Thursday, February 26, 2015

Little Caesar

The gangster film rose to prominence in pre-Hayes code 1930s Hollywood. You've likely heard of 1931's SCARFACE, which lead to an ultraviolent remake fifty years later, but what about 1932's LITTLE CAESAR, a tight, involving crime drama featuring Edward G. Robinson as the titular character in his screen debut?

Caesar Enrico Bandello, aka "Rico" dreams big as he and partner Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) pull small time jobs like sticking up service stations. Rico, like many before and after him, wants to be "somebody". It isn't long before he's in Chicago, joined a gang, and risen through the ranks, proving himself to be a fierce competitor to rivals.  Rico will eventually take control of the entire North Side of the city.  There are failed attempts on his life, one of which should've been a sure fire hit, but he escapes with a mere shoulder graze.  Is it luck? Something supernatural?

Joe wants out. He dreams of a career as a dancer, perhaps marrying his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell), herself none too fond of the life of crime.  Of course, Rico wants/needs his friend to help with the dirty business.  There will be resistance, divided emotions. Speeches about loyalty. A failure to pull the trigger at a key moment. Classic conflict.

LITTLE CAESAR is a mostly riveting, compact early gangster drama.  Lean, economical, and iconic. Despite that, not all that well known.  Director Mervyn Leroy stages the drama with just enough panache and Francis Edward Faragoh's screenplay (Darryl Zanuck is one of the uncredited contributors) invites viewers to compare its mafiosos to corporate America titans like Carnegie.  Robinson's diminutive stature and creepy voice only add to the imposing figure he cuts through each scene.  He may not have achieved the fame of Jimmy Cagney or Paul Muni, but he sears the screen. His final line should've joined the cinematic lexicon ala "Frankly Scarlett..." and so many others.

I happened upon LITTLE CAESAR one night on Turner Classic Movies, the second half of a double feature of the original SCARFACE, just like it might've been in theaters in the good old days.  As I've said many times, thank God for this network.  It's one of the few reasons not to pull the plug on cable television.   Al a carte, please!

Monday, February 23, 2015

33 Years

That's how long it's been since I'd seen my old pal from down the block.  My last memory was riding home with him in his mom's car after another grueling day of junior high school.  After several years of friendship, things had gone south with him.  Soon after I was dropped off, his mom called my mom to complain, that I was no longer welcome.  There had been a misunderstanding, perpetuated by neighborhood kids.  The same ones who later told me that if my friend saw me on the street, it'd be my ass.  I was sad about the lost friendship, but also concerned as he could've certainly beaten the shit out of me.

But I never again crossed paths with him, despite my living just a few houses away.  Strangest thing.  I moved twice more while I lived in the old 'hood, but within walking distance.  The 1980s wore on with high school and college, and not once did we cross an area at the same time.   He might as well have left the country.  There were new friends to make, a new life to live. It was as if those earlier years had never occurred.  Childhood really did end when we no longer hung out.  The severance was  a thundering close of another chapter of life.  I don't recall dwelling on the significance of it for too long. It came down to, "that's life".  But there was a nice surprise some years later when my friend's mother came into the drug store in which I was working part-time.   We made amends.  I passed on my best wishes to her son.  But there was still no meet up. 

For the next thirty odd years my life followed a somewhat circuitous path.  I attended and graduated college, locally.  Got engaged.  Moved to central Florida and then back after a summer during which time the relationship had unraveled. Worked for several years before returning to school: first on the pre-pharmacy track and eventually grad school for audiology.  I finally found my career.  Working ever since.  During those years I met lots of folks, many of whom are at best, vague memories.  Others would become key figures.  Once in a while I would think on my old friend when thoughts of the old neighborhood invaded my brain.  I had learned that he still lived in the area, a bit north these days.

In a previous entry I told of how I discovered that my old friend worked with another old friend (one from college).  It was a sign.  Had to be.  I had been nagged over the few previous years that I needed to get in touch.  Here was the opportunity.  I got his e-mail and two months later we met for a burger and a few beers to catch up on a lifetime. 

He saw me before I caught a glimpse of him, "You still have the same walk!"  I thought about the countless times I'd walked the straight line to his house.  Our agreed upon meeting place was closed for lunch so we hit another for what I considered an historic meeting.  We had both aged, but I think we've kept fairly well, thank you.  Especially when you look at some of our peers.  As we spoke, we learned that we had similarly destructive trajectories in our twenties. Partied at many of the same haunts on the very street on which we were reminiscing.  Though, he found his bride during those years.  He now has a teenage daughter who he describes as the light of his life.  There's no hiding that joy, the light in one's eyes.

As we described our lives, I was never unaware of what a huge day it was, one I had waited for for so long.  There was a bit of disbelief, too.  Was it one of those "...we picked up right where we left off" types of reunions?  Not exactly.  One changes quite bit from age 13 to 45, and we are both very different than those Adidas and tube sock wearing youths of yore. But shades of our old selves shone through. Here we were, still talking about the Miami Dolphins and the rock band Rush.  And interestingly, we seem more alike these days.  We're already planning the next meet-up.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Simon

Spoilers

1980's SIMON was the sort of curiosity that prompted 0.0025% of the population to seek it out. Maybe that number went up a decimal place when Warner Archives began listing it on their site. Those old enough to remember SIMON's theatrical and cable releases either don't care or have hazy memories that aren't strong enough to make the effort. The movie is an odd seeming bird, its poster featuring Alan Arkin in some kind of amphibious looking wetsuit, hovering his hand as if in the throes of osteoarthritis.

But being the connoisseur of offbeat cinema that I am, with an unusually good memory for movies (seen or otherwise) of a certain era, I snatched the DVD at my local library and finally gave it a watch. SIMON was quite different than what I was expecting, not the mean spirited black comedy for which it is reputed. It even has a happy ending. Well, for some of the characters.

Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) is a restless, frustrated psychology professor whose attempts at sensory deprivation in a suspension tank prove fruitless (what was it with 1980 movies and those tanks?). Like most shrinks, he has some serious baggage (he was abandoned as a child). Mendelssohn therefore is the perfect subject/target/patsy for the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a group of government funded scientists whose experiments often edge over into the absurd. IAC leader Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton) recruits Simon for what he describes as innovative research. In reality, the group plans to brainwash him into believing he is an alien from outer space.

After preparatory time with Dr. Cynthia Malloy (Madeline Kahn, hilarious as always), Mendelsohn is placed in the tank for one week. When he emerges, he enacts the entire evolution of man, a sequence of superb comic artistry, it must be said.  What could have been an embarrassing bit of acting school posturing is rather near genius. Then Simon tries to re-enter the tank, a gag recalling Woody Allen's quip of trying to go back into the womb.  SIMON's writer/director is Marshall Brickman, co-scripter of Allen's ANNIE HALL.

SIMON is a generally witty satire on psychology, medicine, science. There are plenty of social barbs, though many are specific to its time. No doubt, viewers born after the early '70s will be baffled.  Still, the film is consistently on target, mostly as it skewers television and its sizable cult.  Following his escape from  the IAC, Simon hijacks a sound truck and begins broadcasting counter messages to the sleepy millions. One of my favorite bits is his feelings on doctors who write diet books, a gag that is even more relevant in 2015 than 1980. I also enjoyed the "low I.Q. gas" and the talking supercomputer which resembles a giant princess telephone (perfect for some 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ribbing).  Fred Gwyne has great moments as an Army general who commandeers a mission to retrieve Simon, perceived to be a threat to society.

Late in the film, Simon hides out with a cult of dreamy New Agey hippies who hold church services where the Campbell Soup song of the day is sung like a hymn and the pastor (and former exec for ABC Television) reads from their bible - TV Guide.  When asked what she appreciates on T.V., a cult member replies "Eisenestein movies...and disco." Point taken, Mr. Brickman.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thieves Like Us

Robert Altman's THIEVES LIKE US from 1974 is a true work of art; a painterly motion picture that will only marginally remind you of BONNIE AND CLYDE or any other Depression era gangster story aside from its setting and props (such as ubiquitous Coca Cola logos, even on penitentiary signs).  While there is some violence, inevitable in story of bank robbers outrunning the law, Altman is hardly interested in any overt stylization of bloodletting. In other words, business as usual for this most iconoclastic of directors. And if you're not tuned into his unique sensibilities, this movie is unlikely to inspire or engage you. It may in fact bore or even anger you.

Bowie (Keith Carradine) is a fresh faced, aw-shucks young man who has just broken away from a chain gang with partners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen).  They begin a successful run of bank heists despite respective naivete, hot headedness, alcoholism, and gait problems. Eventually, Bowie meets Keechie (Shelley Duvall), daughter of a gas station attendant the men hole up with for a time. She's shy and not at all worldly. Maybe a little impressed with Bowie's seat of his pants lifestyle and recklessness. I saw shades of Sissy Spacek's Holly in BADLANDS.

It's funny what Altman chooses to focus upon. While central action elapses, others in the peripheries go about their business, like a little boy who goes to get a newspaper. The camera stays on and follows him longer than necessary, while a perhaps more-relevant-to-the-plot conversation continues in the kitchen.  Later, a prison warden shares an opulent lunch with his wife, discussing their next lavish meal and joking about needing more clothes. The director is far more interested in the margins, the life teeming away from the foreground. Even when his camera stays on the lead actors, sometimes we hear background dialogue (and noise) more prominently. This is a distraction, often a deal breaker for many viewers. Did Robert Altman have ADD, or was he just the Ultimate Observer?

I liked the near constant use of classic radio programs and advertisements on the soundtrack. Carefully selected of course to evoke any number of emotions and/or social winks. A repeated line from Romeo and Juliet is very effective during a scene Bowie and Keechie's intimacy.  The final moments of the film - a radio announcer describing the early stages of the Great Depression as folks slowly ascend a stairway in a train station - evoke a loneliness that to me was similar to the close of Altman's final picture, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.  You can manage some easy symbolism in that scene in THIEVES but what makes it effective and perfect is the mood, the emotions behind the imagery.

In THIEVES LIKE US, the sharp observation, fascinating moment to moment gazing and listening, is positively hypnotic. It's not about big moments: who else but Altman would shoot a bank robbery hold up from such an odd, high angle? Purposely not keying in on the "action." This movie is no more about bank robbers than THE LONG GOODBYE was about private detectives. I think Altman probably felt a kinship with Francis Ford Coppola when he said that he really didn't care about the mafia when he filmed THE GODFATHER.  And by then, what else could be said about Mob politics that hadn't already? Altman knew damn well that most stories had been told, and no one else told one quite like him.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Black Marble


1980's THE BLACK MARBLE is a real darling, a most unsung comedy drama.  A gem awaiting rediscovery, if only viewers could have an opportunity to see it. It never plays on television and is out of print on DVD. Its fate was decided early, disappearing from theaters only a few days after its original release. The filmmakers were hoping lightning would strike twice - Director Harold Becker had the year before adapted former L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field into a critically acclaimed motion picture, one of which the author (who scripted and had creative input) could actually be proud after the 1977 fiasco THE CHOIRBOYS.

It's another police story, albeit very different than any other Wambaugh to hit the screen. A hard drinking cop named Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), recently reassigned from another district, can't seem to get past the suicide of his former partner. He's tormented by horrific dreams. His waking hour behavior can be politely be described as eccentric.  His pals on the force grant him a pass, but soon he's partnered with no-nonsense, unsentimental, but sexy as hell Sergeant Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss), who finds him unrelievedly odd and near intolerable.

Zimmerman is also none too pleased with their new assignment: retrieving the beloved pooch of a socialite named Madeline (Barbara Babcock).  The dog has been kidnapped by Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton, slimily excellent), an awesomely troubled, hot headed dog groomer in hock to loan sharks. While Valnikov harbors great sympathy for the circumstance (and Madeline), Zimmerman skulks about in disbelief.

THE BLACK MARBLE is about a dance, the inevitable pairing of the leads. A classic mismatch of personalities. But the cops don't bicker sharply written lines like yesteryear studio players, with cute misunderstandings and lovers' games. Valnikov is drawn as a burnt out casualty of the force, caught in a vortex of alcoholism and the cold realities of his job. He barely articulates his words, and cries a lot. Attempts to ambulate with a head filled with guilt and booze.  He is not a bitter man, just a sad one. Zimmerman is an updated Girl Friday, complete with impatience, fast dialogue, and great legs, but there is also a natural, unexpected tenderness that develops as she really gets to know her partner and his unique culture. I especially enjoyed the scene where she meets Valnikov's brother at his restaurant.

The film's key moment comes after a vodka fueled evening back at Valnikov's apartment. The stage is set for a predictable seduction scene (complete with sloppy guy hastily "cleaning"  his abode beforehand), but instead the personalities of Wambaugh's characters allow a refreshingly original, surprisingly and downright romantic sequence that involves as much Russian music and dancing as furtive glances and soul baring.

THE BLACK MARBLE is also distinguished by an odd rhythm, a flow that continually confounded me. The narrative takes all sorts of interesting turns (such as a painful chase in a dog kennel), and Maury Winetrobe's editing and Becker's unexpected directorial touches keep everything off kilter from start to finish. Likely why audiences could not connect with it? Quentin Tarantino certainly did; Becker recalls in an interview that the young man invited him over to view a pristine 35mm print at his house!  It's a fairly dark movie, particularly when Stanton's character is onscreen (animal lovers will have to navigate some difficult moments), but what might be called a tough sweetness is at the core. By the time James Woods serenades the couple with his violin, you'll be convinced there really is no other movie like it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part V

In 1976, 10cc split in half, with Kevin Godley and Lol Crème seeking greener pastures away from their remaining bandmates, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart.  As you read in previous entries, the former duo had more experimental leanings while the latter favored more melodic, commercially minded songwriting.


Did this mean that Gouldman and Stewart were now 5cc? Many industry wags thought so, wondering if the guys could press on and continue a legacy of inventive pop music.  In 1977, they returned with Deceptive Bends, effectively silencing the naysayers, if not some of the old fans, who found the new tunes a bit more formulaic and less adventurous.  The catchy, enduring "The Things We Do For Love" would prove to be a big hit in both the U.K. and the States.  While most certainly radio friendly, the lyrics still displayed a little of the old wit, though far from the caustic verses of old when G and C were involved.  Which, for me, was what made 10cc 10cc. Deceptive Bends does at times reflect G and S's sensibilities, with tunes like "Honeymoon with B Troop" and "Good Morning, Judge", but it was clear where the band was headed.  The heavy handed medley "Feel the Benefit Parts 1, 2, and 3", a stab at the sort of epics the band once mastered ("One Night in Paris" et al.) falls flat, despite some heavenly strings and a great middle section.

Meanwhile, Godley and Crème were now free to indulge their craziest notions, including liberal utilization of their "gizmo" device on 1977's Consequences, a three LP extravaganza complete with the participation of Sarah Vaughan and Peter Cook, who provides a multitude of voices in skits that sometimes resemble The Firesign Theater; the album was as opposite of Deceptive Bends as anything could be. Very hard to describe. For invisible audience members who think they've heard it all, I recommend you check it out.  Unsurprisingly, the album was not a success.

No less odd but easier to digest were G and C's next albums L and Freeze Frame, the latter featuring participation by Paul McCartney and Stewart Copeland on some tracks.  The scathing lyrics and truly bizarre time signatures will reveal for some listeners why 10cc was so good - there were checks and balances between the boppable and the extreme.  But in the right frame of mind, I can really dig Godley and Creme's abstract leanings and have many a day gotten lost in pieces like "I Pity Inanimate Objects".  On the other hand, "An Englishman in New York", not to be confused with a song by Sting some years later, sounds as if written for a Broadway musical, reminiscent of some previous 10cc.

Gouldman and Stewart released Bloody Tourists in 1978, which leads off with one of my favorite 10cc's tracks, "Dreadlock Holiday".  It's intriguing storytelling and potential pub sing-along in equal measure, a real dandy.  Pity the album goes downhill by Track 2 and never recovers.  This is a strangely downbeat, dour batch of songs.  Very dated sounding, too.  1974's Sheet Music sounds fresher than this dud.  Very little clicks: stale melodies, misguided spirits, smutty lyrics.  Other times, the album alternates between cloying sentiment and sappy romance.  The only other song that works for me is the peppy "From Rochdale to Ocho Rios" but even it suffers from a weirdly muted, melancholy arrangement.   Mercury's remastered CD is really poor, by the way.  Whoever monitored source tape speeds needs to go back to school.

Next time we'll follow all four of the men who were 10cc into the 1980s, where some would continue a downward creative spiral and others would find new artistic challenges in which to excel.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Whiplash

Current Oscar contender WHIPLASH is certainly one of the most intense films ever made in which jazz is an integral (yet also incidental) part of the story.  Charlie Parker's name is dropped many times during this feature, and most cinematic explorations of his or similar luminaries' lives and music that I've seen are more typically low key character studies with leisurely paces. WHIPLASH by contrast is a relentless collection of near pornographic shots of musical instruments being played and sometimes abused, alternating with exchanges of combustive anger, mostly between ridiculously talented first year music student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) - who favors the drums- and sadistic conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew aspires to be the next Buddy Rich, who by many accounts was a fiery son of a bitch, so maybe the intensity of this film is appropriate.

Fletcher is a real martinet, a bullying perfectionist who only speaks calmly long enough to feign interest in your family history so as to later use it as ammunition while he dresses you down.  I have referenced FULL METAL JACKET a few times lately, and it was impossible not to be reminded of  R. Lee Ermey as Simmons screams and connives his way through this ferocious performance, a real surprise from a character actor who usually plays congenial types.  Fletcher's psychological games/torture will doubtless remind some viewers of old bosses or maybe even past lovers.  Possibly former grad school preceptors.

Fletcher leads the jazz ensemble at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in NYC, hurling (with creative and sometimes wince inducing obscenity) insults and even objects at his players. There is a painfully uncomfortable scene as Fletcher demands a player, an overweight sad sack, admit he was out of tune during a run through. When he finally, tearfully breaks down and is ejected, we learn that it was in fact a different player who hit a wrong note.  To Fletcher, that the poor kid didn't know he wasn't out of tune is "bad enough."

Nineteen year old Andrew becomes Fletcher's favorite target for the rest of the film, subjected to torrents of verbal abuse but also the physical torture he inflicts on himself.  It is not uncommon to see blood mixed with the sweat that pours onto his kit as he obsessively practices as he listens to - and plays in front of a poster of - his hero Mr. Rich.  Andrew also memorizes the entire chart to Hank Levy's composition "Whiplash", a piece that will be be highly "instrumental" in the plot.

Early on in WHIPLASH, Andrew is shown to be a shy, eager to please kid, going to the movies with his gentle father (Paul Reiser) and finally asking the cute girl behind the consession counter (Melissa Benoist) on a date. He seems well adjusted, but after a few lashings by Fletcher (and repeated muscular performances on the drums), he transforms.  He becomes impatient, elitist, singularly driven.  Andrew dismisses his family and wrecks what appears to be a promising romance.  Has Fletcher inspired him to hone his gift, even with Draconian methods more reminiscent of a football coach or gunnery sergeant? To be so focused as to denounce everything else, especially the need for validation?  "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'", Fletcher offers the young man in a quieter moment.  How will Andrew become the next Buddy Rich otherwise?

But don't mistake writer/director Damian Chazelle's films as some typical underdog/fight-to-realize-your-dreams saga.  This is a harsh, bitter motion picture that eschews the usual clichés at nearly every turn.  Maybe a little too harsh.  At times, WHIPLASH gets a bit carried away to makes its points, portraying moments that fly over the top, as when Andrew races to an important competition.  The series of events are so unlikely that I began to think that Chazelle had little interest in creating a believable scenario and was going for something patently allegorical. 

There is strong evidence that WHIPLASH really isn't about a singlemindedness to follow your goals, or even about jazz. It might be a study of illness, masochism.  About an individual who continually subjects himself to abuse because it gives him purpose, maybe even satisfaction. Miles receives from Fletcher what no one else gives, repeated denigration.  You can argue, and maybe this is Chazelle's point, that a refusal to offer encouragement is how Fletcher molds the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. And that Miles himself will have to become a self-flagellating misanthrope to stay there.  It would be a good study to observe both men struggling with their, as a relative of mine put it,  "ego identification....recognizing the identification with a fixed self..." Here, geniuses.  And pretty damaged.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Selma

 
SELMA is an exemplary contemporary film mainly because of what it doesn't do:

1.  Bathe its real life personalities in some phony, angelic light. 
2.  Portray them as always being correct, or at least never wrong.
3.  Refuse to consider other points of view.
4.  Beat audiences over the head with its own sense of importance. 
5.  Pound eardrums with a relentlessly majestic score.
6.  Stage one Big Scene after another with no breathing room or calm transitions. 
7.  Parade endless star cameos.  While there are a few, they are fairly low key and a majority of the cast will be unfamiliar to most viewers.

Initially, I had written SELMA off as mere Oscar bait, with its guaranteed-to-appeal-to-Academy-voters true life story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts in 1965 to organize marches from the small town of Selma, Alabama all the way to Montgomery.   It follows, thematically at least, in the formidable footsteps of last year's (also produced by Brad Pitt) 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Academy Award winner for Best Picture.  I've yet to see that film and several other "important" ones like it.  I'm sure it is worthwhile, but I decided that I had had enough of racial dramas that put our faces front and center for unspeakable violence and cruelty, necessary as it may be to accurately depict the atrocities of narrow-mindedness toward those with differently colored skin.  I also tend to pass on many "based on true events" stories as they are often guilty of the above seven deadly sins of the Self-Consciously Important Historical Drama. And honestly, reading about such events is almost always a favorable option.

Additionally, so many liberties are taken with the facts of your average SCIHD that you're not sure what to believe.  It alarmed me that so many younger moviegoers took Oliver Stone's JFK film in 1991 as a to-the-letter historical document rather than a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. OK, that's a bit harsh, and I was on line with a lot of Stone's views but you get my point.

Much criticism has been leveled at SELMA for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as an antagonist to MLK.  As played by English actor Tom Wilkinson, LBJ is depicted as an impatient, highly reluctant "obstructionist" who wavered on legislation to allow voting rights for blacks in the South, insisting he had more important issues with which to contend. SELMA's alleged historical revision also allows that the President enlisted the FBI to monitor King's doings which led to a damning audio tape, confirming the reverend's infidelities. Bill Moyers, LBJ's domestic policy advisor and press secretary, has been especially vocal in his accusations of the film's creative license and outright falsehoods.

Director Ava DuVernay has gone on the defense for her film, correctly citing that she has not attempted to make a documentary, but rather has told a story of civil rights battles that indeed led to LBJ's solicitation of Congress to pass a bill eliminating restrictions on voting for black individuals.  DuVernay is adamant in that she didn't want her film to be another historical recount of the struggle of African-Americans seen through the eyes of a "white savior" ala Kevin Kline in CRY FREEDOM and Matthew Broderick in GLORY.   There are many good rebuttals on both sides of this issue out there, but I wonder why DuVernay had screenwriter Paul Webb felt the need to add this conflict to a story that already had enough, especially with Alabama governor George Wallace (played by another Englishman, Tim Roth) providing resistance to the marches.

David Oyelowo does just fine as King, perhaps capturing more of the essence of the (later) slain fighter for equal rights than any recognizable character traits.   The entire cast is well selected, including one of SELMA's producers, Oprah Winfrey.  She may not be nominated (as she was for THE COLOR PURPLE back in the '80s) for anything for her scant screen time but she makes an impression.  Carmen Ejogo seamlessly plays Coretta King and does a nice job with that moment she hears the "sex tape".  Very understated, just like most of the movie.  Unlike so many others of its type.