Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Seven-Ups

THE SEVEN-UPS from 1973 is one of many crime dramas of its era flavored with considerable grit and fine location shooting. It is not the most well known of its type, despite having the team responsible for THE FRENCH CONNECTION behind the camera. Director Philip D'Antoni had produced the 1971 classic and 1968's BULLITT prior. The earlier films, when discussed, are often distinguished for their skillfully orchestrated car chases. THE SEVEN-UPS also features such a chase, and it may well best the earlier ones. Its hold-your-breath exciting, 10 minutes of adrenaline is enough reason to invest your time.

But before you decide to just watch that clip on YouTube, let it be known that the rest of the picture is pretty good, too. A quartet of NYC cops led by Buddy (Roy Scheider) known as the "Seven-Ups" stage elaborate cons to trap some the city's most elusive criminals. They get their name as the criminals they apprehend are usually sentenced to 7 or more years in the can. The Seven-Ups are not above ignoring that inconvenience known as The Law to get their man. As the film opens, the team busts a counterfeiting ring using an antique store as a front. Before the cuffs come out, there's a lot of yelling and a lot of merchandise gets damaged.

I expected the yelling to continue into the next scene, with Buddy getting chewed out by his boss for his unorthodox ways, sorta like Dirty Harry always did. Instead, the boss pats him on the back and is quite proud. The other cops, however, are concerned of the dangerous precedents being set. This is an interesting story idea that, as expected, was not explored in any great detail. The ad campaign of THE SEVEN-UPS describes the team as willing engage in "dirty tricks", but their methods don't seem that shocking, especially in 2013.

The movie spends most of its time with the guys on tedious stakeout detail, or with Buddy as he meets with his informant (Tony LoBianco), a childhood pal who gives him the lowdown on Mob activity. Things are busy of late as several of the mafiosos are being kidnapped by 2 guys posing as cops who collect large ransoms right inside of a car wash (during the rinse downs). Before the climax, there will be many twists in this story. Pure popcorn, though. Nothing that will get under your skin as in SERPICO. Or the great FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, my top rec for harsh early 70s crime pic.

But the story isn't that important. This is no Joseph Wambaugh expose; this is a bread and butter cop thriller. That's not to say that the story is without interest, or that the actors aren't good (Scheider, virtually reprising his role from FRENCH CONNECTION, is believably tough), but THE SEVEN-UPS lives and dies by its atmosphere and action. The film has a gritty texture, a real feeling for dumpy apartments and parks and junkyards. This is not a lightning paced adventure like today's films, mind you. The film spends several minutes just trailing its characters as they talk along the river, or in police stations. That thing known as character development. So when people die, it means something.

But then there's that chase. It truly is one of the best I've seen. Having the camera mounted inside the vehicles, on the dashboards, makes the difference, just like in FRENCH CONNECTION. The location shooting begins on the Upper West Side over the George Washington Bridge into Jersey. Jerry Greenberg's expert editing (he worked on the earlier films) is what really makes it all click.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Post Mortem

Before concluding this lengthy series, I find I need to report on the fates of the mom and pop pharmacies I've discussed.  As I had revisited the sites of my previous workplaces, I again stepped across the thresholds of those stores in which I toiled for nearly 10 years. You may remember, dear reader, both were in a shopping center in southern Palm Beach County, Florida, but in different suites.

The first store closed in August 2004 after its records were sold to a nationwide chain. I spent nearly a month helping the owner break everything down. To my horror, the back wall of the pharmacy revealed a huge stain of greenish blackish mold after we moved some shelves. Must've been all those tropical storms and resulting water damage. I was in a sick building all that time.

A few months later, a Pakistani woman opened a new age gift shop there. An odd place for such a specialty retail, I thought. I  stopped in to meet the very friendly lady and bought a few items over time, including some incense for my wife. Fascinating to see my old store configured so differently. One room that had stored an IV hood (never used) was now set up for massage therapy, with one of those portable tables. I never indulged one there, for some reason. The owner struggled, as business was sporadic at best. To augment cash flow, she opened a postal counter.  She was there maybe just over a year before the dreaded sign appeared in the door yet again.

Next, a lunch counter that had become a huge success 2 doors down decided to expand into our old space - a move that turned out to be their undoing. I had heard from my barber (who did maintenance for nearly all of the tenants) that the owners had a plethora of other issues, but overall it just seemed like the expansion was premature.  I had eaten at their place from day one, but darned if the food's quality didn't decline with the move. Too bad.

But then another restaurant quickly assumed the space with much better results (and food) and to my knowledge is still going strong. A diner with a good breakfast menu and sassy middle-aged to older waitresses who wear short shorts and flirt and shoot the shit with nary a breath. This is their second location, the original is in downtown Delray Beach to the south. I've sat in the new cafe and reminisced, amused to see hash being slung where prescriptions had once been filled.  I'm fascinated by such things. Time moved on again.  All of the urgency of years past (employee infighting, hold-ups, nasty patients) was forgotten, even unknown amongst the gossip of  of the current elderly canasta mavens and truck drivers.

M & P #2 closed about a year after I left. All 3 of the owner's stores, in fact. One of my former co-workers called to tell me. Apparently, the announcement was a complete surprise to the staffs, but perhaps it shouldn't have been.  By this time, I was working in an ENT office for my externship.  I heard accounts later on of the owner's exploration of  new ventures such as opening a pool cleaning service. He still worked as a pharmacist, now in Big Retail.

What of the store itself? Some other enterprising pharmacists (a husband and wife) moved in to the corner unit and set up shop, painting the interior a not exactly inviting yellow and blue. If you read the entry from 2008 describing my wanderings around my old shopping center, you'll recall that I met the husband and offered some advice. I'm not sure if it was taken or how successful they've been. I continued to visit my barbershop in the center until early 2011 and heard about all the shady goings-on in the parking lot near their pharmacy.  Drug transactions and such. Not a new thing in that parking lot. We caught a few of our own suspicious customers making deals out back near the spillway and even right in front of our store.

I very rarely visit that plaza these days. There is a great deli there but otherwise there's little point. I got weary of driving the distance once a month for haircuts, so I found a guy closer to home, though I miss my old gebonis and their hijinks. But the entire place is basically one long unfavorable memory.  Not all bad, of course, and from the experience I got to meet some wonderful people, but now I view it all in the rear view mirror, where it belongs. An image that grows dimmer and dimmer the farther away I get.

But there was one more job before I was done with my pharmacy career. Who would've thought the words of Pete Townshend would prove so relevant?

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss...

TO BE CONCLUDED

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ted

2012's TED hooked me in on premise alone: a 35 year old man who still pals around with his childhood teddy bear that magically came to life when he wished upon a star back in the mid '80s. Not matter how badly the idea could be botched (and there must certainly be 1001 ways), just watching Mark Wahlberg interacting with a potty mouthed, a bit soiled in the fur toy was just too irresistible to miss. The comic possibilities!

Unsurprisingly, it would prove to be crass. The trend in contemporary comedies is to up the ante on profanity and sex and gross-out gags beyond any good sense. I avoid most of them, occasionally catching a few minutes of BRIDESMAIDS or HORRIBLE BOSSES on cable, and being reassured that I would be wasting time I could be using to clean the lint trap in my dryer or something else productive. The movies I have seen in recent years like HOT TUB TIME MACHINE and TROPIC THUNDER floored me at times with their boundary pushing.  I am far from being a prude but the vulgarity gets wearying. Being crude alone is not the makings of great comedy. I wish the overgrown adolescents churning these films out got that. But if they make $$$$.....

I skipped TED's release last summer; the film turned out to be a huge box office success worldwide (imagine this movie dubbed into Russian?!). But I  finally gave in and watched it this past weekend.  I wasn't sorry, discovering that a film that I knew would at least be smirk inducing was laugh out loud hilarious a good deal of the time. And not just the moments that earned the film its R-rating. Though to be honest, most. How many talking stuffed animal movies have you seen where its hero makes it with prostitutes?

Wahlberg, in a nice change of pace role, plays John Bennett, the underachieving Boston protagonist who works the counter at a car rental agency and has somehow maintained a 4 year relationship with beautiful exec Lori (Mila Kunis), even though John's living teddy bear, "Ted" (voiced by writer/director Seth MacFarlane) lives with them. Lori is itching for an engagement ring and concerned that her beau's longtime friend is arresting his development beyond repair.  She has good reasons - John and Ted spend hours doing little besides smoking dope and watching the 1980 version of FLASH GORDON.  That film, and its lead actor Sam J. Jones (who appears here) will become integral to the story in ways that will absolutely tickle anyone who remembers that old campy gem.

TED has added menace from Lori's lecherous boss (Joel McHale) who constantly propositions her, and an ultra-creepy man (Giovanni Ribisi) who with his son plots to kidnap Ted. This being a MacFarlane production, there are a fair amount of fart jokes and the pop culture refs are near non-stop, if not as much so as on Family Guy. For example, Tom Skerritt, playing himself, is referenced several times. Even singer Norah Jones (also playing herself) shows up in a sizable role. Ted Danson appears in fake Cheers DVD bonus material that John and Ted watch. And never has '80s pop star Tiffany been used to such great comic effect.

MacFarlane provides the familiar voice of Ted, and a majority of his dialogue is quite rude, occasionally jaw dropping. One good example is Ted's scene with his grocery store boss. Why does a talking teddy bear need to work a minimum wage gig? TED's prologue shows how Ted's overnight celebrity (he even appears on Johnny Carson's program) dimmed over time; the novelty wore thin. He's like any number of  former childhood stars sulking around Hollywood. To wit, there is a quick Diff'rent Strokes gag.

TED remains consistently funny, right to the end, though when you fling this many jokes around you're bound to have several duds. This is true of any such movie, including when Woody Allen made his silly early '70s comedies like BANANAS. I was surprised to find that TED found a lot of mileage out of a one joke premise. Quite inventive at times.  There are good examples of both verbal and physical shtick - like when the Chinese neighbor busts in with a butcher knife and a duck to complain about all the noise coming from Ted's party.

If my descriptions entice you, a new guilty pleasure awaits.  Others, beware.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

J. Edgar

John Edgar Hoover is best remembered for two things: a tireless, singular drive to root out suspected radicals from the U.S. populace and a sexual preference politely termed "ambiguous". The former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations had been given a previous big screen treatment in 1977's sleazy THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER, a film few remember (and with very good reason). Director Clint Eastwood's 2011 J. EDGAR attempts a legitimate, high profile "event film" of a certain prestige. There's a fine cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular curiosity of a man, a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, who penned MILK, a triumphant bio of another complex historical figure, and Eastwood himself, who dependably delivers another annual on-time, on-budget, well crafted movie.

The reception was tepid at best. Few critics or viewers were singing any praises. I watched the trailers and was far from encouraged. My reservations were confirmed: this is a sluggish, dour, unfocused scramble of a movie. Surely the life of Hoover was far more interesting than what we're given here?! A rather paranoid individual who amassed a collection of files on many public figures. Comprehensive histories that often included some pretty seamy and potentially career ending details. As with other of his recent films, Eastwood takes events based on fact and produces something devoid of inspiration or fire. CHANGELING and INVICTUS are two other examples, though both are more dramatically sustained and focused than J. EDGAR. Maybe Clint should take more time and even go a little over budget to deliver something better?

The often used "framing device" is but one problem. Throughout the film, J. Edgar is seen in his outer office dictating his memoirs to a young writer, describing his life and the events of the creation of the FBI. He discusses (and we see in flashback) the infamous 1919 bombings by anarchists of the homes of, among others, Attorney General Palmer, Hoover's boss. As the young man is aghast by sloppy, apathetic forensics at the crime scene, J. Edgar is driven to create a centralized system of identification (fingerprinting) and laboratories staffed with specialists who can identify, for example, the mysteries of a plank of wood. This would prove helpful in cracking the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby case.

J. Edgar surrounds himself with like-minded, one track individuals who aren't so interested in the standard life path of spouse-kids-white-picket-fence. Secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) is first seen as a potential love interest for Hoover (who proposes to her on their first date, inside the Library of Congress), but she's only interested in work, and remains Hoover's trusted administrator until his death. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is a recently graduated lawyer who at first sees the Bureau as merely good experience, a stepping stone to private practice. He too makes it clear that he's not interested in marriage, and becomes Hoover's top Agent. And.. a bit more....

For all of Hoover's devotion and focus to his work, he worries for his image. We gather from Black's screenplay that J. Edgar was a homosexual, with occasional clues such as when he puts his hand (more than once) over Tolson's. The film makes no bones that Tolson is gay, especially when he throws a fit when his boss wonders aloud if he should go ahead and have a Mrs. Hoover in his life. J. Edgar's mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lives until her death, attempts to squash her son's unorthodox desires at every turn, at one point telling him, "I'd rather have a dead son than a 'daffy' (short for daffodil) son." While rumors of cross dressing abound in J. Edgar bios, Eastwood only allows one scene to this effect - Hoover tries on one of his mother's dresses in front of a mirror.

Most of the key events in J. Edgar's life are covered in J. EDGAR: Lindbergh baby, the hunt for John Dillinger, the Director's attempts to brand Martin Luther King a dangerous radical, the tumult with Richard Nixon (Hoover orders Helen to destroy every document in his infamous files should he die before the President). The later scenes begin a interesting examination/comparison of Nixon and Hoover, with their shared interest in surveillance, "shit lists", and fascinatingly similar flaws, but the film ends before we get an satisfactory essay. Hoover does get to deliver one of the film's best lines around this time, however, referring to another controversial witch hunter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, as an "opportunist."

The idea of a character recalling his or her lifetime has possibilities for a certain poignancy. Recollections informed with wisdom before (and sometimes during) the inevitable mental decline. We listen and wonder what is real, what is fiction, and what is a little of both (we don't know in this movie until the very end). It has worked many times in films, but more often, it causes the whole thing to become a maudlin exercise. For me SAVING PRIVATE RYAN suffered because of this.

Then, there's the make-up department's opportunity to shine, creating a wide age range of facial structures for each character. Sometimes it works (LITTLE BIG MAN), and other times it does not (FOR THE BOYS). This one falls into the latter category. Particularly Tolson's appearance in the 1960s/70s sequences - startlingly bad. Some of the worst prosthetics I've seen since James Caan's pancake job in the aforementioned FOR THE BOYS. How is that someone did not pull Clint over and say, "Um...."?? The make-up in J. EDGAR was distractingly awful enough to be funny, to take me out of the drama, which was already uneven.

It also illuminates that DiCaprio, shown at any age, is just not the right actor for this role, IMO. He's still too boyish. He has some good moments, adjusts his voice fairly convincingly, and overall I believe he is a very good actor, but this was one project on which he should've passed. Who would I have cast? John Goodman would've been a good choice; he has the physicality and the right chops. Just the right air about him.  If Trey Wilson were still around, I would've suggested him too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cutter's Way

Some spoilers...

I did not encounter war veterans like Alex Cutter in my childhood. The active and retired soldiers at church and who visited my elementary school were God fearing, U.S.A. loving men who didn't betray an ounce of disillusionment. But what was in their minds as they spoke their purple prose? What did they say to their spouses in the privacy of their homes, if they indeed even spoke at all?

Hollywood gradually began producing films that deconstructed the emotional fallout of the Vietnam War; films that did not shy away from the thornier, private issues. Films like THE DEER HUNTER, GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS. Hal Ashby in 1978 gave us the powerful COMING HOME, an angry but thoughtful meditation on the effects of war on a marriage. In 1981, Czech director Ivan Passer brought CUTTER'S WAY (previously named CUTTER AND BONE), a curious story that appears to be a standard murder mystery that reveals, upon much reflection, to be a complex political allegory. A quite uncomfortable one.

A rootless young man named Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses a shadowy figure dump a large object into a dumpster late one evening after his car breaks down in an alley. The next morning, the newspapers report that a murdered young woman was found in that dumpster. Bone is questioned by the authorities. Later the same day, he is hanging with his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a parade and identifies a man he believes is the one he saw disposing the body. It's a sticky issue as the man fingered is a Santa Barbra hotshot named J.J. Cord (Stephan Elliott). In this story, Bone might as well have ID'ed the President of the United States.

Cutter, an embittered Vietnam vet with a prosthetic leg and ill manner ("I don't drink. You know, the routine grind drives me to drink. Tragedy, I take straight.") sees a grand opportunity to act on his conspiracy theory hunches, which appear to dicate his entire existence. He organizes a campaign to harrass Cord until the "truth" sees light. But for most of the movie, he's all talk and bluster. His efforts to propel his passive, ineffectual, and skeptical buddy into action are met with ambivalence. Why? As CUTTER'S WAY progresses, it is learned that Cord more or less owns Bone's boss at the yacht club, where the latter maintains vessels for various jetsetters. The dead girl's sister (Ann Dusenberry) rounds out the trio, sharing Cutter's enthusiasm to bring the fat cat down and hold him accountable.

But there's a fourth figure, Cutter's wife Mo (Lisa Eichorn), long the recipient of her husband's abuse of many varieties. A martyr who stands outside the central dilemma with a clarity not shared by the others. Maybe she's seen it before. Maybe she's worn with cynicism, exposed to years of her husband's tirades and suspicions of his lack of action. Mo is revealed to be a sad adversary unwilling to take this futile quest. Her actions have consequences. Bone's neutrality does as well. No one exits this film unscathed. The final scene is a beauty, a moment frozen in time as if documented by a great painter, realizing an historic event.

The other painter (besides Passer) in CUTTER'S WAY is cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (BLADE RUNNER, STOP MAKING SENSE), one of my favorites. The "look" he gives this film is all its own, a shimmering, lush filter of Southern California opulence and middle class discontent. Everything looks sharp and gorgeous, a nice incongruity to the screenplay. Sunshine is as menacing as nightfall here.

Heard, never one of my favorite actors, does really solid work in CUTTER'S WAY. His usual smugness is absent as he disappears into a very believable portrayal of a man damaged in a thousand ways, completely self-destructive, and hellbent on finishing that job. Eichorn is another unsung actress who always impressed in her limited screen work (see 1979's YANKS) and is quite memorable as the doomed Mo. One crushing scene shows her in tears during a key moment with Bone; it explains everything we need to know. Bridges is again appealing and effective in a role that doesn't seem (at first) to have much depth.

For all of its merits, CUTTER'S WAY is really at its finest when you examine the screenplay, its mysteries. The metaphors are rich in this movie, the kind in which you scrutinize each character and attempt to assign them with a real-life figure, or perhaps an entire nation, or maybe an Idea. What is to become of a citizen, a country, an ideology when denial and inaction are at last cornered? When you can ignore the climate no longer? Will your actions make you a hero, a villain, or merely a footnote in the pages of history?

Monday, January 14, 2013

One Final Look


The Palm Beach Mall in West Palm Beach, FL was built in the late '60s, the first of its kind in South Florida.  In its golden era it was a sparkling consumer paradise where countless memories were made. A beautiful fountain held court in the center and greeted visitors to the original 67 stores.

My friends and I rode the city bus to Jordan Marsh and would spend many hours having pizza at Sbarro, saying "add an egg" at Orange Julius,  rifling through the naughty novelties at The Barefoot Mailman, trying on clothes at Lord & Taylor, and purchasing music at Spec's, where in the 80s you reached through a hole in a pane of glass to grab a cassette that you would drop on a conveyor belt that led to the cashier. There was a movie theater that was once a premiere multiplex, later a second run discount house. I remember peeking in one door to glimpse a few seconds of ANIMAL HOUSE when I was 9.

Other malls to the north and south were built in the late 1980s and by the mid 90s, the Mall was on a fast decline, culminating in the death of a Chik-fil-A worker who was shot in the food court. Things were especially grim as the 2000s wore on. It became a very unwelcoming place. One of my co-workers was robbed outside the front entrance.

Tenant after tenant packed up and moved, leaving only J.C. Penney, there from Day One and open for business still. They will be assuming another spot on the property after demolition which begins this week.  A new outlet mall is scheduled to open late this year or early next.


Before the fall: A last look at what remains of the Palm Beach Mall | CLIK/HEAR | Multimedia, photography, video showcase of The Palm Beach Post  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mihalis

Opening track from the debut solo album of Pink Floyd's guitarist extraordinaire, David Gilmour.  The entire album is top drawer.



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 5

After it was announced that our old store was about to be sold off to Big Retail, my co-workers and I were offered positions with them. I knew a few of the pharmacists, toured the store. Everything was immaculate and high tech. But we all refused the gig. Pay was just one reason. I'd done corporate retail and was not eager to return.

Maybe two days before our beloved pharmacy shuttered forever, a bespectacled young man wearing a yarmulke hurried in and immediately offered to buy the square footage and its fixtures. The staff too. He was very enthusiastic, and apparently had done his homework on the location, seeing the possibilities. A potential gold mine.  Striking while the iron was hot, etc.  A chance to capture all the disenfranchised patients.

We went along, within a month working for a new M & P headed by *Jake, who already had a successful home store in the heart of a large Jewish community south of us. We assumed a smaller, different space in the shopping center, at the East end where the last tenant had been a vacuum repair shop. Envelopes with our pictures gracing the upper left hand corner containing "Welcome Back" letters were sent out in bulk to our old patients. The familiar smiling staff was back to fill your scripts! How could it miss?

Rough start. Within a week of our opening we were hit with not one but two hurricanes a week apart. When the dust settled, the expected crowd never showed. I made daily calls to many of those folks I had waited on for nearly eight years. Many were bitter, some downright furious about how the old pharmacy took its bow.  I could not blame them. I can't remember what crisis control type speeches I gave, but for the most part, they did not work. When some of them did come back, they were appalled by the new outfit's prices. We tried to explain to our new boss that this was a much different, often less affluent clientele than to which he was familiar. Pricing structures and strategies had to be adjusted. Our words went largely unheeded.

There was also the problem of the store being closed on Saturday. Our owners were Orthodox and would not budge.  I respected this, but also correctly predicted a backlash from the neighborhood.  Sadly, a few of the old customers who did stop in whispered in our ears that they would "not give money to Jews" as well. I know bigotry is alive and well, but it always stings that much worse to have it in your face.

The store limped along for 3 years. While there was steady business at times, overall it was a failure. The reasons are numerous. A big one: the new proprietors gave off a harsh, aggressive vibe more suited to New York (their origin). It put me off and I'm  from there! It was classic misjudging, a missapplied "it works there so it's gotta work here" blueprint that was met with indifference and occasional hostility.

How was it to work there? Stressful for the above reasons, but also due to any clear cut management or managerial consistency. And how would you feel trying to explain to a patient why the med you told them would be there that day is not because the boss hadn't paid the vendor's bill?? I could go on...

Eventually, I was rotated among the outfit's 3 locations: the original, ours, and a new spot opened west of town. In fact, that was to be "my store".  I was actually a little excited about it. A new pharmacist was hired (a friend to this day) who was great, and the store was brand spanking new. It proved to be an even bigger failure, with only a trickle of business, despite its visibility along a major north/south thoroughfare.  I even went out and marketed to local doctors' offices (as I had done in the old pharmacy), but there was little immediate return.

Things became so slow that I ended up spending all of my time in the home store, the "busy" one. I never liked the atmosphere there. Wasn't at all crazy about the clientele, either, but I won't elaborate on that. In addition to standard retail operations and durable medical goods, the store had a compounding laboratory and even service for nursing homes. It was often a very chaotic place.  Yes, I was used to that, but I was, at this late date, VERY over it all.

At this point, I was also in over my head in grad school so I was getting it all from all sides. I was commuting something like 500-600 miles per week. Misery. I wanted to quit and focus solely on my studies, but it wasn't possible. I had to work.

One bright day, I had an idea that would eventually deliver me from the retail morass for good. My final pharmacy job.....

TO BE CONTINUED

*Not the real name

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bottle Shock

2008's BOTTLE SHOCK is loosely based on the true story of a British sommelier and all-around insufferable wine snob who in 1976 travels to Napa Valley in California, certain that American wines are far inferior to those of the French. Mr. Steven Spurrier, played by the wonderful Alan Rickman, owns a wine shop in Paris which only seems to have one patron, Maurice (Dennis Farina), a Midwest transplant who samples a bit too much and owns the travel agency next door. The lack of business inspires Spurrier to host a blind taste-test among eight Parisian judges who are also certain that California vintages don't hold a candle to their beloved grapes.

Spurrier bumbles his way through the Napa countryside in a rented Gremlin, meeting struggling vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) after he suffers a flat tire. Barrett immediately dislikes the foreigner, who does nothing to hide his contempt for American wine. But damned if that Barrett, overseer of Chateau Montelena, doesn't make a nice Chardonnay. After a taste, Spurrier maintains his stiff upper lip and goes about the town to find would-be competitors for his competition. It's just as well with Barrett, who wants no part of it, suspicious that the visitor only seeks to humiliate him back home, on the U.S.'s Bicentennial no less!

The materials for a witty retelling are there, but writer/director Randall Miller really drops the ball with BOTTLE SHOCK. Actually, the whole thing just seems ill-conceived. I was expecting a sophisticated comedy of manners with liberal glimpses into the fascinating business of wine-making. Instead, this movie focuses mostly on Barrett's aimless son, Bo (Chris Pine, wearing a ridiculous wig that is like an amateur version of Brad Pitt's mane in LEGENDS OF THE FALL), a would-be heir to the family business who, like other footloose mid-70s teens, would rather just get drunk and screw. To establish what a bum he is, the film has him walk in with a surfboard as his father chews him out for being so unambitious. You know, just to hammer home that point. Never mind that the Pacific Ocean is not exactly around the corner from Napa.

Also building the running time are the introduction of a babealicious intern named Sam (Rachael Taylor, who also arrives with a flat tire), and Bo's friend and co-worker Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), who is secretly concocting his own home grown wine with his father (Miguel Sandoval), who tears up while sipping and listening to Maria Callas records on his porch. The distracted script provides an unnecessary and uninteresting love triangle among the youths, and unsatisfactory character development of Barrett, though Pullman does his best. Miller (and several co-screenwriters) litter their movie with endless contrivances - including Barrett's late hour reconsidering of a return to his old law firm when things look grim for the vineyard.

BOTTLE SHOCK should've focused primarily on Spurrier; Rickman knocks off the part with ease and seeming effortlessness. He's far more interesting than any of the other characters. His scenes with Farina (doing his usual brash persona thing, if a bit more effeminately) have more spark than anything else.

But the movie is still entertaining and easy to watch. Michael Ozier's cinematography is crisp and the soundtrack has some nice 70s MOR, including several Doobie Brothers tunes (some big hits, others deep album gems). I just wanted something more erudite. The subject deserves it. Perhaps if this had been a British or French production.......

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Django Unchained

SPOILERS!

I'm most impressed with film directors when they tread different waters, explore genres and styles that don't necessarily resemble their last 2 pictures. Example? Alan Parker.  His films covered a very wide cinematic palate: kiddie gangster movie, musical, suburban drama, prison pic, occult thriller,  historical epic. His visual sense was strong and his narratives were sober(ing). You might, with careful study, be able to discern a style, some threads among his works. But Parker could rarely be pidgeonholed.

But then I cite the undeniable greats who unleash their signature styles that cannot be mistaken for anyone else like Scorsese, whose strongest films stayed in the old NYC neighborhoods. You might say the same of Elia Kazan. Hitchcock's canvas widened over his long career by locale but the themes (dating back to his silents) were similiar throughout, as were Kubrick's among his very diverse oeuvre.  Quentin Tarantino can't seem to shake  the memories of 1960s/70s exploitation pics, and each of his own films are positively saturated in those worlds,  regardless of the time period depicted. This choice has plagued him at times, with frequent charges of plagiarism dogging every movie he makes. In 1994, writer/director Mike White produced WHO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING, which alleges that QT all but lifted ideas and scenes (for RESERVOIR DOGS) from the 1987 film from Hong Kong, CITY ON FIRE.

But like Brian DePalma, Tarantino, while paying grandiose and obvious homage to those (often) distasteful pics of the past, uses those very familiar elements to create a grotesque melange all his own.  A commanding, utterly kinetic round of film-making that amuses and thrills in ways that, with each work, re-awaken my excitement for the art form. Certainly, the style is always the strongest element of any QT film, followed by rich performances and tasty dialogue. He's a hell of a storyteller, too. Because of his masteries, I forgive his liberal "borrowing", and his seeming lack of  genre progression with his films. His obsession with a certain period of time.

I also forgive those who incessantly quote him. LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES, released only one year after PULP FICTION, was already quoting that film. One year! It was clear that a new voice was emerging, possible changing the art form. And doing it through endless evocation of cinema's not so distant past.

With DJANGO UNCHAINED, to me, Quentin Tarantino has stopped being limited by his strengths, and moved forward to create an uneven, messy, frustrating, cringe-inducing, and (yes) often mature motion picture. One that is interested in more than mere trickery.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is first seen with head down and ankles chained to several other slaves as they hobble   through Texas in 1858, a few years before the Civil War. Along comes a man named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter who offers to purchase Django from the owners, a pair of loathsome brothers. A sale is made, rather unwillingly, resulting in a lot of blood before Schultz and Django head off, eventually becoming partners in the lucrative bounty hunter trade. The first assignment: kill another band of lecherous brothers (the Brittles) with whom Django and his missing wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) have a very unfortunate history. The Brittles are found at the first plantation Schultz and Django visit, run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and quickly dispatched.

Our heroes strike a deal: Schultz will help Django find and rescue his wife if the now freed slave will assist him with a long roster of bounties through the winter.  Django is a first a bit reluctant to kill merely for money, even as his partner assures of their prey's malevolent natures. On this journey, flashbacks show the hardships (and bodily scarring) Django and his bride suffered at the hands of many vicious slave traders. It is learned of how Broomhilda came to speak German and how shrewdly Schultz can broker and negotiate his way out of the stickiest of predicaments, including when an entire town points their barrels at the saloon our the pair stop in. In more retro casting, Tom Wopat (Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard) shows up as the town's marshall. In fact, DJANGO is loaded with actors in bit parts who once upon a time shot, slept, drove, fought, and cussed their way through yesteryear drive-in epics that Quentin has absorbed over the years.

Eventually Schultz and Django are led to the smooth talking Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who now owns Broomhilda as a "pleasure" slave, and his very loyal servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is as racist as any of the rednecks he works with/for. Both men are as ingratiating as they are unsavory.  Their performances threaten to steal this movie. DiCaprio in particular owns the screen, especially during his "skull lecture" sequence, one of the most electrifying scenes in his career and in any QT film.

Djano and Schultz pose as "mandingo" (exceptionally strong slaves trained as fighters) experts, attracting Candie's attention by offering to buy one for $12,000.00. Candie's introduction sets the tone for this part of the film quite effectively: two slaves fight to the death in front of him and a rival (Franco Nero, who played a character named Django in a same titled 1960s spaghetti western) in a parlor room. It is one of the grisliest mano-a-manos I think I've witnessed in a film. Our heroes' real agenda, of course, is to rescue Broomhilda, a plot which doesn't exactly work out as planned. Before the fade out, a lot of marinara sauce will spill, spray, and burst in some of the most outrageous violence I've seen in a major Hollywood film in a long time.

The plot of DJANGO UNCHAINED follows the standard revenge formula seen in all of the Westerns and blaxploitation films Quentin references. Even some of his earlier films (mainly KILL BILL, though INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is heavily evoked). Setting this story in pre-Civil War South isn't merely a convenient device to allow QT to also evoke memories of  the awful MANDINGO and its even worse sequel DRUM (to say nothing of 1974's THE KLANSMAN), but an opportunity to depict the despicable atmosphere to which blacks were subjected with some real conviction. This movie, to its credit, never flinches from the ugliness.  This is not merely the expected grindhouse valentine. The attitudes, the psychological and physical abuse, its all there. Sometimes, it's nearly unwatchable, such as when a runaway fighter is eventually torn apart by dogs. You might fault Taranatino for putting our faces in the muck, but I did not feel it was gratuitous - sometimes you have to baptize your viewers to make them understand.

And what a long, unpleasant baptism this movie is. All of QT's films are troubling yet exhilirating essays on the human condition, and never has it been shown to be more wretched. Most of the director's bag of tricks are on display (cool soundtrack, flashy cuts, onscreen titles at unusual moments, swiftly orchestrated action scenes), but the far more serious themes emerge even more evidently than in BASTERDS. This is ultimately (despite many comedic moments, including a Ku Klux Klan scene that seems to be a nod to BLAZING SADDLES) a very potent, vital examination of social depravity, of superiority, of the most base and primal of behavior. An unrelenting treatise one of the most gruesome chapters in American history. Roots times ten. A true depiction of the South as the stage for a holocaust.

But QT wants to (gets to?) have it both ways.  His movie is not as cartoonish as many of his others, at least not until the final act, which to call over the top is understating things. The final gun battles are clearly inspired by the bloodiest moments in Peckinpah films, as well as countless other genre pics not limited to Westerns.  I was, by turns, disturbed and riled up by these scenes, which will provide truckloads of vicarious thrills for the bloodthirsty, and much to think on for those who put a bit more thought toward their viewing.

Every Tarantino film has at least one moment of violence that manages to be humorous and horrifying simultaneously. Until the closing scenes of DJANGO UNCHAINED, the violence is uncomfortably real: images that won't soon leave your consciousness.  To me, every moment was justified. Spike Lee may not agree with that, or the repeated use of the word "nigger", but I never got the inkling that Quentin was just being cheeky or just trying to salute Sergio Leone.  This film is strong meat. By the time Django truly is unchained, I think we've earned the catharsis. But if you are at all sensitive.......