypical role, a tough Mass chick with as filthy a mouth as everyone else and a fearlessness that has sustained her thus far. Adams usually plays sunnier, far more innocent types and it's good to see the stretch.

The last half hour of THE FIGHTER, however, seems to lose its urgency, its power. The story goes in a bit of an unexpected direction and ends quite optimistically. Triumphantly. I still cheered, but felt the movie sold out a bit. Is this because of years of seeing great films that ended with great tragedy? Have I equated cinematic art with tears? Do I feel that in order for a film to achieve greatness it has to conclude in despair? I wonder, but there are many films I place in the highest annals that end hopefully, though most are from many years past. Things are increasingly grim in the multiplex these last decades. While THE FIGHTER is not entirely the great film it seemed to be leading up to, it is still quite fine. And the happy ending is only following real life. I don't imagine you can argue with that.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

A new film series! These entries will showcase cinematic Wiseacre Duos (the musical series, currently featuring 10cc, will resume here shortly...)


Our first view of Thunderbolt is of a man behind a pulpit, preaching the Word to small congregation in a tiny, sweltering rural church. He's pretty convincing, until a guy appears in the back and begins firing rounds. A chase commences, plowing through cornfields out the back way. Then a guy in a white Camaro races by, spraying gravel and dust and eventually running the would-be assailant over. The guy keeps driving like a daredevil, the preacher barely able to hang on and work his way into the passenger seat. He learns the driver calls himself Lightfoot. "That an Indian name?", the Preacher asks. "No, but it is American," he answers.

The new compadres continue on into the badlands of Montana, hijacking cars from folks at gas stations and also from a real nutjob, a guy driving around with a raccoon riding shotgun and a trunk full of bunnies, who picks them up. Thunderbolt's a quiet contemplative fellow, Lightfoot's a motormouth, wide-eyed and nervous energy. Both of them utter philosophy, though while Thunderbolt quotes poetry and Scripture, Lightfoot seems fond of old standbys like "a rolling stone gathers no moss". It may be shallow, but it's appropriate in this screenplay.

1974's THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is another road movie with mismatched protagonists. Clint Eastwood plays Thunderbolt, a career criminal who played preacher while hiding from his former cronies, who falsely believe he double crossed them. Jeff Bridges is Lightfoot, an aimless, shifty kid with nothing holding him down. We don't learn much about his history. The pair grow fond of each other quickly, though Thunderbolt is infinitely wiser, and far more realistic. He knows the other shoe will drop at any moment, lest he get too cozy.

I'm sure some viewers will be peeling back the layers of this screenplay to search for homosexual subtext, as they tend to do any time a story features a close relationship between those of the same gender. The movie moved too fast for me to ponder such things.

Halfway through writer/director Michael Cimino's (THE DEER HUNTER, HEAVEN'S GATE) debut film, two of Thunderbolt's former associates, the vicious Red (George Kennedy) and the more soft spoken Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), appear on the scene with guns to settle the score. Once they learn the truth about their previous heist, the quartet decide to plan a robbery of the same bank/armory the old gang had hit years before.

The acting styles of the four men couldn't be more different, but the contrasts suit the material, in my opinion. Clint's character is a bit gentler than his usual stoic gruffness; he even smiles on occasion (Reports state that Cimino commissioned Bridges with the not enviable task of trying to make the icon laugh on and off camera). Jeff was still a fairly new face in cinemas, but his charisma carries this film over some rough spots; he's pretty right on as a somewhat dangerous but essentially kind-hearted and innocent soul who faces real evil.

That would be Red. Kennedy growls spits and swears his way through an impressively intimidating (if one note) performance, a real old-school SOB who takes an instant disslike to Lightfoot's smart mouth and causalness. Lewis has the least showy part but is quietly impressive as a tag along, walked over sidekick. His performance is more re-action than action, but he's really good here.

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is distinguished from other "buddy films" by some oblique humor and the occasional random moment, such as when a fully nude woman appears in a window to flash Lightfoot and a group of other men. The film is slightly upsacle drive-in fare, a cult favorite, very capably directed by Cimino, who convinced Eastwood to toss him the keys. The robbery in the later stages of the film is nicely paced and edited, with subsequent events you may not have seen coming. If you dig '70s cinema and/or the actors, you should give this a chance.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

St. Augustine

For each anniversary getaway, my wife and I "keep it in Florida". Our first was at Disney World. Last year, Key West. St. Augustine was our destination this year and it was fabulous. You really should go, invisible audience. Even if you're reading this in an Internet cafe somewhere in Asia. It's worth the trouble at least once.

We stayed at the lovely Carriage Way Bed and Breakfast on Cuna Drive in Old Town. The house is well over a century old, inside and out very Victorian in structure. A literal stone's throw from the main drag, St. George Street. Our hosts were unbelievably gracious, within minutes of our arrival giving us the lowdown on where to (and where not to) eat and take in the city's rich history. And certainly, they offered one of the best "hotel" breakfasts I've ever had. Their crustless quiche was memorable. So were the moist, warm cookies left out in the afternoons! For eating out, all of their recs were excellent:

1. Casa Maya - A very small (maybe 10 tables) Mexican restaurant with a menu that includes touches of Cuban cuisine. I had a pork dish with plantains. We ate early enough to avoid the lines (we were warned).

2. Harry's - Locally famous, two-storied eatery on Avenida Menendez, across from the Intracoastal Waterway. Menu is weighted toward seafood, and my pecan crusted trout was tasty and hearty. Don't forget to sample the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer.

3. Gaufre's and Goods - We happened upon this lovely, family run spot on our own while wandering down the ancient Aviles Street (the oldest in the city). Predominently Polish fare, with some Greek dishes. The cheese stuffed perogies were a refreshing change. Great coffee, too.

We spent a sunny morning touring Flagler College, a private liberal arts school on King Street. It is frequently listed in various magazines' "Best Of" features. It would certainly rank as one of the most architecturally ornate places of higher learning. Thank entrepreneur Henry Flagler, who commissioned the structure in the late 1800s not as a school but the Ponce de Leon Hotel, a palace for the obscenely wealthy. Folks like John Rockefeller, at that time the man with the greatest net worth in the U.S. (Flagler was #2). As the tour guide (a current student) informed us, hotel guests could not stay merely a night, a week, or even a month. One had to book the entire season, which adjusted to today's currency is somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars.We learned quite a bit about Mr. Flagler from our cheerful guide, his wealth accumulation and loss and regain. Also his several wives, one of whom he divorced after using his influence to change Florida law for one day (divorces were illegal). His estranged son who shunned the family business and went into music. There are no known descendants.

We also learned that none other than Thomas Edison set up the electrical system for the Hotel, illuminating room after stunning room, including the ballroom and dining areas. You'll note the lightbulbs bordering this room, each in a dragon's mouth.Mr. Flagler would later head south and build his new home, Whitehall, in Palm Beach (just a stone's throw from where I'm typing this) as the winters were warmer there. Thus, the tourists flocked accordingly. His palace would later become the Flagler Museum. Soon after he built The Breakers Hotel, well known to this day, a convenient stop for those on his East Coast Railway. The railroad would push all the way down to Key West (a hurricane irreperably damaged the tracks after his death). The Ponce de Leon remained a hotel until 1967. In '68 Flagler College was born, first as an all-girl school.

Across the street from the college is the Lightner Museum. Built around the same time as the Ponce de Leon, this building was originally known as the Hotel Alcazar. Today the museum features sections meant to evoke a Victorian village of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including a music store with very rare instruments. Another section is devoted to African-American culture. On the upper levels are glassworks and sculptures. The Museum also retains the steam baths used by hotel patrons. Originally, the world's largest indoor swimming pool was there. And it was filled with the rather odiferous sulpher water central Florida is so notorious for. Flagler was able to convince his guests (who complained of the smell) that the water had "therapeutic" properties before he was forced to install filtration systems.

On Day 3 we took a trolley around the city, passing through charming neighborhoods filled with attractive houses that belied their bloody histories beneath the eaves. Stories of Spaniards and Brits and Indians who warred and burned every domecile to the ground in their bids for conquest. One of our guides (we hopped on and off the tram throughout the day) was, in my opinion, a bit too chipper as he described some of the carnage. He also described, as we passed an ancient cemetary, where the expression "saved by the bell" originated. It seems that yellow fever outbreaks rendered many into comas and they were buried with a string attached to a bell that could be rung lest they had been buried alive. Also, many were buried in the same plot due to space restrictions (and rules/ordinances regarding where Catholics and non-Cathlolics could be buried); only the last corpse interred was identified on the tombstone.

Speaking of carnage, we walked in and around the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument ("The Fort"), which was built in the 17th century during Spanish rule. Over the centuries as the Brits took control and Florida became a United State, this massive fortess made of coquina - a shell concoction that when mixed formed a sort of limestone - saw many attacks but was never overtaken. The coquina was ideal for cannon attacks as when the artillery hit it, the walls did not shatter, rather "holding" cannonballs in its elasticity. As if made of peanut butter. We missed the daily cannon firings but did the self-tours, wandering through living quarters (many bunks in small spaces) and hideouts. We also returned in the evening for the full moon:It was strangely peaceful, strolling the grassy areas near the fort, staring upon stones that were centuries old. I wondered what those stones had seen. What was cast in front of them? Warring soldiers then, swarms of tourists now.

Another trolley stop: the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, spot of the U.S.'s tallest free-standing cross. Hovering over Mantanzas Bay, the "Great Cross" (erected in the mid 1960s) tops out at 208 feet. It is filled with cement to withstand hurricanes.In the 17th century, The Mission of Nombre de Dios was established here after explorers from Spain had landed on the marshes 50 years prior. It was there that the first cross (a modest, small wooden piece) in the new territory representing Christianity was placed. Several Catholic missionaries went forth to spread the Gospel through Florida. On the grounds west of the cross are a shrine, a chapel, and a cemetary, many of the tombstones denoting nuns who had served the church and mission over the centuries.

St. Augustine is both a tranquil and active town, sure to appeal to everyone in some fashion. History buff and pub crawler alike should be pleased.

Addendum: The picture at the top of the page is of a statue of Juan Ponce de Leon, founder of Florida (in 1513) near the town square. We were informed more than once that he was merely 4'11", taller than many of his peers!

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Descendants

Contains spoilers

I am a big fan of the films of writer/director Alexander Payne. He is one of the few contemporary hyphenates who truly understands how to mine the comic in the tragic, to recognize how one event can be funny and sad simultaneously. In his latest, 2011's THE DESCENDANTS, Payne's talent is displayed repeatedly, though I cite one specific example: a young girl's show and tell photo collage. Each picture is of her mother, who recently had a water skiing accident, lying in a hospital bed in a coma. The pictures are arranged in funny angles like you would expect in a kid's project. It is so wildly inappropriate that it caused my wife and me to laugh. Uncomfortably, mind you, but laugh just the same. That one moment really gets to the essence of a Payne film. Think also of Laura Dern passed out on the ground after another aerosol can in paper bag hit in CITIZEN RUTH and Jack Nicholson and his correspondence with Indugo several times throughout ABOUT SCHMIDT. We laugh so we don't cry. Sometimes the characters are not so successful.

Another distinguishing element of Payne's works: the landscape. While it seems like every 3rd movie released is set in New York City or Los Angeles, his films often play out in "flyover" country (Nebraska for one, his home state). Hawaii is the refreshingly different site for THE DESCENDANTS, and it is a much a character as anyone else, its very locale integral to the story. Phedon Papamichael's camera luxuriates over rolling hills and mountains set aside impossibly blue waters. But it is also as if the land, at any moment, could open up and speak of its history, reveal its soul, demonstrating something far beyond its surface beauty.

George Clooney plays Matt King, an attorney who owns thousands of acres of unspoiled land on the island of Kaua'i. It falls to him, the lone heir/trustee, to decide whether to sell it to a developer for yet another hotel/resort monstrosity. There are regular meetings with an army of eager cousins who all stand to pocket largely. Matt seems understandably reluctant, nonplussed in the tradition of past Payne male protagonists, as the parcel has been in his family for generations and he has many of his own fond memories. But he comforts himself with the notion that the sale is to be made to another Hawaiian. The money will "stay local". But what would his ancestors say?

Matt has been too busy to raise his 2 daughters: 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller), who has been acting up of late and 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley), away at an expensive boarding school on another island. When his wife Elizabeth has the aforementioned aquatic accident that renders her unconsicious, Matt, a self-described "understudy parent", attempts to comfort and really connect with his girls for perhaps the first time. It also becomes a period of self-examination. What sort of example has he been to his descendants?

During a heated discussion, Alex discloses that her mother was having an affair, which seems to be an even more devastating development for Matt than his wife's critical status (he eventually learns from a doctor that his wife will never awaken). It was at this point that I really began to appreciate Clooney's work in THE DESCENDANTS, his face almost imperceptibly falling into horrible realization, his posture jerking into restlessness. But never overdoing it. This is not a man prone to screams or thrown furniture. It is a deft series of reactions, a litany of emotions so well expressed in a very short amount of time. A quiet despair, a recognition of the bottom entirely dropping out of one's existence. Kudos, Mr. Clooney.

But his performance throughout the film is impressive, clearly some of his finest acting. He craftily registers confusion in some moments, embarrassment (when confronted by a mother of his daughter's insulted friend)in others. Payne's commendably unpredictable script very leisurely unfolds, following the King family and a few others, including Sid (Nick Krause), Alex's funny slacker friend, as they try to reconcile the waiting, the "meanwhile". Matt learns the identity of his wife's lover and plots to confront him, leading not to contrived or overly written tearjerking, but soul baring that rings genuine.

And during the climax, when the 11th hour runs nigh and the pathos threatens to get a little too thick, there is a speech that again manages to find the absurdly funny in the gloom. It's not like someone laughing at a funeral as a coping mechanism, not exactly. But a refreshing take on grief: unsentimental yet very human and positive. And the very last scene is quiet and hopeful, nicely rendered. I hope Payne doesn't wait 7 years again to make another movie.