Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Most Challenging Year

Without getting Dickensian about it,  I can say that 2015 was the best and worst of times.  A year filled with teeth gnashing frustration, tears, warm hairs on the back of one's neck, but also generosity, patience, and acknowledgement.  It is a year I'm quite happy to see join its predecessors, but one that will be remembered for some life altering turning points that, while difficult, proved ultimately to be educational and maybe even refining.

The year began with my grandmother's funeral.  It was well handled by the funeral home and cemetery, though I did learn what "ground closing fees" were and how competitors in the industry work their pricing structures.  Momentary cynicism gave way to gratefulness, though.  The service was simple and appropriate, the only sour note being that one of my grandmother's dearest friends - a young woman who visited her often, was unable to attend due to a miscommunication on the date.   I felt awful over this; the woman is as big hearted and caring as they come.  She still visits my mother in her nursing home, sometimes bringing lunch.

Among the attendees at the service was my step-father-in-law, who fewer than four months later would pass away himself.  Pancreatic cancer.  He died five weeks after learning of the diagnosis.  By that time the cancer had metastasized into his liver.  There had been symptoms of fatigue and loss of appetite for months, but who among us would think it was a warning sign to something fatal? It was an unbearably sad day, when I learned this.

Later, my mother in law called us one Saturday morning, crying that her husband was turning blue, slipping away.  We rushed over but by the time we saw David on his Hospice bed in the T.V. room he was already gone.  One of his sons and his girlfriend were there and had seen his final moments.  Soon his other son and his wife joined us.  My wife and I spent the day with my MIL, a sorrowful time but the outpouring of love from all corners was humbling.

Another well handled, very moving funeral commenced.  This one at the Catholic Church he attended and served.  Years earlier he installed their sound system.   For the reception I was asked by one of David's sons to read a heartrending eulogy that he composed as a text one afternoon, on the fly, to my MIL.  We put together a slide show.

The day he learned of his illness, David invited my wife and I over for dinner and asked if we would move in with his wife when the time came.  We agreed in an instant, and as I type we've been there for nearly five months.  The early days were a time of adjustment, to say the least,  not at all easy but other than a few awkward moments the arrangement has worked out well.  I can't imagine what it would be like to remain alone in a house that for twenty five years had been a place shared with your spouse, now a memory.  Every inch a reminder.  I still keep expecting to hear his voice.  We are happy to be there, to help make this transition easier.  I hope we are.

So in August we moved out of our apartment of three years.  Moving is always an emotional thing with me, and even though this place didn't have the same "hold" on me as others I still miss it now.  It had its own appeal.  I shot the above picture during the final days as we sorted and cleaned.   I had mixed feelings, a lot of loneliness. Why? Maybe another closed chapter means we're that much closer.  I always feel like a piece of me remains in all the places I've lived.  Sometimes I wonder about the new tenants, just as I did about past ones.

But hey, we did donate a lot of things.  Made our load lighter.   I composed an entry about the move some months back.  My wife still chats with our former next door neighbors and was told that a new couple moved in.   They said they are not as friendly as we are.

Last but certainly not least, there were changes in my workplace, known ahead of time.  But you never know until the time comes.  Upheaval, I tell ya.  A merger that has also been quite an adjustment. In its wake, several employees who, as you read, were not at the holiday party.  One very long timer decided to retire; her final day was earlier this week.  Her timing is excellent, you have no idea.   I am very happy for her but will miss her terribly, and fear she will merely join all the other ghosts who've passed on, perhaps never to be seen again.

I wish I could go into details about the workplace changes, invisible audience.  Some days this year I felt I was ready to launch out the sixth story window.  At present, things have stabilized, to some degree, but there are new bombshells every other week or so.  We look hopefully to 2016.

Yes, we do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Medium Cool (REPOST)


This repost (written in 2009) is in honor of Haskell Wexler, cinematographer extraordinaire, who died a few days ago. He was 93.





If you remember the 60s, you weren't there


-Dennis Hopper



I wasn't there either. Technically I was, having been born in 1969, but how oblivious I was to all the furor outside my gauzy, Fisher-Price confines. I was bawling in a crib while an entire generation was on fire. Taking to the streets. Marching across campuses. When I meet Baby Boomers especially, I wonder if they were once part of some angry, sign carrying collective. Perhaps one of the peaceful hippies who slipped flowers into rifle barrels. Maybe they were flinging molotov cocktails at shielded "pigs" on horseback. Indeed, all the imagery we've seen time and again in documentaries of that most troubled decade. Cliched by now. Certainly, not everyone was out in the fracas. Those who were tended to be caught in chilling stills, immortalized as their open mouths in not quite taciturn protest against Vietnam, the Establishment, or maybe some political candidate, were seen worldwide. We open a retrospective edition of Time or Newsweek and see the images of which I speak.

Fictional films have splashed this imagery across screens, too. All those bathed in nostalgia flicks, often romantacized. Then there are films like writer/director/cinematographer Haskell Wexler's MEDIUM COOL, from '69, that is as cinema verite as it gets. That French term, loosely translated as "cinema of truth", denotes a filmmaking style which employs naturalistic elements for and with devices of the artists. Put another way, the filmmakers often go out to real locations, filled with real people, adding actors to try to blend in and react to/provoke some drama. I'd say that is an apt summation for Wexler's film.

The setting: Chicago, 1968. Democratic National Convention. The year was already a torrent of sorrow: Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK. The nation was increasingly restless. As Wexler penned his screenplay the year before, he quite presciently believed that the stormy pot would boil over even more. The Deomocrats were courting a peace-loving candidate but the current Democratic Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson, likely couldn't show his face publicly in 1968 without a welcoming committee of protesters. There would be no peace at the Convention, as saying all hell broke loose is a gross understatement.

The National Guard anticipated a storm. Their training was intense as they prepared to keep the peace. When the rubber hit the road (quite literally in the events of MEDIUM COOL), any sense of organization was lost in a sea of chaos. It was all over the news, naturally. Wexler and his actors and crew were also there, right in the middle. Professional thesps like Robert Forster, portraying John Cassellis, a tough and dispassionate television news reporter, wandered through very vivid and very real conflicts. Peter Bonerz was Gus, the sound guy who wades through the troubled sea along with him. As Wexler frantically tries to guide his camera around the mayhem, we see genuine looks of concern on the actors' faces. As in "Holy shit, that billy club is about to make contact with that guy's skull." We actually do hear someone say, during one of the many scenes of Convention protest violence, "Look out Haskell, it's real!" Indeed it was, but the director cheated there, as that line was dubbed in after principal photography. He really didn't need to do that, as any visual conveyed the urgency of that statement well enough.

Before we see the climatic turmoil, we follow Cassellis, driven and detached, as he investigates the ugliness of everyday urban city life. There are car crash scenes, shocking pockets of poverty, drug abuse fallout. All waiting to be documented and aired. John shoots miles of footage, but remains clinical, never to become connected to what is in his foreground. He's like a later fictional character, Harry Caul, the surveillance expert in THE CONVERSATION. Exact at what he does, and able to file it away without those nagging concerns of empathy. Maybe it is the correct paradigm, as what he faces would surely eventually wear down even the most mechanized soul. Many physicians are like this.

John has relationships, but sex can be had (at least in the meanwhile) without the affection and responsibility. In a film that very cleverly flirts with the avant garde at many turns, a more conventional narrative emerges when he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her frustrated son, Harold. They are unsophisticated folk from Appalachia, as lost in Chicago as John is in his apathy. This will change as the adults meet and discover a bond. Harold is further depressed and disappears, prompting his mother to undertake a citywide search, leading to a blunt finale that stings the longer you mull it over. A random, devastating conclusion that puts everything we've seen in a whole new light. Watch it again and you will see how every seemingly unimportant moment was essential.

Wexler is best known for his lensmanship on films like COMING HOME, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, and FACES. The latter film shares much with MEDIUM COOL, as both are uncomfortably voyeuristic. We sit through scenes where for long stretches there's no cut to relieve the tension, the charcters' or the audience's. We eavesdrop on meetings, lovemaking, playful fighting, real fighting. Not just the actors', as you know. Fozen in time, preserved on celluloid, are the words and actions of neighborhood folks. Non-actors. John and Gus arrive in a ghetto and are lectured by the locals about the black man's plight. The non-actors look right into John's (and Wexler's) camera and lay it all down, off the cuff. Spike Lee must have seen this, as it prefaces the sort of breakways of the "fourth wall" we would see decades later in his DO THE RIGHT THING and THE 25th HOUR. The energy is similiar, too. The authenticity of these scenes are a treasure. They do not feel engineered like that of many other documentaries, and Lord help us, not like any of the dozens of reality programs that have plagued prime time TV in the last decade plus.

As a cinematographer, Wexler composed masterful shots of the whims of other masters. In MEDIUM COOL, his tour-de-force behind the camera electrifies an already potent scenario. I'll bet if he just locked the camera down on a tripod and let it run, he still would've captured a good chunk of the natural drama that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Life doesn't necessarily need to be enhanced with art. But by composing a mash-up of the real and surreal, he has made a valuable document that serves both as a time capsule and an artistic groundbreaker. Well worth your time.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The long awaited seventh chapter in the STAR WARS saga, THE FORCE AWAKENS, alternates between feeling like a certified entry and a fan's version of one.  After the widespread disappointment with EPISODES I-III, legions of fans expressed excitement while simultaneously holding their bowels when it was announced that stubborn Lord George Lucas had sold the franchise to Disney, thus paving the way for the completion of the originally planned nine films.  Lucas selected J.J. Abrams, a true blue fan, to oversee the new one, and more daunting a cinematic task I can't fathom.  You think you've had butterflies in your stomach?

I've been let down by so many greatly anticipated "event films" of this type over the years that I tried not to let expectations get the better of me.  But it was futile.  The possibilities were infinite for this new film.  The aftertaste of the prequels would, should all go well, be washed away by a mind blowing fresh perspective that at the same time held a deep reverence for the beloved far away galaxy.  Abrams was a promising choice with his self-professed love for the series. And he had created the loving Spielberg/Lucas tribute SUPER 8, of which I am a fan.  As I've mentioned in previous STAR WARS summaries, many of the great talents who made the original trilogy so special were back on board.  Not just the actors but also writer Lawrence Kasdan and conductor John Williams.

So while waiting in a (expectedly) ridiculously long line on opening night in Manhattan, my excitement reached a crescendo.  I had plenty of other reasons to be excited - visiting family, being in NYC at Christmastime, etc., but my attempted suppression of watchfulness over the past weeks was pulverized as I listened to people behind me voice their theories and watched a few costumed fans make their way.  There was some disorganization with the line at the theater but nothing really chaotic.  Inside, it was amusing to watch people frantically running through the halls that had at least four auditoriums dedicated to the movie.  No doubt hurrying to make sure they didn't end up on the front row.

THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place thirty plus years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  The Empire was defeated but the First Order, who've created a new Death Star like weapon that is actually an entire planet, has since arisen.   The movie introduces the characters of Poe (Oscar Isaac) a fighter pilot for the Resistance, Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who experiences a change of heart and later joins Rey (Daisy Ridley), a drifter who discovers she has the raw materials of a Jedi in her fight against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked villain who also has ties to the Force, though like at least one before him he chose the Dark Side.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa, now a General (Carrie Fisher), and Mark Hamill (Luke Sykwalker), the heroes of Episodes IV - VI return, though to what degree is left for you, invisible audience, to discover. C-3PO and R2-D2 also return. A new cute 'bot, BB-8 makes his debut.   There are so many potential spoilers within this film, and to reveal them should be some sort of felony.

Is the film a "passing of the torch" to the young bucks? Not exactly.  One of the original characters will evidently drive as much if not more of the narrative in the next chapter due in 2017.  The rethinking of the new trilogy (Disney discarded Lucas' original treatments) is another effort to meld the old with the new, and time will tell how successfully.  In THE FORCE AWAKENS, the poignancy of seeing an elderly Han Solo (still full of vigor) springboards many themes that older viewers will appreciate, if they aren't overcome with depression over it. Younger audiences are digging the X-wing battles and light saber duels, just like we did back in the '70s and '80s.  Good to see them appreciating a piece of celluloid with minimal CGI.

Quite encouragingly, current audiences are also cheering Rey, a self-sufficient young woman who is not merely some caricatured male fantasy, or a damsel needing rescuing.  At one point she even releases Finn's grip from her wrist as they flee their enemies; it's a nice antidote to the thousands of times we've seen females pulled along like rag dolls by male heroes.

I mentioned that this new STAR WARS is like a fan's idea of such a movie, from the scrolling opening summary forward; there's even a visit to a saloon filled with weird creatures that will remind you of EPISODE IV.  Upon reflection it really does feel more that way than an official chapter.  I can cite a certain hollowness with the story that more than seems recycled.  But maybe that was the idea.  History does repeat itself across generations.  Offspring stand in large shadows, wondering if they'll possibly measure up.  I happened to really enjoy the movie and will certainly see it in the theater again.  But likely not as as many times as that 8 year old did a long time ago..........

Thursday, December 24, 2015

'Twas a Twofer

For 2015 there were not one but two work holiday parties. You may recall that last year a departing employee had a Christmas party at her house, to which only a fraction of her co-workers attended.  The circumstances surrounding that were more than a bit awkward.

So in January of this year we had a post-holiday lunch which doubled as a going away party for someone who had served thirty-five years behind the audiometer.   She was presented with a really fancy camera for her upcoming trip to New Zealand.  The party was held at a private club that has some of the best food in the area.  It's a quite exclusive spot - one of our doctors is a member.  They even kept the decorations up and the Andy Williams playing well into January just for him!  The gathering was great...except that many of us still had patients to see that afternoon and had to rush back to the office.  No mimosas that day.

Last week we had a more timely celebration.  At the same club.  Can't argue with a good thing.  But.....let's just say this has been a dynamic year at my practice.  Many folks, some longtimers, left in 2015. They were conspicuous in their absence.  While many of the key core people are the same, the overall vibe, while pleasant, did not have the joyful spark of years past.  You can scroll back and read entries from say, 2009, 2010...I've been told that the really lively Christmas parties happened long before my time.  I've seen a few pictures.

Even the usual white elephant gift exchange was uneventful this year (I did score a crock pot).  Conversations were generally reserved.  Some grudges held over from ancient hard feelings were still held among a few, though no incidents.  Every one was generally civil.  The parties have grown more solemn each year.  This time, there might've been an especially good reason, but we'll just leave it at that.  We raised our wine glasses anyway. 

Yes, I know.  Dull entry.  Even the above picture is a cheat - it was not taken at the party. Silly ol' me forgot to snap a pic in all the lack of frivolity.  This post was mainly for documentation purposes.  Something to look back on, to note over time a trend.  What can I say? The food was still great.  That bread pudding, ahhhhh....

In any event, I wish you a Merry Christmas, dear reader.  May your celebration be filled with love.  Maybe next year I'll have something more colorful to report.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

I had a few lonely Christmases myself, Bill.  I remember 1990, senior year of college, living alone in my grandmother's house. My father and I weren't speaking.  My mother was off on a nanny gig.   I had broken up with my girlfriend a few weeks earlier.  So there I sat, watching THE GODFATHER, PART II on Christmas Eve, much of it eaten up by a nearly three and one half hour running time.  The next morning I awoke in the same place I had once, as a five or six year old, run out to find a Big Wheel under my grandparents' tree.  I felt that something had gone wrong in my life. Maybe that just was life.

Billy Murray's new Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas finds the beloved comedian/grump staring out of a hotel window on Christmas Eve. He's wearing silly reindeer antlers and looks to have a severe case of the holiday blues.   A fierce blizzard rages outdoors, preventing his star studded line-up of guests (including the Pope) from attending his live holiday special. As if he needed something else to make him want to disappear until January, as the song goes.  At least Paul Shaffer is there to play accompaniment.

The show does go on.  Bill discovers Chris Rock shivering outside, coaxing him in for a "Do You Hear What I Hear?" duet, cut short when the power fails (a perfect opportunity for the comedian to make his escape). Murray, by now totally despondent, wanders the hotel and discovers other sad folks.  Like a bride (Rashida Jones) who cries into her wedding cake that none of her guests could make it.  But there is a cute waitress who has a nice voice (lent to the always creepy "Baby, It's Cold Outside") and a group of cooks who are also a band.

There are also dream sequences (though most of this special may indeed be a dream) with George Clooney deadpanning about their festively decorated "soundstage in Queens" and Miley Cyrus, doing a decent job on "Silent Night".  Someone makes a crack about Clooney's THE MONUMENTS MEN, in which Murray also starred.

Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote Murray's 1988 bittersweet holiday confection SCROOGED, collaborates with Murray and director Sofia Coppola.  The results are what you'd expect if you are familiar with these talents.  It's interesting how Murray's later career favors more idiosyncratic, high brow collaborators like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and his LOST IN TRANSLATION director.  A Very Murray Christmas is a dose of both the old Saturday Night Live and STRIPES broadness and the newer droll wit.  It is wholeheartedly recommended for fans of the volatile actor, though even they might wonder what they just watched.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Logan's Run

Calling 1976's LOGAN'S RUN a sci-fi classic may be overstating things, but tell that to the legions of forty-somethings who clutch this movie almost as tightly as that outer space opera that came a year later.  I have several movies of my own like that, though oddly I did not see this one when I was a kid.  Not sure why, as this was certainly up my alley.  I'm pretty sure I watched the spin-off T.V. series but it made little impression.

At such a late date, I was expecting a real laugh-fest when I sat down to watch LOGAN"S RUN, but aside from a few giggles I was pretty straight-faced, more involved in the story than wracked with guffaws over campy '70s set design or hair styles.  Which, in fact, the movie does have.  If you're seeking to criticize such details you'll have plenty to keep you occupied.  Starting with that Dallas shopping mall that is used to represent a domed utopia, entirely run by a supercomputer,  in the year 2274. Or the liberal use of miniatures, the best of which involves medium shots of the city, appearing like someone's toys strewn across a living room floor.  Snaking above are plastic tubes with what look like Matchbox cars racing through.

Very cheesy, but endearing, especially if you're old enough to remember when effects like these were considered stellar. But then I think of Douglas Trumbull, who created the truly awe inspiring effects for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING (which he also directed) years earlier.  What he could've done for LOGAN'S RUN!  It's somewhat frustrating to think about, but for me was a passing concern.  There have been rumors of a long-in-coming remake which undoubtedly will largely feature CGI, which may drain away some of the fun, if you remember the original.

Michael York plays Logan 5,  a "sandman", someone assigned to catch fugitives, or "runners" from said utopia.  Why would anyone attempt to escape a wonderland where hedonism is king, where sex partners can be called up with the ease of ordering a pizza? When a citizen reaches thirty years of age,  he or she is required to enter the "Carousel", a ceremony in which they are levitated toward a spire and vaporized by lasers.  All in front of a cheering audience.  Barbaric? Not with the promise of "renewal", a rebirth.  Runners don't buy this idea and take it on the lam, usually without success.

One of Logan's victims is found wearing an ankh, a symbol from ancient Egypt representing eternal life.  An interesting coincidence that Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter, fetching as always), a potential bed mate, also wears one. The central computer informs Logan that the ankh is linked with an underground group who guide runners toward "Sanctuary", and then instructs him to become a runner himself and destroy it.  There are several catches, including the removal of four years from Logan's clock.

Thus begins Logan's run, and his discoveries are left to you, invisible audience.  The second hour of the film, while fairly interesting, does bog down a little, especially when Logan and Jessica meet an old man (Peter Ustinov).  But the leisurely pace will allow you to formulate all sorts of interpretation, what the original book's authors were trying to convey.  The most obvious themes are of religions' blueprints for the afterlife, the idea of faith itself.  It can't be an accident that those thirty and over are cast out of a society that prizes youth.  Kinda like, Hollywood?

Friday, December 11, 2015

48 HRS.


We ain't partners.  We ain't brothers, and we ain't friends.
 
For the "buddy film" genre, I can't think of a better example than 1982's 48 HRS., a box office champ that made Saturday Night Live player Eddie Murphy a superstar and reignited said genre, inspiring many years of imitations.  Our wiseacre duo is made up of gruff San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) and a smart aleck thief named Reggie Hammond (Murphy) who is serving time.  It's the ultimate odd pairing, a Point A for some golden opportunities for crackling dialogue and tough guy posturing.  This being a film directed by Walter Hill, it's guaranteed.

The discourse between Nolte and Murphy is the heart of the movie.  Heated, profane, colorful, salty - choose your descriptor.  This being a, tee hee, family blog, I really can't reproduce too many.  It's pure delirium to watch and listen to these two square off.  Watching this film reminds me of what a dynamo Murphy was back when.  Super sharp, quick, knowing.  His scene in the redneck bar is an instant classic, a bold announcement that a star is born.   Murphy really owns his role,  to which he certainly brought the required youthful energy.   He creates a bona-fide persona here:  a likable, cocksure, and yes wildly chauvinistic young man whose traits fit perfectly in the overall attitude of the movie. Weary, cynical, unsentimental in the extreme.   It's a guy's picture,  with all that that usually entails, and one where women are usually drawn either as nags or whores. 

Cates is hot on the trail of the psychotic Gans (James Remar), a punk who engineered a brutal escape for his partner in crime, Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) from a chain gang (in a great opening scene).   Gans later wastes two of Cates' fellow officers, one of them with Cates' gun.  Turns out Hammond was also in the old gang, and the perfect one to assist with the pursuit.  Cates gets permission to spring Reggie from jail for 48 hours and the hunt begins.   Their relationship is terse from the start.  Trust and something short of camaraderie of course don't happen right away, but eventually, after many vulgar and racist exchanges - to say nothing of a lengthy fistfight - the two will form something that resembles a partnership, with a common goal - bring down a scumbag.  Don't expect a hug - or even a handshake - at the end.

48 HRS. is a straightforward, three act movie that sticks closely to the Syd Mead playbook, but does everything so beautifully, so on target, you'll be reminded of how good a Hollywood movie can be. The finale is a typical cat and mouse, but the location of Chinatown adds flavor and the editing milks suspense to an admirable crescendo. Hill's direction is top notch throughout and he was among the several screenwriters, and when there are several cooks at the pot the result is usually limp - but not this time.  The director packages the elements expertly, and this material is ideal for his alpha sensibilities.  A rousing good time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Your Audiology Tutorial: T-Coils

Telecoils ("T-coils") are tiny copper coils found in some hearing aids and cochlear implants.  The T-coil has long been implemented to assist patients' use of landline telephone phones.  The electromagnetic field around a telephone receiver would often cause interference with a traditional hearing aid microphone array and T-coils would kick into a separate mode, actually using the magnetic field to promote the signal.  T-coils can also interface with other assisted listening devices.

In recent years telecoils have received more attention for their success in "looped" areas - rooms fitted with induction loops (current is "induced" in the telecoil via the electromagnetism).  Theaters, lecture halls, and churches are increasingly fit with hidden copper wire or tape to allow hearing aid users to access the signal free of background noise so common to omni directional or directional microphones in amplification (some devices do allow simultaneous use of mics and T-coil).

FM systems are still common in such places but T-coils are less hassle as the former requires the user to wear a device that may not be the most comfortable (or hygienic).  FM also requires frequency transmissions specific to each location.  Someone wearing hearing aids equipped with a telecoil can use the same technology anywhere a room is looped.

Note that your hearing aid(s) must have a manually accessible (via switch on device or option on remote control or smartphone app) T-coil memory/program in order for its use in looped areas.  Some aids are programmed to have the telecoil activate automatically when phone is brought within ~3 inches of device.  Talk to your audiologist or dispenser.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The 400 Blows

Antoine may well be a genius, but he can't focus on his homework, other than his voracious reading of Balzac.  So enamored of the author is the boy that his teacher accuses him of plagiarism when he writes an essay in such an erudite style.  Antoine is often forced to spend the hour in a corner of the classroom.  His home life is likewise quite dismal: cramped flat with two parents who are always working.  One weekend his father is away at the races, leaving the boy completely alone. Antoine barely has space in which to sleep, and seems to his elders as merely something else to step over or around.   The parents are not necessarily bad people, even showing signs of proper disciplining and affection here and there, but they are self-centered, distracted.

I found myself frustrated and angry (though sometimes understanding) with these so-called adults: Gilberte (Claire Maurier) clearly resents having to care for a child and carries on an affair with a co-worker.  Stepfather Julien (Albert Remy) is an amiable enough chap but always seems to lack that extra follow through to reign in the kid.  When habitual liar Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) accidentally nearly burns down the apartment and turns to petty crime both adults are all too willing to rescind their rights to his guardianship and send him to an "observation center" for troubled youths.   The only joy we ever see among the family is a night out at the movies, unsurprising in a story by Francois Truffaut and that it is more than a little autobiographical for him. 

And Truffaut's 1959 debut THE 400 BLOWS is such a perfect movie that I wouldn't change a beat, or a frame.  Its story and themes will seem old hat to those who don't remember the film's original release, but what remains as fresh as ever is a certain purity, a film untainted by corny sentiment or a multitude of subplots.  There are moments that are heartbreaking in their matter-of-factness (note the jail scene) because they feel hopeless and cold, the way they really would.  Truffaut is an artist and fashions his movie with just the right bleakness but never resorts to heavy handedness in the process.  He ends scenes at the right moment, where other directors might feel the need to punctuate with something clever or verbose.  To over explain something.

THE 400 BLOWS' impact is felt at every moment, with a lovely performance by Leaud, who would play this character in several later Truffaut dramas.  I've watched his psychiatry interview scene several times, a quietly stunning bit of film.  When we reach the end of the story, the freeze frame zoom is as evocative as any finale I've seen. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mulholland Drive

Spoilers

One of the dilemmas with a television series is knowing when to bow out gracefully.  When to exit at the top of your game.  A series allows creators to really flesh out their characters, to portray them in both extraordinary and humdrum situations.  This is why we feel like we know them, as if they're friends or family, even.  But often they wear out their welcome.  Or when their story is sufficiently tied up, anything more just seems unnecessary.  That's why film is a more satisfying medium for me - the beauty of economy.  A strong conclusion leaves everything frozen in perfection, leaving us free to wonder what would happen the next day if we so desire.  A T.V. show that runs a season too long just confirms how great film really is.

David Lynch created the iconic Twin Peaks in 1990 and its first season was near perfection.  Then came Season Two.  More was less.  In 1999 Lynch filmed a pilot called Mulholland Drive that likely baffled network executives.  Others, even HBO, also passed on it.  The director escaped to retreat and meditate and a wellspring of ideas came to him.  He was ready to rework and complete his project as a feature film.

As you watch 2001's MULHOLLAND DRIVE, you can see how it was originally conceived for television.  Multiple characters are introduced, usually in very colorful ways.  A clumsy hit man ends up killing two additional unfortunates in a botched attempt.  A mobster spits out espresso he finds unacceptable during a meeting.  In a diner a nervous man explains a horrific dream to his companion, then  goes outside and sees the object of his fear behind a dumpster before passing out.  There are also scenes that appear to be introductions to ideas to be developed later, like when a man dumps pink paint over his wife's jewelry after he finds her in bed with the pool guy.

As a result, some of these elements remain unresolved in Lynch's film.  Some characters are only seen in flashes, as if many of their scenes hit the cutting room floor.  Story lines lost. Yet here, it all seems to follow the entropy of the creator's universe.  Criticizing the lack of follow through just seems beside the point.

It's a sun drenched afternoon or a pitch black night.  Either way, you can never trust what is before your eyes in Los Angeles.  Especially the L.A. in a David Lynch motion picture.  A city he loves, a natural habitat for a transplanted artist of fever dreams and dark visions.  Art imitating life and vice versa in an endless cycle. A town that was Lynchian long before there was a David Lynch.   Is MULHOLLAND DRIVE the movie he was working toward his entire career?

Lynch would, to date, direct one more film.  2006's INLAND EMPIRE is his most inscrutable work, a film that almost makes MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem conventional by comparison.  I am an admirer of INLAND EMPIRE and would love to revisit it sometime, but it does seem like an afterthought in the wake of the previous movie, one of the most debated of its time.

If you know Lynch at all you do not look for linearity in his films.  Even if a narrative threatens to form you always wonder if we're actually in the midst of someone's nightmare.  Maybe in a parallel universe.  Lynch will offer no answers.  He does not do DVD commentaries or directly answer questions as to what his films mean.  Although, for a 2002 issue of MULHOLLAND DRIVE he did offer the viewer a list of moments to watch carefully, as to what clues may be present.

By the end of the movie, you may think you know what it's about.  For all of the seeming red herrings and unresolved vignettes, a closing statement emerges.  In its final images of a corpse (seen many times earlier) and plume of blue smoke, one could understand the cold end to the life of a woman first known as Betty and later (concurrently?) as Diane, and why.   It could be as simple as "a broken heart for every light", although that was used to describe the millions who sought the glory of Broadway in New York City.  There are millions more in the City of Angels.

Naomi Watts delivers an absolute bravura performance.  Two of them, actually.  A wide eyed innocent (Betty) in the early scenes who comes to L.A. to realize her dreams, who as it turns out has real talent.  But a mysterious woman with amnesia who calls herself Rita (Laura Harring) disrupts Betty's plans, prompting the latter to play detective, to find out how Rita got that gash on her forehead, why she survived a car crash on Mulholland Drive.  Later, as Diane, Watts portrays a deeply depressed "never-was" wrecked by lost professional opportunities and the loss of love, of a woman named Camilla Rhoades (also Harring).

Camilla Rhoades is also the name of the actress a pair of mobsters want to star in the latest picture of hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Thoreux).  The young man does not share their point of view, and finds himself driving to a corral high above the city to meet "The Cowboy", who, after some mild dress down of the young man's attitude, convinces him to cast Camilla.   And who is the short guy with the long arms who the mobster calls? Wasn't he "The Man From Another Place" in Twin Peaks? And isn't his room the one we saw on that show and its prequel film FIRE WALK WITH ME?

There is much to unravel, to sort out.  MULHOLLAND DRIVE has a point, and is not merely pretentious wankery, which you might've accurately stated about LOST HIGHWAY.   MULHOLLAND is my favorite Lynch movie, and one that becomes more beautiful and intriguing with each viewing.  Criterion finally released their remaster so now is a good time to (re)acquaint yourself with its power.  Including/especially those of you who only watch the film for its, ahem, rather erotic moments.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Outland

S P O I L E R S

William O'Neil (Sean Connery) is the new Marshall in town.  His wife and child are unhappy in such a dank hellhole, but it's a living. O'Neil wonders why local mine workers are seemingly flipping out and taking their own lives.  The other so-called lawmen and the miners' company are unconcerned as it "happens every so often".  O'Neil begins digging and with the help of cranky physician Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) discovers the deceased have significant levels of a particular amphetamine in their blood.  A drug that allows many hours of nonstop, tireless work for Conglomerates Amalgamated.  It explains why Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle), general manager boasts this his franchise has broken company productivity records and that everyone has received bonus checks.  But the cost is the sanity and eventually the lives of the laborers.

O'Neil sets out to nail Sheppard.  The Marshall intercepts and destroys a large shipment of the vital drug.  C.A. will not have its profitability interrupted.  The second half of 1981's OUTLAND will largely resemble the 1952 Western HIGH NOON.   But the newer film is, in fact, a science fiction opus, set in a titanium mining outpost on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.  Aside from the setting and technology, and that characters need specialized helmets to breathe out of doors, this age old tale of corporate greed and the expendability of Man could've been set in any terrestrial locale.

ALIEN, released a few years earlier and to which OUTLAND has often been compared, was another sci-fi thriller with similar themes. Why should we think that mankind would behave any differently in space? That for all of the advancement of tech we would still be the same selfish, sin-ridden corruptibles, lacking honor, bravery, and even a shred of human decency?  Everyone except the new Marshall, cut of a rare cloth, and er, "not of this world".  Intellect may foster much advancement in the future, when deep space is colonized and is a viable destination, but morality, writer/director Peter Hyams argues, will not follow in kind.

All interesting thematically, but is OUTLAND exemplary science fiction, or at least a decent movie? More the latter, and far less thoughtful than SOLARIS, BLADE RUNNER, or several others of the genre.  Despite a somewhat sluggish pace at times, I think OUTLAND is a pretty good, solid bit of entertainment, with generally impressive special effects.  Especially with its technology,  new in its day, that allows actors to convincingly move around miniatures.  Movies like this live and die on effects, like it or not, and OUTLAND still looks pretty good.  Sci-fi geeks will have plenty to stare at.

But the script is a bit simplistic.  Things wrap up a bit too easily, too.  Like so many films, the ideas are better than the development of them. For me, the character development in OUTLAND isn't entirely satisfactory, but for this story, I guess it was enough.  The actors are appropriately sullen, though Sternhagen livens things up with her crotchety manner.  Quite thankfully, she wasn't turned into a love interest.   Hyams, director of BUSTING, CAPRICORN ONE, RUNNING SCARED, 2010, and several others, does his usual servicable job and gets to stage another chase scene.

I mentioned the slow pace.  I actually really love deliberate science fiction dramas, all the more time to immerse oneself in the themes, to discern subtext.  I would've preferred more from OUTLAND than simply obvious homages to Westerns.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Killer" Cranberry Sauce

Growing up, I was never a fan of cranberry sauce.  This is probably because my parents, for all of their otherwise homemade cooking, always bought that stuff that came in a can.  Maroon goop that retained the can's shape in the serving bowl and appeared like some weird flavor of gelatin. 

My wife has been creating the antidote for about fourteen years, dating back to when she was a graduate student in Monterey.  We found a recipe similar to the one below and my feelings for this famous side dish are forever changed.  The above pic was taken a few years ago in our kitchen, moments before the little buggers began to pop.

You may need to experiment with the amount of sugar.

Enjoy!      
  • 1 large orange (juice and peel)
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 4 cups fresh cranberries*
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz.) toasted pecan pieces

Grate the orange peel and add to a pot with the sugar and ginger. Add the juice from the orange into the pot and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add cranberries and cook 3 to 5 minutes until the skins pop open. Mash berries with spoon or fork until of desired consistency. Add pecans. Serve warm or chilled.
*Fresh, frozen cranberries can be substituted for fresh.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

ffolkes

1980's ffolkes, aka NORTH SEA HIJACK, is the sort of old fashioned adventure that just isn't seen anymore.  Pity.  We could use some.  These days (and for quite some time now) hijack pictures get bogged down with advanced technology and tiresome political rants from the villains, to say nothing of computer generated action scenes that are guaranteed to remove the viewer from any immediacy in the plot.

ffolkes proudly has none of that.  The hijack of a Norwegian supply ship bound for expensive North Sea oil rigs is engineered by a group of men posing as reporters, led by Kramer (Anthony Perkins), who have no agenda other than getting rich.  Many viewers have stated that the later DIE HARD takes several cues from this film.  One of those might be that the ultimate goal of its hijackers in the 1988 actioner  - who put up a ruse with long winded demands for asylum for their compadres - is the same. 

What is not the same is ffolkes' scarcity of large scale action scenes.  There are no real scuffles in the movie until near the end, in fact, when counter terrorist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (Roger Moore) scales the ship with his commando team to foil the plans of the bad guys.  It hardly matters, as the film is so entertaining and involving that interruptions for periodic fisticuffs or shootouts would've seemed a real intrusion to the quiet engagement the film creates.

Mr. ffolkes is a precise, eccentric, and supremely arrogant fellow who subjects his men to endless drills and dry insults.  When Admiral Brinson (James Mason) asks if he is the sort who finishes the London Times crossword in ten minutes, his quarry is insulted, curtly replying it has never taken him ten minutes.    ffolkes can afford to be abrupt - his steel trap mind constantly strategizes methods to thwart both evil plots and inept, if well meaning, efforts to quell them.   He drinks heavily, fancies cats and detests females, all of which provide mileage for Moore's highly amusing performance, one of his finest.  His explanation for his misogyny is wryly funny.  How his fellow cast reacts to his brazen demeanor only adds to the fun.   He's clearly enjoying the change of pace from his usual suave, womanizing characters such as Simon Templar and James Bond.   It's safe to say that ffolkes is a better film than most of Moore's outings as 007, and apparently the actor agreed.

ffolkes is a perfect matinee for those seeking comfortable escapism that does not require acute wits or a strong stomach on the part of its audience for enjoyment.  Michael J. Lewis' typically majestic late '70s European scoring perfectly compliments the scenario.   It's the sort of film you could've watched with your grandmother without concern for offensive content, though she may have blushed when one of the henchman complained that he was "freezing (his) balls off" while standing guard on a chilly ship's deck.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spectre

Long time fans of Ian Fleming's James Bond character may have felt their hearts warm upon learning that the latest outing would be named SPECTRE.  Ah, the memories of 1960s era 007, with a dapper yet rough hewn Sean Connery battling a bald scarfaced maniac villain called Blofeld and his organization, from which this new film gets its name. "SPECTRE" was an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, though the current movie makes no effort to distinguish this.  Then again, the actions speak for themselves.  Even so, would this 21st century take be reverent to the old school?

Yes. SPECTRE in fact works in similar ways to the current Peanuts movie in its efforts to blend the old with the new.  To give the diehards the old fashioned derring do while maintaining a contemporary setting.  A timely one in which the MI6's merger with a privately funded intelligence service threatens the existence of the 00 section, deemed to be a stone age relic by a weasely government/corporate head called "C" (Andrew Scott).  C seeks to have Britain join several other nations in a joint surveillance alliance.  One remarked by a character to be scary enough for George Orwell.

Daniel Craig suits up for a fourth (final?) go round as 007, still mourning the death of his superior, M, previously portrayed by Dame Judy Dench.  Ralph Fiennes plays the new Head of Secret Intelligence, locked in a power struggle with C, and perhaps forced to suspend Bond from action after a rather eventful "holiday" in Mexico City (and a great opening sequence) that becomes "an international incident".  Unlike the teaser openings in some previous Bonds, this one is relevant to the story.  As James pulls a curious ring from a dead assassin's finger, he notes the inscription of an octopus that will be familiar to 007 philes.

SPECTRE moves entertainingly and confidently under Sam Mendes' direction, his second in the series.  The film globe trots among snowy and dusty locales, parades a few inevitable bed mates for the super agent, and often segues into an action scene when dialogue threatens to eat up too much screen time.  In other words, business as usual.  Some viewers find SPECTRE a pace or two backward with its willingness to embrace lengthy fight scenes and a plot riddled with holes, but I found it struck just the right tone.  Not exactly light (as in a Roger Moore entry), but less gloomy than in the previous SKYFALL, which I liked quite a bit but felt was over praised.

SPECTRE willingly lifts ideas from the Eon adventures of old, with its moving train scuffles, car gadgetry, large, silent bad guy minions, and even a scene where 007 is strapped to table/chair and threatened with torture.  A few dry wisecracks.  Blofeld's patented fluffy kitty is also seen.  Specific nods to the heart of what made the original films so engaging.  You might carp that there are one too many helicopter scrapes, though.

The "Bond girl" this time is Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux),  a psychologist who is the daughter of a former Bond nemesis, and she exhibits the sort of sexiness and feistiness ala Pussy Galore and others.  Monica Belluci, advertised as the oldest Bond girl in the series, only gets two early scenes.  She isn't given much to do, and that's too bad.  Had her character been developed with some sort of weary wisdom (she is the widow of an assassin Bond has killed) we could've had a more interesting partner for 007.  Maybe a throwback to Barbara Bach's XXX in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME or Countess Tracy (Diana Rigg) in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

A well cast Christoph Waltz assumes the role of the central villain, one revealed to have deep ties with James Bond.   He also is given limited screen time, mainly late in the movie, but delivers a fairly even performance, minus lip smacking.  Critics again may wince at plot developments as Blofeld leads our heroes to his clandestine lair (another 007 cliche), but I couldn't be concerned with such myopia.  I was having too much fun.  SPECTRE is an immensely satisfying trip.  Even during the dependably cheesy, retro opening titles sequence, refreshing to see these days.  Real shame about that theme song, though.

Postscript: To those bitching that SPECTRE's plot and villain remind them of the AUSTIN POWERS movies: what did you geniuses think Mike Myers and company were spoofing in the first place? Go watch a Sean Connery Bond, namely THUNDERBALL.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Walker

The exploits of nineteenth century lawyer/doctor/mercenary William Walker have gone before the cameras twice: 1969's BURN!, directed by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS' Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando (and yet unseen by yours truly) and 1987's WALKER, helmed by Alex Cox, whose previous credits were SID & NANCY and REPO MAN.  Walker's story, his colorful life and demeanor was a perfect conduit through which leftist Cox could channel his anger at American involvement in Nicaragua during the mid-'80s.  Just as Altman let his invective (and freak flag) fly against Vietnam with the Korean War-set MASH, Cox set out to prove that things hadn't really changed in over a century in relations between the U.S. and Central America.

Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer could've struck out on many a path with this project.  Play it serious? Go for laughs? Temper their film with a bit of both? The men (like Altman before them) obviously had great affection and pity for the plight of soldiers and villagers who were often collateral damage in the wake of American policy.  Of meglomaniacal boys in men's bodies who viewed people as chess pieces.  Consider Cornelius Vanderbilt, played here by Peter Boyle.  In an effort to protect his profitable shipping route, the American tycoon hires Walker, with the help of a rag tag collection of fighters, to take over the government of Nicaragua. Vanderbilt is portrayed, perhaps accurately, as a petulant buffoon, who, in a moment representative of the sort of humor in WALKER, expels a loud fart as punctuation to his statement, "I get what I want!".

Walker (Ed Harris) is not drawn any more favorably.  His apparent insanity is visible almost immediately upon arrival in his new land.  He always marches ahead of his men, untouched by the bullets of Nicaraguans who won't go quietly.  While his lackey mercenaries suffer and bleed, Walker finds and plays a piano. Later, after surviving an assassination attempt, he steals the mistress of the President and later has him shot.   And this is before he really goes off the deep end.  You can read the history of Walker, of what a madman he was, and the filmmakers want you to draw parallels between him and Oliver North, who at the time of WALKER's shoot was helping to subsidize (from the sale of arms to Iran) Contra forces attempting to undermine President Daniel Ortega in the name of democracy.  A big scandal.  Those who lived through those days will remember the televised hearings.  Footage of Reagan era news clips are included for emphasis during the end titles.

While I can understand why Cox chose to make such an oddball biography - the subject clearly merits it- it's obvious that the reach for surreality got the better of him.  This movie is a real mess. The early scenes promise something far better than what finally comes.  Goofy sight gags sit uncomfortably with more serious observations of exploitation and insanity.  The choice to use anachronisms (automobiles, computers, Time magazine) also comes off as desperate, too cheeky.  The film gets weirder and weirder as Walker's behavior grows more irrational, but things careen way out of control.  Having the supporting players (such as character actor Rene Auberjoinois) overract is also a dubious touch.  WALKER, by the time the helicopter touches down, has lost any credibility as a political and social cry. 

The film has its defenders, just as other troublesome, unclassifiable works like FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS do.  Criterion does another impressive job, and their selection of this certainly fits with what would be considered "important".  I just wish the film resembled DR. STRANGELOVE rather than ISHTAR.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

La Grange

From Live at Daryl's House.  Z.Z. Top guitarist Billy Gibbons plays his old band's classic with Daryl Hall and a tight ensemble.  Tempo slowed down, with some nice Hammond B action.....




Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Peanuts Movie

It is with pleasure and relief that I can report that THE PEANUTS MOVIE, released last Friday, is a true delight.  A very welcome return to the sort of children's entertainment that is minus the currently fashionable cynicism and vernacular.   This was in marked contrast to the parade of trailers for upcoming kiddie pics we saw beforehand - each animated feature filled with characters spouting phrases along the lines of "shut the front door" or whatever other slang people are using these days.  Caustic attitudes that render talking animals as little more than parrots of the Generation X and Y adults who created them.

Charles Schulz's beloved sixty plus year old comic strip truly is timeless in its messages of longsuffering and pull up your bootstraps optimism, as timeless as his characters themselves who are forever in the first grade. A re-imagining of the Peanuts gang's personalities and attitudes would've been deadly, and that seems to be the trend with many remakes and rehashes anymore.  But the gang behind the camera (including producers/screenwriters Craig and Brian Schulz, the orignator's son and grandson) don't make the opposite mistake of having their wonderful creations exist in a stale landscape, either.

The eye filling computer animation (I did not see this in 3-D) nicely retains the hand drawn eyes, mouths, and other features with which fans are so familiar.  Director Steve Martino and his team even deftly insert some two dimensional images torn from the old comics, T.V. specials, and movies.  It perfectly assimilates the old with the new.   While some viewers may object to the liberal use of the pop song "Better When I'm Dancing" by Meghan Trainor, it's bouncy and bright and suits the good spirits of this movie.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is akin to a "Greatest Hits" of the Peanuts world.  The plot incorporates all of the usual characters, with much of the plot following Charlie Brown's super crush on the Red-Haired Girl (eagle eyed viewers will catch her real name on a test score report), who's just moved across the street.  The kite eating tree, Snoopy's red baron fantasies (which are surprisingly intense and get a lot of screen time), the "wah wah" sound when adults speak,  Linus and his blanket, Schroeder and his piano (along with the latters' unrequited love from Sally and Lucy), and many other classic bits are all there.  For awhile it seems as if the film is just a collection of skits, but isn't it always really just about Everyman Chuck and his often in vain efforts just to get a little respect?  To have things not be a total disaster?  Who among you can't relate to that? As usual, lots of lessons are learned along the way, and the melancholia usually seen in a Peanuts special or movie is not as prevalent here.

But that does not mean the film has been tailored for our hypersensitive, P.C. world.  Lucy is still a snotty little brat, for one.  Sally comes off a bit selfish.  But it's all good, ultimately warm hearted fun.  And cute (you knew I'd say that).  Not a home run, necessarily, but a worthy big screen outing, the kids' first in 35 years.   I grew up watching those and everything Peanuts, so I was very eager to see the new movie and hopeful to be writing a favorable review.   I even teared up a little when a bit of Vince Guaraldi's indescribably emotional piano filled the soundtrack.  Though nothing like the tears I shed as a kid each time I watched SNOOPY, COME HOME.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

American Graffiti

Those earlier times often felt dreamlike, even as they were playing out. Years a little beyond the carefree days of childhood, when you had little to worry over other than whether you were to pretend to be the Allies or the Germans as you played "war" with the other kids in your neighborhood.  Or maybe what shirt or blouse made you look cool.  Those days when you're about to graduate high school, bound for something.  Maybe college in another state, maybe in the same old town.  It's possible you'll decide to stay put and begin working.  Or perhaps join the military.  Does the dreamlike state evaporate as reality closes in?

"Fuck the future!" said Tony Manero in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  "No, the future says 'fuck you'"! replies his boss at the paint store, all too aware of where a lack of planning, of forward thinking can lead.  The characters in 1973's AMERICAN GRAFFITI, set in the early 1960s, are about to enter the Rest of Their Lives. It covers a night in which several teens are wracked with indecision over their paths.  What does one do if your plan is set but then something catches your eye just hours before your departure? Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), already unsure of his decision to leave his small California town to attend college on the other coast, sees a vision: a blonde in a Thunderbird.  Did she say "I love you" through the glass? Does this change everything? Or is it a mere distraction, a test?

Steve (Ronny Howard) is also set to blow town for college, but his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) wants him to stay and build a life with her.  John (Paul Le Mat) broods and seems content with sticking around and working on his car.  Terry, dubbed "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith) is a skinny, socially awkward young man headed for Vietnam.  He spends the long evening with the spunky Debbie (Candy Clark), an odd pairing.  Everyone cruises the night away, many in ultra cool muscle cars and hot rods.  Toad, however, is borrowing Steve's Chevy Impala.  A burger joint called Mel's Drive-In is home base.  There are other characters played by Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, Bo Hopkins, and a pre-stardom Harrison Ford.  Suzanne Somers is the girl in the T-Bird.  Wolfman Jack's voice is heard on the radio and he even has a cameo.

As with many films of this type, plotting is far from precise, or even really thought about.  This is a snapshot in a group of young lives, an important, eventful evening that will linger in memories and seal fates. AMERICAN GRAFFITI is refreshingly loose and while it will stir nostalgia for some (mainly those who lived through this era), the film is not a gooey, teary, gauze lensed love poem. Writer/director George Lucas - who based the film largely on his younger days - maintains a near objective account of the action.  Orchestrated, but in such a way that everything feels spontaneous, as such a night with teenagers of any time period would.  Rick Linklater would create his own, similar type of film about high schoolers in the '70s, DAZED AND CONFUSED, twenty years later.

And AMERICAN GRAFFITI appropriately feels like a dream, with events that are believable and recognizable yet feel slightly unreal.  A big part of this is the film's use of music.  Always heard through someone's radio, often at a distance.  Sometimes the indistinct sounds float in the background as characters walk along roadways or lean against cars. There is no score, just incidentals.  It's a stylistic choice in itself, and the movie would not be the same without it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Hardman


The Hardman upright was around before I was.  My parents bought it somewhere in Brooklyn in the late 1960s.  When I arrived, it had been sitting in a Bay Ridge brownstone living room for a few years.  My mother had played piano since childhood, and was offering lessons to neighborhood children.  Eventually, after we moved to Florida, I took some, apparently doing fairly well.  I can remember my mother writing letters on the keys - lightly- in pencil for me as I learned the notes.

Back while we we're still in NYC, I also remember putting my finger (Lord knows what was on it) on the Hardman logo and removing part of its gold etching.   It's one of my earliest memories; thankfully I don't recall the certain punishment I received.


I played for a few years but my story is much the same as probably millions of others.  I wanted to go out and play.  There was endless sunshine and kids down the block and I wanted to tackle them on my friend's big green lawn.  Being cooped up inside to practice scales wasn't my thing.  I just stopped.  I don't remember feeling as if I made a mistake, the way I do now.

The Hardman moved with us four times while I lived with my parents.  My mother played it daily.  Mostly standards, a lot of Sinatra and Dean Martin.  Religious hymns.  She even wrote a few tunes later on.  Christmas was her favorite time and our house was always decked inside and out.  The old familiar holiday songs echoed through each place.  Sometimes I would sit next to her and plink a few keys.

The father of one of my church friends would tune the piano at various times.  More recently, he and his wife have been patients of mine.

The piano remained with my dad and me after my mother left, when I was nineteen.  It sat and collected dust.  My father never played and always seemed indifferent to its presence, even though he loved music. Especially those interminable Norwegian 33 1/3s with their side long accordion solos.  When I left a few years later I had it brought over to my grandmother's house. First her old place and then to her condo west of town, where she spent most of the rest of her life.

The Hardman was untouched for several years, save when here and there my mother decided to pull out the same sheet music that had resided in the stool for decades.  Then my grandmother's new husband, Tom, began to play.  He especially loved polkas and very often deviated from the notes, adding his own flourishes.  My mother did that too, finishing sounds with that right to left swipe across the keys.  Didn't Liberace do that, too? That Hardman took a pounding.

In the 1990s, Mom and Tom played a few duets in public for local benefits for abused women.  The "Beer Barrel Polka" was always the finale, and I recorded a few of these shows.  Rousing, it was.  Brought down the house.  The attendees were mostly women my mother and her mother knew, with a few others who had seen the bad side of physical abuse.  All ages.

In 2007 my mother entered a rehab facility and there she remains.  A long, difficult story I have discussed here over the years. The Hardman again sat in silence at my grandmother's apartment.  It would gradually become a place for multiple picture frames and stuffed animals.   In 2012, my grandmother was admitted to a nursing facility.  She was there for a little over two years before passing on.

She left behind an apartment filled with thousands of photographs and piles of clothes.  Many books, which we recently donated to an annual church sale.  I have had little time to attend to the place due to a most eventful year.  I check in weekly for the mail and to makes sure everything is intact.  The Hardman again sat under layers of dust, waiting.

Last month it took another journey, this time to my mother-in-law's house, where my wife and I have been living since August (scroll back).  I found a trio of careful movers I trusted and everything was hunky dory until we got to the guard gate:

Me: "There's a moving truck coming behind me.  Can you let them in, please"

Guard Gate Guy: "No deliveries allowed on Sunday!"

Mentally, my palm hit my forehead.  I had totally forgotten about the no Sunday rule. Boards love to create rules like this.  I felt a pit in my stomach.  The truck pulled in behind me, idling.

Me: "Please, sir.  I need to get this done." I felt my head get warm and began envisioning hundreds more dollars flying into the wind.

GGG: "Oh no.  I could lose my job!" The guy's eyes appeared as if to water.  Shit.  What was I going to do?

Just then, thank you, Lord, my MIL was on her way out of the complex.  She jumped out and I apprised her of the situation.  Her pleading with GGG was no help.  It finally took her phone call to a board member to get the gate lifted.  Whew.

The Hardman sits in a new living room.  Waiting.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ex Machina

Major Spoilers

Is there an author of life, or was life always there? A character in the 2015 feature EX MACHINA similarly asks another if speech isn't something that is acquired but rather already present at birth, the individual merely having to find how to express it.  The "another" is a robot/android with Artificial Intelligence called Ava, who is engaged in a dialogue with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young coder who won a visit to the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of his company.   There are several discussions, or "sessions" as title cards inform us, between the young genius and the latest AI, the brainchild and design of Caleb's boss, who runs Bluebook, the largest search engine in the world.  EX MACHINA is a movie that takes place "a few minutes from now" according to writer/director Alex Garland.

Nathan, to quote another movie, doesn't have a God complex, but feels "he is God".   And yes, in a sense, he is.  As EX MACHINA plays out, it will be revealed how long and to what degree. Did Ava have predecessors? Older, outdated models left to rust?  As Nathan explains, Ava has been programmed based on what I consider the nefarious act of capturing speech patterns and choices made through millions of cellular phones.  Other viewers would consider that ingenious and just good business.  When a company like Bluebook (or Google, or..), with that many customers, anything is possible.  But exactly what is Ava programmed for? What is her purpose? Servant? Sex partner? Cubicle dweller? Can AI learn self preservation? How to manipulate to assure that end? Or was that programmed, too?

One might also ask if the idea of an eternal deity is still the actual creator of Artificial Intelligence, since AI was created by His creations.  Or, getting back to the opening question, if that AI is simply a manifest of something that had no beginning, but now has a human looking form in which to act.  That might be worth an hour or two of debate among believers after several IPAs.

Caleb will learn much of the above in ways that may belie his so called "genius".   By the end, I found myself in disbelief over his decision making.  Despite his depth of knowledge and left-brained dominance, he manages to fall in love with circuitry, to be influenced by it.  Therein may lie Garland's points.  Valid, despite a screenplay and character behavior that is at odds with story logic.  Why, for example, is Nathan so careless late in the film, allowing his alcoholism to leave him vulnerable? Or was that his plan? When his creation breaks free and assimilates into the world in the final scenes, we are left with lots of possibilities thereafter.  Also as to how engineered the entire scenario was.  Ava may have indeed been designed to infiltrate the human race, to appear like everyone else and entice and control us.  I was reminded of Donald Fagen's song "Tomorrow's Girls" in a way. 

I was also reminded of BLADE RUNNER.  Synthetic souls with implanted personalities, maybe even memories.  A desire to live.  Creations that may or may not be revealed when subjected to questionnaires.  Deckard used Rachel as his subject.  It may be the other way around for Caleb and Ava.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Psycho (1998)

In the annals of Unnecessary Remake Shame, 1998's PSYCHO has to rank very close to the top. A more pointless cinematic exercise I cannot recall witnessing.  Many redos that I have watched may have angered and saddened me, but this one was a weird non-experience.  Very odd.  I sat there feeling numb, embalmed.  As if I had ingested too many benzodiazepines.  But the effect wasn't calming, rather disbelief. Allow me to borrow the words of a music critic - this film is "an almost perfect blandness".

Director Gus Van Sant plays it near letter perfect to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 original.  The script is still credited to Joseph Stefano.  Much of the dialogue is the same.  I guess we can applaud the Imagine team (who created a ridiculous tagline for this new film, btw) for not trying to create a baldly contemporary take on the strange case of Normal Bates.  Although if they had, maybe it would've been bad enough for me to respond with some degree of emotion.  As it is, this version of PSYCHO does inspire my negative review, with enough behind it to prompt me to make caustic remarks, but really, I was just overwhelmed by pure bafflement. Why, Gus?

I wonder why so much effort was put into a shot for shot remake.  Why they felt it necessary for Norman to masturbate while watching Marion through the peephole. Of course we knew the shower scene would be a little more explicit.  I also wonder why such a fine cast, which includes Vince Vaughan, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, and others, agreed to this project.  Maybe they all loved their director.  I've mentioned before that William H. Macy (who plays Milton Arbogast here) is quoted as saying that he heard Hitchock was a real bitch to actors.  It pains me to say that maybe such an approach is necessary to tease out a classic? Just compare the two films.

Van Sant is a director I admire.  DRUGSTORE COWBOY, TO DIE FOR, GOOD WILL HUNTING, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, and others are impressive.  I can't join the chorus of negativity towards EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES as I haven't had the pleasure of seeing it yet.  Was PSYCHO some sort of experiment? A proving point to himself? I just don't get it.  It's truly a textbook case of artists/craftsmen/what have you studying the same blueprint and erecting something very different.  Or, as Ebert discusses in his review, different musicians playing the same piece: one getting all the technical points down, but losing the music.  The late critic really says it all when he explains what "genius" is behind the camera:

Genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.

Think about that, even with some of the obvious visual stylings on display,  the next time you try to quantify why Max Ophuls, Satyajit Ray, Stanley Kubick, the Coen Brothers, or several others deserve the title.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Re-Animator

SPOILERS!
 
Many gross out horror films are far from timid in treating viewers to all manner of vile and disgusting make-up effects, and accordingly many are just so dour and ugly.  Cheerless marches of unpleasantness.  All such films are potentially ridiculous, and 1985's RE-ANIMATOR not only recognizes but fully embraces this notion.  Of how violence and gore can be taken to an extreme that far surpasses any inherent shock and transfigures into a comic ballet.

Sam Raimi skillfully orchestrated such a dance with the original EVIL DEAD and its sequels.  If I described to you what occurs in those films, you might be repelled, but the cartoonish approach tempers what otherwise might play as unwatchable in other hands (pardon the pun if you've seen those flicks).  Director Stuart Gordon's style is not kinetic like Raimi's, but rather a steady approach to a third act crescendo of outrageousness.  Over the top carnage that set new lows for the genre.  This is high praise, indeed.

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has concocted a reagent that can re-animate the deceased.   His reputation precedes him as he arrives at Miskatonic University and almost immediately sets about to show his med school roommate Dan (Bruce Abbott) the results of his labor.  After bringing Dan's dead feline to life, the duo are expelled and are forced to find corpses in the local morgue as subjects.  But, the re-animated tend to be uncontrollable and quite violent.  You can't reason with them.

Soon, the reagent will be necessary to use on Dr. Alan Halsey, dean of the school (Robert Sampson), and his egotistical colleague Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who ends up with a separated re-animated head and lower body.  In his new state, Dr. Hill is still coherent, and lucid enough to devise some rather perverted designs on the dean's daughter/Dan's fiancee, Megan (Barbara Crampton), in a scene of wicked invention and demented humor.

Those words sum up RE-ANIMATOR entirely.  Director Gordon's screenplay - based on an old story by H.P. Lovecraft - is a trashy good time that adheres to the conventions of the genre while drolly commenting on them.  The story follows an insane logic right to its final fade out.  Gordon's tone is straight faced and that is the only way such an absurd movie could possibly work.  Yet it is never relentlessly somber or self-serious.  There is a wink in every moment, with Richard Band's score an apt accompaniment.

That is not to say that if you are squeamish you should give it a go, but the cabaret of excessiveness here approaches heights (or depths) that put it firmly in the schlock Hall of Fame.  And I was not at all surprised that this movie was later adapted into a Broadway musical.   RE-ANIMATOR could easily be LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' even more twisted cousin.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Videodrome

I would consider nearly all of writer/director David Cronenberg's films to be ahead of their time, though my revisit a few weeks back with 1983's VIDEODROME was downright startling.   Its foresight disturbs me now more than any of its violent or sexual content possibly could.  Cronenberg was always either in line with or ahead of the medical and technological worlds with his visions.  The director was surprised to learn that the research behind the amorous parasites in his 1975 low budgeter SHIVERS actually existed.

VIDEODROME follows Max (James Woods), president of a small Toronto cable TV station that features softcore programming.  He's been seeking different fare for his viewers, something "tougher".  He begins receiving curious satellite transmissions from what his technician believes is Malaysia.   Staticy, barely visible shots of people being tortured in a single room. Intrigued, Max begins pirating the signal, called "Videodrome" believing this to be the sort of edgy material that will boost his ratings.  He learns the transmissions are actually coming from Pittsburgh.

Max will learn quite a bit more about "Videodrome" - who created it, who's currently behind it, what its actual purpose is.  How his new girlfriend,  radio psychiatrist Nicki Brand (Deboarh Harry),  responds to it. Cronenberg's screenplay incorporates many conspiracy theory elements and corporate misdeeds, much like in his previous film SCANNERS.  The subject was so ripe.  People were increasingly glued to their TVs in the wake of cable and video game ubiquity in the late 70s/early 80s.  It seemed natural that the government or some corporation would seek to control the minds of such a captive audience.  To perhaps thin the herd of those who would seek to disagree with their agenda.

Max discovers that viewers of "Videodrome" develop brain tumors, which in turn cause hallucinations.  Are those screaming about cell phone use causing acoustic neuromas so off the mark?  Will virtual reality soon no longer require special gear? Is this part of the Plan?

It's hard not to wonder about the proliferation of reality TV over the last decade plus in such a context.  But TV as a whole (along with the plethora of devices on which to view it) has indeed become more real than people's real lives, as a Marshall Mchuan-esque character called Brian O'Blivion states in VIDEODROME. How, as another character muses, "North America is getting weak, soft.  The rest of the world is getting stronger".  Sound familiar? The devolution has been happening for some time.

Cronenberg continues his "body horror" stylings to great effect in VIDEODROME, featuring characters who become human VCRs, plunging videotapes straight into their abdomens.  The disgusting manifest of "Videodrome"'s effects, sexual and otherwise.  There is both creation and death in this imagery. Makeup whiz Rick Baker does some nauseatingly good work, especially in a late death scene that outdoes the exploding head in SCANNERS. 

So how long before we assume "the new flesh"? Or has it already happened?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Shallow Grave

I recall my first viewing of 1995's SHALLOW GRAVE.  Tara Theater in midtown Atlanta during its original release.  I attended with an old high school friend with whom I'd reconnected.  We both loved this twisty, relentlessly dark movie.  I was pleasantly surprised, as back in the day she seemed to favor the sunshine of mainstream pop.  Within eight years, her tastes had become far more adventurous.  I watched Jarmusch's NIGHT ON EARTH with her later that summer. We even discussed Nakobov!

Director Danny Boyle's inaugural outing is a sly thriller which I believe Hitchcock would've applauded.  I don't throw that phrase around lightly, or at every Hitchcockian effort I've come across.  SHALLOW GRAVE earns that compliment with its stealthy plotting, sneering black humour, and gradually suffocating tension.  Hitch never made a film quite like this, or as grim, though had he been offered the screenplay I think he might've at least been tempted.

A trio of young, caustic Scottish professionals need a roommate for their Edinburgh flat.  David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (Ewan McGregor) take joy in humiliating several candidates before settling on Hugo (Keith Allen). He's an elusive one, and when he mysteriously turns up dead the roommates discover a trunk full of cash in his room.  The baser instincts overtake these otherwise intelligent individuals. And it is a shame that it doesn't occur to them that someone - possibly quite murderous- may be looking for the money.

As they often say with films like SHALLOW GRAVE, to reveal more would be criminal.  John Hodge's script expertly and logically rides the serpentine plot line to a deliciously and satisfyingly bleak conclusion.  This is what you might call a supreme example of a "just desserts" thriller, where everyone gets exactly what they deserve.  In some ways, this movie is like a grislier, coal black version of Seinfeld.   I'll leave you to discover that knockout finale, one of my favorite ever, but throughout the film each character suffers for their misdeeds, often quite evil.  I especially enjoyed David's comeuppance in a men's room, even if the moment is marginalized from the central plot.  Greed drives every sordid action,  rapidly changing the relationships among the three principals, who begin as close friends.  No possibility therein is left unexplored.  Boyle wastes nary a moment.

Stories with multiple plot twists have always stirred much conversation among myself and cinema mad compadres.  I recall having a mildly intense debate with another old friend over A SIMPLE PLAN, which bears some similarity to SHALLOW GRAVE.   That would be a nifty double feature, though I'm not sure if Sam Raimi's 1998 thriller earns the same treatment Criterion has given the other film. Wonder what my old hs pal thinks?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wiseacre Duos, 10cc, Part VII (CONCLUSION)

By the late 1980s our two pairs of wiseacre duos had each gone their own ways. Eric Stewart was working with Paul McCartney and producing others' output.  Graham Gouldman formed a group with Andrew Gold.  Kevin Godley and Lol Creme had an impressive resume of music videos and a hit single ("Cry"), and in 1988 recorded the harmonica heavy Goodbye Blue Sky, which tackled some weighty subjects.  But soon afterward the relationship deteriorated.  Maybe they were just tired.  How long can the manic creativity burn before it consumes its author(s)?  Both men would continue to direct videos and make music in separate ventures.

In 1991, what appeared to be a minor show business miracle came to pass: all four of the original members of 10cc appeared on a new album, ....meanwhile.  But this reunion was not bona fide, not a return to the days when the guys composed and performed together.  Stewart and Gouldman wrote the tracks, but Godley and Creme had no creative input other than background vocals and one lead - Godley, on "The Stars Didn't Show".  It is reported that the only reason G & C appeared at all was due to an obligation to Polydor Records.

There was another promising element: Gary Katz was called in to produce.  You remember him, the guy who worked with Steely Dan in the '70s?  Many critics noted similarities between the two groups but other than a certain causticism I hear very little.  Nonetheless, it must've seemed like a good pairing, though proving otherwise. Stewart and Gouldman did not mix with Katz's style, one that was always controlling of every detail. Both state they were disappointed with ....meanwhile.  I read that Godley felt a distinct uneasiness in the studio, an atmosphere far from conducive for relaxed creativity, which might've been a better approach for this album.   Katz brought in several session musicians (including Dr. John and Jeff Porcaro) as he had on the Dan's later records, but the results are fair at best.  No hit singles, either.

In 1995, 10cc's final album to date, Mirror Mirror was released to an even cooler reception from fans and critics.  There might be some justice in that as the songs are mostly separate solo efforts from Stewart and Gouldman, aside from an acoustic redo of 10cc's smash "I'm Not in Love".  That track's presence only serves to elucidate how the mighty had fallen.  Sometimes I guess it really is "better to burn out than fade away".  Soon after the Mirror Mirror tour Stewart left the group, with Gouldman trudging on.

In the next decade, in a surprising turn of events, Gouldman's old band mate Kevin Godley joined him ("unfinished business..") to compose several songs for their new website:  http://gg06.co.uk/.  The tracks are downloadable in MP3 and FLAC formats.   It would prove to be an interesting cross-reunion, one that to date has not happened in any other permutation with Lol Creme (who would become a member of Art of Noise and The Producers) or Eric Stewart, who continues to produce other acts.

A bit sad too, as these things usually are.  Geniuses come together for a time to create something unique, magical even, then disband.  Have the inevitable falling out.  Fans want them to work together forever and even like each other, too.  But we know how it goes.  David Byrne is at odds with the other members of his old group, Talking Heads, to name but one example.  Rush is an exception, still together after over forty years and still making solid music.   Maybe the guys in 10cc did in fact "make me a million for when I get old", but I for one would like to hear that they plan to play the Cambridge Festival or the like.   To one more time tell the world "I'm not in love".  No, really!