Friday, December 27, 2013

2013, with a Big Finish

2013, for the most part, had been a pretty routine, even humdrum year. When I think back on it, I recall many long hours of work. The summer, typically quieter as the snowbirds return to their nests in Long Island and Montreal, never really slowed.

I took a trip to California in April for the annual audiology convention. But no other exotic weeks away.  There was a weekend in Orlando to see my cousin's daughter's lacrosse tournament. And a week later I did go to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, possibly the best one I ever had. Amazing time with family, incredible food. The weather was perfection: lows in the 20s, highs in the 30s, sunny, no wind chill to speak of.  I found myself tossing a football on a back lawn, watching snow flurries land on my jacket. Big moment for a Florida boy. It was beyond the Norman Rockwell or Ansel Adams storybook image you're getting, for reasons I've yet to disclose on this blog.

My grandmother turned 100 years old in October. That's big. We brought her balloons and goodies to her facility, where she was treated like royalty. A week later, we had her to our apartment, where she was joined by a few friends, including a lovely woman whose mother had lived 2 units down from grandma. 100 years. Can't fathom it. Neither could she, in some moments. She remains faithful in giving the credit to her Lord. And she's not afraid to tell you.

My mother's predicament has not changed. Very peak and valley kind of year. Complicated subject. I realize some sort of tough love intervention may be necessary, but exactly what that is is a mystery. She's on a slow track to permanent residence in a dreary nursing home, not the way to live out one's days. I pray for wisdom in 2014.

So yes, business as usual. Until December. I reported for jury duty, the fifth or so time in 6 years. I was picked for a drug case back in '07 and again this year, a really unpleasant criminal case that I'd rather not recount. I've explained it to so many people in the past weeks I almost feel a permanent film has coated my soul.   But the verdict was correct (I feel) and unanimous without battle. I served with six other wonderful folks, one of whom I got to know during the lengthy (2 day) voir dire. She admitted to me that she had prayed that I would get picked if she did! Thanks! But the experience was certainly memorable. I pray for the defendant, about whom I recently learned more really unsavory details.

December also saw some bad luck for my work colleague, who slipped and broke her hand on her way to work. She's on the mend, but her absence continues to put me behind as I cover for her (and see my own patients, many of whom were rescheduled due to my week of being out for my civic duty).  I pray for her healing.

Speaking of prayer, Lamplight Drivel readers may know that I've been in an intercessory prayer group at church for several years. This year, I drifted away. It just sort of happened. The group leader had to resign due to many other commitments and without someone coordinating the schedule and reminders, it was very easy to just let it go. And you know, it was time. That may sound callous. I don't discount the importance of the ministry, and it helped me in my own personal prayer life immeasurably, but I felt that it was time to move on. I was also a little bothered that our church seemed to relegate our tiny group to the margins. Quite literally - we lost our back rooms to coils of microphone cords and speaker stacks, left to park our folding chairs either on the outside breezeways or even in a storage closet! My partner and I continued to be faithful once a month, but I felt my spirit and attention wandering.  A new coordinator called me a few months later, but my decision had been made.

Church attendance also suffered this past year for us. This is a most complicated topic that I might take on in a future post. That doesn't mean my faith has followed suit.

So there are some highlights of the year that is soon to join all the other previous ones, to take its spot among its elders. They will have much to talk about. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Moments


Last night I was wrapping my wife's gifts at my grandmother's apartment, the one in which she hasn't lived since a year ago Thanksgiving. I check on the place weekly, in part readying things for.....my mother's arrival? Eventual sale? Even at this late date, all of that is uncertain.

The visits can be eerie. The apartment is filled with all sorts of collectibles, mostly gifts my grandmother received, but also unused Avon inventory, things my mother meant to sell during her stint as a rep. They just sit and collect dust. The eyes of stuffed kittens and polar bears unmoving day and night. The memories always build when I walk through. I lived with her through part of grad school, awakened many already sleepless nights by her wee hour cries of anxiety. She could never explain why. Maybe nightmares, maybe just her own memories.

She is doing well at the facility now. She's no longer overwhelmed by solitude, the kind she often mentioned to us when we visited. But she misses her place, her home. I assure her that all is well there, that her neighbors usually catch me in the parking lot to get a report.

But last night I had a small moment that becomes bigger the more I ponder. While wrapping I listened to Pandora's "Classic Christmas" station. It cheered up the scene, even the melancholy tunes. When Perry Como's "O Holy Night" came on, I felt something peaceful, comforting.  I've always loved the song, recalling all those times I heard it/sang along during my old church's annual Christmas pageant.

I got up and brought my phone into my grandmother's bedroom. I set it on her night table and walked around, imaging my grandmother drifting off to sleep, comforted by the lyrics. Hearing it just then made everything seem right with the world. A moment frozen in time, in which I could probably wander forever. My grandmother's unceasing faith, the enormity of her generosity, the sense of calm she inspired, it was all there.

I have several memories of little moments of Christmas Past, things that would sound inconsequential to you, but comprise some sort of odd tapestry. This new moment may be the most special.  Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Holiday Nipping


Last week I attended the fifth holiday party since I joined the practice. I've made a tradition of reporting on them here, as those in the invisible audience will note.  I almost didn't make this one, the reason for which I'll explain in that other December Lamplight Drivel tradition, the Year End Summary.  What would I have missed?

Nothing especially memorable. Unlike work parties of Christmas Past, there were no inebriated soliloquies or displays of lasciviousness. Oh, there was plenty of alcohol flowing, much of it Irish beer. It had been a while since I had a Black & Tan.  This year the gathering took place at a longstanding establishment where the Sons of Eire (and those who love them) congregate for a very cozy atmosphere and some decent food and seriously strong Irish coffee. My little souvenir seen above comprised much of that beverage, which was so potent I had to dilute with more coffee.  I've become such a lightweight.

I mainly hung with the audiologist from our satellite office. I only get to see her a few times a year, so there's always much to catch up on. She's had a busy 2013: got married (and became a stepmom three times over) and lost her father. My wife and I joined the newlyweds at their home a few months back for a lovely dinner. She married a psychologist who had endless recounts of patient behavior. He also likes to cook.

Back to the holiday party. It was fun, but there was nowhere to dance. We did the white elephant gift thing. I received a Red Lobster gift card. Towards the end, a rather fascistic waitress began breaking down tables around us to set up for the next group. She uttered things that we weren't supposed to hear. Not very professional, lady.

Most of the staff attended. There were notable absences: those who left during this eventful year. One quit last month after 7 years of service in the billing department. The other was let go after a decade as administrator. It's a long story I can't recount here, but it was fairly depressing. It also made me think of the last 5 parties, and all those who've moved on. Do they still wonder what happens at our shindig? How they've become mellower and mellower? Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly nothing for the history books. Maybe we needed more Jameson.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saturday Night Fever


 "It's still not a kid's picture."

I remember those words so clearly, spoken by a woman ahead of my dad and I as we exited a matinee of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Even then, as a nine year old, I knew she was right. I had not expected such a raw, uncomfortable experience, and this wasn't even the true version. The movie had opened the previous Christmas.  It was a deservedly R-rated feature that nonetheless swept the box office.  Paramount, in a smart marketing move, had the film re-edited to earn a PG-rating, "so everyone could experience the fever." All those tykes who knew the film's star, John Travolta, from his innocuous sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and GREASE.

Like many of my friends, I had the soundtrack.  Double LP. Beyond the ubiquitous Bee Gees tunes, there were a plethora of cool things that became the soundtrack as well to my 4th grade life. I have so many memories associated with that movie in those days; it's impossible not to think about them whenever I catch it. It (the original cut) was also a Holy Grail of sorts, a forbidden movie that ignited my curiosity and scared me and made me wonder if I would go blind if I actually watched it. I even felt that way during the PG showing.

I would see the true edit about 6-7 years later. Wow.  The PG version was truly diluted. While the essential story and some of the grit remained, director John Badham's vision had been compromised to network TV standards. The harshness of the language and sexuality was nearly absent. The story was softened. It still wasn't a kid's picture.

Who doesn't know the plot? Brooklyn youth Tony Manero (Travolta) begins to recognize the aimlessness of his existence in the insular neighborhood: working in a paint store and hanging with his crude pals who are even less ambitious than himself. They act like animals. His family life (at home with parents and grandparent) is dismal. But Tony has some serious dancing skills that he demonstrates at the local disco nearly every night, montaged so excitingly by Badham and company in sequences that are as legendary as anything Hollywood ever produced. It is at these moments that Tony finds some meaning in his life, something to fill the void. But as the original ads read, "Where do you go when the record is over?"

Tony searches, continually disappointed. His brother is quitting the priesthood. Sex offers little satisfaction. His ability to even recognize women as human beings is pretty underdeveloped. They throw themselves at him, and in a telling moment we see a doe eyed fan at the club who offers to wipe his brow and in return is mocked. But enter Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a Brooklyn gal with an even thicker brogue than Tony's, and who at least emulates Manhattan sophistication, working in the city and name dropping celebrities. She is also a dancer and the two eventually enter a contest. On the way, Tony's insecurities bubble. His perhaps Madonna/whore complex point of view the catalyst. But by the time he rides the subway all night, alone and having reached bottom, there is some indication of awareness. Some possibility of repentance.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's detractors have called it a weaker version of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, and that is not entirely inaccurate. But this film has a rhythm (so to speak) all its own and really expresses the desperation of those in the 'hood who have been bred to be one dimensional and racist. Who have resigned their fates. They gaze over at Manhattan with loathing and envy; it may as well be across the Atlantic. Without getting too specific (or filled with denigration) I'm reminded of some of my Brooklyn relatives. I've walked around Bensonhurst and heard the conversations on stoops, seen the packs of wasted youth. Heard the elders cast suspicion on anyone who did not resemble them (or even live in their neighborhood).  Spike Lee later got it right, too.

FEVER is more than a movie, it's a vital document (even if the story was later revealed to be fabricated). It pulses with life and vividness the way few movies do, and that always allows me to forgive any problems with the screenplay. Of course, it will always feel like a forbidden picture, and this always adds to the experience. There have been many things produced that are not kid's pictures, but this one may well feel the dirtiest, sleaziest, most revealing, and plain exciting of all for me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Snoopy's Christmas

One of my favorite childhood Christmas tunes. Still is......




Monday, December 9, 2013

Man of Steel

It hit me about 3 days later; I could barely remember it. I was shopping at Target and saw an entire endcap devoted to MAN OF STEEL, the latest update of D.C. Comic's Superman saga, and was reminded that yes, I had seen it. It was the only film that even mildly tempted me out to the theater this past summer, though perhaps good sense won out and I waited. I now find I could've waited even longer.

This review, by the way, is not a slam or dismissal. Nor another rant from an older fan who grew up wide eyed over the old comics and Christopher Reeve pics. I realize that every generation reimagines and reinvents old franchises. It may smack of lack of imagination (and corporate greed) but once in awhile someone gets it right, creates an interesting twist on a long beloved hero. I again cite the recent Batman trilogy as commandeered by Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's involvement (story credit) on MAN OF STEEL was encouraging. Even inspiring. What he did with The Dark Knight was transcendent. Surely this fantastic tale of an alien who is sent from his dying planet to Earth was ripe with possibility. Maybe director Zach Snyder, whose WATCHMEN was an interesting but deeply flawed comic book epic, would have a fresh take on this by now ancient tale.

On that point, there's little argument. The film immediately distances itself from earlier efforts with its non-linear storytelling. But, so common anymore. Still, an audacious choice, as the drama of the evolution of Clark Kent/Superman is so compelling to watch. Here, the young man (Henry Cavill, looking very Chris Reeve-like in some shots) is first glimpsed on Earth, long after his infant's journey from planet Krypton (and the goodbyes of his biological parents, Jor-El and Lara, played earnestly by Russell Crow and Ayelet Zurer). Then his chronology goes backward in time, then zigzags. Like half remembered snatches. Maybe no one has the patience for A-Z exposition anymore.

The effect is commanding, but also disheartening. I noticed a considerable lack of soul in MAN OF STEEL. In its place - steely cold omniscience that merely documents rather than involves us.  This is also so common in contemporary superhero pics.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original stories were distinguished by a strong emotional narrative drive and depth as well as dark mayhem. The Reeve films continued those ideas and also added a good dose of send-up to lighten the load. Then and now I think that was very wise - superhero adventures always run the risk of self-importance (and, let's face it, are inherently ridiculous). Directors Richard Donner and Richard Lester understood the need to use humor to make the legends sing in ways 2-D comics never really did. Lester admittedly did get a bit carried away and contemptuous, especially in the awful SUPERMAN III.

This being a film concerned with Kal-El's origins, we are not given the sort of meaty relationships expected among the principals, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but surprisingly also with the boy's adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (an aged Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Krypton criminal General Zod (an effective Michael Shannon) is seen minus his old partners in crime (but with a different crew) and rather here is the front and center nemesis with powers identical to Kal-El, and bent on destroying Earth to create a new Krypton via genetic engineering.

David S. Goyer's screenplay, to its credit, gives Zod far more dimension than seen in earlier films. Zod's character is a megalomaniac, ready to destroy anything in his path, but his reasons are not mere ruthlessness or insanity. You can understand his m.o. While you can hiss at him, you are always uncomfortably reminded that he is attempting to do exactly what 'Superman" is, just from a different perspective. Shannon really gives the part some depth. Such complexity forbids summary dismissal of MAN OF STEEL, and is admirable.

But is not enough. Watching this new film, aside from a few interesting dramatic elements, inspired neither wonder or excitement. There are grand scale scenes of destruction late in the film that are dull and unimpressive, again due in part to a regrettable look of artificiality. The cinematography by Amir Mokri remains from opening to fadeout a greyed out palate of visual disinterest; I'm baffled as to why this is so prevalent in cinema these days. It made me want to watch Warren Beatty's vivid DICK TRACY as an antidote.

There are a few nods to the 70s/80s SUPERMANs, including a children-in-peril-school-bus-on-teetering-bridge scene and the Man of Steel having a tanker thrown at him (though in this film, he jumps over it). I watched those old movies numerous times.  Of course, I was just an impressionable kid. If I had been 9 when MAN OF STEEL opened, would I have done likewise? Maybe, but I would've been poorer in so many ways......

Friday, December 6, 2013

Take the Connoli...Dip

This past Thanksgiving I was introduced to what is sure to be a staple on our dessert table for years to come. Fabulous.  I was told it was ridiculously easy and quick to make. We used broken ice cream cones to dip but as you can see above many other cookies, crackers, etc., would work just fine too. You may find yourself unable to leave the trough once you start.

Enjoy!

http://www.food.com/recipe/cannoli-dip-371948

Monday, December 2, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

I'm becoming increasingly bored with computer animated films. I can barely even watch the trailers anymore. Should be fun for when I have kids! It's difficult to get engaged in what often seem like big screen video games, beyond a few minutes of "wow" visual appreciation. Even some titles by Pixar (who I usually champion) such as BRAVE, while still bringing a lot of soul and some clever plotting to their films, suffer from a certain artificiality. Something about it all is so patently cold and unnatural, very much unlike the two dimensional features of yesterday.

2012's WRECK-IT RALPH, a Pixar co-production, did not tempt me out to the multiplex. And its plot involved video games. So this time at least, it made sense that the film was computer animated.  I was interested to learn that retro arcade legends like Q-Bert were part of the plot, but it wasn't enough.  Friends (mainly parents) on Facebook raved. So imaginative and fun is this movie! Turns out, they were right. This would've been a worthwhile big screen adventure.

But the imagination, so visually ample, unfortunately did not infuse the screenplay. While the idea of video game characters interacting with each other and having lives outside of their games is intriguing and ripe with potential, WRECK-IT RALPH reveals itself essentially to be another "outcast overcomes the odds to save the day and gain the acceptance of those who cast them out" story, sticking close to the playbook.  Too close.

Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the villain of a long-time popular video game, the Donkey Kong-like "Fix-It Felix". And he's tired of it. He's efficient as he smashes the windows of an apartment building, as much so as Felix, who repairs them with a magic hammer. Of course Felix is the hero to both patrons of Litwak's Arcade and within the game itself. The game's residents invite Felix to after hours parties in the penthouse, long after the arcade closes. Ralph is banished to a garbage dump each night. He does not improve his lot when he crashes one of those soirees (where Felix is to receive a medal) and makes a big mess, leading one of the game's other characters to call him a loser.

A dejected Ralph determines that if he can get his own medal, he'll be the new hero, and sets out to get one. This will involve traveling out of his artificial world into the others in the arcade, right through the electrical cords! Ralph meets tough female Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in the war game "Hero's Duty" where he correctly predicts he can grab the coveted medal, but as he exits he also piggybacks a nasty cyber bug that threatens another machine at Litwik's: "Sugar Rush", a trippy, multicolor car race game that will give viewers' rods and cones a serious workout. It is there that Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a cheerful but sad little girl who has been forbidden from participating in the kart races because she is a "glitch".  Ralph finds a fellow outcast in his new friend.

Meanwhile, "Fix-It Felix" has been unplugged by the arcade owner as the star villain is now absent, setting off a pursuit by the game's hero (Jack McBrayer), who's like a cousin to Andy of TOY STORY (and may have a romantic interest in that tough Sergeant!).

Once WRECK-IT RALPH settles into its oft told tale of acceptance and redemption, the fun drains a bit. Still, there is always another visual, a clever idea to distinguish the movie from hundreds of others. My favorite involves a pool of cola invaded by Mentos stalactites, though I also liked the laughing tree tentacles (and Calhoun's response to them when they get a bit mushy). The actors are as perfectly cast as could be possible, their unique personas very well suited to these characters. Director Rich Moore (also co-screenwriter) has given grumpy 40-somethings a reason, besides that of their arm tugging offspring, to plunk $$ on an animated feature.

But next time, guys, give the frontal lobes some extra push and dazzle us with the sort of innovation expended in the eye candy.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Longest Yard

My interest in football has really nosedived over the years. Most sports, actually, for reasons I've already covered on this blog. But the drama of competition, the thrill and inspiration of overcoming the odds that accompany these games makes great fodder for and translates so easily to film. I'll bet you can name a dozen such movies, and I'll also bet that many of them are about football, or at least are set in that world.  Some are designed to stir your emotions (BRIAN'S SONG), others to probe the dark side of the past time (NORTH DALLAS FORTY).

1974's THE LONGEST YARD is a little of both, while also playing as a gritty prison picture.  It manages to be cerebral and physical. An audience pleaser and a more thoughtful exercise. A star vehicle and an ensemble piece. A riotously good time.

Burt Reynolds, whose star was approaching megawatt status by this time, plays Paul Crewe, former pro with a dubious legacy of throwing/fixing big games.  After Crewe ends up in a penitentiary for stealing his girlfriend's Maserati and resisting arrest, one of his fellow inmates explains why he is so loathed by the other prisoners: "... you could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandmother's ... but shaving points off of a football game, man that's un-American." People take their football very seriously.

This includes the warden named Hazen (Eddie Albert), who is proud to have and is greatly impressed with his newest inmate. Hazen boasts multiple wins with his team of guards against those of other institutions.  He eventually convinces Crewe to coach his selected fellow cons in a contest with the guards in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Director Robert Aldrich, known for many macho entertainments, really strikes the right tone with THE LONGEST YARD. His modulation of darker and lighter moments is very skillful, so as to never feel engineered.  The movie is essentially a comedy, often very funny, but always has a more serious undercurrent. A tragic death occurs later in the film, but it is not as jarring as it might've been in a less consistent movie. The grim reality of prison life is the ideal backdrop for the film's larger observations on racism, self worth as defined by a game, and a general anti-establishment sentiment. Consider also when the film was produced.

Burt, a former semi-pro, has rarely been more appealing. His patented cocksure persona is perfect for the part of Crewe, but he does get to display some quieter moments here and there.  He and his teammates (including Aldrich) really deliver the goods during the film's final 45 minutes, the big game. Even viewers who couldn't care less about football can enjoy it (similar to the climax in M*A*S*H).  And unlike other sports films which are drenched in nostalgia and/or piety,  THE LONGEST YARD presents the event for what it is: a dirty, unsentimental,  barbaric contest of machismo played by a bunch of thugs.  Like college and pro games. Ouch.  Not something born out of or representing someone's religious faith, for example. This sort of honesty is refreshing (and sorely missed at the movies).

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Ladykillers

Sitting through the 2004 remake of the Ealing classic THE LADYKILLERS is like watching a comedian slowly die on stage. A balls out desperate gasp to please, show off, to do damn near anything for a laugh. But even getting a muted guffaw or slight nod of approval from your audience may be tough business for this film, Msrs. Joel and Ethan Coen.

THE LADYKILLERS would be their second dud in a row, following INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, a film whose attempts to be sly were similarly uncomfortably forced and tired. It was like a bad flu these guys suffered. For years, their mastery of both light and dark comedy seemed innate, effortless. But their talents took leave for a period there, thankfully to return with the near perfect NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in 2007. BURN AFTER READING came a year later and restored the Coens' spot in the comic universe.

That is not to say that THE LADYKILLERS doesn't sport moments of the Coens' wicked wit and unique style (and is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins). The familiar jaded perspective is still there. The (more gentle this time) nihilism.  Their choice of source material, a sardonic 1955 British comedy that had starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, is certainly appropriate to their sensibilities. Too bad they felt the need to play to the galleries.

Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) is the suspicious Southern gentleman who darkens the door of Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in search of a room to rent. He oozes charm and learned vocabulary, professing to be a professor. The widow Munson is taken with Dorr and offers no obstacle to allowing he and his band of musicians to practice in her basement.

The others are in reality are Dorr's accomplices in a planned casino heist. Coens regular J.K Simmons (in a rare disappointing turn) plays Garth Pancake, demolitions expert. Marlon Wayans is Gawain McSamthe, the inside guy at the casino. Tzi Ma plays The General, proprietor of the Hi-Ho donut shop and expert tunneler. Ryan Hurst is "lump", a brain dead football player.  While Mrs. Munson thinks they're rehearsing, they in fact are digging through her basement wall straight to the casino vault. Each night, they bag up the dirt and drop it from a bridge down to a shipping barge that passes by like clockwork (this is a vital plot point).  It doesn't take long for the good church going lady to raise an eyebrow.  And for the criminals to realize they may have to dispatch her.

As you watch THE LADYKILLERS, you wonder how mean spirited things will get. The original film was premium black comedy, never over the top. The Coens are known for deftly using brutality and death for laughs (FARGO, etc.), but this film remains fairly non-violently whimsical, even in its darkest moments. It was the right choice, a real balance. So what went so wrong?

The filmmakers litter their remake with so many bad ideas that at times I was skeptical that they actually concocted this thing. Such as? Pancake suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and even meets his ladyfriend, Mountain Girl (Diane Delano) at an IBS mixer! No opportunity to exploit this most embarrassing problem (and oh so easy comedic device) is missed. Gawain's vocabulary favors the beloved "F" word so many times it becomes numbing (and again, desperate). It's like he wandered in from another movie. I'm no prude, but the profanity wasn't funny or shocking, just annoying after awhile. Most of the gags fizzle, aside from the occasional gem, like when Gawain tries to bump off the kindly lady but is halted by a childhood flashback.  The funniest thing to me was Mrs. Munson's repeated desire to donate to Bob Jones University, the one so notoriously segregationist in its attitudes.

There are also repeated cutaways to a gospel choir (music produced by T. Bone Burnett), which perhaps narrate/provide commentary to the film's plot. The music is great, but the idea quickly runs out of gas. Maybe you should just hit those chapter stops.

Mostly, the actors mug and flail in ways that may have just passed muster in a lesser Jerry Lewis vehicle.  Hanks is initially very irritating and unconvincing as the would-be genteel silver tongue, but as the film progresses he gets better. But everyone else (save Ms. Hall) is pretty embarrassing. I did like the black cat...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wizards

 
Spoilers!

The 1977 animated feature WIZARDS may only be eighty minutes long, but it took me 36 years to finish watching it. Thank my father, who within the film's first 15 minutes yanked my 8-year old self by the arm as quickly as possible out of the Dolphin Theater in Palm Springs, FL. I'm sure I sulked all the way home.

Over the years I've thought back on that little window of time.  I remembered seeing the earth explode, someone saying "dammit", and a few creatures of some sort abruptly blown away by gunfire. I also remembered a forboding female voice, narrating the doom onscreen.  It was enough to incense my father, apparently. Had he not done his homework? Did he think that because the PG-rated film was a cartoon it would automatically be innocuous? Was he not aware of director Ralph Bakshi's previous films, such as the X-rated FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC?

It would be one of only two times I have ever walked out of a movie.  Both were against my will.  The second was about 15 years later, when my friends decided to bolt on the Bruce Willis actioner THE LAST BOY SCOUT (I have not revisited that one yet).  If I had been driving, I would've stayed, no matter how bad it turned out to be. While the adage "If nothing happens in the first reel, nothing will." is often true, there's always the possibility that something will make the time investment worthwhile. I cite ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, with its undistinguished first half, and how things improve dramatically in the second.

Following the controversy surrounding the incendiary (and sometimes brilliant) COONSKIN, Bakshi turned his eye away from the urban jungle to explore the realms of wizards, elves, and faeries. Worlds inspired by the likes of Tolkien (in fact, the animator did adapt Lord of the Rings into a single movie in 1978). This new venue did not soften Bakshi's harsh point of view, his often leering take. The usual nastiness remains, right down to a not unnecessarily scantily clad heroine. He never went for Disney-style cuteness.

WIZARDS takes place millions of years in the future, after nuclear war has decimated mankind and the Earth.  When the radioactive clouds clear, only pockets of humans have survived while mutants ravage whatever resources remain. But in Montagar, a society of the aforementioned creatures lives in harmony under the benevolence of Delia, queen of the fairies, who is the mother of two wizards: Avatar, kind and creative, and Blackwolf, evil and destructive.

Blackwolf grows into a  powerful dictator/megalomaniac who desires to resurrect the philosophies of elder despots along the lines of Mussolini and Hitler. To inspire his armies, he plays old films of the fuhrer's speeches.  Avatar and friends set out to thwart the would-be exterminator.

Through the murk, Bakshi weaves many themes common to his films. At times, his odd characters explicitedly speak them:

Nature is the only real technology. Man uses invented technology to enslave mankind.

But also....

They have technology, all we have is love.

Two rabbis, portrayed as complete buffoons, appear late in WIZARDS in a drunken comic ballet of theology, complete with a parade of props that concludes with Jesus on the cross. By the film's end, it isn't faith or magic that saves the world, but a bullet from a gun.  Some strangely mixed messages, at least to this viewer.

Despite the inconsistencies, WIZARDS is a more successful film than anticipated. It has a fair amount of rotoscoping (tracing over live action) that would prove controversial throughout Bakshi's career.  I realize that the film's appeal and interest to me is largely driven by its perceived verboten-ness.  There were opportunities over the years for me to watch but I was always concerned that nothing could live up to this odd expectation I had. How could anything? Something so offensive that my dad would shield my eyes and flee?

The film is dark, prompting my wife to note more than once that the visuals were "disturbing", but also leavened with silliness, such as Avatar's voice which sounds like a stereotypically cranky old Jewish man. He also behaves like one, preferring to pull the covers over his head rather than save the world, for instance. He utters a fair amount of innuendoes, too. This sort of nonsense is amusing in the moment, but (as in other Bakshi movies) overall hurts the story and tone a bit. The director always seems like that vulgar and inappropriate (yet articulate and insightful) uncle who tries to sneak you a cigarette when your mother isn't looking. He's always been a bit like Frank Zappa in that regard.

20th Century Fox had high hopes for WIZARDS. While it did respectably at the box office it was overshadowed by another film on the Fox slate, a little film called STAR WARS, which was not predicted to do much business. WIZARDS, which often seems like Bakshi's warm up for his aforementioned following year's LORD OF THE RINGS, would become a favorite on the midnight movie circuit.

Those first 15 minutes or so came back to me in a vague memory sort of way. Once past that, I couldn't help imagining where and what I was doing during the rest of the picture that day in 1977. Whining in my father's Dodge. Retreating to my room probably by the film's hour mark. I thought on these things through the rest of the movie. Unavoidable. Did my father do the right thing? I think so. I would be battered with enough filmic imagery in a few years. I can't help but wonder if his decision was also based more on his own impatience with the movie.

There were long stretches of my life when WIZARDS did not cross my mind. But I like to think that the voice of the narrator (so perfectly rendered by actress Susan Tyrell) was always somewhere in my cortex, ominously repeating those same opening words over and over, anxious to be able to continue once I finally sat down to finish the movie.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Eminent Hipsters

When asked if he would ever write a book, Donald Fagen quickly replied that he was too lazy for such a pursuit. It was disappointing as the co-founder of Steely Dan’s writings have always proven erudite and immensely readable. I’m referring to things beyond the caustic song lyrics penned by him and Dan co-founder Walter Becker. Namely, those essays that had appeared in several magazines and on Fagen’s (now defunct) website.

So when I learned of Eminent Hipsters, I was more than just fanboy curious. Especially as Fagen is older and grouchier than ever. Maybe that was the driver? To get those cranky thoughts on the page and continue to validate his long held persona, seemingly worn without concern for what anyone thinks. Or was it therapy? Catharsis? Boredom?

Some of all of those. Fagen’s new book is actually a collection of the aforementioned writings that were written over several years. Most of it has been previously published. Aha!

The book’s title refers to those progenitors of hipness who would prove influential to a “certain young man…” as the liner notes to Fagen's debut solo album, The Nightfly had read. The early chapters of Eminent Hipsters focus on the likes of Henry Mancini, humorist Jean Shepherd, and The Boswell Sisters, the trio who broke convention even in the 1930s. Each sketch briefly bios and highlights the respective hipster’s works/claims to fame. But more importantly, how a young Donald would lock his bedroom door and be captivated by them (while his peers did the usual teenage things like go on dates).

Mancini is credited with spurring the youth’s interest in jazz. Shepherd, a popular radio monologist in the 50s (and best known for his screenplay and narration of A CHRISTMAS STORY), inspired at least some of Fagen’s sardonic wit (though a sound argument for the author’s innate snark can be made) and "inspired a whole generation of alienated youth." He explains that fans familiar only with the beloved movie aren’t aware of Shepherd’s more acidic barbs on society.

The Boswells were an early musical influence, and Fagen’s summation of their trajectory is a beautifully written and informative passage. Preeminent radio jazz DJ Mort Fega, whose shows Fagen stayed up (and whose grade suffered) for in the 60s, is given a nice write-up. In a piece that originally ran in Premiere magazine in the late 80s, Fagen interviews film scorer Ennio Morricone (through an interpreter). When he asks the composer about the legendary directors he worked with (Leone, Malick, De Palma, et al) he always replies “Belissimo!”

These early segments of Eminent Hipsters are my favorites. A man in quiet awe of those who would impress upon him an aesthetic, an attitude, a career. There’s also a great chapter on the science fiction writers like Bester and Dick. But it’s not just all gushing worship. Fagen describes a disheartening night in the mid-'60s when he visited a university to see Shepherd perform, and how off his shtick was in front a live audience, rather than his more natural, pungent delivery over the airwaves. Mancini is described first as innovative, then maybe too comfortable as time went on. But whose tastes never change?

Fagen also provides snippets of his early home life. His mother was once a professional singer. There was a soul wrecking move to a bland NJ suburb, to a house that is described having a cement patio that overlooked a lake of mud. His father and uncle started a Burger Chef franchise in Ohio. There are recollections of trips to Manhattan jazz clubs, catching the old greats, many of whom were in their final glory days.

Another chapter is devoted to Fagen’s time at Bard College, where one day he would hear choice guitar licks coming from a room and walk in to find Walter Becker. There are a few entertaining anecdotes about those days, when Fagen played in several campus bands (including one in which Chevy Chase played the drums) and was arrested along with many others in a police (drug) raid on the dormitories, spearheaded by then District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy!

The majority of Eminent Hipsters features Fagen’s 2012 road diary of the “Dukes of September” tour, in which he headlined with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. It’s a healthy glimpse into the mind of a tired, often paranoid grouch who offers damning assessments of each hotel and concert hall he visits across the U.S. There’s much bitching about the unacceptable acoustics of the venues. This is not unexpected for someone so notoriously fussy about high fidelity – I especially liked his rant against the futility of recordings “mastered” for iTunes; what indeed does that mean? What with crappy transducers (earbuds, speakers) and all through which to hear music. I agree with the author in that legions of people have no idea of what truly quality sound is.

Fagen unapologetically inhabits the ivory tower, cracking on the citizens of all those flyover cities he plays, frequently calling out the “TV Babies” (those born after 1960 who were raised on television) he sees in hotel swimming pools and in audiences (and he also assesses each of those audiences, brutally – all they want to hear are SD songs, they’re geriatric, propped up corpses,  etc.). He explains that on this tour, he is forced to stay in dumpy hotels and rides a tour bus with the back up musicians, while with Steely Dan he travels in luxury.

The scowl of these entries reminded me of what I had heard of Fagen and Becker’s road experience in the early days of Steely Dan, how ill suited these New Yorkers were to the road.. Hipsters does have one reference to the early days, as Fagen recalls cleaning his underwear in the sink with Woolite. I was confused as to how these guys, up in years now, could tolerate the tour machine.  It all makes sense, learning of the latter day luxury route, and why these guys tour so much after years of avoiding it.

But as Irving Azoff (one of Fagen’s longtime agents) explains, since the “Dukes” don’t do press or have any albums, the funds are not there for jet setting. And it provides for some delicious latter day loathing, filling nearly 100 pages. I laughed out loud several times. But thankfully, there is a nice break in the melancholia for a favorable summary of a current hipster, director Wes Anderson.

Yes, the tour entries are a brisk, enjoyable read, but eventually they grow as tiresome as Fagen’s plight. Many are infused with discussions of medical conditions. There’s even an appendix describing “Acute Tour Disorder” (followed by PTD – Post Tour Disorder). One-third of the pages devoted to the wearying tour would’ve been enough. Perhaps allowing more recollections of younger years. Including……

Of course, the original Steely Dan years. Sorry, "zombie", you won’t get that here. It’s a shame, as undoubtedly there are many gems to be unearthed, as Brian Sweet’s Reeling in the Years suggests/documents (though that was unauthorized and secondhand info). The liner notes Fagen and Becker wrote, recalling those fertile years, for the 90s reissues of SD’s discs were quite entertaining as well.

There are fleeting references to Fagen’s most productive period, including some discussion of the song “Deacon Blues” (with lyric reprint), but as the author states “that’s another story…” Hopefully in Fagen’s next tome.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Play Misty For Me

I made my first trip to the central coast of California in 2001. I was visiting my girlfriend/wife-to-be who was attending grad school in Monterey, and really did fall in love with the place at first sight. It’s difficult to put into words what made me seriously consider not returning to Florida that time. Beyond the obvious beauty of the coastline and terrain was a certain feeling, a vibe, a calm that is certainly not the norm where I live. It was as if I had at last arrived home. Like all my previous years were spent in some foreign land.  Should you get the opportunity to visit, I challenge you, invisible audience, to feel otherwise.

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, 1971’s PLAY MISTY FOR ME, perhaps by default is one of the best travelogues I’ve seen for the area. I did not really notice this during my earlier viewings. While watching it last month, I was seriously distracted from the movie's business by the landscape. And Carmel resident (and later mayor) Eastwood seemingly effortlessly brings across that serenity, even as some pretty disturbing events play out onscreen.

This time, he plays a bit against type as a deejay named Dave Garver who fills the night shift at a jazz station. He has that perfectly velvety FM voice and even reads poetry between needle drops on Bird and Coltrane selections! Back during the days when radio allowed free form creativity. In real life, you may know, Eastwood was/is a huge jazz aficienado.  He even includes a lengthy sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival late in this film. Greats Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinul are glimpsed on stage.

There's a chronic caller to Garver's station, a female who always requests the song “Misty”.  After a shift one evening, the DJ meets an attractive woman at a bar and picks her up, soon realizing her identity. The expected one night stand takes unexpected and ultimately nasty turns.  Evelyn (Jessica Walter) is revealed, through increasingly alarming and antisocial behavior, to be quite a psychopath. She will manage to upset Garver's personal and professional life almost irrevocably.

Walter’s performance is an impressive dynamic of sexiness and psychosis. Sometimes,  she's also quite hilarious as she lashes out at strangers. She never overdoes things. Eastwood again shows what a formidable screen presence he has. He’s one of the few directors to truly understand his unique persona, and to successfully direct himself (he also gives his mentor Don Siegel a cameo). His character is more laid back than many of his others, though he does get to punch someone in the face. 

Eastwood also expertly creates a feeling of near constant dread, of unease in PLAY MISTY FOR ME. He's surprisingly deft in handling the terror genre, including the final confrontation at the business end of a long knife. Though I have to give 20 demerits to the director for an embarrassingly cheesy romantic interlude/sex sequence that plays out on a beach and in a forest.  So common in many early '70s pics.  It stops the film cold, beautiful as the scenery may be.

And that Carmel/Monterey vista is just as much a star in PLAY MISTY FOR ME as anyone else. It's so alluring you may well forget all that palpable dread and the unpleasantness of the plot.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Escape From Tomorrow

 Spoilers!

For some, that famous theme park is the epitome of leisure and amusement.  Others might wonder what level of Hell Dante might've deemed it.  If you've ever accompanied children through a day at "the happiest place on Earth", you can relate to some elements of the new film called ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW. Whether (probably especially) as a parent or otherwise guardian, making what is already a long, sweaty, exhausting journey through Disney World (or Land) with little ones may be the ultimate litmus test for your patience. And you damned sure require that when waiting for the Buzz Lightyear ride (and cursing yourself for not dropping the $$$ for a Fast Pass).

This film earns a spot in cinema history. Not for any inherent greatness or originality but the fact that it was shot guerrilla style within the hallowed parks (on both coasts) without permission. That is a wonder in itself (and that neither Disney or Siemens have litigated). ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is not a documentary. Rather, a surrealistic nightmare of fiction that manages to capture Disney in ways that make it look and feel almost unbearably sinister at times. The black and white photography not only helps, but is essential for this effect.

Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a put-upon dad, clearly miserable at the thought of another day trudging through someone else's fantasy. But then one morning he gets a call from his boss alerting him of termination. In an instant, Roy decides to keep the news to himself and try to make the final day of  the trip as pleasant as possible for his wife Emily (Elena Schuber), son Elliot, and daughter Sara.

There are the expected difficulties of fickle child behavior. Hungry, then not hungry. Tired. Scraped knees. Playing mom against dad. Emily is bitchy. Jim's smiling façade fades quickly; when surveying the EPCOT ball he deadpans that it reminds him of a giant testicle.

Then those animatronic figures start appearing distorted.  Jim's judgment fails him, from taking his too-young son on Space Mountain to lusting after and stalking a pair of French teenage girls.  There is the resulting emesis of fast rides. The legend of a decapitation when standing up on Thunder Mountain Railroad. I won't even tell you what happens with that mysterious flirty woman who sits next to him while he gnoshes on one of those turkey legs (rumored to actually be emu). 

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW plays like the ultimate howl from a jaded parent, one forced to have endured hours of that damned teacup ride. But also, one who never grew up himself. How can you be a good parent when your maturity is not much above your child's? Trying to always be their friend? Could it explain the film's third act, when things turn really odd in first a sci-fi then a full on horror sort of way? Some of the climatic scenes play like something out of early Cronenberg (but without the clinical detachment or insight). Things even get a bit scatological. In a way, the last scenes of the film seem born out of a male adolescent's fantasy run amok: mad scientists, topless women, evil witches who used to be princesses, a deadly virus. Are we merely stuck in Jim's horrible daydream while he sits through The Carousel of Progress yet again?

But what of that brief moment earlier on when mom begins hallucinating as well?

The film expands what many of us suspected, that beneath the magic are armies of lemmings doing some evil bidding, providing false fulfillment for which we very willingly fork over hard earned dollar. That park employees are being exploited and forced to conform. In one of my undergrad speech courses, a classmate delivered a scathing indictment of her summertime gig in the land of fantasy, how  those servants are not only co-opted and drained of humanity, but are also "laughing at you and your children."

As entertaining as the final segments are, it is really a failing of ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW's attempts to be a bitter little classic, an excoriating allegory of manufactured happiness.  Early on, the movie hits a sort of nauseous vibe, always uncomfortable as it wades some pretty unpleasant waters.  The psychological tension and build-up (complete with incongruous merry scoring by Abel Korzeniowski) promises far more than the drive-in movie climax delivers, though writer/director Randy Moor still hits plenty of targets. His themes are unmistakable to the very end.  See how you interpret the dreaded "cat flu" and how that may thematically relate to a land lorded over by a mouse.

Monday, October 28, 2013

House

The Criterion Collection really promoted the hell out of the 1977 Japanese oddity called HOUSE a few years back. It was confusing. They announced as if a truly amazing lost treasure had been rescued from obscurity. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised; Sam Fuller's campy but potent WHITE DOG is also in their library. But it seemed that everyone was singing the praises of HOUSE. Even Turner Classic Movies ran the movie once!? Despite my considerable knowledge of ‘70s B-movie lore, including many Asian titles, I had never heard of it. It was in fact never released in the U.S. but quite a hit in its homeland. A fan base grew over the years.

Criterion’s description led to puzzlement. “.....like an episode of Scooby Doo”?? How did this film fit in the oeuvre? Was this another head scratcher, like the company's inclusion of  the Michael Bay films THE ROCK and ARMEGEDDON? Were the folks at Criterion becoming more lenient with their choices as to what to spiff up and pluck from the abyss? I can think of many other cheesy offerings that deserved a Criterion treatment besides/before HOUSE.

I was tempted to just buy the damned thing and trust them. I’d never been let down before. But, I just couldn’t. As much as I appreciate a good ol’ fashioned exploitation, this one just looked too silly. So…one afternoon I rented it from iTunes.

Were my purchase reservations confirmed? Well, had I spent the money on the disc, I wouldn’t have exactly demanded a refund, though I can’t exactly say I found a lost classic. Haven't rushed to join the cult. At least, not yet.

The plot: a teen called Gorgeous joins some classmates (who have names like Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac - short for stomach as the girl can't stop eating) for a summer at her aunt’s place in the country. It all happens because Gorgeous is angry at her widower father, who wants to bring along his new wife to a father/daughter summer vaca.  Auntie, long a widow who lost her husband in the war, is expectedly eccentric. She utters forbodences and has a mysterious cat named Blanche who will figure prominently in the movie (and whose fuzzy mug you see on the poster). But why does Auntie disappear into the refrigerator at one point? The questions will only get more curious.

One by one, the giggly girls are bumped off, Ten Little Indians style. But this is no traditional mystery or slasher. Not even an imitation Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Victims are eaten by pianos and light fixtures. Kung Fu has her own cool theme music. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi stages a live action cartoon with some of the most endearingly low rent special effects you’ll ever see. The imagination overflows. Plus, there are completely random freeze frames at inappropriate moments. In other words, my kinda movie (on the right day).

You’ll be tempted to hunt for meaning during HOUSE. Like wondering if all that blood is supposed to represent the girls' menstrual cycles. Or why you hear the sounds of war machines when the house is exploding. Worse yet, perhaps some political statement? Resist such ideas. In fact, you may well hear Auntie's demonic shrieks if you try to ponder too deeply, as well you should!

The Scooby Doo description is not that far off. What also struck me is how Tarantino-ish HOUSE is. I did not get any David Lynch vibes, as I had expected. Quentin has surely seen the movie, but did he have the opportunity before he made his own films?  The influences on his work are everywhere, from the fighting skills of the girls to the use of music to the endless bag of camera tricks. And certainly the editing. Like Quentin, Obayashi seems to be in love with every shot.

The tone of HOUSE is surprising. While quite goofy, and not really scary, there is a certain poignancy throughout, and the finale is actually pretty effective. Even when one character turns into a pile of bananas.

Does the Cinema Snob have another legitimate beef with Criterion? You could argue, but it illustrates that film appreciation (should) covers a broad canvas, one that goes far beyond Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray. HOUSE is an absolutely ridiculous, inconsequential Grade Z flick that is way savvier than you might think. The hipsters got this one right, I think. 

And I’ve said it before, one must be able to recognize great trash. Maybe I'll watch this again for Halloween?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Gravity

It was an encouraging notion: what appeared to be an heir to the great science fiction artifices in cinema history was also a smash hit with mainstream audiences. Were folks finally able to sit back and pause for a change? Rather than hold their bowels as they waited for the next cataclysm to unfold? Was Sandra Bullock stretching a bit beyond the crowd pleasers that have made her one of the most bankable stars ever?

My instincts said otherwise.  When I first watched the trailer for GRAVITY this summer, I nearly fell out of my chair with laughter.  Bullock and George Clooney desperately floating about in deep space, gasping like rookies in an acting class. I thought for sure that Bullock was headed for a Razzie nomination. I stopped laughing when I saw that Alphonso Cuarón  was the director.  Then I just felt deflated.

But maybe I was wrong.  When the film opened a few weeks back, it became an immediate sensation. The majority of critics - many of whom I greatly respect - were filled with declaratives, stating a new classic was on display. I wasn't convinced or otherwise persuaded to see the film until I read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal last week. I decided to take the plunge, to blow $30 on the IMAX and 3-D showing 'cause a movie like this demands it. It was the first film I've seen in the theater since LIFE OF PI late last spring, at the tail end of its run before it went on video and On Demand. I did not see a single summer release, the first time since I was about 6. You know, 'cause most of them featured non-stop mayhem and I'm flat out bored with that.

So that feeling of deflation continued as I watched GRAVITY, one of the most hyped films in recent memory. I should have known. I should have known. My hopes that a neo: 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS was about to unfold were very quickly dashed as the actors exchanged cheesy banter that included references to the "Macarena" and Facebook. But yeah, it looked amazing. Sandra and George rotating in our faces. I don't think anyone will argue that the film hasn't raised the bar for effects and overall technique. Longtime Cuarón cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's work is crisp.  I did indeed find myself wondering how they did certain shots.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA scientist on her first Space Shuttle mission. She's admittedly more comfortable in windowless laboratories, doing low profile work. Clooney is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut on his final spacewalk (and determined to break a previous such record). We barely get to know them when Houston warns of a storm of debris headed their way, the result of a destroyed Russian satellite. After the storm all but decimates the station, Stone and Kowalski are detached and float through space, armed with backpack thrusters but groping their way back.  When they finally succeed, they discover the vessel is unusable and the crew is dead.  Equipment in the nearby International Space Station is similarly (mostly) impaired.

I won't say more. But instead of the expected slow meditation on life and death in this most foreign of places, we're treated to a series of crises, not just metaphysical. The kind of action audiences crave, have been weaned on. Have seen a thousand times before. Where is HAL when you need him?

So disappointing. I happen to love close call adventures as much as the next guy in short pants, but GRAVITY had the potential to be so much more. How is it that the director of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and CHILDREN OF MEN  (and even the darkest of the Harry Potter movies, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) spit out such a patently Hollywood movie? All the more surprising was the banal dialogue, scripted by the director and his son Jonas. Bullock's character also relays a story of her deceased child that was supposed to add dramatic weight to the scenario but to me just felt cherry picked. It was no more effective than Phoebe Cates' grim Santa Claus memory in GREMLINS. It pains me to say that the drama here is about 5th grade level.

Don't ask about the film's scientific accuracy, though most of the time in works of fiction one must try to ignore such shortcomings. But is it that difficult to have consultants and advisers on hand to tweak the scenario in a logical direction? I remember watching in disbelief an episode of House that featured cochlear implants. It was embarrassing at how off the science was.

Once Stone flies solo (the remaining hour of this 90 minute film), she whimpers, swears, tells beeping control panels to shut up and even at one point utters, "I hate space."  Towards the end, she has a hallucination that underlines the films themes a bit too neatly and obviously, though it is an enjoyable scene. But it illuminates what is wrong with GRAVITY, a film that never trusts its audience to make their own connections, to ponder Stone's dilemma in any really meaningful way. Theological elements therein are largely dependent on the viewer, though there are a few shots of dashboard crucifixes and Buddhas.  Despite long, unbroken (albeit computer generated) shots, the film seems more concerned with the next big action sequence. And Stephen Price's near unbearable score only adds to the frustration.

I do have to say that I liked the very last scene.  It allows some degree of ambiguity that hints at what GRAVITY could have been for its entire hour and a half. I read that Warner Brothers wanted to add something to those shots to reassure the audience. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

I know I will be in the minority with my thoughts on GRAVITY. And honestly, I did enjoy it. Bullock has several good moments; both she and Clooney utilize their familiar screen personas to mostly good effect. The film is good popcorn that can be enjoyed and experienced without guilt. But I wanted more than just a theme park ride. The thinness of the screenplay was disheartening. Was I expecting Malick-type poetry? Maybe.  I am due for another screening of TREE OF LIFE............

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stand by the Seawall

Another lost Steely Dan composition.  The instrumental "Stand by the Seawall" was intended for the Aja LP but discarded as it did not meet Fagen/Becker's exacting standards. Parts of it were pilfered for use in the album's title track.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Busting

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 6

Spoilers!!!
 
1974 was apparently the year of the mismatched male buddy comedy drama. Ones we've covered: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE DION BROTHERS, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. BUSTING came out earlier in the year and disappeared quickly. It was quirky and filled with action like the other films, with a healthy dose of 70s cynicism, but perhaps proved to be too much of a downer to succeed, even while films by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman were box office champs. What a beautifully odd time for cinema.

Keneely (the omnipresent Elliott Gould) and Farrell (Robert Blake) are Los Angeles vice cops who dutifully accept their lot on the shit detail including, appropriately enough, staking out a public mens' room for perverts. They also find themselves busting prostitutes in massage parlors and even one who services a dentist - in a patient chair during office hours! There's an uncomfortable shakedown in a gay club that is followed by an even more humiliating court date in which Keneely is grilled on the witness stand.

But the big prey is a crime kingpin named Carl Rizzo (the omnipresent Allen Garfield). A man who prizes his ability to remain absolutely unflappable when constantly badgered by the duo, at least initially. He likes to give speeches, explaining the sad reality to the boys. They'll never nab him, and if they do, he'll serve a short stint and then get right back to his business.

After each misadventure, our heroes are dressed down by the chief in the same tradition as other movie mavericks. The pair's desperation grows with their obsession. They decide to up the stakes on Rizzo - constant stakeouts of his home, setting his car on fire, and busting one of his strip clubs in a raid, frightening away every patron. Hitting the slippery SOB where it really hurts.

BUSTING is likewise similar to a cache of 1970s cop dramas such as THE NEW CENTURIONS and SERPICO - films examining police corruption. Keneely and Farrell are sardonic cut-ups but unrelenting about upholding the law.  And they suffer for it. Get bloodied up and berated. Those things come with the job. But when they learn that their fellow officers are on the take, in Rizzo's pocket, they find that they may well be alone in their pursuit for justice. That crime may indeed pay.

Peter Hyams, in his directorial debut, navigates a bumpy but engaging drama; a straight faced movie with many humorous moments, but rarely as goofy as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, to which it's often compared. There are plenty of wisecracks and even a few pranks, but otherwise there's serious business here. The two films do share a penchant for elaborate action scenes. In BUSTING, Hyams stages wild chases/shootouts through an all-night farmer's market type grocery and also a climatic ambulance spree. His camera races far ahead, pointed back at the actors, as if leading them. The atmosphere is vivid in each sleazy location. It's as '70s as any movie could possibly be.

Gould is just about right as the tired, forever gum chewing sad sack. He mumbles and growls his way through the movie effectively and believably. Blake, seen in far fewer movies than his co-star in those days, is more of a straight man but gets a few good moments. BUSTING is not a satire, but a bleak, defeatist reminder of the ambiguity of good versus evil. A really cynical essay that questions why anyone would dare, or even bother to fight the good fight. Possibly, the film is also a denigration of capitalism, but that may be reaching.

And in the great tradition of downbeat '70s wrap ups, ponder the final moments. The final shot - a freeze frame on Keneeley just after he apprehends Rizzo. We hear a flash forward to a few months later, when the exhausted lawman is applying for a civilian job.......

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cross of Iron

It's surprising that Sam Peckinpah only made one film set in and around the bloody fields of war, 1977's CROSS OF IRON. So well suited to the milieu of battle is the director that it just seems as if he would've set more of his films in the trenches with gore stained soldiers, in tents with Colonels and Captains as they clash no less harshly over the ideas and symbols of rank and bravery. It is left to this film to incorporate it all, to blend the horrors of war with stinging insight and some gallows humor. To make potent statements on valor and the psyche that only knows purpose when in harm's way.

If you're just seeing this film today, much of it may seem old hat.  Unoriginal. Derivative of both films before and after it. Perhaps yet another '70s war pic that makes statements about Vietnam in a WW2 setting, if you're so inclined.

In fact, much of CROSS OF IRON plays like a solid B movie, much the way Samuel Fuller's THE BIG RED ONE from 1980 does. Peckinpah didn't have Lee Marvin (how is it that they never worked together??) as his lead, but rather James Coburn in one of his very best roles. As the thoroughly weary Corporal Steiner, his character is never heard barking purple prose, false bravado and all that. Quite unlike his adversary, Stransky (Maximillian Schell), an officer who positions himself on the front lines in hopes of earning the Iron Cross.

CROSS OF IRON uniquely views WW2 through German eyes, following soldiers as they push their way into Russia. The bulk of the film focuses on Steiner and Stransky, each with differing points of view and attitudes that are equally frowned upon by the high brass. Steiner is the jaded grunt, any sense of pride long since sucked out of him. When questioned by superiors such as Colonel Brandt (James Mason), he bluntly concludes a rant with "I hate all officers." But he respects his men.  Following injury and a hospital stay, Steiner refuses a chance for home leave and even the comforts afforded by a nurse (Senta Berger) to rejoin the platoon. He has a conscience and a heart, but also just wouldn't know what else to do. His stock allows nothing else.

Stransky is the grandstanding power grabber, a liar, a coward. He'd make a perfect politician. Schell excels in the role, which is possibly based on more than one historic figure of the time. His final scene with Steiner will be inconclusive to some, but is absolutely perfect to me. A damning and wicked coda to a strong film.

Peckinpah, who may have channeled much of his own worldview through Coburn's character, again demonstrates his flair for action scenes, relentlessly, unblinkingly staring into violence. Here, a way of life. The norm. But perhaps not so strangely, very much like many of his other films. Certainly THE WILD BUNCH.  He once stated that he felt all of his films in fact were Westerns. In CROSS OF IRON, it's hard to argue.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Razor Girls

On September 12th I had the privilege of seeing Steely Dan live; only the second time. The tour was entitled "Mood Swings, 8 Miles to Pancake Day".  This time outdoors at the Mizner Park Ampitheater in Boca Raton. I expected mainly a sea of grey (and maybe even blue) hair but was quite surprised to see a good bit of younger faces, and not all seemed to have been dragged by their parents. And they sang along with even the lesser known cuts!

One of them was "Razor Boy" from the Dan's second album, 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy (though Fagen drolly announced it being from 1911!). It's a very good one, the lyrics of which are about as cryptic as most of their tunes, though I think materialism plays into it. But the version that night was an extensive re-work: almost entirely unrecognizable arrangement and instead sung by the always sexy as hell Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, La Tanya Hall, and Catherine Russell ("The Borderline Brats"). While the ladies' rendition added a cool sheen, the music was, well, scattered. Like an experimental jam. An outtake or demo that was still in the larval stage. Unfinished. Interesting, but a mess. Somewhat like their odd live version of "Jack of Speed" heard back in 2011.

Most of the rest of the set was just out of sight. I was expecting a pleasant but unremarkable show but, wow, these guys still have panache. "Aja", "Your Gold Teeth", "Time Out of Mind", "Black Cow", "Home at Last" - all excellent. The horn section, the drummer (Keith Carlock, a maniac) - everyone was tight. Donald Fagen was shabbily dressed and still looked like the Crypt Keeper. At times his voice seemed this side of disintegration, but he still has it. Still does those long endings, too (like in the 1970s). And right before the encore, "Kid Charlamagne", he yelled "You 'Do It Again'" to a woman calling out requests. Vintage!

Walter Becker, as during the "Rarities" show I saw 2 years earlier, didn't move very much and still appeared like he needed more belt loops. He also hung back and deferred most guitar solos to John Herington (who was amazing). But his licks on "Josie" were as tasty as ever. His usual monologue during "Hey 19" was much more amusing (and coherent) than the one I heard last time.  And, he tailored it for a South Florida audience quite amusingly.

Speaking of which...there was no mistaking where we were. From the bitchy wife behind me ("...twentieth row? This is more like the fiftieth!....this is the worst venue evah!") to the whining guy in the beer line ("I had to park a mile away!"), to the crowd's indifference to the opening act (Deep Blue Organ Trio, who played some nice Hammond B3 organ and did their damndest to get to crowd to pay attention) it was Boca all the way. We had dinner outside at Max's Grille in the Mizner plaza before the show and were treated to a parade of bad plastic surgery. Let me further resist the temptation to crack on this most unusual of places.

And yes, "Reelin' in the Years" was played, a song I've heard enough times for several lifetimes. But it rocked and the original guitar part (for years substituted with saxes) was intact. The tour winds down in the next several days in NYC. Check it out if you can, scurvy brother!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tadpole

2000's TADPOLE occupies its short (barely 80 min.) running time with a very familiar plot: younger man is seduced by wiser, older woman. But this boy is not as naive as his cinematic progenitors. Oscar (Aaron Stanford) is a 15 year old who favors Volatire and speaks French. He can't relate to/has little interest in girls his own age. There perhaps is nature and nurture at work here: his divorced father, with whom he lives in Manhattan, is a university professor and his mother is a Frenchwoman back in her mother country (Oscar makes frequent visits).

Dad (John Ritter) has remarried, to an attractive research scientist named Eve (Sigourney Weaver) with whom Oscar is horribly smitten. He loves everything about her. Her air of sophistication. Her physical beauty. Her red scarf. Especially her hands. He seems to have a hand fetish. Those teenage girls' hands are just so, girlish.

One night, after a desultory walk home with his father's friend's daughter, Oscar gets tipsy and is spied by family friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who is an alluring forty-something. She brings him home and before he knows it, he awakens next to her. It was all so confusing. She (a masseuse) had given him an innocent massage and was wearing that red scarf she borrowed from Eve. She had mature womanly hands. Oscar is somewhat horrified, feeling as if he has betrayed Eve, and sent the wrong signals to Diane. Ensuing is an entertaining, low key comedy of awkwardness, one Eric Rohmer might've made.

TADPOLE is a very low budget film, its cheap look sometimes hampering things, though the delights of upper class Manhattan are near impossible to taint. Gary Winick's direction is mostly nimble and light, the right approach. But the actors carry this movie. The best scene is a dinner with the four principals, one where both verbal and physical comedy both illuminate the characters and further the plot. I could've easily seen Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert et al performing this scene.

Interesting is that Weaver's Eve is not made into a luminary, a larger than life angel; she's a fairly drab, ordinary (though quite attractive) woman whose intelligence is obvious but perhaps does not match Oscar's.

Quotes from Volatire preface each chapter, the sort of device I usually enjoy but by now seems worn, too easy. As if the film is trying too hard.  Sometimes even pretentious. Thankfully, most of TADPOLE lets the actors occupy spaces and act naturally, even if the scenario is derivative of many that came before. It's really all about them, and they are what drive an often unskillfully paced (how does such a short film feel drawn out?) film, often feeling like someone's home movie. Though, certainly more enjoyable and wittier than your nephew's Justin Bieber impersonation.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fagen Does Criterion

Fagen and Criterion?! My head may explode!

I knew the man had unmatched taste....



http://www.criterion.com/explore/205-donald-fagen-s-top-10

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Director Ivan Dixon describes his film THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, an adaptation of Sam Greenlee's 1969 novel of the same name, as a "fantasy". It is in fact a highly controversial polemic that went "missing" for many years. Allegedly seized by the government weeks after its debut in 1973. Another fist shake at the white establishment of the time, but not as angry or violent as pictures like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSS SONG. In its era, it might not have seemed so fantastic. The U.S. was under siege by near constant protests, demonstrations, and frequent riots and may well have seemed vulnerable, ripe for the sort of scenario this film imagines. Same as it ever was??

SPOOK opens with a meeting of a white senator seeking re-election and two of his staff. His secretary is a black woman who explains in a flat, professional voice free of any hint of ethnicity of his dismal percentages among minorities. He hatches a plan to save face, to plot a swift PR move - open CIA slots to blacks. To the Agency's surprise, one not only passes their rigorous examinations but proves to be one of their best. He masters guerrilla techniques and espionage training.  Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) gets the job and finds himself  "Reproduction Center Sections Chief", which means he's in charge of the copy machine in the basement.  He comes off as relentlessly serious in his work. Unfailingly subservient. The Agency is proud to use Freeman as proof of their adoption of integration and progress.

Freeman has a covert plan. After 5 years of service, he abruptly resigns to accept a social services gig in his hometown of Chicago, to help out his fellow man. To help youngsters get an education and kick the junk and gang members to stop the madness, yes, but also to learn sophisticated warfare tactics, just like he learned in the CIA. To build a band of Freedom Fighters. To become "free". By any means necessary, as it was said.

There are complications on the road to freedom. Freeman rekindles a friendship with an old buddy, now a cop, who is determined to foil the increasing crime perpetrated by the Fighters (and who is unaware of Freeman's role in it). There is also a reunion with an old girlfriend, now married, who broke off their earlier relationship because she wanted someone with more stability. One of the gang members Freeman trains is white, but insists he is black and is very willing to join the cause.

When the police kill a local junkie, it sparks a citywide riot, creating a perfect segue to a New America.  A revolution, city by city...

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a sloppily made, sometimes technically inept, but undeniably powerful film.  The low budget in fact works in the film's favor - its crude production makes it appear as if the film was made by guerrillas themselves. The result is a frighteningly effective piece of propaganda. A "paranoia" exercise that will have some viewers recoiling in discomfort, and others cheering.

Director Dixon is easily best known for his role on Hogan's Heroes, work that he indirectly refers to as "junk" in an interview included in the disc's extras. He is proud of SPOOK, of its fearless and unapologetic message. Is it irresponsible? Racist? Fair? A cautionary tale?

The PG-rated SPOOK is also surprisingly free of the usual blaxploitation elements, further giving credence to its serious message without side steps into unnecessary sex scenes and/or overly stylized violence. There is a typically funky, memorable electronic score by Herbie Hancock. And the film is not entirely free of humor. Not cheeky, easy vulgarity, but rather at least one moment of scathing satire, such as the ultimate fate of a gung-ho white National Guardsman.

Important topic or not, SPOOK is not immune from the sharpened quill of criticism. Perhaps the film would've been more effective if "whitey" wasn't always drawn so stereotypically. As one-dimensionally racist buffoons (as in your typical blaxploitation pic). My favorite moment: when Freeman's file is reviewed by CIA chiefs, one remarks, "He has athletic ability, that figures!" It recalled for me that moment in TRADING PLACES, when one of the white Duke brothers hears the black Reggie singing in the next room: "They are a musical people, aren't they?" 

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, whose title can be interpreted in at least 3 ways I can think of,  also sports one of those curious 1970s endings, a final scene freeze frame that feels abrupt, anti-climactic maybe, but is most certainly a nod to those revolutionaries of centuries past....

Friday, September 20, 2013

Burn Notice Post Mortem

Movies are king
Television is furniture.

Yes, I know there have been some choice, even stellar TV series over the years.  But for me, even the greatest TV moment can't match a film when that unexplainable magic is there.

But over the past few years, shows like Mad Men have broken the boundaries and created great drama, a sharp contrast to a lot of offerings at the multiplex.  Breaking Bad, finishing up its final season, is another good example.

Also ceasing production is USA Network's Burn Notice, which completed a seven series run a week ago. It may not earn a spot in the distinguished company of those other shows. Hell, it wouldn't even make such a claim.  It's the very definition of a guilty pleasure, a wildly entertaining, sometimes exhilarating adventure that took itself fairly seriously but always lent a wink to let you know that while some bad things may happen (even to the principal players), everything would ultimately be OK. As cast member Bruce Campbell (who plays Chuck Finley, er, Sam Axe) puts it, "It's the meatloaf effect.  It's a nice, comfortable meal that makes you feel good." Well said.

Creator Matt Nix concocted the story of an ace CIA agent named Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) who in the midst of a job in South America is "burned". Blacklisted. Meaning, disavowed from the Agency. Left to spin in the wind.  As every episode's opening narration states (read by Donovan/Westen), "....no cash, no credit.  You're left in whatever city they decide to dump you in..." In this case, Miami, his hometown, and a perfect backdrop for all of the mayhem to play out. Another piece where the locale is a character itself.

Also, far from my favorite city.  I could torture you with a detailed missive as to why I despise the place, what I consider a confused, wannabe metropolis, but for now let's just explain why  its so perfect for Burn Notice. The very banality of its tropical culture, from the gaudy mansions to the sleaziest back-alleys, were vital and perfect for its storyline. And this was not some shot-in-Southern California fakery (those extra tall palms and mountains in the background always give it away). BN is shot street level all over Miami, with a base in Coconut Grove/Coral Gables. Of interest to me as I am there monthly to visit my father-in-law.

Westen is reunited with his ex-girlfriend, a trigger-happy former IRA member named Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), friend/ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe, and even his mother (Sharon Gless, who had an Emmy nom one season), who gave the show much dramatic weight and plenty of guilt tripping. In the fourth season, another burned spy named Jesse (Coby Bell) joined the cast, rounding out the team as each week they used their considerable skills (and lots of duct tape) to help someone in need, at the mercy of sheisters and kingpins. It was somewhat of a cross between The A-Team and MacGyver, but with more deaths.. Arcing through the series was Michael's desperate efforts to find out who burned him, and why.

It was a long, dangerous, and sometimes ponderous journey.   Along the way, a parade of former comrades and enemies turn up. Guest star turns by the likes of Tim Matheson, John Mahoney, Patton Oswalt, and even Burt Reynolds. The team itself had backstory: On again/off again lovers Michael and Fiona met in Ireland a decade earlier when she was working for the IRA, while Sam was the career Navy SEAL who eventually spied on Westen for the FBI.  Sam even had his own BN spin-off prequel movie, still unseen by me.  Jesse was also a spy who was accidentally burned by Michael and when he learned the truth, became a temporary antagonist. But the quartet always settled their differences and worked together.

I wish the series had ended at the close of season 4. It was one of the most perfect finales ever, filled with the highest caliber action and drama of the series run. It concluded with Westen being whisked back to Washington D.C. Would he get his old job back? But then the next season did not pick up exactly where the previous had left off and missed a chance for some interesting Agency dynamics.  The whole re-adjustment period  Westen likely experienced. Instead, the series jumped to 6 months later. USA did feature a comic based on the time gap on their website.

Season 7 tuned considerably darker as the client-of-the-week format (and generally light tone) was dropped to focus on Westen's efforts to infiltrate a group of vigilantes who were described by the CIA as terrorists. Michael learns otherwise, perhaps seeing a group led by the enigmatic James (John Pyper-Ferguson) as a similar version of himself, albeit with more ruthless methods. Westen has no choice in his mission, as failure would result in his and his friends'  life imprisonment in a CIA holding facility due to some past "indiscretions" during Season 6 that are too complicated to discuss here.

The series finale was quite satisfying, and I won't entirely spoil it for those who haven't watched. Nix wrote and directed an episode that tied up all possible loose ends, leading to a happy final scene that fans were praying for during a long, somber season. But, there was one very tragic death among the principal players, very well played.

But my favorite thing? The very last scene explains why Westen was providing narration the entire series run, and to whom. Why he spent each and every episode in voiceover discussing the methodology and psychology of spy work (one of the most intriguing aspects of the show, IMO). I always wondered if the device wasn't just some 3rd person omniscient POV or if he was indeed recounting a story to someone.

It turns out to be the latter. As Nix and his writers were formulating the final season, this idea came to him, as if it was always there and he just figured it out. It's like Gabriel Byrne's character in COOL WORLD: an animator who thought he created an entire universe and finds that it had always existed. If you've seen BN's finale, tell me it isn't a brilliant touch. It will be fun to go back and re-watch, with a new dimension added that will only make the series even better.