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'├ętat, 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!