Sunday, July 29, 2012

1987, Reloaded (Part 3)

Day three's event was, you may recall, the real reason I even considered attending my 25th high school reunion. It was designed as a social for those who weren't necessarily fond of shotgunning beers or making spectacles of themselves in any fashion. The afternoon gathering of about 15 classmates, held in the clubhouse of an organizer's (Joy) development in Jupiter, was comprised of people I really liked and wanted to see. Genuine, real folks who never played the attitude or socioeconomic cards. The sort of people with whom you could have both earthy and intellectual conversations. This was no kegger out in the woods.

On a couple of screens in the clubhouse, there were rotations of old photos throughout the day, including one of me pointing a water gun at my temple. Nice. This was snapped at Project Graduation, an all-night, school-sponsored drug and alcohol free party held graduation night on the football field. I remember it being a lot of fun. Tents were set up with games and even mini-movie theaters. A mobile stage allowed the newly graduated to jump around and "sing" Beastie Boys tunes. There was an old car parked in the end zone that you could whack with a sledgehammer. I think there was a car giveaway, too (not the clunker). Most vividly, I recall leaving around 3:30 in the morning, long after the friend who had given me a ride left. I walked past the infamous fountain near the band room and up through the outdoor hallways. When I reached the front lawn I felt a huge sense of relief. I don't recall feeling even a mite of sadness. I walked home, ready for life to move on.

Susan, who I had met in 3rd grade and nine years later was my co-editor of the Academic section of the yearbook, was one welcome face at this Saturday meet. She was always a quiet, somewhat shy person. Kind of like me, though it really depended on the environment. She, like several of the other women at this reunion, always felt like a sister I never had. Susan lives with husband in rural Gainseville now. I got to meet him, as well as other tag-a-long husbands who the entire weekend chatted with each other while their spouses waxed nostalgic.

Speaking of yearbook, our editor, Kim, was also there that day. By Saturday we had already caught up on a great deal, but I found myself talking with her and her husband for quite awhile. The conversation ran a dizzying gamut - from child rearing to bizarre kitchen accidents. She looked almost exactly as she did in the 80s, and was still as friendly. Being on the yearbook staff senior year was great fun, in large part due to her enthusiasm and leadership. Her assistant editor, Fernando, has been MIA of late and Kim is determined to reconnect. He was also quite friendly, rarely prone to outbursts, excepting one memorable day as we were approaching yet another deadline. Everyone's nerves were singed, and he blurted "Treat me like shit, I ENJOY IT!" Caught everyone off guard. But there were few such moments.

There was a table filled with old penants, buttons, school newspapers, and other goodies. Lisa was surprised when I showed her a poem she wrote in a lit. journal. She had no memory of it, but was surprised at how good it was! Especially hilarious: copies of The Dead Penguin , a series of comics and poems that mercilessly skewered the entire FH High environment. No one was spared: teachers, administrators, jocks. None of the authors of this subversive journal attended the 25th, unfortunately and unsurprisingly.

Just like that of your high school, there were some colorful authority figures at Forest Hill. The dean of boys with the deep Southern drawl who every day during morning announcements read off a list of names he needed to see in his office. The eternally angry, frightening 10th grade English teacher whose chalk sometimes spit particles as he furiously diagrammed sentences on the board. Another dean who made note of who was singing risque cheers at Friday night football games. All of them were ribbed in the Penguin. The hosts of the gathering were kind enough to let me keep a copy, as my originals were long since lost. Much of the humor was very dated, but intriguingly so. Thumbing through its pages is a real (if scathing) walk down memory lane. Tellingly, one of the poems on the last page talks about hanging on during the misery of high school to get to the rest of your life...

When the party ended, my wife (who attended) and I joined three of my classmates (Joy, Kimberly, and Karen) for dinner at a really unique place in Jupiter called Little Moir's Leftovers. Creative cuisine in a funkily decored space. Great fish. We shared more fond memories, including the time a physics teacher, who knew damned well several kids cheated on a test, had them go to the board a few days later to solve one of the test problems they so thoroughly worked out earlier. Of course, they couldn't, and the teacher let them squirm and bleed up there. "What's the matter, you did it a few days ago!" It was justice. It made you feel that something was actually right in the world. Somewhat like the recent story of a female jogger in Canada whose attacker found out the hard way that she had a black belt in martial arts.

So much more. A perfect cap to a nearly perfect reunion weekend. The antidote to the 20th disappointment. Better than I could've imagined. Thanks, guys! Let's not wait till the 30th to join company again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

1987, Reloaded (Part 2)

Friday night, as mentioned, was the "official" reunion night, or at least part 1 of 2. Another gathering was held the following evening at a place way up north in Stuart called "Sailor's Return." Based on what I've seen and heard, only a handful made that trip.

My social calendar was unsually active Friday as one of my co-workers was having a (30th) birthday party downtown. She threatened that I must attend. I did, hanging out for a few hours before the trek west through some ugly weather to the outskirts of Wellington and the reunion. Things had an ominous start as when I pulled up, a guy was getting handcuffed by the cops one parking lot over.

The Forest Hill High clan, Class of 1987, were scattered around the patio area outside the Bonefish Mac restaurant. Unlike that of my 20th reunion, I immediately recognized several faces, and even got smiles of recognition returned. Many of the previous night's guests came back, but there were several others. Most of whom I was happy to see.

I discovered one classmates's father is a patient of my colleague's, but I've seen him as well. She talked about the ensuing 25 years, her satisfaction working for a local non-profit. When I asked her about one of her old neighbors, I guy I knew in junior high school, she quite shockingly relayed that he had committed suicide two years after hs graduation. This stopped me cold, even though I had not spoken with him since 8th grade. In my memory, he is forever that cheerful, sarcastic kid who blinked a lot. He never seemed distressed about anything, but one never knows.

Another woman nearly bowled several classmmates over running up to reveal that she had a crush on me during the old days. Tonight, she was clearly tipsy, but oddly lucid and just as witty as I remembered. In high school, she mainly hung out with an interesting guy I had met years earlier, in junior high. A very caustic, sour old soul whose hair was a perpetual tussle and complexion was more crater-ridden than most. This guy could merit his own entry without too much difficulty. He was bitterly hilarious. We were friends all through college (though he went to a different one than me). We drifted, then I called him a few years later when I was living in Georgia. He berated me for losing touch and proceeded to hang up! Unbelievable. I learned years after that of where he worked - a bookstore in Palm Beach. I stopped in to visit but only found a co-worker who told me to come back a few days later. I never returned.

My secret admirer was unfazed when I told her this story. She relayed a few of her own recollections, including his fondness for the Polish pop star Basia. My classmate had also long since been out of touch with him and was now married with kids. I met her husband that night, who probably got irritated with his wife's going on about me. But it was flattering, undeniably. I even raised a Bud (far from my favorite brew, but hey, she bought it) or 2 with 'em.

I made the rounds, chatting with a wildly diverse group, some of whom were just like I remembered, some very different, and others who were much more mature and friendly than I recalled. There were no superstars (CEOs, famous actors, politicans) among them, but a few attorneys, bankers, retail store managers, engineers, housewives, and a rather enthusiastic local podiatrist. Absent from the party this night was one guy who is a world famous dive expert and another who composes scores for film and television. But it was a good turnout, and I even got to have real conversations with people I only knew peripherally back in the 80s. It was a really enjoyable (if loud) night.

As I was saying my goodbyes, one guy gave a drunken sililoquy about "how far we've come" in life, how we were "once small and now look at us". Some of it was coherent, some not. His last words were simple but accurate: "It is what it is." I smiled and dismissed it at the moment, but as I drove home it made more sense. High school happened and then came the rest of our lives, still in progress. My 25th reunion made me appreciate the group with which I spent four years managing (comparatively minimal) teen angst. Your high school mates are a special group, a club in which you'll always be a member, for better or worse. You join several clubs in your life. You're born into one, of course. But there's something about, at least my, high school peeps that makes them special, even the ones I can't stand.

No matter where I go and what I do, I'll always be part of that band. "It is what it is..."

TO BE CONTINUED...

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Inevitably, there be spoilers....

It has been said many times that the concluding film in trilogy series are usually the worst. Lackluster, lazily realized. Half-hearted. Coasting on past success, justifying recycling of old ideas. Sometimes I don't necessarily agree (RETURN OF THE JEDI), other times I certainly do (MATRIX REVOLUTIONS). By #3, the novelty has worn off, and perhaps the characters and their scenarios have worn out their welcome.

I was positively stunned by 2008's THE DARK KNIGHT, the second in Christopher Nolan's Batman series. The director's reimagining was a long overdue cinematic validation of this most tortured of superheroes. Tim Burton's films were a correct revision, edged into darkness but still a bit silly. Joel Schumacher's entries were retrograde at best (and are damned embarrassing when compared to the newer films).

I was not anticipating the earlier DARK KNIGHT to be such a dramatically rich, almost philosophical morality play that adddressed issues of civil liberties and free will versus chance in the midst of the expected chaos. The film was so much more than mere superhero exploits, but rather a mature, serious examination of urban terrorism. Black and white loomed far less obviously than the awful reality, the ambiguity of the grey. As well made as BATMAN BEGINS was, DARK KNIGHT took the saga to heights that perhaps even Bob Kane's comic hadn't even imagined. The late Heath Ledger's Joker became legendary even before the premiere, even before his premature death. The complexity of the character exceeded even that of Bruce Wayne/Batman, so appropriately played by Christian Bale. The Joker was more a certifiable case of pure maleovolence than an actual character, yet Ledger allowed a clear look into a soul beyond disease, beyond perhaps even apathy. Wounded but released from humanity by his own despair, no longer acknowledged. Just pure evil.

Bane, the central villain in DARK KNIGHT RISES, is not quite as interesting, but no less ferocious. Actor Tom Hardy disappears behind a Medieval mask and sometimes indecipherable voice, his performance all about physical intimdation. Bane's strength may actually best that of Batman's. Two lengthy sequences treat us to bone crushing, relentless mano a mano confrontations that will make some viewers wince. Bane's history is extensively detailed for the audience, many of whom may not be aware of The League of Shadows (or Assassins), described in the comics. Bane reveals he has assummed control of the League after the demise of Ra al Ghul, an archvillian portrayed by Liam Neeson in the first film.

The complete annihilation of Gotham city is Bane's goal, but first he plans to engineer an occupation of the city by all of those jailed by an law enacted by Harvey Dent, the District Attorney who became Two-Face in the previous film. Dent is falsely believed by Gothammites to have died a hero. This thread will figure largely into RISES' storyline, particularly with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Bane, leading armies of freed prisoners, stages grand scale takeovers of the Stock Exchange and destruction of a capacity stadium during a football game and later the entire metropolis. The city's wealthy are violently evicted from their homes much the way French aristocracy were during the Revolution and the Jews during Nazi occupation.

Hmm, that word again. Is it coincidence that Nolan and his brother Jonathan have included this idea so prominently in their screenplay?. That a character warns "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."?? The director denies parallels to current events, but to me it was no more an accident than his inclusion of omniscient surveillance in THE DARK KNIGHT as a commentary on the previous Administration.

So. Is the director infusing his fantasy with a conservative agenda? Many talking heads on all sides are hot to believe that, but as always, we see what we want to. Is the case being made that Occupiers are trying to burn down the infrastructure, to loot what they believe is theirs? What of the scene where a character wanders through a rummaged bedroom, pulling a photograph of a family from the rubble? "This was someone's home."

"Now it's everyone's." states another.

Looking for Christian imagery? You could certainly make the case with RISES' prison sequence. A barren hole into which Bane, a former resident, throws Wayne after literally breaking his back. A place described as "hell on earth", in which captees are tortured with a view of the sky from the bottom of a deep pit with a stone wall taunting them to try to climb and escape. Other prisoners will utter things like, "escape is not so much physical, you have to believe." Even before this, the entire premise of DARK KNIGHT RISES is based on Bruce Wayne's reemergence after an 8 year hibernation following the unfortunate events at the conclusion of the previous movie.

You could also cite a scene where someone sacifices themselves for the lives of thousands, but we've seen that many times. Too easy.

Such ideas reminded me of a time about 20 years ago, when a pastor used a clip from an Indiana Jones film. Indy had to cross a bridgeless wide gorge with only his faith to take him across and not plunge to his death. Fine. But the screenwriters (to my knowledge) were not Christians. It is a broad illustration. Remember all the evangelical fervor over THE MATRIX? Since then, I've become leary of jumping to the conclusion that imagery that appears Divine really is. Makes a film better or worthy of extra accolades. It all comes back to what you bring to the table, your beliefs, your baggage. You may see something that popcorn muncher two seats over does not.

As I watched RISES, it was very evident to me that once again, art is released from the artist, now in the hands of the viewer to make of it what he or she will. Writers and other creative types are greatly amused when people concoct all manner of analyses, which often reveals more about the consumer than the art itself. Distilled the the core, I think one interpretation may not be less valid than another, if folks are even willing to think beyond the superficial thrills of amped up chases and stunning cinematography (DP Wally Pfister again impresses, shooting largely in IMAX).

Turning THE DARK KNIGHT RISES into a polarizing tract is to do it a disservice, to miss the point. It is another significant achievement for Nolan, a big, booming extravaganza that most impressively blends some pretty disparate elements. I was very skeptical, for example as to how Catwoman would fit into this apocalyptic scenario. Such a campy character, brought to mischievious life by Lee Merriwether, Michelle Pfeiffer (and I liked her sassy take), and Halle Berry (no comment) prior. Anne Hathaway completely surprised me with her controlled, assured performance. She is never actually called "Catwoman" and never given a backstory. Rather, she's just a young woman who steals to survive and pay the rent for her seedy apartment. Well, she does wear a tight fitting, sexy fetish outfit and can really fight, but primarily she's portayed as just one of the, um, 99%. The Nolans' script also gives her a fascinating ambiguity, a straddling of the line of good and evil right to the end.

Every performance is spot-on, including some very heartfelt work by Michael Caine as Wayne's butler Alfred, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a police officer who learns the truth about Bruce Wayne, the Batman, and Harvey Dent, too. In a concluding montage that was deeply satisfying, it is learned who he may well become. But every character is given a proper send-off and resolution. Any applause your fellow filmgoers provide at the conclusion of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is well earned.

NOTE: This review purposely did not reference the horrendous tragedy that unfolded last week in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight screening of this movie. Fourteen deaths and many more injuries occured at the hands of a diseased young man who opened fire on the crowd. Like others, I don't atrtibute the content of the Batman films to this behavior, any more than I did with other films in the past (recall the Columbine shooters wore long trenchcoats ala Neo in THE MATRIX).

Friday, July 20, 2012

1987, Reloaded (Part I)

I found myself sitting across from Kelly, Kimberly, and Lisa. Next to Karen and Joy. Down the table from Kim, editor of The Gauntlet, our yearbook. Some of the above were on staff with me. We were laughing and reminiscing. I had seen a few of them over the years, others, not since high school graduation, 1987. Twenty-five years earlier. Some weeks back was a 3-day reunion weekend, one I would've never guessed I would attend, had you asked me 5 years before.

That was when I went to the 20 year, a less than inspiring night. One of the first entries in Lamplight Drivel ("Oh, Class of '87") documented my experience. It was not a complete disaster, as I got to catch up with a few old friends and even some folks I hadn't seen since elementary school. But overall it was, at best, an asterisk in my year. A listless night of mediocre food, bad music, and a group of mostly people I still didn't connect with. But this time was very different.

The catalyst was most certainly the "alternative" gathering that was scheduled. Three of the aforementioned women came together to plan a family-friendly afternoon of socializing that was specific in its guest list. It was not exclusionary, mind you, but designed for the "quieter" types who may have been turned off by the bigger, louder gatherings. Attended by louder, brasher individuals, usually. As the list was building on Facebook, I became very interested and excited to see so many long lost folks.

The "official" reunion was set for Friday night at a restaurant out in the suburbs. Wellington is a bedroom community from which many of my classmates came to attend classes at Forest Hill High School in the 1980s. Two years after we graduated, Wellington got its own hs, and FH changed, dramatically. This was in-your-face apparent as I joined many of my classmates on a tour of the current facility the night before the official gathering. A guy whose role of which I was unsure (coach? instructor?) at the school lead us around a modern structure which bore almost no ressemblance to our old school, which was razed in 2003.

I had watched the destruction as it happened, and remember seeing the wrecking ball sitting in the middle of the old gymnasium, which was visible from Interstate 95. I had been fortunate enough to wander the original halls a year or 2 before. After the new hs was completed, I took a nighttime tour (mainly outside) by myself of what looked like a penitentiary. No, I did not scale any fences. There was no fear of being arrested for trespassing, as the school always has night classes. It was depressing, but I hoped it would inspire what had become a lackluster place of higher learning into something great again, like it had been in my day and earlier.

Time has shown that what was in the last decade an "F" school has been upgraded several notches (FCAT pass rate and such). But evidence that fewer current students are college bound was hard to miss: banners telling students to do their homework (as if they were in elementary school) in many of the classrooms and even wooden coins with the slogan "Get Around Tuit" - encouraging them to get it together and take the GED - were found in the front office at the end of the tour. This was a far cry from the atmosphere of my day.

I could controversially trace FH's decline to the opening of Wellington's school, where more affluent students attend. Accordingly, more academically minded and motivated individuals. Listen, I don't paint in broad strokes and I'm someone who looks beyond what statistics merely suggest. Nonetheless, I find it's hard to argue with the prevelance of graduation rates and college attendance stats in schools with wealthier kids. FH has become largely populated with those for whom English is a second language. My argument is simplistic and I'm well aware of exceptions to every rule, but the results speak for themselves.

But back to the tour. About 40 of us spent that Thursday night being led through the school, aghast at the presence of an actual theater with a stage (we made do with a "gymnatorium") and a food court! The old buildings of yore were your typical South Florida prototype: CBS with outdoor hallways (windy, rainy days were always a blast!). The new structure was completely enclosed. It was beyond strange as we gawked at this comparatively sleek architecture. I felt like Crissy Hynde as she lamented her hometown in "My City Was Gone." I wonder if some of my out-of-town classmates felt that way about West Palm Beach as a whole.

The Municipal Golf Course is still right next to the school and nearly all of us adjourned there in a bar/restaurant afterward. We spent hours laughing and catching up and being amused by a waitress who did cartwheels near the table. A piece of the original school was being raffled off. THIS was how a reunion was supposed to be. That first night was so good, it was like what one of my classmates said, "If this was the whole reunion, I would've been satisfied!"

Yes. But there were still two more events.......


TO BE CONTINUED......

Monday, July 16, 2012

Margaret

I once had a classmmate who, when explaining why he doesn't watch cerebral movies, stated that "after a long hard day in clinicals, I'm just ready for some good ol' dick and fart jokes." I've encountered several others who avoid challenging films, music, and literature for similiar reasons: their jobs and lives are filled with enough mental taxation that they just want to be entertained for awhile. It is highly unlikely that the 2011 release MARGARET would suit them.

If they did make the effort (there are several well-known actors in the cast, a likely draw), they probably wouldn't last through the full 2.5 hours. And that's the theatrical cut. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan actually shot this film in 2005, spending the next several years agonizing over editing and eventually becoming involved in a labyrinth of lawsuits. Interestingly, Martin Scorsese and his often-editor Thelma Schoonmaker were brought in to attempt to bring cohesion to the picture. The 150 minute cut is the result, which Lonergan approved. MARGARET finally opened for a very limited engagement in 2011. The recently released DVD also has Lonergan's favored edit, which runs a half hour longer. This review is based on the other.

I can only imagine what an untenable mess MARGARET must have seemed before its eventual assembly. Scores of great, even brilliant scenes in search of a whole. Has this been achieved? I'm still deliberating. Still replaying scenes, still discovering layers. Still in awe. So much to consider here. I was reminded of MAGNOLIA throughout this movie, how it just bludgeoned me with raw emotion and moments of cinematic wizardry, and made me uneasy for days afterward. Exhilarated, but still uneasy. And like MAGNOLIA, MARGARET is a restless howl of pain, a collection of intense episodes, a literal scream of unimaginable guilt and frustration. Also, for all of their brilliance, both films eventually spin out of control.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a senior at a posh private school in the Upper West Side of NYC. She's an expressive young woman, unafraid of, for example, alienating others during class debates. Perhaps she gets this from her divorced mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a stage actress. Both engage in numerous, explosive dialogues throughout the film, and not just with each other.

One afternoon, Lisa is shopping for just the right cowboy hat for her upcoming horseback riding trip (where she will join up with her writer father, played by Lonergan). She spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing just the right one and tries to get his attention as he's pulling away from a stop. She's successful, causing the driver to look at her long enough to drive through a red light and run down a woman in the crosswalk, in a frightfully realized sequence.

Lisa finds herself in the street with the dying woman's (Alison Janney) head in her lap, trying to console her fear and bewilderment (both women's). It seems the victim, in her last moments, maybe believes Lisa is her daughter.

Lisa gives a false statement to the police, ostensibly to protect the driver. Her action seems to be validated by her mother (who is unaware of the statement), who states that the driver likely has a family to take care of. She believes she did the right thing and goes about her teenage business. Like breaking the heart of one classmmate and willfully planning to lose her virginity to another. Also, getting caught "smoking a J" by her English teacher, Mr. Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick) and harboring what may be more than a crush on her math teacher, Mr. Caije (Matt Damon).

And...acknowledging but not really dealing with the trauma she has experienced. Is there any guilt? But while time may heal some wounds, it may also bring increasingly horrible acknowledgement.

And it spills over into every area of Lisa's life. As we learn more about her with each scene, she begins to reach different conclusions. Sees the scenario with more clarity, as if she hovers like a spirit, an angel over the accident scene (does this mean she has also died in some way, or the opposite?). With each height, greater ability to view the entire scene, greater understanding. She changes her statement to the police, who treat her with suspicion. She connects with the deceased's best friend, a hardened woman named Emily (Jeanne Berlin) and with her decides to take legal action, to "make someone responsible." That someone is to be Jason, the bus driver, and Lisa makes an ill-advised visit to his house to confront him. Or maybe the Metro Transit Authority is to blame?

MARGARET is not a procedural police drama or mystery. Despite several scenes of attorney meetings and enough legalese to make you lose your lunch, Lonergan is using each element to build a more thematic case, of finding the line where guilt and responsibility intertwine, the shifting definitions of each. The film is a very talky (Lonergan is a playwright), emotionally exhausting experience that finally just overwhelmed me in the later passages. Lisa's pain is also the viewer's, if you allow yourself such vulnerability. Watching MARGARET, I was reminded of the the films of John Cassavettes, another filmmaker who refused to let you sit passively and seek the sort of entertainment my classmmates desired.

The director brought us the wonderfully observant (if a tad bit overrated) YOU CAN COUNT ON ME in 2000. While that film was more successful in succinctly portraying its characters and their deep seated flaws, MARGARET is an exponential move forward for Lonergan. Despite the editing dilmemmas, many scenes cut together beautifully. The backdrop of the fallout of September 11th infuses everything, not just the passionate exchanges of Lisa and her classmates during numerous debate scenes. But upon much reflection, the film finally gets away from Lonergan. The ambitions are huge, and sometimes this comes at the cost of the beauty of cinematic economy. Or, put crudely, knowing when enough is enough.

Paquin pulls off a very complex role with real skill, mananging everything from passive brooding to near demonic anger. I never felt she overdid it. The fine cast all have their choice moments, including Berlin, whose vocal force is so penetrating I could feel it at times. Even Broderick, who has limited screen time, gets to shine. Most notable, in a meta sort of way, is a long, tense scene with him and a defiant student, who challanges his interpretation of Shakespeare. After much back and forth, Van Tassel shouts "That's not what Shakespeare meant!" It was as if Lonergan included this scene to hold a mirror up to all of the critics and buffs who will doubtless argue over their interpretations of MARGARET. I'm guilty, but I suspect many others won't sit still long enough to discover the same.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Sounds of Science

A belated RIP to Adam Yauch ("MCA"). This is my favorite Beastie Boys tune, from their amazing and unmatched 1988 album Paul's Boutique.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Burke and Hare

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 3

A light farce about a dark subject. That is what director John Landis attempted with his first film in over a decade, 2010's British produced BURKE AND HARE. On his mind were the classic Ealing Studios gems like THE LADYKILLERS and KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. His latter day retelling of an old, true ("except the parts that aren't") story of barely making it rogues William Burke and William Hare in 19th century Scotland is in fact a new Ealing production. Do Landis and screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft successfully tread the line of good/bad taste?

Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are 2 bumbling ne'er do wells spinning cons on the streets of Edinburgh in the early nineteenth century, failing enough to warrant being chased by mobs. Their luck changes dramatically when a lodger turns up dead in Hare's spare room. Across town, Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), is seeking new cadavers to disect for his medical students at the University. He agrees to pay the pair a few pounds for the cadaver, suggesting he's willing to pay hansomely for more of them. But Burke and Hare don't have any luck with grave robbing. And corpses aren't just falling at their feet. Sometimes people just need a little help getting to their ultimate destination. A cottage industry is born.

The events in BURKE AND HARE get grislier, but the tone remains light as fluff. Landis nimbly orchestrates suffocations and frying pans on skulls as if he were presenting a pie fight, or a banana peel gag of yesteryear. There is a funny sight gag - a corpse in a rather impossible position after its back needs to be broken to fit in a barrel for transport. Of course, the barrel ends up rolling down a hill. The protagonists have been described as an evil Laurel and Hardy, and that's pretty accurate. I'll bet the real life B + H were not the likeable blokes we see in this retelling.

The women in Burke and Hare's lives? Hare's wife (Jessica Hynes) is first seen as an incoherent lush, often face down in her bowl of gruel. But as she learns of her husband's new enterprise she becomes sharp and clear, a bit Lady Macbeth-like in her motivations. And how funny that the young lady (Isla Fisher) Burke fancies in a bar happens to want to stage an all-female version of that very Shakespeare tragedy. As romance blooms, Burke even funds this ill-advised production, which provides a few chuckles. But the dirty deeds catch up to our duo, and the hangman may again have some business.

BURKE AND HARE is not really the comeback Landis completists were hoping for. Expectations were that the guy responsible for classic pop like THE BLUES BROTHERS and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE would return, after his 12 year hiatus, with the sort of anarchic zest he lent to those and other films in his glory days. He even brings 2 actors in for cameos (Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine) who had appeared in his earlier Brit pic, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but the timing and tone are not quite the same. There are also a few unfortunate bits of dialogue, including "I once trusted in a fart, then shat myself!"

But, BURKE AND HARE is leagues better than Landis' 90s' offerings like THE STUPIDS, BEVERLY HILLS COP 3, BLUES BROTHERS 2000, and SUSAN'S PLAN. He shows much more confidence with his actors, including Tim Curry (with whom he worked in another less than stellar throwback stapsticker, OSCAR) who plays Knox's rival, Dr. Alexander Monro, haplessly left to merely amputate feet. His sparring with Wilkinson is fun and with just the right bit of facetiousness. The entire cast works at the same level, nearly achieving what the older British charmers did. The real locations used also help to give this movie some feeling of authenticity.

This movie never did get a wide North American release, and I imagine it would play better to English audiences familiar with the aforementioned and films like those in the CARRY ON... and CONFESSIONS... series. Quite surprisingly, a director known in his earlier days for plentiful nudity keeps his actors fully clothed during a rather randy sex scene. It actually plays funnier. A lesson learned?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Pharmacy Years, Institutional, Part III

After the New York debacle, I returned to Florida with a leaden heart and a bruised ego. But within 2 months, I was back full tilt in the pharmacy grind. As you'll read later, I began a job in an independent retail pharmacy. I would remain there for nearly 8 years. A month or so after I began, I received an urgent call from the woman who ran the Medical Administration Records at my old institutional gig; they needed me back.

So flattering to be needed. I accepted before realizing what I said. I now had 2 jobs: retail from 9 to 5, nursing home from 6 to whenever. I agreed to this as I needed the money, but had no idea what a taxing, demoralizing year that lie ahead. Also, neither of jobs was aware I held the other one. A stressful balance I can't believe I pulled off.

By this time another company had bought the institutional pharmacy. They were a large outfit with several facilities in the Southeastern U.S. Papa director had stepped down the year before and junior was ousted from that spot by a new director, one of the most contemptible people I ever had the misfortune of working with. Her name was *Rachel. Actually, it wasn't, but work with me. All that matters in recounting this was her demeanor. She was a condescending bitch, there's just no sugar coating it. She belittled everyone in the pharmacy to the point where a literal mutiny formed! The gang of techs were ready to go to corporate to get her thrown out. This proved unsuccessful, despite the fact that Rachel managed, with her surly tone and less than gentle way of handling business, to alienate Directors of Nursing at some of our longstanding accounts. I think we lost a few over it. Facilities with which relationships had been forged and nurtured for many years. It was disgusting.

This is not to say that she wasn't smart, savvy, and a hard worker. She was tireless with physical projects (like a remodel of the place) and her consulting gigs. She was willing to stay into the wee hours if necessary. Being on the night shift, there were some times I was there until 1. This was not good as I had to get up at 7 for the daytime job. After awhile, I became zombified, like someone in a permanent Xanax or Valium induced stupor. Also not good as both jobs required me to have my thinking cap on tightly.

There were many ugly episodes. Rachel once hurled the large, hardcover Facts & Comparisons drug reference volume at me when I discovered an entry that contradicted something she vehemently stated just before. Another time, she kicked in the door to my work area and announced that she "could fire (my co-worker and I) right on the spot" because we weren't cranking out orders fast enough. Ah, the old speed versus accuracy dilemma. More of a retail issue, but every pharmacy deals with it. Rachel and I (and most everyone else) butted heads almost daily. As you'll learn, I was dealing with a tough boss during the day. While many folks were singing "Miller Time" at the end of their shift, I went to suffer even more. I was in a world of.....

Exhausted all the time. Grouchy. Perhaps my mental fatigue also lead me to make bad relationship decisions that year. Here again I recount what a mistake it is to date your co-workers. I made the mistake not once but twice, back to back. First, with one of the pharmacists, a lovely, older, divorced Dominican woman. I even got to meet her children. She was a lovely person, but our union was short-lived for a variety of reasons. Mainly, I was immature.

Immediately following that break-up, I made a monumental error. Rachel brought one of her star techs up from a Broward County branch to help out. *Adrianna was a tall, brash Latina who pretty much shared whatever was on her mind at any moment. Kinda like her boss. Adrianna invited me out for a drink after work one night. I was surprised but also strangely disinterested. My "type" was more of what a friend called the "Dewey Decimal sexy" genre, though a glance of my previous dating history revealed otherwise. In fact, most were like Adrianna!

Our date at a pool hall/bar was interrupted by another co-worker, a good 'ol boy named *Mike whose voice was a few octaves deeper than Karl's from SLING BLADE and loved to talk about turkey hunting. He was clearly interested in Adrianna, and she was clearly enjoying all the attention.......


TO BE CONTINUED

*Not the real name

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Moon

Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the moon

Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do...


Those lyrics belong to David Bowie's 1972 classic "Space Oddity". Did they in part inspire his son, Duncan Jones, to write and direct 2009's MOON? It is said (and pretty obvious) that Jones was paying homage to the great 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in addition to some of the more thoughtful outer space epics like SOLARIS and SILENT RUNNING. Jones himself states that he was going for the distinct feel of sci-fi from the late 70s and early 80s. To support that, and despite a low budget, I found shades of ALIEN, OUTLAND, and BLADE RUNNER in his movie. And not only in the set design.

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is a technician on the far side of the moon, keeping weary eyes on the machines that harvest Helium-3, plentifully derived from the lunar surface. His job is to send cannisters filled with H3 to Earth, where it is used as an efficient, clean fuel. MOON opens with a mock advertisement for Sam's employer, Lunar Industries, as it explains how the moon's supply of the element has solved the Earth's dilemma of its search for abundant, nontoxic energy.

Sam is nearing the conclusion of a 3-year stint, eagerly anticipating the return home to his family, to meet the daughter with whom his wife was pregnant when he began the mission. He watches delayed video transmissions from his wife (real time communique is rarely possible due to satellite snafus) and they provide hope and comfort. But each day emerges something troubling. Sam begins detecting edits in the videos. He also has visions of a young girl inside the station and outside while he drives a rover over the moon's surface. One day, he gets distracted and crashes and awakens in the ship's infirmary.

There to tend to him is GERTY, a robot programmed with artificial intelligence, voiced by Kevin Spacey. I don't believe it is an accident that he reminded me of the HAL 9000. Sam learns from GERTY that he had an accident and requires neurologic tests. Shortly after this, Sam will begin to learn why things just haven't seemed right lately. He will spy GERTY having a live transmission with corporate heads. There will be a curious arrival, and an even more curious discovery in a hidden bay. The answer, when disclosed, is a turning point in this tale that would be criminal to reveal to those who've yet to see this movie. I find it hard to give MOON a thorough analysis without spilling the beans, but let's see...

Jones very deftly steers this story into some dense philosophical areas while remaining true to pure science fiction. Neither element is compromised. As Sam discovers what is really occurring, how much time has actually passed, and what of who he thought he was, MOON becomes a richly layered story and essay. The very nature of the perception of identity is the core of the movie, with added pointed barbs at the dehumanization that occurs when one is part of a corporate machine. Sam may be facilitating the delivery of something positive, something healthy for his home planet, but at the cost of himself.

When you discover MOON's central secret, the theme of identity becomes exponentially deeper. This secret involves something that has been controversial in the medical, social, theological, and political arenas for some time. Man vs. machine is quite central, but what distinguishes one from the other becomes more nebulous as the film continues.

MOON is a film for those who like replay scenes in their mind's eye long afterwards, to allow elusive themes to emerge. To make connections. Not so much in terms of events but ideas. It works on the level of a great short story penned by Pohl or Bester or Asimov, along with splendid visuals and a feel for the boredom one would doubtless experience in such isolation. Perfect breeding ground for the mind to wander. As you watch, you'll learn Sam is and is not all alone, in many possible senses.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

Director Steven Spielberg stated that he has been fascinated by the Belgian Tintin comic for over 30 years. Tintin's adventures are unfamiliar to many Americans, but scores of children of all ages abroad had sneaked a magazine or two past their bedtimes since the late 1920s. I had heard about but never saw the strips or the TV specials. I think HBO ran a Tintin show when I was little.

2011's THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is a performance capture adaptation based on a few of artist Hergé's old stories. Tintin is a brave, resourceful, yet strangely bland teenager who, with his equally and unbelievably fearless dog Snowy, embarks on impossible adventures filled with chases and scrapes that may well remind you of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and its sequels. Spielberg in fact stated that he felt that Tintin was an "Indiana Jones for kids." He and co-producer Peter Jackson wanted each frame of their movie to seem like a single panel from Hergé's comic. I've only seen online reproductions of them but it appears as if this has been achieved, and that is the real (if not only) reason to watch this movie.

The story opens in a large outdoor marketplace, the first of many impressively rendered set pieces. There is a pickpocket flitting amongst the crowd. Tintin appears, amazed at how inexpensive a model of the "Unicorn", a 17th century Navy vessel, is. No sooner does he acquire it when sinister men are hovering, trying to buy it off him, for top dollar. Tintin cares about history and research, not a quick buck. One of the bad guys is called Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine. You can practically smell the evil in him.

Later that day, Snowy and a feline chase each other through Tintin's apartment, nearly destroying the new model. Nonetheless, thieves make away with it while Tintin is at the library. Why is everyone so interested in a replica, a broken one at that? Amid the wreckage of his ransacked home, Tintin discovers a tube which had popped out of the toy ship and rolled away unnoticed under a piece of furniture after the chase. Inside is a scroll that points the way to hidden treasure. Sakharine's men kidnap Tintin. The adventure begins.

Hergé's gallery of characters are filled color and eccentricity, both of which are largely missing from the protagonist. Tintin is kind of like Jerry Seinfeld in a way; the comedian was the main character but his supporting players were what made the show entertaining. Tintin himself is somewhat of a neutral medium, like tofu, you could say. Contrast him with bumbling detectives Tomson and Thompson, haplessly on the trail of the pickpocket Aristrides Silk, who is found to have bookcases filled with his victims' wallets, one of which belongs to Tintin. I read that T & T will have larger roles in the sequel.

Captain Haddock is another curious one. He is introduced during Tintin's capture aboard Haddock's ship the SS Karaboudjian. And what sad tales Haddock tells: ship taken by Sakharine's men, his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock from generations ago sinking his own vessel when pirates invade. That's how the treasure ended up where, well, "x" marks the spot. Haddock is also constantly intoxicated, perhaps a problematic (but refreshingly alternative) thing for a kid's movie.

TINTIN takes nary a breath, pulling viewers by the arm from one treachery to the next. It's good but exhausting fun, the breathless pace punctuated by some unusual moments - such as when an entire building becomes involved in a chase. My investment in the characters (other than Snowy) was close to nil, so I didn't much care what happened. I was along for the ride, and promptly forgot the whole thing after it was over. If I wasn't writing this review, I may never have thought of it again, until the inevitable sequel(s). And it was not just because I was watching something so patently artificial. But again, the striking pallate is what makes the film worth seeing. Treat it like an art exhibit that makes a lot of noise, rather than a satisfying story and you'll do fine.

I'm very fussy about animation. I dismiss most Anime (excepting AKIRA) simply because the widely drawn eyes are aesthetically annoying to me. Performance/motion capture has run hot and cold. POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF failed to enthrall. When Ralph Bakshi rotoscoped (drawing/tracing over live action) his films it often came off as stilted and unnatural. In TINTIN, movement is more fluid and believable. The process has become infinitely more sophisticated. This movie is the very definition of eye candy. But despite the frantic nature of it, good spirits and a sense of fun were very short lived; it left me a bit hollow. I was expecting more than just a disposable adventure.