Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Longest Yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Ladykillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wizards

 
Spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But also....

They have technology, all we have is love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Eminent Hipsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Play Misty For Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

Escape From Tomorrow

 Spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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