Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Cafe Sapori

This past Valentine's Day evening I took my wife to Cafe Sapori, located on the northwest corner of Southern Blvd. and Washington Road in West Palm Beach. Diagonal from St. Catherine's Greek Orthodox Church.  CS is an excellent Italian restaurant, with beautiful and sparing decor under those delightful wooden rafters seen in many old Florida structures, like my grandparents' old house just a mile or so south.

We began with a calamari (grigliati) appetizer, refreshingly not fried but grilled. The texture may be difficult for those accustomed to the usual batter but its chewiness was just fine for us. My wife had the Salmone con salsa di Albiocche, bathed in an apricot mustard sauce that was unique and tasty. I chose one of the "Signature Dish"es, the Tagliolini con Polipo e Escarola, which is a long noodle pasta adorned with escarole (so familiar from my childhood as my grandparents made it every week), sun dried tomato and octopus.  Absolutely fabulous.  The flavors revealed themselves gradually, the way in which a good subtle dish ought.

For dessert we were served ricotta shaped into a heart, bordered with raspberry sauce. Above you can also see a pile of fig and a scoop of honey ice cream and crunchy nougat. As good as it looks and sounds. We also shared an Italian red and after dinner drinks. The entire meal was just over $100, a real deal for such fine dining. Recommended. 

Cafe Sapori
205 Southern Blvd 
West Palm Beach, FL 33405
(561) 805-7313

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Chatterbox

Let me save you some time straight away: if you don't have interest or curiosity for a movie about a talking and singing vagina, just stop reading right now.

This idea has potential, one has to admit. You might say, lowbrow potential at best. You'd be correct. Especially given that this film, 1977's CHATTERBOX, features celebrated drive-in starlet Candice Rialson in the lead (as a poor young lady named Penelope with the rather loquacious sex organ) and she's frequently sans clothes.  But I kept thinking - what if said organ,"Virginia" (that's the name she, er, it's given) spoke eruditely, had more of a point of view than merely seeking constant, um, stimulation? Would it be possible to make an intelligent, thoughtful psychological drama about a woman whose life is all but wrecked by this organ with a mind all its own? Could Ingmar Bergman or James Ivory have made a highbrow piece out of this?

Yeah, probably not. Some ideas just can't get past an inherent ridiculousness. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL attempted, with some success, to tell a serious story of a disturbed young man who has a relationship with an inflatable doll. That movie tread the line fairly well, with many insightful scenes, but sometimes it was impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of the scenario. CHATTERBOX is absurd from its first seconds, when Virginia ruins Penelope's evening by insulting her lover Ted (Perry Bullington) when things get amorous. Soon, Virginia's comments are getting Penelope in trouble at work and even get her arrested.

Our heroine seeks out psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman), who rather than help her through this most unusual of dilemmas seeks to make her famous. After unleashing Virginia in front of the American Medical Association Board, the doctor becomes her agent, contracting her to appear on The Irwin Corey Show and in a musical in which she croaks her big disco hit "Wang Dang Doodle."

All the while, Penelope feels increasingly overshadowed by her "talent", longing for True Love while Virginia would rather just sing and seek temporary companionship.  This being a exploitation pic, there are scenes where Penelope/Virginia have liasions with a man who likes to speak in Old English and dress in a suit of armor (Viginia mildly balks at first, wondering if "we'll need a can opener") and even an entire high school basketball team.  Ah, the 70s. But neither sequence is explicit in the least.

In fact, CHATTERBOX is a surprisingly innocent little film, far from being pornographic. Not even soft core. It was one of those compact entertainments that was short enough to play on a bill with several other such movies for a night at the drive in. Lots of nudity and innuendos, sure, but little and very brief onscreen sex. These sorts of films were often a little more sly than you would think. If you dug a bit, there were also some astute commentaries on "free love" and women's lib.

And CHATTERBOX does ever so lightly touch upon more serious issues, however fleetingly, but never for any serious exploration. By the last scene, Penelope stands atop a cliff, ready to end it all. Good thing there's a guy who shows up with a singing penis.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Pharmacy Years: Palliative Care (Conclusion)

Things were pretty dim in the summer of 2006 as I whiled away the hours in a stressful retail pharmacy in southern Palm Beach county. Days of dread. But then one afternoon a thought appeared out of seemingly nowhere - call the local hospice! It wasn't a completely unsolicited musing. Nearly 2 years before, several months after the first Mom and Pop pharmacy closed, an HR person for the hospice called to verify me as a reference for my old supervisor, the owner of the late store. It was an odd moment. I felt like I wielded a certain power...but of course I gave an honest report - he was one of the sharpest pharmacists I ever worked with.

One of my old coworkers would regularly report to me of how he was doing. A seed in my brain? I figured I'd call.  I still needed to work while in graduate school. I called my one time and future boss and got an interview.  Times had changed. This time he seemed so, I dunno, relaxed during our interview. There was still an urgency and seriousness about him, but far from the authoritarian air I had experienced before. He was very amused with the results of this mini-psych questionnaire I filled out; it confirmed to him I was more of a counselor than a salesperson.  He figured that out not long into my near 8 years with him in retail. Hospice would be a good fit for me.

I laid out my situation and plan; I would be there for less than 1 year until my fourth year audiology externship began. He was fine with that, but nonetheless I did have to go through a lengthy approval process before hire.  I waited and waited. And waited. After 1 month, I got anxious. I was only working part time now at the retail.  VERY part time - Sundays only. I contacted the hospice. Still no answer.  A few days later, I got the call.  I was in.

Palliative care (efforts to alleviate suffering) pharmacy, sometimes defined as something different than hospice care, was a whole new arena for me.  I was told the set-up and operations were similar to those of hospital settings.  Doctors would e-mail/fax orders and techs would process, fill, and deliver oral, topical, and intravenous medications to stations within the facility and to hospitals that had affiliated hospice wings. The main center had around 100 beds. Hospice provides complimentary accommodations and meds for the terminally ill, some of whom are mere days away from passing on.  It was very common to view families weeping in the atrium of the building.  In my 9 months there, that never got easier to witness.

The first month was fairly difficult.  There was a large learning curve and I did not seem to gel with the staff. I found myself eating dinner alone, and often during breaks I wandered the beautiful walkways and gardens in the back of the facility. I felt very isolated.  Being the new guy usually sucks, but it seemed worse than usual.  It had been awhile since I had worked with such a large pool, so many other techs. It may well have been an ego thing - I was used to being "the star", the main guy who did everything.  And...I got unfavorable vibes from one of the guys on staff who was a "star" and didn't seem happy to have me around. I was now one of many and struggling to process a way of pharmacy that was foreign to me.

But within 1 month, I was part of a family. Everything seemed to come together. I began to look forward to going to work. I was a busy bee as I was completing internships during the day and working at night. To maintain 40 hrs. I pulled  two 12 hour shifts a week. It tires me now to think back on those days, but I don't remember complaining or feeling chronically fatigued.  Maybe because I was actually happy in my work.

I worked mainly as a filler and inputter, but also as someone who stocked emergency kits in each nurses' station and dose-filling dispensers in-house and at local hospitals.  I drove to Delray Beach and Palm Beach Gardens a few times a week for this part of my gig.  I loved the independence. Meeting the staff at each hospital was also a perk - Hospice hires some of the most decent humans you'll ever meet. Their reputation is solid in the community. Just ask Matt Lauer, whose father was a patient at Hospice and was so impressed with the organization that he became affiliated with them, even lending his name to their golf tournaments.

Years earlier, I had begun to learn to make IVs and now that knowledge was called upon again. Many orders came in for narcotic analgesic drips. Using this skill, and being required to attain national certification as a tech expanded my pharmacy horizons that much more.   These were things I'd always wanted to do.  Pity that it took so long, just months before my career was done. But it was a fitting send-off to 20 years behind the counter.

The hospice was extremely well run and organized. There was an efficiency that I had not seen in nursing home pharmacy, for certain. Continuing education was encouraged, too. But the best thing about the hospice: my co-workers.  I grew close to my peeps, mainly the night crew. We had a ball! After all the corporate types left for the day. I can't recall laughing so much in my life.  At one point, I found myself with the guys, launching projectiles from the second story of the building. Like kids. Yes, I was in my mid-late 30s, but what a nice alternative to the grim and unpleasant pharmacy atmospheres of the past.  Make no mistake, we were serious about our work and who we were serving, but we also knew how and when to have fun. Those who were strangers in that first month were now pals that several of which I am happy to say are still friends, 6 plus years later.

And my old and present boss? Still extremely precise and managerial, but his personality was far lighter. I guess when you don't have to scrutinize your own business finances to a T it makes a difference in your demeanor. As a retail owner, he was certainly feeling the pinch from the chains and an overall decline in business. He was always hard nosed in those days, but now he was far more pleasant to work with, though given the palliative work model, I was not by his side every minute as before.  The talons were not sinking into my shoulder this time.

Was there drama among the staff? But of course. Law of averages. But none worth recounting, nothing that soured my experience.  I think I've forgotten most of it. My memories of Hospice are quite fond. Until my current job, it was the best I'd had.  Years of pharmacy misery were wiped away. If I'd been in this environment sooner, I may have actually gone on to become a pharmacist. But it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Even though I was only at the hospice for a fairly short while, I was given a great going away party at a downtown restaurant. Good turnout, and it was fun being silly with the gang one last time (for awhile). The horrendous hangover I had the next morning (made worse as I had to get up very early to transport friends to the airport) was entirely worth it. I went back to visit my co-workers a few times within the next year. Also, I attended a few of their parties and a few "Bunco" nights. A really special group of folks. I'm way overdue to stop in to say hello. They are in a new, larger facility, I've heard.

So thus ends my pharmacy odyssey. I started as an 18-year old ringing a register and concluded as a 38 year old about to begin a career as an audiologist. I've shared a fraction of the highlights along the way and left out much as my rehashing would do little good, but I think these entries are a fair summary.....

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Puss in Boots

The character of the suave, Pepe Le Pew-like womanizing feline Puss in Boots was introduced in the second SHREK movie some years back. The films in that franchise (four in all) grew more tiresome with each entry, but Puss was always a delight, by the fourth go-round having amusingly gone a bit to seed, complete with huge belly. But Puss had other big adventures before he met the big ogre and friends.

PUSS IN BOOTS (2011) informs us that Humpty Dumpty and Puss grew up together in a Mexican orphanage. Things were always rough for Humpty, an easy target for ridicule. Puss (again voiced by Antonio Banderas) saves Humpty (Zach Galifiankis) from the taunts of Little Boy Blue, and they become inseparable friends, even taking a blood oath. But one day, after Puss saves the life of a villager from a charging bull, Puss is, um, lionized while Humpty is thrown to the margins. The famous egg-shaped character is observed here to be a bad seed, a thief, even.  After Humpty later dupes Puss into a bank robbery, their friendship is severed.

Much of the plot of PUSS IN BOOTS involves the search for 3 magic beans. Puss meets Kitty Softpaws (voice of Salma Hayek) one night as both unsuccessfully try to wrestle them from an evil Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, having a whale of a time with their parts), who plan to ascend the famous beanstalk you remember from childhood literature and get to a magic castle, where they will steal the Golden Goose. On this eventful journey, Puss and Kitty will of course fall in love. Puss will be also imprisoned and meet the Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame, who informs him of great peril certain to befall the feline's hometown when a highly enraged momma of the Goose will come for her child, setting the foundation for the film's (kinda scary) climax.

So here's a spin-off that actually merited a big-screen treatment (PIB was originally planned for straight-to-homevideo). Director Chris Miller makes his outing charming, clever, cute, heartwarming. Henry Jackman's Latin-tinged score is zesty.  While the irreverence and ingenuity is intact, overall the humor is never as crass as in the SHREK series, and the storyline here does not overlap with the earlier films.  Puss himself is such as dashing character, and Banderas gets to unleash a brio that would invite accusations of hamminess had he performed a live character this way. I'm sure that is why many actors love to do animated pics. Cat lovers should especially enjoy this movie.

I still have to wonder if the Gingerbread Man, who got some of the biggest laughs in the SHREK films, could sustain at least a 75 minute feature of his own...........

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gilda Live

I wonder of the moment when Gene Wilder first fell in love with Gilda Radner.  I haven't read a lot about their courtship, or her biography It's Always Something, so if it's documented I am unaware. As for me, invisible audience, my moment was on a Saturday night some time in the late 70s. She playing one of her patented characters on that popular late night show with which you may be familiar. I'm pretty sure it was during her Barbara Walters parody - "Barbara Wa Wa". I remember just thinking how funny and cute and talented she was. She didn't have that off-putting gruff edge like cast mates Jane Curtin and Lorraine Newman seemed to. Gilda was downright endearing.

When she started appearing in movies, sadly a string of duds like FIRST FAMILY, my crush nonetheless blossomed.  As my criteria for what I desired in a woman took form, I decided that I wanted to date a girl like Gilda: beautiful, hilarious, quick witted, a certain fearlessness and vulnerability at the same time. I was jealous that Wilder not only got to star with her in movies like HANKY PANKY and THE WOMAN IN RED, but got to marry her, too.  But I thought it was a perfect union. When cancer took Radner's life in 1989, I'm pretty sure I teared up.

Somehow, I'd never seen her 1980 concert film, GILDA LIVE, until just recently. I knew the songs from it, especially the opener, "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals", a spicy number written by Saturday Night Live provocateur Michael O'Donoghue.  My 6th grade classmates used to sing it in the cafeteria.  "Never tell an alligator, bite my ......" That last word isn't what you'd immediately think.

But aside from that naughty little tune, GILDA LIVE is a pretty clean affair, not the expected bit of raunch at all. Nothing like when other SNL members cut loose off of network TV (Eddie Murphy et al.). Gilda's movie, shot by director Mike Nichols, captures the skits she played during a short Broadway run in 1979. Many of them are expansions of her TV personas.  Judy Miller is the spastic Brownie, a preteen screecher acting out her dream life right in her bedroom. Roseanne Rosannadanna delivers a commencement speech to college grads. Emily Litella is the elderly lady who mishears/misunderstands a subject (example: she wonders what all the fuss about "violins on television" is) and, once learning the actual topic, always ends the skit with "Never mind". Also, rock singer Candy Slice who amusingly tears it up on stage in a segment that is more fascinating than funny.

Radner also added some new characters to her repertoire - like the nerdy Lisa Loopner who plays "The Way We Were" on the piano, and promptly breaks down sobbing. Such a great bit.  It is a perfect representation of how thin the line between the tragic and the hysterically funny is, and how a subject, considered one or the other, can switch sides in an instant.

David Letterman's longtime band leader Paul Schaffer is seen in Gilda's back up band and in a few of the bits. Apparently his involvement with this show prevented him from playing piano in the Blues Brothers Band, costing him a role in their 1980 cult film.

While Gilda rushes backstage for multiple costume changes (Nichols' camera follows and captures the process), Father Guido Sarducci  (né Don Novello) does his own shtick, with surprisingly amusing results.  I was never a fan of what I always found to be his tedious, rarely funny act, but the material here is enjoyable.  Best bits: a side by side comparison of past and current Presidents of the U.S.A. and the "5 Minute University."

As funny as the rest of the material may be, my favorite parts of GILDA LIVE are the opening and closing, when Gilda is just Gilda, out of costume and letting her guard down.  The film begins with a medley of her days in Catholic school and the finale is a passionate ode to her long ago boyfriend, the one she danced with to old records in her basement. These scenes add the right amount of poignancy to this film, so strong at this late date for those who remember this wildly talented woman. The film ends with a freeze frame of the comedienne looking out over her audience. One wishes that that moment of triumph, of someone at perhaps their creative peak, and their embrace of appreciation, could've been savored far longer......

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pina

Back in my senior year of college I appeared in a student-directed one-act play. During a rehearsal, our director began with an exercise: Pretend your left foot is glued to the floor and attempt to work around this handicap. Move your extremities any way you must to reach that pitcher of water. Catch that runway ball.  You might imagine some pretty awkward slapstick ensued. While I understood the point of it, I felt foolish and frustrated. I was unable at the time to use this hindrance as an opportunity to find other methods of achieving a goal: practical or artistic.  I was reminded of that exercise throughout 2011's documentary PINA, though the dancers here are no slouches, and have no such difficulties.

The students of choreographer Pina Bausch take such an exercise to much greater extremes. They drape their moldable bodies across stages and each other in ways that suggest the absence of a skeleton. They ab- and adduct around in sometimes maddening patterns of repetition.  One fascinating sequence shows a woman hugging and eventually going limp within a man's embrace. Before she hits the floor, another man comes to scoop her up, back into the first man's arms. This action is repeated over a dozen times, faster and faster each time.

Director Wim Wenders began a more traditionally structured biography on Bausch but in 2009 she passed away. Wenders rethought the project and the result is a film that does not fill in the details of Bausch's life in the traditional documentary style but rather attempts to explain her through the remembrances of her proteges, of all ages.  Most vividly, through their imaginative dance. But we also hear their words, while the camera curiously shows each dancer not moving their mouths. As if Wenders (and the viewer) is reading their minds.

As you watch each sequence, you begin to your discern narratives, conveyed through every muscle movement. Little films in themselves. Some viewers may see unfettered pretension, others, raw emotion, stories. Psycho-sexual subtexts, yet at once oddly non-erotic. Passive and assertive at the same time. A common theme I witnessed: "Getting scared. Overcoming shyness. Letting go."  Several students explain how Pina sought to free the spirit within the inhibited shell. She often told them to "be scary." Accordingly, while some may see the dancers' moves as spirit filled, some may call them "demonic".

The spaces where the dancers bring the spirit of their mentor to life vary from theater stages to rehearsal rooms to city streets. Sometimes we swoop over audience members as they watch an elaborate set with a giant rock and a sweeping rainstorm, other times a stage entirely covered with dirt. The elements of earth are quite integral to their dances. One late scene in a studio shows a dancer being covered in dirt by another's shovel.

Some routines appear like avant garde takes on traditional musicals.  There's a scene in a cafe onstage where chairs are flung with adandon, another with the recreation of a high school dance -with dancers gendered off on either side of a gymnasium - gradually approaching each other with their hands and arms outward as if clawing their way. Like a barrier smash between the sexes. Oh, what stories they tell! Pina was pleased.

PINA was shown in theaters in 3-D and what an experience it must've been. The gorgeous visuals remain and are arresting at every turn. I realize that some viewers will squirm with boredom.  Many will find the entire project a giant pretension. I was mesmerized.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bubbalub, Explained

Between the mid '70s and '80s, I was forced to share my Wheaties with the likes of Alabama and Waylon Jennings. Nearly every morning, West Palm Beach's "Country K" belched out of a radio atop our refrigerator. Maybe that's why I generally loathe this genre of music, though it is good for a few laughs at times. The morning DJ, the "Breakfast Berry" was a pleasant enough voice; he even came and visited my 5th grade class once. When he asked how many of us liked country music, several hands shot up while my bud (the one who introduced me to AC/DC and Rush) sitting behind me groaned. Though, Mike did also introduce me to Molly Hatchet....

One song that always seemed to play on the K was Merle Haggard's "Rainbow Stew", which featured a line in the chorus that sounded like, "And I'll be drinkin' that free Bubbalub...." I forever wondered what "Bubbalub" was. Was it some Southern alcoholic thing? Moonshine? More Satan sauce the Baptists told me to stay away from?

Many years later, I saw the above drink at Cracker Barrel. Bubble Up is a lemon/lime soft drink, like a redneck version of 7-Up or Sprite. That long ago song jumped out of my head. I looked up the lyrics. Sho nuff! Mystery solved. By the way, Merle's singing, "We'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble Up...."



This is not the same studio version I remember, but nonetheless.....


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

With his two most recent films (2010's THE FIGHTER and last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), writer/director David O. Russell has taken a couple of cinema's most worn genres, respectively, the boxing drama and romantic comedy, and refashioned them into something quirky and even exciting in certain privileged moments. A jangly, infectiously nervous energy that owes much to the editing, yes, but also to an artist who breathlessly tells familiar stories in somewhat unfamiliar ways. So paradoxical; focused yet so very caffeinated Russell has been lately. Very much like his latest protagonist.

Consider the early scenes in ... PLAYBOOK. A frantic collage of imagery, an utter impatience with exposition. Introductions to main characters Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a man who suffers from bipolar disorder, his bookmaker father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a local widow and recovering sex addict, are quick and economical. Scenes are short. Dialogue bursts like gunfire. Flashbacks are used but do not disrupt the rhythm.  After the first 20 minutes or so, I felt as if Russell was evoking the great comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Screwball, but spiced with potent drama.  Tough mix, handled expertly.

Pat. Jr., a former Philadelphia schoolteacher,  has just been released from an eight month stint of psychiatric care. Once home, he learns that his wife Nikki had meanwhile issued a restraining order against him after he nearly killed her lover (a colleague of Jr's at school) when he finds them in the shower. A painful scene, all the moreso as their wedding song, Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" is playing when he catches them. That song will forever be a bane to Jr's efforts to rehabilitate, to eschew medication, and seek the "silver lining" in life. For example, witness Jr's reaction when it plays in his therapist's waiting room.

One night, Pat Jr. attends a dinner at his friend's house, and there's Tiffany, sister of his friend's wife.  In mere seconds of screen time, 22-year old Lawrence entirely conveys a possible insanity, a wild streak in her character that she likewise recognizes in Pat. It's clear where this is all going, and that ain't no spoiler if you've seen any movies at all. But as they say, the destination isn't the thing, but rather the journey.

On that journey are several chances for the actors to perfect their chemistry.  It's great fun to watch them interact. Tiffany always seems to know when Pat jogs down her street and constantly pokes his psyche. She likes him, even offering herself to him one night, but Pat Jr. is only interested in reconciling with his wife - it is what drives his search for the silver lining. As Tiffany sees Nikki socially on occasion, Pat sees an opportunity to communicate. He writes a letter to her, which Tiffany agrees to pass along if Pat will be her dance partner in a local contest.

Meanwhile, Pat Sr. is shown to be a broken man who has lost his job and now makes his livelihood as a bookie. But he's loving, vulnerable, craving time with his son. His best efforts are always through fanaticism for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Sr. is also deeply superstitious, feeling that if his son doesn't sit and watch the game with him, they'll surely lose. Dad has to watch the games at home as he has been banned from the stadium for fighting. To wit, in an effective early scene, father and son come to blows after Jr. has a late night episode. What of this gene pool?

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which, like many of Alexander Payne's films, maintains a kooky tone throughout, filled with uproarious moments, though enriched with a seriousness and sobering take on mental illness.  The director's brother is bipolar, and Russell has stated that this film (based on a novel by Mathew Quick) would not have come from his hands otherwise. Does that mean that the depictions of errant behavior from the leads are steeped in realism? I have known a few people I suspected where bipolar but I did not know for sure.  Such characters are serious bait for actors - the chances to bring down the walls are numerous; the sort of thing Oscar loves. I never once felt Cooper, who's often remarkable in his portrayal, was playing to the audience.

The entire cast is marvelous. De Niro has been playing the "dad" for well over a decade but this is finally a film worthy of his talents, a role that doesn't just feel like a mortgage payment. I really liked his work here. Lawrence, best known for HUNGER GAMES plays the familiar young sass whose causticism is of course a front for a wounded soul; she plays it beautifully.  Chris Tucker pops in a few times as Pat Jr.'s buddy from the mental facility; the running gag: every time he shows up, he claims to have been released, only to have some official arrive to bring him back. Julia Stiles, looking much older than she is,  hilariously plays suburban matron Veronica, Tiffany's sister. Jacki Weaver is quiet strength as Dolores, Pat Jr's mother.

Russell has produced another fine movie, filled with his usual good taste in music (aforementioned Stevie, as well as key scenes set to tracks by Led Zeppelin and Dave Brubeck) and off kilter sensibility. His earlier films were more inventive and unpredictable in their screenplays, but SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER before it are also refreshingly offbeat studies of disparate characters, families seemingly broken beyond repair who find a way (circuitously, perhaps) to mend their bonds. These two most recent films have hearts as large as the snark is deep. With SILVER LININGS, I've found that rare rom-com that doesn't make me nauseous. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Avengers

In 2012, writer/director Joss Whedon was showered with accolades and fan-boy enthusiasm for his take on Marvel Comics' The Avengers to the point that just seeing his name made me twitchy and embarrassed. It seemed that everyone was elevating the man who was previously best known for the beloved TV series Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to heights approaching deification. Lately, I've become very resistant when folks rave so loudly about an artist, athlete, etc. whose efforts may be admirable but far from comprehensive. Rather than becoming sufficiently intrigued to investigate myself, I recoil and stew with suspicion. At the risk of sounding like a snob, if that many people are singing the praises,  it's very likely that mediocrity can't be far behind.

I indeed resisted last year's THE AVENGERS with the heat of one million Keplar-20s. But not just because of Whedon's ubiquitous disciples, who discussed the would-be auteur nearly to the point of bringing each other to orgasm. Another celebrated director who solidified his imprint on film history was largely responsible: Christopher Nolan. His initial reboot of the Batman franchise, 2005's BATMAN BEGINS was a solid enough film but THE DARK KNIGHT three years later entirely redefined what a superhero film could (and to me, should) be. All of the inherent comic book silliness of grown-ups running around in tights was shattered in DK's stunning morality play. As much as I admired the first two recent X-MEN films, DK changed the game forever. Nolan achieved near GODFATHER-like dramatics.

The Marvel films admittedly don't take this approach. IRON MAN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, et al. are far more lighthearted and juvenile than Nolan's films. As hugely popular as the DARK NIGHT films have proven, the Marvel films collectively are that much more. With THE AVENGERS, which brings many of the comics' superheroes together to battle Thor's evil adopted brother and a cadre of fierce aliens, the box office receipts topped over one billion worldwide. Mayhem translates well.

Easy to see why. This movie is one of the most rambunctious and entertaining of its type I've seen in some time. Watching the interaction among Iron Man né Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and The Hulk aka David Banner (Mark Ruffalo), all led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is great fun. Before the loud, destructive finale, when our team faces off against said aliens in Manhattan, there will be loud, destructive battles between each superhero, each of whom is used to doing things his or her own way. What a group of petulant, whiny brats these people are! But when the fate of mankind is on the line, even the most egomaniacal among them (I'm talking to you, Mr. Stark!) will acquiesce and work together and save the world.

I was led to believe that THE AVENGERS explored this idea with some complexity, that the screenplay allowed a warts and all exploration of these individuals that went beyond the usual cartoonishness. Wrong. While most of the character sketches do expand on their Marvel mythology a bit, there is nothing here beyond junior high school level drama, complete with school yard sarcasm for good measure. While you might rightly criticize Nolan for having his characters speak a bit too often with pretension and portent, Whedon's group toss off lines that were tired decades ago. The relational dynamics and the story's morals are about as deep as an Afterschool Special.

But honestly, I have no issue.  THE AVENGERS is an unapologetic good time at the movies.  Nearly two and one-half hours of adrenaline and corn. A cinematic steamroller, a wildly fun movie, with generally good performances (from an exceptional cast), strong special effects, and an exciting finale. But it's all in the moment, light as air. Any attempt at serious subtext is lost in any of the piles of rubble found in the movie.  The blame does not fall on Joss Whedon, who may have created the best superhero film ever, of this type. Blame all of the pundits who are praising the film for something it is not.

But Nolan created something special, and it will be impossible not to judge any caped crusader epic without thinking on it. I'd like to see one worthy of such a comparison.