Wednesday, December 31, 2014

That Amazingly Eventful Second Half

The usual yearly recap for ya.....

2014 was relatively quiet. Until July. My wife complained of nonstop abdominal pain one evening, resulting in a trip to the ER and an appendectomy the next morning.  Laproscopic surgery. Two night hospital stay. Went very well, praise the Lord. One of her nurses became a hearing aid patient of mine, by chance.

For a very fun Labor Day weekend, we travelled to Cincinnati to visit family. I'd never been. We took one trip downtown, by the Reds stadium and looked across the water at Kentucky, where I was told one can still smoke in restaurants. We also had dinner in an Italian joint owned by a bald Joisey guy who'd been featured on one of those "let's fix your failing restaurant" shows.  He slapped many patrons on the back and squinted for a second when my wife requested anchovies on the side of her chicken breast. We were mainly in the 'burbs, but our lone urban trek, as enjoyable as it was, revealed a certain unexplainable poignancy. Like its battered landscape wanted to sigh out many sad stories. Alexander Payne, you reading this?

At work, it was revealed that one physician would be striking out on his/her own at the dawn of the New Year.  As you may have read in previous entries, I am staying put.  After the official announcement, things got awkward in my hallowed halls.  As I write, those who were to depart have done so, so things are quieter. We'll see what happens next.

My mother continues her stagnancy in the rehab center.  There is nothing new to add, and it is painful to write this same thing year after year.  Prayers are appreciated.

Her mother, my grandmother, passed away peacefully on Dec. 15th. We are having the funeral on Jan. 2.  I will recount this somber event next month, all the while rejoicing that she lived a very long, fruitful life and is now with her Savior.

Late this year I got in touch with a childhood friend I hadn't communicated with in over thirty years. No, not on Facebook. Through a series of interesting twists I discovered that he works with one of my old college mates.  Mike lived down the street from me, and there were many days and nights of swimming, football on front lawns, KISS, AC/DC, Rush, cap guns, walkie talkies, Intellivision, a forbidden beer swig, and my first viewing (at his house) of THE SHINING, which scarred me for good. We were close, so when a misunderstanding ended our (and our mothers') friendships when I was thirteen it was fairly devastating. I moved just before high school, though only a few blocks away. Somehow, we never encountered each other. His mom did mend fences about seven or eight years later when she visited me at the drug store in which I toiled during college.  But I never saw my friend again. Until next month, when we'll meet for a very long overdue drink and what will certainly be a lot of catching up.  There will be an entry, count on it.

This Christmas was extra special as we traveled North to see my and my wife's extended families. We began in Queens, then to Merrick, Long Island, and on to northern Jersey (Waldwick, Chatham, etc.). It wasn't that cold, even reaching near 60 a few days. Got to wear my new pea coat.  Didn't get to break out that long underwear I finally bought. There was much celebration, food, laughter, and love.  I wish I could detail more, invisible audience.

But I can say that we hit Manhattan on two separate nights, the first of which climaxed at the Village Vanguard, an eighty year old jazz venue where Rollins and Monk often played. The place seats about 125, very intimate. We were very close to the stage, upon which there were about twenty guys, a weekly house band, creating some smokin' jams. Unfortunately, I missed the last five or so minutes of the set as I became very dizzy, nauseous, and sweaty and had to make my way over to the stairs leading out of the place. I even lost my vision for several seconds. That was frightening. The staff was concerned and obliged several glasses of water and a cold towel until I could stand again. I did not puke. What to blame?  Was it the multiple drinks of the evening (which began at a bar called Rattle & Hum) and/or the mammoth chicken and rice dish at that swell Asian spot called Momoya?

The second trip was on our final night, with visits to Zero Otto Nove, a fine Italian place with amazing wait staff, and around the corner from 21st, a dandy Belgian bar/restaurant called Markt. Yes, I had a brew, the Gulden Draaken.  I did not sample the bar bites, which included bone marrow, apparently a popular thing in the city these days. Prior to that, we visited Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. It was packed, but great fun. But at the end of the night we made the mistake of trying to get back to Jersey from Penn Station on the NJ Transit after the Ranger hockey game let out. THAT was a madhouse, the likes of which I don't believe I've seen before.  There were many drunk fans, but they weren't obnoxious. Our intended train was so crammed the conductors wouldn't let us aboard. Then there was confusion about which track the next train was to depart from - even the employees couldn't agree.  I got frustrated and we took a taxi to the Secaucus NJT station (about ten miles away) for the transfer home. 

BTW - Open containers are allowed on the NJT. This night, seems the party had gone full tilt; I accidentally kicked an empty Stella Artois bottle and a full can of PBR down the aisle.

Celebrity sightings? Rudy Giuliani was on the plane ride home.  First class, of course.  He looked happy. This year I also encountered Jimmy Buffet and even Donald Trump.  Again, can't elaborate.  Sorry.

So here we are at the close of another year. I've said this before: I may be composing this from another location a year from now.  This time, though, things seem to be pointing in that direction even moreso.  As always, stay tuned. 

May you have a richly blessed 2015!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

They Live

 
The admittedly wild premise, or at least the germ of ideas of John Carpenter's 1988 sci-fi film THEY LIVE seems less improbable as the years pass. In fact, the same could be said of 1976's NETWORK, 1981's LOOKER, and so on. Society has continued, ever faster now, to deliver on the grim scenarios imagined by those who "saw the writing on the wall." And obviously not just on the big screen. Upton Sinclair and Aldous Huxley certainly described worlds that frightened readers, many of whom were doubtless reassured (perhaps by themselves) that "it could never happen".

THEY LIVE follows a drifter referred to as "Nada" (played by loudmouth wrestler Roddy Piper) who begins to learn that Los Angeles, probably the entire world, is under the dominion of aliens. The kind from another planet. There have been no bloody coups d'état, no hostile occupations. Rather, assimilation. Then, control.  Mind control. A creation of the illusion of contentment. Subconscious commands for a blueprint for living. A totalitarian blueprint.

A new arrival in the City of Angels, Nada takes a construction job and lives at a mission/soup kitchen as he tries to get on his feet. He begins to notice some curious things about its organizers, the church they use. One day Nada discovers in the back of that church a box filled with ordinary looking sunglasses. When he slips them on he sees another layer; the world as it really is. Everything in black and white (get it?). Several faces in downtown crowds now appear skeleton like. Aliens, many of them.  Words like SLEEP, CONSUME appear on magazine covers. MARRY AND REPRODUCE is seen on the side of a building.  When someone holds currency the glasses reveal THIS IS YOUR GOD printed on it.

The mission leaders are actually rebels, fighting to make the public aware of the alien presence. They hijack a satellite signal and beam images of a man warning, ranting of the danger of inactivity, complacency. This does not sit well with the local cable network, one of whom's assistant directors (Mage Foster) is kidnapped by Nada. But she, and the film itself, will prove to be full of surprises.

THEY LIVE is clutched tightly by its sizable cult. It is raved about so much you just know it will be a letdown when you finally see it for yourself. But I was consistently amused by Carpenter's movie, which he also wrote and co-scored. The first half hour is downright deliberate as it introduces the characters and sets up the story; this is not a film that puts us in a gunfight from the word go. Time is actually taken to develop its ideas.  Those only seeking good ol' exploitation may be bored.

Never fear, invisible audience, this is still a B-movie. There are bloody shootouts and chases for the dedicated. Also, the film's action centerpiece, a fistfight between Nada and one of his co-workers, Gilbert (Peter Jason) as Nada tries to convince his bud of the takeover by making him put on those damned glasses. Gilbert resists. And resists. And resists some more. The brutal, often hysterical fight goes on for over five minutes and is easily one of the lengthiest brawls in cinema history. And Nada frequently tosses off silly lines like, "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." Also, "Brother, Life's a bitch, and she's packin' heat!" The alien makeup is, less face it, pretty cheesy.

But THEY LIVE is not as patently campy or adrenalized as I would've expected.  It's unusually thoughtful for an '80s B-movie, with things to say about consumerism and class warfare that are as astute as many straight faced movies, as well as the more wild offerings like REPO MAN.  THEY LIVE was released during an era when most Hollywood movies reflected the conservative mood and zeitgeist. Its criticisms of capitalism, Reaganomics, and the like really set it apart.  And that final scene is a real gem, managing to dot an "I" on its fine points and give the peanut gallery a money shot.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

May this be a day of great joy - to those who celebrate Jesus' birth, and to those who don't (and may  they witness the love of Christ shine through all who call upon His name). To those who are blessed with family and friends.  For the isolated, I pray you have impressed upon you a great Peace and comfort, and the knowledge that there is One who loves you.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Murmur of the Heart

Serious Spoilers

Louis Malle's autobiographical 1971 drama MURMUR OF THE HEART in some ways quite surprisingly, curiously resembles American "youth films" and TV sitcoms of the late 70s/early 80s, especially the final scene when a teenager returns to his hotel room to find his parents and brothers waiting for him after his illicit evening with a girl down the hall.  Instead of being scolded, the boy gradually joins everyone as they burst into laughter. The End.

It's hard to know how to react.  Laugh off the potential seriousness of this scenario?  Find the whole affair a bit of lighthearted whimsy? I haven't even explained that earlier that same evening 15 year old Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) shared his mother Clara's (Lea Massari) bed in that way. With this information you may conclude that you're in for a typically brazen, Un-PC bit of early 70s, European cinema. Attitudes far more open about sexuality than what might've been seen in a Hollywood feature. It is certainly true that a film like this is unlikely to be produced today, much like the same year's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, an American film (but directed by a Frenchman) would not be. The scandalous plot will seem irresponsible and immoral to many viewers.

Naturally, Malle has insisted that the episode of incest is pure fiction, unlike the remainder of his screenplay, a bittersweet coming of age drama based on his formative years in France. Laurent shares his creator's love for Charlie Parker and Proust and the Tour de France.  Like his protagonist, Malle had two randy older brothers who brought him to a lady of the evening for his First Time. The film's title derives from the director's cardiac diagnosis when he was around Laurent's age.

Loving Clara acts more like a friend to her teenagers than a mother. She chases them around and shares laughter in their juvenile behavior, as when they repeatedly harass (but gently, jokingly) their maid. She is much younger than her husband Charles (Daniel Gelin), a staid sort of fellow who barely puts down his newspaper at dinner and is not prone to affection to her or the sons.  It is unsurprising that Clara has a lover, something discovered by Laurent while he and his mother are at a hotel while he recuperates from scarlet fever. The boy begins to spy on his mother in the bath as he reconciles his increasing hormonal urges.

While elements of the story indeed play like an 80s teens-on-the-make comedy (brothers repeatedly trying to score, pranks, parents who care more about expensive artifacts than their children, etc.), you of course already know the answer to the "chicken or the egg" inquiry. Long before THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN or even RISKY BUSINESS, Malle created this lovingly orchestrated nostalgia that never seems dishonest or phony.  His openness and playful, light approach is a nice alternative to other dramas attempting to tackle this very tricky subject. Bertolucci's LUNA was a fascinating but overwrought and sometimes bombastic piece.  David O. Russell's SPANKING THE MONKEY was mostly successful at the awkward dance that would come before and after the forbidden union of mother and son, though its ending seems cribbed from FIVE EASY PIECES.  I cannot recall seeing a father/daughter story of this nature, and I would not hold my breath.

The incest plotline, very discreetly handled, will keep many from seeing MURMUR OF THE HEART.  I think this is too bad, as his film is a jewel, a sweet memory that recalls youth without a middle aged jadedness. Malle knows exactly when to cut from a scene, before it wears out its welcome or becomes too silly. The brothers' art forgery/switched painting joke on their father is a good example. Another involves an uncomfortable scene between Laurent and the priest at his school. That Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach cite the film as influential also doesn't hurt one bit.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Secret!

The writing/directing team of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) certainly earned their spot in comedy film history with the 1980 spoof AIRPLANE!, which remains a staple in the genre.  While it was a relentlessly silly, near non-stop parade of all sorts of jokery, what was also really funny was how little it deviated from what it was spoofing, namely the 1957 disaster flick ZERO HOUR!, but also the series of AIRPORT films of the 70s.  If you watch these movies, you'll observe what howlers they were to begin with.

In 1984, ZAZ followed up with another parody, TOP SECRET!, this time taking aim at both Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley vehicles. One does not have to be intimately familiar with those sorts of films to get a kick out of this, however, and the generous amount of sight gags and puns, while not as fast and furious as in its predecessor, provide enough to entertain your inner 12 year old.

Val Kilmer, back when he was amiable and funny, plays American pop singer Nick Rivers who, in an unspecified time period (all the better for anachronistic jokes), travels to East Germany to perform in a festival. His hit "Skeet Surfin'" provides an amusing opening credit sequence.  Nick quickly alienates his hosts (by threatening to add them to the Montgomery Ward mailing list) and finds himself in prison, where he meets Dr. Paul Flammond (Michael Gough), a scientist being forced to create a weapon of mass destruction for the Germans. Rivers will also meet Flammond's daughter and his potential love interest Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) who is involved with the French Resistance, all of whom have names of familiar French words.

As you can see, the plot is more than a bit absurd, essentially a collection of genre cliches. What matters in TOP SECRET! are the gags, and there are some classics amidst the misfires. Like the visit to the Swedish bookstore, and watch that scene carefully; it may be the most creative and inspired idea in ZAZ history. The East German national anthem. The underwater barroom brawl. There are also several of what I call "perspective" gags, such as a train station that rolls away instead of the train. Or the bookstore owner's (Peter Cushing) eye that really is that large, even when he removes the magnifying glass. There are two separate scenes where a pair of boots appear to be attached to someone, but...aren't. There are also boob and penis jokes, and one prop, a special, erm, "helper" that is sure to make modest viewers blush. And those musical numbers are quite funny.

TOP SECRET! may suffer for/baffle younger viewers as so many of the jokes are very dated, like the BLUE LAGOON inspired flashback, the Virginia Slims tennis tournament reference, and the tank and Pinto gag. ZAZ are willing to mine near anything for a laugh, and with so many attempts the law of averages will guarantee a few duds and groaners. There are some slow stretches, lapses in rhythm and energy. The film was not a box office winner like AIRPLANE! and is surprisingly obscure. If you are unfamiliar and enjoy this sort of silliness, you may make a pleasant discovery.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Call Did Come

I had prepared for this call for many years. It was always there, waiting. I could not tell if it was a mere glimmer or flashing beacon. I played the call in my mind and imagined how I'd react. Wracked with an enormous sadness but also some sense of relief.  And that's exactly how it happened.

Over the years, my grandmother had many close calls.  Falls, hip surgery, pneumonia. She had been in hospitals and rehabilitation centers.  On Thanksgiving Day 2012, she fell one final time in her own apartment.  The catalyst to prompt me to admit her to a facility that would not only monitor her movements, but encourage her to get out of bed and be social.  Not much persuasion was necessary, as she made several friends in her new home, always introducing someone new when I visited.

This past October, Theresa celebrated her 101st birthday.  Another close call a day later when her blood pressure spiked and she had suspicion of sepsis.  I spent a Saturday evening in the ER with her.  She was scared.  So was I.  Was this it? But as many times previously, she beat the illness and returned to her life. She was amazing. A sweetness and strength unmatched.

Last night, the call finally came.  She had been feeling weak and not eating as much the last few days.  My wife and I visited her this past Saturday, bringing early Christmas presents (a scarf and a sweater, in her beloved pink).  She was crazily affectionate as always. It would be the last time I would see the light in her eyes and hear her voice.

I went to the facility after the call and went to say goodbye. She had her head to the left, and her right eye and mouth were open. She was still warm. It was unbearably sad. I haven't broken down that hard in a long while. I really fell apart when I eased the sheet down to see her hand, upon it a ring that spelled out "I Love You." Like she was conveying this one final time.  I said it back to her.

There is more to say. For now I wanted to get these words down, to let my invisible audience know.  In the coming weeks there will be a memorial service, and visits to family, hopefully including my grandmother's sister, a tower of strength herself.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not the Days of Old

For a time, it was doubtful that the annual holiday party at work would even be held this year. I was  prepared to title my annual entry "This Space for Rent".  Things will be changing in my workplace of over five years very soon.  Big things. Without being specific, I can say that some longtime employees decided that they will not stick around to see these changes take effect in the New Year.  They will work together in a new location, in fact. But most are staying. Unfortunately, a palpable awkwardness has contaminated the office for the past month, as the soon to depart have found themselves at odds with the others.  The usual year end hugs and congratulations would not have occurred at a company party. In fact, it would've had the potential to be the most uncomfortably grotesque shindig of my career.

So one of the employees who is leaving decided to throw an alternate celebration.  About fifteen gathered at a beautiful old home to share holiday turkey and ham and play Christmas bingo. The ten foot high tree had a train circling the presents underneath.  There was even an appearance by Santa. My gift: candy balls whose second ingredient (after sugar) is Wild Turkey. The party was a perfect size, and a warm affair. Many in attendance were "stayers" (including myself) but the junior high school level drama at the workplace of late was absent this brisk South Florida evening.  And a pleasant surprise: one of the front office staff ladies who recently gave birth to twins was there with her husband. The two girls were left at home with their abuela. Mom looked better than she had in months. Those last days before the delivery had her appearing haggard and beaten. But this night, despite the expected lack of sleep, she looked cheerful and relaxed.

You'll note that I've excluded significant details about the situation at work and I remain tight lipped for now. It was a bit sad that the large parties at local restaurants were now a thing of the past, at least for this year. 2015 - who knows?  But the house party had an intimacy and warmth that had always been missing.  This was easily the most enjoyable work Christmas party I've attended. I wish those who are moving on great success in the coming year. And to those of us remaining, we wait hopefully for own sustained good fortune and ever forward improvement in our caregiving skills.  I pray for an environment that will continue to encourage such goals.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Interstellar

Possible Spoilers

INTERSTELLAR is such an enormous, sprawling, ambitious motion picture that by its very scope it is likely to have considerable flaws.  Any film that attempts to tackle so much, to be so many things is likely to fall short in some regard.  Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan has extended a grasp that was perhaps doomed to only reach so far, to fail in part (though nobly) to fully elucidate the ideas of he and sibling Jonathan's screenplay, which was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg (in some ways, the movie feels like one of his earlier efforts).  Some in the original audiences for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY may have had similar criticisms toward what would eventually be hailed as a masterpiece, but that film would never be accused of being too sentimental.  Unlike Spielberg's A.I., which was originally conceived by Kubrick.

To wit, there is in fact a lot of weeping in INTERSTELLAR.  Under the circumstances, not unwarranted. While floating in deep space, characters watch video transmissions of their loved ones back on Earth, wondering when/if they will return. Lead actor Matthew McConaughey has two intense crying scenes during such moments. He plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who gets no less than a chance to save the world, as Earth has become a barren dustbowl. The movie does not explain (or maybe I missed it) why the American military is no longer necessary and there aren't enough farmers in this unspecified time frame of a future.  Cooper is a weary middle-aged widower father of two who's had to scuttle his dreams and talents as an engineer to toil on a farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow, welcome as always) to support his family.  Through a series of events, Cooper and his spunky daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) discover the underground quarters of the last remnants of NASA.

Dr. Brand (Michael Caine, by now a Nolan regular) is there to explain that a wormhole leading to possibly inhabitable planets exists, and he wants Cooper to pilot the spaceship Endurance, flying a mission with his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and others (including two robots who have settings for "humor" and "honesty") to investigate these worlds named after the astronauts who discovered them. Each planet orbits the black hole called Gargantua, a significant detail of the plot as Cooper will eventually travel through it, making some huge discoveries that will answer questions posed earlier in the film.  That's as much as you're getting out of this reviewer, invisible audience.

Additionally, I won't reveal the identity of the Big Star (no, not that kind) who appears late in the film, though unfortunately I had to control a snicker when this individual appeared.  Even though the character is sobbing uncontrollably when first seen. I just couldn't help it. It also pains me to say that the plot development involving this character is unnecessary and clutters the movie with extra, contrived and predictable conflict that merely detracts from the larger story.

INTERSTELLAR spans several earth years, about eighty, I believe.  Due to the Endurance's proximity to the black hole at various points, a dilation of time due to gravitation pull will equate one hour on the ship to seven years back on Earth.  This is a perfect device to create familial poignancy, to detail the troubling relationships between (mainly) fathers and daughters.  I was taken aback at how readily the film embraced sentiment, largely absent from Nolan's previous work. The finale will probably have some viewers getting misty.  I wondered if the director realized that his film, loaded with complex explanations of physics, included more familiar, human elements to not only balance the tone, but address criticisms about the cold austerity of his earlier films.  Despite some moments that border on cornball, I think INTERSTELLAR maintains a successful tread between the academic and romantic.

But make no mistake, much of the romance in this film is of the possibilities beyond the Earth. The considerations of entire alternate galaxies.  Searching for planets beyond our own ravaged island is a frequent theme in science fiction lit and films (BLADE RUNNER, ELYSIUM). Ecological advocacy, if intended, is a bit muddy in INTERSTELLAR but the excitement for exploration and the urgency for self-preservation is very clear. 

The movie is an event.  Refreshing to experience real cinema (not digitized, and God bless Nolan in his fight) on a huge screen in this age where people watch 2001 on their smartphones. The visuals are astounding; I saw it in IMAX, highly recommended.  James Horner's score, often ear splitting, is just the right amount of majesty.  The cast is very good. Bubbling under numerous scientific explanations are hints of the theological, though you have to look no further than the film's tagline ("Mankind was born on Earth, it wasn't meant to die here") to discern such ideas. Or that the previous trips to other worlds were dubbed "Lazarus missions" ("You are risen from the dead, but you have to die first").

While INTERSTELLAR is not a cinematic debate on the existence of a higher power ala 1997's very underrated CONTACT (which also had physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant), the Nolans suggest that for all of the science that makes life possible and sustainable, that allows space travel, perhaps Something breathed it into us. That maybe we are conduits through which the supernaturally imbued knowledge can flow. But is the ultimate hope INTERSTELLAR provides in its conclusion within us intrinsically, merely because of science, or because of One who created us?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

How I wish I could've been there when A HARD DAY'S NIGHT hit theater screens back in 1964.  To witness something so new and fresh, so inventive. Unless you've completely avoided visual and aural media for the last fifty years, the novelty of The Beatles' inaugural foray in cinema will be lost, and undoubtedly remind you of something you've previously seen. Being of a certain age guarantees that the uber cool piece of music or film that you find so ground breaking has already been done, in one form or another, perhaps before you were born. This will be especially true for certifiables like myself who have been exposed to so much.

None of the above should prevent you from watching A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. Aside from its obvious historic significance, the movie bursts with an energy and spontaneity that is infectious, inspiring.  Every shot suggests the possibility of another fit of creativity and imagination, an unexpected direction to take. Unlike many of its clones, it is not a sloppily constructed pastiche, an amateur night collegiate exercise, but rather a skillful collage of exuberance. I see I've used a lot of vocabulary so far, words critics toss about in their efforts to convince you one way or the other. This is warranted.

Director Richard Lester was undoubtedly the right choice for this, if you will, day in the life of the Liverpool quartet. A perfect match.  Lester is like the ultimate fan, albeit one skilled in the Spherical cinematographic process, trying to glimpse his quarries in hidden moments. He'd of photographed them changing their socks if he had the chance. But this is not a documentary. With a script by Alun Owen, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT travels with the boys as they ride trains, attempt to keep Paul McCartney's grandfather out of trouble, search for a wandering Ringo Starr, and eventually play a show.  It is filled with quick (and quick witted) dialogue which would be a stock in trade for Beatles films.  And that wonderful music. My generation had MTV. The Boomers had this.

As many have observed, what is quite noticeable in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is the optimism, the wide eyed joy. Fame, drugs, psychadelia, and Eastern mysticism had not yet worn down the quartet (interesting as the resulting music may have been). Their early hits were upbeat and their dispositions even, at least onscreen. If any tsuris was going on off camera it is not evident here. Though pay attention to John Lennon. Lifting that bottle of Coca Cola to his nose. Ah, ha.  Is he trying to sabotage the light? He all but lifts his middle finger to the camera. Is he foretelling the future? The Figure of Portent? At one point, quite chillingly, the Beatles' manager, so frustrated in his efforts to reign the lads in, hisses "I'm going to murder you, John!"

But overall we have a sunny time capsule. An incredibly influential (and reverent to the French New Wave style) movie, the reach of which is still seen, even in those videos you see on the Fuse Network.  Watch A HARD DAY'S NIGHT followed by 1970's often painfully uncomfortable LET IT BE . You will see the classic disintegration of genius and harmony. Crushing, perhaps unavoidable. Criterion, having done another spot-on job with NIGHT, should get to work on the unfortunate coda.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Post Thanksgiving Feasting

Thanksgiving weekend was a typically busy time of food prep and miles of travel all over South Florida to visit scattered relatives. For the Big Day, we had the usual trimmings of turkey, stuffing, my wife's great cranberry sauce, etc. etc.  Things were a bit different this year as we additionally celebrated my in-laws' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, attended a wake, and had house guests from Georgia and Pennsylvania. The latter being my wife's second cousin who decided that we should cook an Indian meal for her aunt and uncle, who visited Sunday evening.  He's quite handy in the kitchen - his first night he gored several avacadoes for guacamole and the next morning whipped up tasty omelettes.  Lately we haven't cooked as much so it all seemed so, I dunno, magical.

But Sunday night's dinner was especially ambitious.  The main course was a fabulous salmon smothered in a store bought tikka masala sauce, with almost everything else made from scratch: the not too spicy lentil based dal (good to serve with whole wheat roti), the yogurt and cucumber dish known as raita, and the flavorful okra you see below.  Cleansing the palate at the finish was gulab jamin, a dumpling style, ball shaped dessert in a sweet syrup. 

In case you're a local and want to attempt a similar meal check out the comprehensive Indian/Pakastani grocery in West Palm Beach called India Bazaar, 4780 Okeechobee Blvd., (561) 721-9202.

Monday, December 1, 2014

All That Jazz

Every morning, he reminds the mirror that "it's showtime." It used to be approached with real zest and anticipation. Hands outstretched and smile wide.  Lately, the face is weary. Dexedrine and Alka Seltzer make standing up even possible. The eyes are bloodshot and require frequent hits of Visine. Vivaldi pieces provide his soundtrack. Another cigarette is needed. The sheets reveal another partner spent the night.

1979's ALL THAT JAZZ is one of the most brazenly self-indulgent, pretentious ego trips you're likely to see. To watch director Bob Fosse's spectacularly downbeat, ersatz episode of This is Your Life is a frequently painful two hours. The celebrated theater and film director and choreographer suffered a heart attack in 1975 after years of punishing schedules and destructive behavior.  All fodder which Fosse has worked into this screenplay, his very own 8 1/2, Fellini's ode to self from the early '60s.

The Fosse doppleganger in ALL THAT JAZZ is called Joe Gideon, played by non-music and dance guy Roy Scheider. He was not the first actor considered, but he owns the part, really dives into the muck and hangs on to the very bitter end.  By the glitzy finale, as his body lies dying on a hospital bed and he imagines the final number, a splashy death-take on the Everly Brothers tune, "Bye Bye Love", he apologizes to his wife, daughter, and every one else he has abused and/or neglected in some fashion. It's a long, excruciating send off, fitting for a movie that can be described likewise.

Gideon is mounting a new stage production. Possibly his most ambitious. The dance routines are complex and the material embraces erotica. There are a plethora of bad jokes.  He loathes it.  His contempt is obvious as he sits at a roundtable read through, one of several lacerating moments in ALL THAT JAZZ. Gideon is also editing his latest movie, a bio of a tormented comic, not unlike Fosse's 1974 film LENNY. The cutting is torturous. Studio people are worried. Back at the theater, more worries. Gideon's been here before, perhaps would have it no other way. More cigarettes.

And sex. Gideon has a variety of overnight guests, often his own dancers. They mistake his carnal interest for love.  He can't even love himself.  So why is he broken when one of them admits she's sharing another's bed? Is there a glimmer of a human being in there? He does encourage one of his charges after she repeatedly blows a routine: "I can't make you a great dancer, but I can make you a better dancer."  Maybe he just wants it all. Too bad he didn't "die young and leave a good looking corpse".

Periodically during ALL THAT JAZZ, Gideon chats with an attractive woman (Jessica Lange) who we guess is some sort of angel of death.  Maybe the Grim Reaper.  She flirts with and teases him while he opens up like a psychiatric patient on some celestial couch.  He asks her the same questions he throws up to God:


How can you make something so perfect as a rose, yet I can't?!

Why am I not talented enough? Funny enough? Deep enough?


Perfectionist, tortured artist inquiries.  Of course, he's his own worst critic. Is he trying to achieve perfection in his personal life? He rather seems swept along by his own vices, helpless to mold his family life and professional relationships into a letter perfect ballet. Unlike some monsters, he's all too aware of himself, his failures.  He does in fact give a shit, but seems paralyzed to change.

It's obvious Fosse put everything he had into ALL THAT JAZZ, from its eye-filling opening - herds of dancers during tryouts set to "On Broadway", to that final duet with Ben Vereen, Fosse the artist dissects Fosse the artist and the tortured mere moral within.  His film is relentless, especially in the later passages with its repeated intercuts between Gideon's heart surgery and moments of lavish choreography.

Once in a while, the film takes a breather, as when Gideon's daughter does a lovely, almost impromptu bit of choreography to "Everything Old is New Again" with his girlfriend at home. Or when we meet a rival theater director played by John Lithgow.  All the while, choking self analysis comes off by turns as smug, self-deprecating, astounding egotistical, crushingly depressing, but maybe even hopeful.  I don't know if the movie can be called a cautionary tale, because likeminded genius/talents wouldn't have their lives any other way.  Maybe they're just incapable.

And kudos again to Criterion for such an astounding remaster!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Flagler Drive Revisited

A few weeks back I returned to a path that had always provided solace and mental clarity. A stretch of road on which I've traveled for about 40 years. Unavoidably littered with memories.  Thoughts of all the folks who joined me for dates and/or Life Talks. Drunken stumbles home. Relaxing solitary walks, other times hard runs in all sorts of weather.  Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach is one of the most pleasant few miles you could take in this town, a place described as a "honky tonk wasteland" by Rolling Stone back in the '80s.  I drive on Flagler almost daily, but on a recent brisk evening I slowed down and strolled a good bit of it to confirm a huge decision.  And then to inform someone over the phone of my choice.

No, invisible audience, I can't talk about it. What did you think? It was work related; leave it at that. The point of this entry, aside from actually sharing a bit of my life once in a while, is to highlight how important it is to have that getaway, that place in which to clear one's head and regain one's sanity.  To power down and smell the roses, if you will. It is helpful that my special place is scenic: nice homes on one side and waterway on the other. One castle was already decked out for Christmas, miles of light strands around palm trees. There are always joggers and dog walkers, most ready to return a smile or at least a nod. Lovers on the seawall. Cyclists' headlights cutting through the darkness.  Something so organic about it all.  Like a surfer who surveys the aquatic and aviary life around him while he positions his board for the next set. You have to be there.

One of my 2008 entries for this blog spoke of Flagler Drive, which at that time was within walking distance from my apartment. It's funny to read it now. To reflect upon how much has happened since then.  How little I've changed, or so I think. For the past three years I've lived in a gated condo community further away, one of which I've grown quite fond. My preferred stretch of Flagler is now a bit out of the way and I don't get to it as often.  I frequently work late, otherwise I'm at the gym or busy at home. Or involved in a family-related activity.  Thank God. When I composed the earlier entry I was still single. I would not trade my life now for those days. Yet, I miss the time for those regular walks.  Something so special about it, something so conducive to decision making. I decided to return to school back in '98 while taking in the night air on that stretch. Finalized plans for moves there.  This time, I made another possibly life altering choice...but that remains to be seen.....


P.S. When I finally made that call I had stopped at a sandbar at the southern end of Flagler on the Intracoastal Waterway known to locals as "Summa Beach",  pictured above and named after the street at which it ends on the east side. It is indeed a small beach, with several trees and a bench, itself full of memories.  I just learned that Summa Beach was mentioned in the book Marley & Me. Apparently, the film adaptation decided to shoot at a location in Broward County to the south instead of at the real spot. Curses!


P.P.S.: Readers will recall that the dearly departed Chapel by the Lake (which sat on Flagler Drive) was also a frequent place of refuge for me.  They'll remember that it fell to the wrecking ball late last summer.  As of this writing, the proposed super condo has yet to be built. Right now, a lovely grassy field remains. It's a picture of serenity. Too bad they can't leave it that way and make it a park.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Battle of Algiers

 
That 1966's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS was screened in the Pentagon following the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq in 2003 is endlessly fascinating (and telling) to me. Gillo Pontecorvo's newsreel style drama, carefully edited and produced to resemble a documentary, is considered by some to be a model for military strategy.  The seven year Algerian war in the mid 1950s/early '60s was marked by aggressive guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and torture, inflicted by and on both sides.

The war was quite complex, nominally between the European French colonizers and the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rising socialist party that rallied notables and petty thieves alike in their efforts to obtain independence from France. Additionally, a civil war erupted between Alegrian loyalists and Muslim insurgents. Before Charles de Gaulle surrendered the north African nation, the streets were stained with the blood of fighters and innocent locals and tourists. Bombs took down luncheonettes and boarding houses, where suspected FLN members may have been harbored. There were no heroes, no one for whom to root, unless you were entrenched in either side's ideology. Would you endorse terrorism to liberate your country? Participate in a holocaust to that end?  Ask an Israeli or a Palestinian that question. Moderates don't fare so well in this world.

Pontecorvo's landmark film jumps around a timeline, introducing us to common street criminals who become key FLN members. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is seen largely through the eyes of Ali (Brahim Haggiag), a simple man who finds himself at the end of his dramatic transformation barricaded in a tenement, about to be martyred for his cause. At the detonator outside is Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), seen throughout the movie detailing battle plans for French paratroopers. His words sound uncomfortably familiar. Same as it ever was?

In my viewing experience, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is really the only film of its kind that can be accurately summarized as objective, or at least pretty damned close. Pontecorvo's camera maintains its distance, but always clearly and evenly documents wartime atrocities of which both sides were guilty. No one wears a halo. This is the best sort of approach for a quasi-documentary, in my opinion. Even with its final scene, as Algierians march in the streets to celebrate their independence, the victory may ring hollow when you consider the methodology, the cost. But to achieve a way of life, such a path is often unfortunately and inevitably littered with casualty, whether you fight along colonial, imperialist lines or against such thinking.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mr. Nichols

Director Mike Nichols passed away yesterday at the age of 83.  I heard the news on NPR as I was driving to work.  Interestingly, the first thing I thought of was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this year. The men had collaborated on stage and screen, with Hoffman's great performance as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR so memorable. I pictured both of these artists to have similar methods and personalities.  Brilliant, maybe difficult sometimes.

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR would be Nichols' swan song in 2007, capping a career of mostly excellent films,  including THE GRADUATE, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, CLOSER, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and many more. I've yet to see WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, his scorching debut.

Nichols was just as renowned for his stage work, recently mounting productions of Spamalot and Death of a Salesman.  Many younger fans may be unaware of his earlier days as 1/2 of the great comedy team of Nichols and (Elaine) May. Their brand of humor is sorely missed: comedy based more or characterization than jokes. Check out some YouTube clips; this is how it's done.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nightcrawler

The recent release NIGHTCRAWLER manages, quite curiously, to feel both out of date and scarily relevant, as in-the-moment as anything possibly could.  Its big themes of corruption and moral bankruptcy are timeless.  The film's story: an ambitious, likely sociopathic young man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) happens upon an accident on a Los Angeles freeway and finds a career to which he attaches himself with frightening zeal.  A Steve Jobs or Kenneth Lay in the making. NIGHTCRAWLER in fact could be viewed as the backstory of a future Barbarian at the Gate.

But writer/first time director Dan Gilroy does not shed any light on Lou's earlier years, what led/reduced him, as the film opens, to hawking stolen metal parts to junk yards.  One buyer sees straight through Lou's corporate zombie speak/positive thinking/"what color is your parachute" patter when he asks for a job: "I'm not hiring a fucking thief." Undaunted, Lou combs the night looking for other career opportunities, finally seeing his bright future when he discovers that accident and crime scenes can mean big paydays. That night when Lou watches the police pull a woman from a twisted wreck and the guys videotaping it.  Local network affiliates offer sometimes generous fees for grisly footage. "If it bleeds, it leads!" cries amateur crewman/eventual competitor Joe (Bill Paxton).

Lou buys himself a cheap camera and police scanner (to scope potential material), clumsily attempting to capture footage that may provide a lead in to the Morning News.  He's threatened with arrest and pushed back by cops and EMTs, but a start-up entrepreneur sees no obstacle. He'll at last get that money shot, the close-up of gore over which T.V. news directors salivate. In Nina (Rene Russo), Lou will (eventually) find a like-minded opportunist, a woman who lives and dies by overnight ratings, who hops from station to station every few years when the numbers go south.
Nina is near sixty, desperate, bitter. Lou sizes her up quickly, and her industry where a half hour news program spends mere seconds on stories about the infrastructure and politics but precious minutes on murders and home invasions.

Lou is a go-getter.  A real producer. He'll beat the police to crime scenes, capture video inside private homes, even re-arrange a corpse to get what he needs.  With the assistance of a slow-witted drifter named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Lou will prove himself to be the ultimate closer, even manipulating both criminals and the police into a shoot out and deadly chase to get the goods.

NIGHTCRAWLER, for all of its strong points, still falls short of being the expected nasty little classic. Gilroy has written a tight and cynical tale that speaks of many ills, but often it feels a day late and a few dollars short.  Local news? Almost a quaint notion these days. I'm sure there's still an audience, but this tale would've resonated a lot more 20-30 or more years ago. With cable news and smartphone ubiquity these days, the plotline is a bit stale. Yet, technology plays a vital part in NIGHTCRAWLER, namely the Internet and GPS.  Lou states that his education came entirely from hours online, in fact. It might explain his complete lack of ability to relate to others in any human way. Others are rather pawns, tools to "get to the next level."

Gyllenhaal is just great in his role, total ownership. The isolation and behavior of Lou reminded me of Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman more than once.  His emaciated appearance allows eyes sunken into a gaunt face, positively ghoulish, especially when he smiles. You can just as easily see him behind a lectern in a boardroom as lurking on L.A. streets. His dialogue is a virtual reprisal of every corporate manual, every cold performance review ("It's clear that I have more faith in your abilities than you do."). Gilroy is clearly evoking not just headline making CEOs but any middle management drone. Taken to the next level, natch. Russo also has her best role in many years.

Robert Elswit, frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson, frames the cityscape so beautifully, so enticingly, and so icily. His work here is among his best. Another example of L.A. is a character. NIGHTCRAWLER has some of the best location work I've seen. And yet, it all feels so retro, even cheesy at times. The attempt to use James Newton Howard's feel good score in an ironic fashion doesn't quite come off. While there are some thrilling moments of action, the film does resist opportunities for pace halting sex scenes and over the top violence, but Gilroy's direction somehow makes everything feel like we're merely watching a smart B-movie.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Choirboys

I've often stated that when an artist creates something, when he's finished and shown it to the world, it is no longer merely his. He has released it, allowed all who visit the chance to explore and interpret as they wish. While a work unavoidably embodies much resembling its creator, it separates to become its own entity.  This is why I don't boycott movies, music, or any media created by someone whose views with which I don't agree or has proven to be despicable in some fashion.

But consider a novelist who has his work poorly adapted for the big screen. Or a screenwriter who watches his masterpiece bowdlerized. This happens frequently in Hollywood. Would these writers be willing to accept the thoughts expressed in my first paragraph?

Former Los Angeles cop Joseph Wambaugh began penning the exploits of the men in blue in the City of Angels in the early '70s. The novels were laceratingly good reads, apparently loaded with authenticity. Television programs like Police Story and The Blue Knight were born. There were also decent to good movies like THE NEW CENTURIONS, THE ONION FIELD, and THE BLACK MARBLE. But in 1977 there was also THE CHOIRBOYS.

Based on Wambaugh's highly regarded 1975 novel,  THE CHOIRBOYS is, I can say without even a hint of hesitation, one of the worst movies I've ever seen.  A disjointed, unfunny, badly paced, immoral waste of celluloid. Truly. I wasn't expecting much, as for over 30 years I've been hearing how awful the movie was. That Wambuagh took legal action to have his name removed from the credits and to this day still angrily denounces it was really all I needed to know. Yet I was still compelled to watch.

With many restricted films of its era, during which I was just a child, I had this odd fascination. I remember the original TV spots for THE CHOIRBOYS, the ads in the newspaper. The marketing aggressive to inform us that this was an outrageous, irreverent picture with "stuff you won't see on TV." Unless you had HBO, of course, where this film played not long after its short run in theaters. But by the time we had pay TV in my house, the movie was never shown. The mystique grew. Its lack of availability for many years added intrigue, as is the case for many movies with similar fates.

How bad is THE CHOIRBOYS? Finding even one element for which to recommend it is difficult. Even with its large, accomplished cast of actors like Charles Durning, Robert Webber, and James Woods. Pros that they are, they still fail to make this worth your precious two hours. It's a film that is almost consistently vile, and when it isn't it is just plain dull.

The story follows a group of L.A. lawmen who have frequent sessions of "choir practice", nights to decompress after hard days on the job. Sometimes in someone's apartment but most often at McCarthur Park where, one night, a particularly loathsome cop (Tim McIntire) is drugged and tied naked to a tree. The other cops laugh and laugh, shown doubled over. It goes on for awhile, to make certain that we get that this is supposed to be funny. The audience does not share their merriment. Then, after his cohorts leave him, an effeminate man with a pink poodle approaches and thanks the Lord above. Har dee har. No caricatures here.

Another moment, one of those you couldn't see on TV: an overweight cop works his way under a glass table, upon which a female cop called "No Balls" Hadley is sitting sans underwear. He puts his tongue to the glass. Before that, Hadley is groped by Durning's character, nicknamed "Sperm Whale" in a swimming pool. Ah, boys will be boys.  And hey, whaddaya think of that scene where a disliked lieutenant is lured to a hotel room by a hooker, then photographed in a compromising position by two other cops? Are you laughing?

The first hour of THE CHOIRBOYS in fact plays like a POLICE ACADEMY movie, though it predates the series by seven years.  There's even a scene when all the cops try to back out of their parking spaces at the same time and cause a gridlock. Another where a guy tries to arouse his wife very early one morning for some action, boasting he has something that will wake her up. "Only if you poke it in my eye," she deadpans.

The second hour gets all serious, with a repellant plot line involving the accidental shooting of a gay man by one of the men in blue (who suffers Vietnam flashbacks) and the subsequent cover up. Another cop is seen dealing with an addiction to sadomasichism.

It's little wonder why Wambaugh demanded control over future adaptations. The rape and burial of his novel here is near breathtaking, a real textbook example.  To add insult, director Robert Aldrich (why, Bob, why?) frames the movie like a cheap T.V. show, complete with "wipes" between scenes and an awful score by Frank DeVol that is one of the most incongruous to the screen action and inappropriate I've ever heard. There are no transitions between scenes, just a crude collection of them.

Defenders of this movie cite things like "they don't make 'em like this anymore" or "this was back when comedies weren't so PC..." etc. These statements are true, and chauvanism, racism, and other all around bad behavior can be funny, but...here things are just foolish and offensive. A reactionary scuz pit of sleaze. Maybe I would've actually liked THE CHOIRBOYS when I was eight.

Too bad Robert Altman didn't get his hands on this project. His (seemingly) disorganized approach with this ensemble may have made the thing palatable.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Deported

I imagine many American viewers who make the effort to see the 2012 documentary DEPORTED will sit with arms folded and conclusions reached early on, perhaps even before the first images appear. People who loudly exclaim how pissed they are that the clerk at CVS can barely speak English and that there are street signs in Spanish here in the U.S. of A. Who have "No Amnesty" and "Fence the Border" bumper stickers. People are alarmingly one dimensional on this wildly complicated issue.  I doubt anything in this film will change their minds, propel them to seek or consider an alternate point of view.  DEPORTED will likely reinforce it.  After seeing the movie, I'm not entirely sure if converting anyone is what the filmmakers intended.

My wife and I were walking off a heavy dinner in downtown Lake Worth, FL on a recent Saturday evening when the above poster caught her eye. She has worked for an immigration attorney for several years and may well know as much about the film's subject as that of the filmmakers. She has very strong opinions, informed by her unique position, her role in the processes of those who seek to gain a green card, a work permit, to become legal residents, etc.

One of DEPORTED's directors was standing in front of the Stonzek Theater that night, encouraging folks to see her film.  Hors d'ouevres and rum punch (that was mostly rum) were served beforehand. Sponsored by the Boca Black project, the film was on a mini tour of South Florida, having played in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale days earlier. Co-director Rachele Magiere also fielded questions from the audience of forty or so at our showing afterwards. Most seemed to reflect a real lack of understanding of immigration laws, which changed drastically in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. It states:

"Immigrants unlawfully present in the United States for 180 days but less than 365 days must remain outside the United States for three years unless they obtain a pardon. If they are in the United States for 365 days or more, they must stay outside the United States for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. If they return to the United States without the pardon, they may not apply for a waiver for a period of ten years."

Previously, it would require more serious criminal offenses that would guarantee five or more years behind bars for someone to be deported. Under the 1996 Act, even minor offenses were fair game.  And then came 9/11/2001.

Magiere and Chantal Ragnault interview several men in Haiti who were deported from the U.S. after many years on American soil. They grew up in this culture. All had left the economically depressed nation when they were quite young and now found themselves back in a territory as alien as anything could possibly be. It's a dangerous, dirt poor existence, a "hell", as one man, back in Haiti for 20 years but still not adjusted, describes it. We see the conditions under which he and the others live, total squalor.

Each subject had committed an offense in the States, served jail time, and were then sent "home."  Richard, our 20 year subject, also describes Haiti as a continuation of jail. He and the others, whose crimes included dealing drugs and burglary, angrily denounce the U.S. most of the time. Their families back in the States are shown reacting to the videotaped interviews: crying, shaking their heads, though some feel the bed was made......

DEPORTED is an engrossing hour that effectively documents each man's plight.  One could not exactly call the film objective yet it is not exactly a bleeding heart tract. Points of view from the deported and their families back home (many of whom live in ghettos themselves, though far better than that of the deported) are given equal time. It is a raw, straightforward, completely unslick doc.

The film does not answer several questions, many of which nagged my wife: Were the subjects' parents, who brought them to the U.S., illegals or not? And what of those parents' roles in shaping their children's attitudes? During the Q & A, one audience member asked why no women were featured.  Magiere stated that they did follow one,  but her dialogue and overall situation "did not fit in with the rest of the film".   I'd like to hear her story. Maybe a future DVD deleted feature?

To me, DEPORTED plays like a deterrent to would-be criminals, a warning as to what fate lies ahead for the undocumented who screw up.  Yet, it's tough to tell if that was what merely what was intended.  Magiere's accent was also tough to decifer as she took questions after the movie, and her attitude did not point clearly toward either a soft or hardline take on immigration reform. It was more of a sad resignation. Her advocacy remains, but at the end of the day, did these men earn their fates? Can the take home message of DEPORTED be as simple as "crime doesn't pay"??

The topic of immigration is a guaranteed inflammatory among dinner guests. My wife is a compassionate person but she has seen many who've tried to "milk the system." I think on my grandmother, who turned 101 in October, and how she had no choice but to learn English when she arrived in NYC from Italy in the early 1920s. She "did the right thing", even when circumstances were desperate. How does that relate to the Mexican who found his or herself in Texas after a "coyote" (funded by the illegal's family back home) trekked them over the border? Does everyone have the same opportunity? As I said: complicated.

P.S. In an interesting bit of coincidence, former Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka "Baby Doc", passed away on the day we saw DEPORTED.  Duvalier was in exile in France from the mid 1980s until 2011 after years of iron fist rule.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

 
This isn't the first film to address the feelings of inadequacy long after one's glory days in the spotlight. Of how an actor best known for a commercially successful series of films tries for that big comeback years on.  Also, a bid for legitimacy to convince the world (and himself) that he has the chops to do serious work and  meanwhile struggles to identify with a very different world in which to do it.  A world where technology has exponentially grown to make it smaller, to make anything that happens instantaneously viewable on one's phone.

BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) is also not the first film to feature a lead character who is informed/inspired/tormented by an alter ego. TRUE ROMANCE featured Christian Slater being tutored by Elvis Presley. But writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's (BABEL) latest is a certified original, a real stunner. To me, the most exciting film I've seen in a very long time.  It is a grand example of how the appreciation of the art form of film is truly not what it's about, but how it's about.  That does not mean "style over substance", as the screenplay makes points that should convict you where you live, at times (and not just to actors). But the form is the thing, the cinematic essence, and BIRDMAN employs a maestro's modulation that blindsided and delighted me straight through to the final moments.

An actor named Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) finds himself  in the opening scene in a dingy dressing room, wondering how he went from bankable movie star to has-been thespian trying to make his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story work on the Broadway stage.  His role as a superhero called Birdman made him a household name and spawned a trio of over-the-top action spectacles, perhaps the kind Joel Silver used to produce.  But that was over twenty years before. When people actually existed without social media.

Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), again out of rehab, is his assistant. She's typical of her generation: tech savvy, caustic, jaded, apathetic. She nails her father with a lengthy rant as to how irrelevant he is in this age of Twitter and Facebook. Riggan also finds himself dressed down in person by a New York Times theater critic, the type who can wield her pen and close a show with one acid review, a gut punch to his confidence.  Maybe she's right. Who is he to tackle Carver? And there's also coveted actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), newly cast to the company and brimming with arrogance about his craft.  Hell, everything.

But the biggest thorn in the side of Riggan Thompson is Birdman himself, his old character that perhaps never left his cortex. Always demeaning and pissing on his host's attempts at a clean start - an ammends to his family, friends, and still adoring public. Is it conscience? Reason? Left-brain logic? Heard in a raspy voice, the "superhero" persona dispenses toxic advice and encouragement for an unbrided id to (continue to) act on the baser impulses.  It's a fascinating battle to witness. These scenes take the film to surrealistic heights, places best not described here, for the discovery of them is part of the film's charm and magic.

If you've read anything about BIRDMAN you know that the entire film was skillfully constructed to resemble one long take. There have been other features to try this but I have not seen them. Here, it is mostly seamless. You will try to find the cuts, but resist that.  Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione lead viewers through all corners  and rafters of the St. James Theater (where most of the film takes place) in a breathless dance,  a whirl of nervous energy that doesn't necessarily lead where you expect. The choices for focal points are certainly fodder for interpretation (why do you think we linger on that hallway?).

Accompanying the story is a propulsive score and at various times a drummer is seen doing his stick work in the background of a scene. It manages to be distracting, disturbing, electrifying, and strangely appropriate.  This is one of several seemingly disparate elements which create a unique experience, a real-one-of-a-kind bit of movie going.

Every cast member is at the top of his or her talents. While, yes, having Keaton play this character is a big meta exercise (you recall the actor's late 80s/early 90s franchise participation), he explodes in every scene both with torrents of repressed anger and a mellower, resigned wisdom. He's aged, and so have his longtime viewers. Now and then you recognize some of those quirks Keaton trademarked in his 80s films, too, adding even more to the poignancy of it at this late date. Norton is every bit his match, likewise barreling through the movie with brio, his fiery take on the insufferably brash (though very self aware) thesp. Perhaps he too is pulling the trigger on his real-life image.  The two actors literally come to blows at one point but more often claw at each other's egos in speeches that deconstruct the whole acting/celebrity culture with scalding precision. 

Stone gives a real game changing performance with her bitter/vulnerable turn and Naomi Watts, while not having the flashiest role is effective in her insecurities as a first time actress on the Great White Way.  Her Lesley could almost be an East Coast version of the innocent she played (at least in the earlier scenes) in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Most surprising is Zach Galifianakis as Riggins' lawyer and friend Jake. He's funny and unpredictable and demonstrably capable of more than we've seen elsewhere. I believe we'll look at him quite differently after BIRDMAN.  And there will be nominations for members of this cast.

Many have written that some of the best cinema in recent years has come out of Mexico and BIRDMAN most certainly backs that up. Iñárritu's film contains elements of many films past, familiar storylines and characters and scenarios and glares at them with newer, wilder eyes, with deeper respect. With a new perspective on the possibilities of film that seemed all but dead.  Plus, it's another one to cite as to how foreigners seem to understand American culture better than Americans.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Before Midnight

Here's a trilogy I was quite ready to see come to an end, and had little desire to see its conclusion. After 2004's BEFORE SUNSET, the follow up to 1995's BEFORE SUNRISE, I was deflated by the film's seeming celebration of Generation X narcissism. I posted a mini review (back before I started composing these bloated ones) here back in 2007:


I just finished watching Before Sunset, the perhaps long-overdue follow-up to 1995's Before Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater and his actors, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, all return to allow us to again peek into the lives of two cynical romantics who spend the films' running times pontificating ad nauseam while they traverse European cities with pretty scenery. In the earlier film, Hawke played a tourist who strikes up a conversation with an attractive French girl. They spend the evening yakking to each other in cafes and through alleyways and cemeteries. It was an enjoyable, romantic picture.

This time, the characters have grown older and again get to spend some time theorizing on why love just really sucks (but life without it is unthinkable). The journey this time is again pleasant, but I was struck at how immature both characters seemed. For all their supposed growth, they seemed awfully self-obsessed and shallow. Sure, they write and participate in political rallies and travel, but their emotional development seemed regressive, possibly even less developed than before. They whine about how life has disappointed them. Articulately, I might add. It is a pleasure to hear intelligent discourse in films for a change. But, the lack of responsibility Hawke's character displays left me cold, rendering the supposed happy ending a bit hollow. His narcissism is laid bare, and damn his wife and kid back home--HE'S NOT FULFILLED!

Maybe I'm just older and see through the slacker/Gen-X arrested development BS quite a bit more clearly now. I was there. The self-absorption bit is destructive, and (rightly) tries the patience of all who are infected by such behavior. Maybe the point (at least in part) was to draw these characters as such (the 3 principals wrote the screenplay). That does not make it easier to root for their courtship, however. Still, Linklater and his collaborators have fashioned another trip worth taking. Insightful, laden with eye pleasing vistas, and occasionally inspiring, Before Sunset is a document of a generation. Perhaps the film's most effective, if certainly unintentional, impression is the strong argument it makes for the use of SSRIs.



I was pretty much alone in my opinion on the second installment, but as someone once quipped, "Pharoah's heart is hard", invisible audience; I was and am unrepentant on my feelings. So why would I bother with Part Three? I didn't, for awhile. But I respect the actors and director Rick Linklater and recognize the talent behind these films, these dizzyingly verbose experiments. I was again expecting the pleasures of hearing real dialogue, exchanges with some substance. But I was dreading what I considered inevitable pretension. Sometimes intelligent discourse is nonetheless embarrassing and self-serving. All three BEFORE movies are guilty of this. But that's who these characters are, and I admire that the creative trio never whitewashes this.

It's nearly a decade later and Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) have now long been a couple. They have twin girls. BEFORE MIDNIGHT opens as Jesse sees his teenage son (from his failed marriage) off at the airport after a summer vacation in Greece. Jesse has lived in France since we last saw him and greatly misses the boy. His guilt riddles him near incapacitated, enough to suggest to his wife that perhaps they could move back to the States. She is not fond of this idea for the reasons many Europeans would inevitably cite. "I don't want to find myself buying peanut butter in Chicago," she sighs during one of several arguments.

And BEFORE MIDNIGHT spends a majority of its time documenting the fallout, the latter day bitterness that would likewise be inevitable. This is not the romantic, dewy eyed waltz through ancient plazas like the earlier films. Jesse and Celine are now hardened individuals. I hesitate to say "adults" because they still act like petulant brats. I wanted to heave rotten vegetables at them several times. But they're acting like many people their age do in these days. Sometimes I wonder if there are any adults under the age of 50 anymore. Generation X and following have produced gaggles of  self-obsessed, ironic T-shirt wearing children.

This is very apparent in the scene around a dinner table, where a few generations of couples share their views on relationships. A wistful elderly woman describes her feelings and memories of her late husband, how he is sometimes seen clearly, then fading when the reality of her current life crashes in. By contrast, the younger characters offer paper thin, sometimes embarrassingly narcissistic commentary on their own damaged unions.

My patience was waning with BEFORE MIDNIGHT, but then came the final act - the lengthy hotel room battle between the two principals. An uncomfortably real, beautifully acted sequence which offers real insight on the complexities of relationships. The dialogue is scaldingly realistic.  It is not fun to watch, and if you're with your significant other you may find yourself wanting to slink out of the room, but it really encapsules the dynamic, the arc of this union. It makes all of the pretension from earlier worth the slog.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Haunting

1963's THE HAUNTING has long had a favorable reputation in the horror genre. It is considered one of the most frightening movies ever produced. It has forever held a place on my list, films I'd anticipated. I imagined that it would become a film I would cite as one of the few of its genre to be worthy of being called a classic and actually scary.  Sadly, it is neither. Here in fact is a prime entry for that film series I ran some years back - "The Great Overrated."

The film is atmospheric. Starkly photographed by Davis Boulton. You can almost feel the chill in the air. Director Robert Wise shot the film at Ettington Hall (now a hotel) in rural England. Eerie things happen throughout the movie: noises throughout fill hallways and bang on doors in the wee hours, mysterious writing is discovered on a wall. THE HAUNTING is indeed a ghost story, set in an old mansion called Hill House with a long history of tragedy. Untimely deaths and a suicide. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) narrates this for us in the opening scenes.

Markway invites two women to the mansion to assist with his investigations in the paranormal, including Theodora (Claire Bloom) and a very shy woman named Eleanor (Julie Harris), who had spent years caring for her sickly mother, recently deceased. She is, to say the least, emotionally volatile. Why someone so unstable would be on the doctor's "shortlist" is but one of many of the screenplay's many faults. Eleanor is so out of sorts and shrieky that your patience with her, before her ultimate (and perhaps inevitable) fate, may well run out before the film's two hours elapse. Before the film can tie its themes of the occult and reincarnation together in an admittedly efficient closing.

Nelson Gidding, who based his script on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is the real culprit as to THE HAUNTING's ultimate failure. He thoroughly blands fascinating source material and the overall scenario with one dull scene after another. Things become very tedious. His characterizations are also dull, though Bloom transcends her part and is absolutely seductive as the sly psychic, with possible lesbian tendencies. Harris gives the part her all but remains annoying and hard to identity with (much less cheer on). Her erratic (bi-polar?) behavior and cloying voiceovers are often painful. The other roles are thankless, including Russ Tamblyn as the son of the heir of Hill House. His injections of humor fall flat.

But on a technical level, the film sometimes delivers. Wise employs then-new anamorphic Panavision and innovative lighting to make his film dreamlike. His direction is mostly excellent, despite having little with which to work. The sets by Eliot Scott are sensational. I liked the spiral staircase, always threatening to unbolt from the wall.

THE HAUNTING is such a disappointment, especially for a film Martin Scorsese calls one of the scariest of all time. I wasn't scared, just non-plussed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Innocent Blood

1992's INNOCENT BLOOD is really the only film directed by John Landis from that decade worth watching. What with OSCAR, THE STUPIDS, SUSAN'S PLAN and the abortive sequels BEVERLY HILLS COP 3 and BLUES BROTHERS 2000, things were pretty grim for the guy who'd overseen the anarchic classics ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS years earlier. In '81, Landis filmed one of his old scripts, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and turned it into an exemplary exercise in the fusion of full throttle terror and humour, with some hair raising makeup effects to boot.  The director displayed real skill in keeping his audience on edge and making them guffaw at key moments.  Does INNOCENT BLOOD repeat this sort of success?

Not really, but it's a game attempt. The premise is promising. An alluring French vampire named Marie (Anne Parrilaud) hovers around Pittsburgh seeking fresh necks on which to feed. Unlike other cinematic bloodsuckers, she discriminates by targeting only those she feels are deserving: criminals and the like.  As she concentrates around the "Little Italy" section of town, she finds more than enough mobsters ("Italian food", one of the film's running gags) to sustain her. 

When Marie gets her fangs on the Boss, Sal "The Shark" Macelli (Robert Loggia), what was to be a sort of main course for our undead heroine goes seriously awry when she is interrupted, leaving Sal rather to becoming infected, to become a vampire himself. Soon, he spreads the wealth to his henchmen, some of whom are played by actors seen in GOODFELLAS and would later star in HBO's The Sopranos.  The wonderfully named Tony Lip in fact also had roles in THE GODFATHER and RAGING BULL. Marie eventually meets and teams up with an undercover cop (Anthony LaPaglia) to stop the wave of carnage.  Unsurprisingly, the two also become lovers.

Michael Wolk's screenplay is pure B-movie, filled with violence and gore, truckloads of profanity, and sex scenes.  All of which are right up Landis' alley, and these elements are stylishly employed in what amounts to little more than a programmer, a mildly entertaining time waster.  Landis still knows how to create an atmosphere of dread, to milk a scare (he also directed some horror for TV). There are a few unique ideas here and there, but if you want a mystical, thoughtful take on vampire lore, watch INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE or NOSFERATU instead. INNOCENT BLOOD exists only to amuse. While a major studio film, it still plays like a midrange exploitation pic, albeit with  great special effects and cinematography. Landis buffs will find his usual trademarks: walk-ons by film directors (such as, appropriately, Dario Argento), characters watching old movies on TV, and even an auto wreck or two.

The cast is well chosen. Parrilaud was hot off LA FEMME NIKITA and displays remarkable physicality in action scenes, and uh, during other moments. LaPaglia seems to be sleepwalking and apathetic but the solid supporting cast adds zest, especially Loggia, born to play the vicious Sal, a brutal killer who becomes superhumanly brutal. Character actor Luis Guzman and none other than Don Rickles have funny scenes.  B-queen Linnea Quigley plays a nurse, and those scenes in the hospital are a hoot.

Comparisons to AMERICAN WEREWOLF are inevitable, but INNOCENT BLOOD does not have that film's timing, pacing, savviness, or dare I say, heart? You grew to care for those characters, and the movie's tragic ending stung a bit.  BLOOD is an in the moment thriller that evaporates very soon after its conclusion.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Silent Rage

1982's SILENT RAGE, while being yet another in a cycle of Chuck Norris vehicles where the former kickboxing champion gets to beat the hell out of people, is actually a horror movie. The only one in Chuck's oeuvre, I think. Therefore, I am including it in this month's series.

It was also the first R-rated film I ever saw in a movie theater. On my 13th birthday, in fact. My friend and his mother took me. They had already seen it and were eager to gauge my reaction. I was wide-eyed and a little nervous. I think I was worried my parents or youth minister or even Jesus would bust in and drag me out by my ear. SILENT RAGE was filled with violence, but more scandalously, there was some nudity and sex. Things that the people in my world repeatedly stated were the really sinful elements in entertainment. Syringes plunged into necks and repeated roundhouse kicks to the skull? No problem!

The story: psycho John Kirby (Brian Libby) kills his family and is later shot down by Sheriff Dan Stevens (Norris) and his tubby partner Charlie (Stephen Furst, "Flounder" from ANIMAL HOUSE). Hovering near death, Kirby is taken an institute where a psychiatrist named Halman (Ron Silver) and two medical doctors/geneticists work. Seems they've been experimenting with some mysterious serum. After some bickering about ethics, one of the docs decides to try it on Kirby, who soon revives and becomes an unstoppable killing machine. What follows is your typical killer on the loose scenario, with gory deaths, unintentional laughs, and gratuitous love scenes.

But this is also a Chuck Norris movie, so we also get a scene in a dive bar where an entire motorcycle gang is beaten to a pulp by our hero. Well, not until after one of the biker chicks flashes her tattooed breasts to Charlie, who races outside and excitedly calls his friend while Stevens does his business. The climax of the scene is of a chopper crashing through a window in slow motion after its rider is knocked off.  Pretty dramatic, I'll say.

I re-watched SILENT RAGE not long ago and of course I found it ridiculous and indefensible. Low grade trash. Entertaining and atmospheric, though. Director Michael Miller even does a decent job of making the film creepy. All descriptors I could use for any slasher film of the early '80s. You might expect this film to be a strange mix of blood and martial arts, but it blends more successfully than you might think. Probably even moreso after you've broken the seals of several bottles of Olde English 808. Fans of Chuck and horror should have a decent time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Dies at the End

Spoilers!!

You might wonder what acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti is doing in 2012's  horror/comedy film, JOHN DIES AT THE END. A low budget, recently minted cult item based on a way out there 2001 novel by David Wong and directed by Don Coscarelli, the guy responsible for the ridiculous PHANTASM franchise and the sleeper BUBBA HO-TEP. Is Giamatti slumming? The answer comes from the horse's mouth during one of the DVD's extras: "I wanted to do a monster reaction scene. Most scripts bore me after 5 pages in. This one was unpredictable."

No argument there. JOHN DIES AT THE END, which we'll henceforth refer to as JDATE for brevity's (and tired digits') sake, is an insane pastiche of science fiction and blood and guts horror. But also certainly a comedy, often funnier than most straight ones.  It proves to have many enviable, sometimes crazily brilliant, ideas, but is a real mess. It plays like a mash up of inspiration via the original EVIL DEAD, BUCKAROO BANZAI, and NAKED LUNCH, with which it shares a fascination with bugs.  Lots of bugs.

David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), who perhaps not by accident reminded me of the TV show Psych, are best friends with psychic powers. They are first seen attempting to assist a woman who reports being harassed by her boyfriend, who's dead. The duo discuss the case and begin to realize they see the woman's features quite differently. It is at this point that the woman transforms into a monster comprised of frozen meat. A doorknob in the room turns into a penis. To the rescue is TV psychic Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who destroys the monster over the telephone. I detail this so as for you to decide early on in this review if this movie is for you.

The plot develops with many further amusingly disgusting set pieces. How many films have you seen with a bratwurst used as a telephone? The catalyst for trips into other dimensions and omnipresence that figure prominently in JDATE is an injectable drug known as "soy sauce", sold to John by a Jamaican dealer named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett). The resulting delusions come rapidly for both John and David, and the drug will prove helpful in the navigation of a plan to overthrow a militaristic computer called Korrok, found beyond the "ghost door". A dog called "Bark Lee" is a key ally in the plan.

The entire story, by the way, is told in flashback by David to a skeptical reporter named Arnie (Giamatti) in a restaurant. Arnie repeatedly has to be convinced of David's alleged powers, which does include that monster reaction scene.  And what of Arnie's certainty that he is a black man?

Got all that? Coscarelli's script makes it all somewhat clear, not that hard to follow.  But transitions among scenes are rough. JDATE plays like a collection of mostly good moments, but the film jumps from one bit of oddity to the next with little continuity. Like a series of goofy short subjects. By the time we reach the very last scene, a funny bit where David and John leave a group of rebels (in need of assistance to save their world) in midsentence because they're so verbose and annoying, I was smiling but strangely dissatisfied.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Thing from Another World

I sat down to view 1951's THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and was quite surprised to see the film's title burning into the screen, much the way it had in John Carpenter's 1982 remake. I don't know why I was so taken aback by it. Maybe I was wasn't expecting this '50s sci-fi/horror flick to resemble the newer film in any possible way. Like it would simply be 100% laughable cheese. The '82 THING set new highs (or lows) in icky special effects, and had a tone of dread that kept me on edge its entire running time. It was another film a 13 year old probably shouldn't have been watching.

I only recently saw THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), which is based on the Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (nee Don A. Stuart) after years of reading about it. The great Howard Hawks' name was usually mentioned. He did not direct (although there are reports to the contrary) but rather did an uncredited co-write with Ben Hecht! As with pretty much every film of this type in the 1950s, the anti-Communism metaphors waft strongly. A character even barks: "Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies."
The movie is unabashedly pro military, but additionally casts squinted eyes toward the reckless blind embrace of science and technology in a society still reeling from the Manhattan Project. And what of the dangers of playing God?

Air Force crew and scientists gather in Alaska to investigate the downing of what they believe is a U.F.O.  They accidentally destroy the aircraft but retrieve its passenger in a block of ice. A radioactive, man-sized figure, capable of decision making and discovered later to be a form of plant life. Puzzling though, as it feeds on the blood of sled dogs and eventually some of the crew. Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) learns the creature needs the blood to survive and reproduce. He will covertly acquire seed pods left by the alien and attempt incubate new plant life from them. An amazing discovery. But after some men are killed, the military just wants to put the thing down.

Given the talent behind the typewriter, THE THING has more than a few inferences of larger issues than "who goes there." It isn't only interested in cheap shocks. And while the movie is essentially cheerleading our armed forces and casting suspicion toward investigative science, the more rational among the academics on the crew win out, displaying a cautiousness with meddling with "things" beyond our comprehension. You can take that last sentence as you will, as its very declaration may raise on a few hairs on your necks, invisible audience.

The movie is still a campy thriller. There are laugh out loud implausibilities (watch the way that door swings when the thing enters) and a silly romantic subplot that actually involves tying up one's beloved! Surprisingly kinky for its era. But the most curious flaw of THE THING? Non-stop dialogue. Sometimes overlapping. All of it ridiculous. No Pulitzers for words here. The talking more than once undermines potential suspense. Particularly that reporter. Maybe you should just mute the movie and queue up Dark Side of the Moon.