Monday, July 29, 2013

JJ

JJ Cale passed away last Friday. I'll bet many who read this have never heard of him, aside from possibly knowing that he wrote "Cocaine", "After Midnight", and "Call Me the Breeze", songs made famous by Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd, respectively.

JJ was a primo guitarist who was greatly admired by peers such as Neil Young. Some say Cale was so laid back he almost wasn't there. His voice, a quiet rough quality, perfect for gritty tales. If you dig bluesy, folksy, jazzy grooves, you should check out his catalogue.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Nebraska

In 1982, rock superstar Bruce Springsteen dialed down his usual manic energy and recorded Nebraska, a stark, moody collection of Americana that is even better today, and just as relevant, as it was over 30 years ago. The stories he tells will ring familiar to many, particularly those who never escaped the confines of their dusty, boarded up store-fronted small towns. Those who never meant to break the law but found themselves on the wrong side before they knew what was happening, and had little choice.  Sean Penn was even inspired by one track, "Highway Patrolman" to write and direct THE INDIAN RUNNER.

As strong as Springsteen's next album, the megahit Born in the U.S.A. was, with its depictions of a broken America, Nebraska does it more effectively, with less bombast. Listen to this album by yourself, with no distractions. Preferably at night. It's heartbreaking.



Monday, July 22, 2013

Coup de Torchon

Spoilers

I've long been enticed by 1981's COUP DE TORCHON, but my first viewing was only just recently. It was one of the many DVDs I inherited from the vast collection of Harry H., the older gentleman I've spoken of here many times who died last year. He had some very good taste. Lots of classics along with many more lesser known films.

Some of those works of art are shrouded in mystique, their enigmas encouraged by the enthusiastic words of film critics and buffs. A mystique that sometimes evaporates almost immediately when you sit down to watch the movie.  Happily, not this time.  And....that COUP DE TORCHON was based on a Jim Thompson novel and directed by Bertrand Tavernier made it all the more intriguing for me.

Thompson, a master of printed noir, set his novel Pop. 1280 in West Texas.  This adaptation is shuttled to a sweltering, dirty, and racially tense French West Africa in the late 1930s, just before WW 2. It tells the story of a put upon policeman named Lucien (Philippe Noiret) who never makes an arrest, and whose authority is laughed at by the locals, particularly a pair of aggressive pimps who repeatedly humiliate him. His superiors on the force treat him little better. Meanwhile, Lucien's flighty wife (St├ęphane Audran) carries on an open affair with their house guest, an idiot named Non who may well be her brother (Eddy Mitchell). Lucien takes the abuse in stride, ineffectually chalking it up to his lot in life. He doesn't seem very swift.

Gradually, we learn more about him. He's been having his own dalliance, involvement with a lusty schoolteacher named Rose (Isabelle Huppert). There is a wellspring of sharp intelligence and perspective to be found within our antihero, cloaked perhaps by a deep sociopathy. A seeming inability to act.  Until one day....he begins murdering people. First the 2 pimps, then a series of unfortunates who don't always seem to "deserve" their fates. Lucien's malevolence grows with each chapter of the story, his insight more developed with each crime. Yet, at a critical moment near the end of COUP DE TORCHON, he sits within earshot, helpless to prevent a tragedy. He contorts a face that recognizes a terrible inevitability, then resignation. But was it truly?

Part of the joy of Tavernier's film is not knowing. We never have a complete read on Lucien; often we are baffled by his behavior. Does he only feel life when others perish? Should this film have been titled THE MINUS MAN, much like Owen Wilson's character in a later film? As it is, the title translates in English to CLEAN SLATE, so very apt. Tavernier, co-writing with Jean Aurenche, transforms Thompon's gritty story into more than a dark exercise, layering this deliberate film with what sometimes appears to be Christlike imagery: of crosses, martyrdom, mysterious chalkboard signatures, of solar eclipses, and episodes where intervention seems imminent but then doesn't happen  What of the most curious scene, where 2 women watch a movie outdoors from behind the screen, seeing it backwards? The only ones to escape a violent   sandstorm that follows? Can we equate Lucien to an omnipresent deity?

COUP DE TORCHON is more colorful and enjoyable than expected. I anticipated a dry morality tale, a harsh, unpleasant photoplay. But this is no mere revenge drama, the kind you enjoy because the "bad guys" get their comeuppance. Lucien suffers the way many filmic antiheroes do, but there is little satisfaction in the aftermath.  If I have a criticism, it's that the movie feels more like an essay than a flesh and blood drama. The characters are too obviously meant to represent something rather than be.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Inside Cool

2013: The Summer of A/C Failure. The breakdown of air conditioning in South Florida is a dread second only to hurricane threats. It began at our apartment a few months back. The property manager arranged (covered) service calls. But.......the a/c would go on to break down four more times after each repair. Not getting to the root of the problem, until it was discovered that the etiology was electrical. All is good now.

Next, my car's a/c stopped as I was driving to work one morning. Have you been there? When the blast suddenly turns warm? You turn it on and off, hoping for some sort of reset and then your heart sinks. Thoughts of freon deficiency or even, uh oh, a downed compressor. Then, large cash payouts. As I entered the parking garage, the situation took a turn - the most noxious fumes I've ever inhaled poured out of the vents. Smoke drifted from the sides of my hood. I worried that more than a/c had gone wrong. Luckily, that proved incorrect but my compressor and money fears did not.  I won't even say how much the repair cost, but it was necessary.

To top it off, I discovered during one of my bi-weekly visits to my grandmother's place (she's now in a rehab facility) that her unit had failed. What sort of cycle had I entered?? Too much coincidence. I was concerned for the growth of mold if I let this problem fester too long. Again, I feared the worst. And who would I call? Have you ever read customer reviews on Yelp and the like? So many tales of rip-offs.

One day at work I found a guy in our ceiling, checking out the system.  Happily, I learned that his company did residential service and the next day the problem was found to be the contactor, basically an electrical switch. Less complex of a dilemma than at my apartment, though this would be an out of pocket expense. Mercifully, less than $200.00 for the part and labor. What a relief! The service guy was very friendly and informative.

Sure, older Floridians will be happy to tell you of all the years they went without air conditioning. Know it well. Tough generation, or maybe they were able to adjust because they knew nothing else. I'm sure more than one of them will agree that technology has made us all less adaptive, even wimpier. All this gives more incentive to move to California, where the humidity stays low and you can actually open your windows in summertime - in the house and the car.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Getaway

There are spoilers......

THE GETAWAY (1972) is one satisfying motion picture. Really gets the job done. Packs a whallop in its 2 brutal hours. It features a bank robbery gone awry, double crosses, tense chases, lots of female trouble, very narrow escapes, and a 12 gauge shotgun bringing down a gallery of lowlifes. With Steve McQueen behind that gun (and, of course, the wheels of several automobiles), you know you're in for some good old fashioned moviegoing. In the director's chair: Sam Peckinpah, who had just worked with his lead in JUNIOR BONNER.

Doc McCoy is a longtime Texas convict serving his sentence in the local penitentiary. He tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to visit John Benyon (Ben Johnson), a ruthless, corrupt businessman who has the connections to get Doc sprung early. There are strings attached: Doc will be required to pull a bank heist with 2 other criminals: Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins). Doc is a meticulous planner, choreographing a very detailed job, while the other two scratch their heads. Rudy, a particularly loathsome thug, (initially) declines Doc's suggestion to wear a bullet proof vest.

The robbery does not go smoothly. A bank guard is shot. Rudy decides to kill Frank as they flee. Doc will gradually learn that he's been set up by Benyon, a plan that had included Carol, who at the witching hour instead turns her gun on the boss out of her love for Doc. The chase is on. Doc is furious to learn what Carol had to do to ensure his spring from jail. Carol gets his backhand, repeatedly. 

It gets nastier. Rudy, who had tried to ambush Doc but instead took a few of his rounds, survives and makes his way to a veterinarian's office. He holds a husband and wife (Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers) at gunpoint, forcing them to tend to his wounds and eventually drive him to the same El Paso hotel where Doc and Carol will hole up on their way to Mexico.

Peckinpah again uses some very uncomfortable material in his examination of the complexity of women. Rudy and the wife become attracted to each other and begin humiliating the husband. These moments are very noirish, and this movie is an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel (by Walter Hill, who would go on to create some of his own roughhouse pics), but they fit with the sort of scenes dating back to RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, and certainly STRAW DOGS and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. It goes far beyond "you can't trust that dame". The director is quite fascinated with female dynamics. He approaches the women in his films as mysterious, but instead of painting them as mere black widows, he gives them complexity. Meanwhile, the men, often very often cocksure in their ways, are portrayed as insecure and far more flawed. Doc will attempt to understand the depths of Carol's love for him. Tawdry means to an an end as it may be.  And sometimes the men are the victims. You will certainly feel badly for Dodson's character.....

THE GETAWAY is best taken as escapism, an often exciting action flick. I especially liked the train station/train pursuit sequence, a good showcase for the director's talents.  But as stated, it wouldn't be a Peckinpah without subtext. And some of those scenes with McQueen and MacGraw (who became a real life couple during filming) actually pause to show the awkwardness of a couple attempting intimacy after 4 years apart.  "I'm as nervous as you are," she whispers. Other scenes are more playful, like when Doc shakes his head after he learns how much Carol paid for their latest getaway car. Then there are the darker ones, when Doc's tortured thoughts of Carol's infidelity threatens to tear the couple apart. Plus, getting stuck and nearly crushed to death in a garbage truck will put any marriage to the test.

McQueen's star quality is at full throttle in this movie. He commands the screen at every turn, whether deftly handling firearms or even in quiet conversation. He was a true star, the likes of which we don't see these days (and sorry, Alec Baldwin, but you were a poor substitute in the 1994 remake). And arguably, there was no one better than Peckinpah, his type also not seen these days, to guide him.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Dion Brothers

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 5
 
There are cult movies, and there are bona-fide cult movies. Ones even the most discerning film geeks of a certain age forgot/never knew about.  Movies with a tiny but very loyal fan base.   Movies that take effort to catch, that you have to dig for if you don't luck upon a cable showing or are blessed with a revival theater's showcase. No one would argue that David Lynch's ERASERHEAD is a a cult film, by any possible definition, but it's fairly well known and able to be screened without too much trouble. 1974's THE DION BROTHERS, also known as THE GRAVY TRAIN, is all but nonexistent, with reports that the 35mm prints that have survived are faded and worn. Is there an acceptable master sitting in a vault, a salt mine somewhere? If the studio knows about it, do they care? How much demand can there be for an old, obscure buddy comedy drama that defies description?

In the case of DION BROTHERS, you indeed should narrow your description to "small cult".  They're out there. I've read postings. Fans who remember the film's original release under the GRAVY TRAIN title, which was changed because many viewers thought the movie was about dog food! Favorable recollections of a caustic yet effective fable of  the American Dream gone sour, yet again. A movie you might label under "Action", which it does have plenty of, but is so much more complex. With Terrence Malick as co-screenwriter, you might expect something, else. More thoughtful. Malick was also the original director before Jack Starrett replaced him.

Calvin (Stacy Keach) and Rut (Frederic Forrest) are the Dion brothers, none too bright and both toiling at dead end factory gigs. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly for this movie as Calvin rants on the assembly line about the mundanity of his work: "I didn't stick out the last year of high school for this shit!" he yells before tearing off his shirt and finishing with  "I could be Kirk Fucking Douglas!"

Calvin has fallen in with a disparate group of thieves in Washington D.C. who plan to stick up an armored car. Calvin convinces his cronies that his brother is the perfect addition to the team, what with his skills with dynamite and all. Rut gets his own big scene as he quits his job, smashing the windows of the boss' office. Another score for the proletariat? Er, Joe American?  The promise of a six-figure take from the heist is just too tempting, and will finance Calvin's dream of opening a seafood restaurant. The exotic kind that serves whale.

The job, masterminded by the shifty Tony (Barry Primus), is a success. But soon the brothers and muscular cohort Rex (Denny Miller) learn they've been double crossed by their partners when the police show up. Through dumb luck and a little ingenuity, the siblings escape and swear vengeance. On the perilous journey toward the inevitable showdown, the Dions will pose as policemen, rob some guys who might be politicians, harass Tony's spurned girlfriend (Margot Kidder), and threaten people with live lobsters and even an electric razor before a rather unusual climax.  Oh, there's the expected shootout, but it occurs in an abandoned building that is being demolished by a wrecking ball. That ball comes crashing through at just the wrong moments.

THE DION BROTHERS is a real find. A very knowing examination of machismo run rampant, of greed, of entitlement, of misplaced identity. The boys had been fed the promise of milk and honey and the hard work ethic to facilitate it for so long they are dumfounded when they fail at every turn. Sure, they're criminals, but in their eyes they are little different from the white collar jackals in D.C. or on Wall Street. So where's their slice?

My favorite scene is one of the quieter ones, when the brothers happen upon some cash and splurge at a fancy restaurant, the sort that has a different waiter for each course. The interplay between Calvin and Rut and the wait staff is a small gem, a ballet of comedy and sociology.  The film is punctuated with several great comedy bits. The dialogue is far from the typical buddy film banter, including Rut's final line. The appearance of the "chicken man" near the end, another of  the movie's many eccentric touches, had me aching with laughter. Not just because he's inherently funny, but that he would have a coop in a crumbling building.  Also, the corrupt physician (Paul Dooley) offering Tony "Two percent and some prescription pads" for his cut of the heist. 

Starrett is probably best known for his acting role in BLAZING SADDLES but has directed several fun "B" movies like CLEOPATRA JONES. THE DION BROTHERS is more ambitious, with an astute screenplay that is both ahead of most exploitation films and typical of them. Many 70s drive-in flicks offered much commentary between scenes of sex and mayhem.  DION BROTHERS was one of several "buddy movies" released in '74, and while the oddball humor is similar to other pictures like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN,  this pic is a bird in a class by itself. Too bad we can't view a proper print. I had to content myself with a (uncut) copy dubbed from a cable channel. But it's worth the effort, crappy film quality and all, to see.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Friday, July 5, 2013

Source Code


Sorta spoilers....


In one of the documentaries accompanying the DVD of THE BLUES BROTHERS, director John Landis recalls a discussion with his co-screenwriter and lead actor Dan Aykroyd about the gravity defying "Bluesmobile", an old police car that manages some pretty amazing stunts before completely falling apart during the climax of the original 1980 film. In the sequel, another Bluesmobile remains drivable underwater, as if it were James Bond's famous Lotus. Aykroyd penned some technical explanations; Landis didn't care. "It's a magic car!" he cried.  For the director, that was the only explanation necessary.

It might be wise to adopt that attitude when viewing 2011's sci-fi-er SOURCE CODE. As with other films concerning time travel, the improbabilities mount by the second. I would've loved to have been present at the creative team's read through, when the ideas in the screenplay are tossed out, approved, and maybe even summarily dismissed as being implausible. Do they do that?  The imaginations of writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones (MOON) run so freely and entertainingly that I suspect many fans won't mind. In SOURCE CODE, an Army helicopter pilot named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a commuter train sitting across from a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan). He's not sure why he's there. His last memory is of a mission in Afghanistan. The woman keeps calling him  "Sean."

Someone spills coffee on his shoe. A guy one row back makes smart comments. Before "Sean" knows it,  the train detonates, killing everyone aboard. But then a second later, Stevens seems to be in the cockpit of his old aircraft, severely damaged.  On a monitor is Captain Goodwin (Vera Formiga) explaining that he is indeed a soldier named Stevens, but now with a new directive: to catch a bomber bound via rail for downtown Chicago. Scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) then appears and fills in the gaps: the train is part of his "source code" invention that is of an alternate timeline in which a subject is able to assume another's identity, usually to thwart a real world threat. 

Stevens learns of his last military mission overseas, and that he is believed dead. In fact, he's really alive, but on life support.  A perfect source code subject.  And he will find himself back on that Chicago train, reliving the same eight minutes over and over with the same passengers until he is able to at least identify the bomber. The woman keeps calling him by that different name, refers to their jobs as teachers. When Stevens passes a mirror, the reflection is not his. Are you reminded of at least 3 movies by now? GROUNDHOG DAY for one? I think Rod Serling would've approved of this film's plot, too.

SOURCE CODE takes its intriguing blueprint and has a good deal of fun with it. It is not a hard science fiction piece, but employs such ideas to support what boils down to a chase thriller, a race against time programmer with healthy doses of sentiment.  The film does indeed embrace emotion, as Stevens takes time for a budding romance with Christina and, even in the midst of a countdown, to make amends with his long estranged father over the phone. There are several ingenious moments throughout, allowing characters to use intelligence more often than brutality. The cast is appealing. Especially Gyllenhaal, whose character is a variation on a well worn premise - the deceased who gets another shot at making things right in the life he left behind.

The themes may not be as heady as those found in films like UPSTREAM COLOR or SOLARIS, but SOURCE CODE has both its head and heart in the right place.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Looper

If you want to give your mind some calisthenics, ponder, really ponder the notion of time travel. Putting aside all the tedious mathematics, mull over every inconsistency, every loophole to which logic will lead. The subject has been explored in literature and film countless times, focusing often on emotional matters like hearing you long deceased grandmother's voice on the phone, reliving a first kiss, or making sure your teenage parents meet and fall in love - so you can actually be born, of course.  In the case of the latter, so entertainingly played in BACK TO THE FUTURE, what if Marty had failed? He nearly does, and in one scene begins to lose his gait, even looking through his own hand as it goes transparent, as he begins to evaporate and cease to exist.

That intrigues me.  Mainly in terms of memories. What if one of my friends goes back in time and does something to change the course of history, mine included.  All of those memories I have, my current life, would just vanish? Where in the timeline does cognizance shift to nothingness? Or to differing awareness? It's maddening to think on, and certainly has been fodder for mankind to argue over, especially after viewing movies like last year's LOOPER, director Rian Johnson's entry in the genre. It is a far darker, edgier take on time travel than the (mostly) lighthearted FUTURE trilogy, and this new film brazenly refutes one of old Doc Brown's theories: if your older and younger self meet face to face, you'll both faint and maybe the space time continuum will implode, or, something like that.

2044. A large criminal organization utilizes "loopers" who kill syndicate enemies in the traditional ways, with a twist: knowing when their targets are to materialize (the victims are sent back in time to appear at a particular spot) the loopers are ready with a shotgun to take down the hooded individual and, for their services, retrieve a belt of silver plates fitted around the soon-to-be corpse. Engineering this: a man sent from the future called Abe (Jeff Daniels) who ensures that the loops are closed by forcing aged loopers about to retire back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Brutal, but efficient.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the central figure in LOOPER. He's solemn and glum, much like his colleagues, though in such a bleak landscape (with an ultimately hopeless outcome ahead of you) can you blame them? One day, a fellow looper screws up and fails to kill his older self. But soon, Joe makes the same mistake. Johnson's script will then traverse familiar territory in these sorts of stories. For example, the complications of an alternate timeline, which I will not elaborate upon. But I will recount that, as you can see from the above still, Joe will eventually stare down and converse with his older self, played with appropriate weariness by Bruce Willis. Neither one faints because of it.

Later, young Joe will camp out at the farm of a young woman named Sarah (Emily Blunt, sporting a decent American accent) and her son. Again, I won't spill too many details because convoluted tales like this often live in their labyrinthine plot twists. I will say that the Realist in me was duking it out with the Suspender of Disbelief all the while. For some, fantasies like LOOPER prove too unbelievable, the inevitable fountain of questions distracting. Not this guy.  Part of the amusement comes from picking holes, saying "Waitaminit!" Johnson does have a bit of fun with time travel conventions, but then leads his story to a dour final act. Very odd, as the film becomes both a bit too cuddly, almost resembling a family drama, while meanwhile maintaining a tone of doom (and showcasing a few moments of showstopping violence). The climax manages to be hopeful and downbeat in one quick shot.