Saturday, December 31, 2016

Say Goodbye to 2016

Many are more than ready to. With gasoline and a match, I presume.  For lots of folks, 2016 was a relentlessly unpleasant year, much of it riddled with death.  We all know about the plethora of celebrities who shook off their mortal coils, musicians from David Bowie to George Michael and actors from Alan Rickman all the way to Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds (a day apart?!).  Sometimes it feels foolish to get so emotional over people I've never met.  Never kibbitzed over a coffee.  Never even saw from afar.   Yet, I have met them in many ways, connecting with their art.  A two way conversation you could say - their output and my appreciation.  It becomes part of who you are.  Maybe a reciprocal thing? Steely Dan's Walter Becker is quoted as saying that he would have a greater connection when a fan listens to one of his records alone in a room somewhere, instead of meeting that person face to face.

Closer to home, one of my old friends lost her nineteen year old son two days before Christmas.  I can't imagine that kind of grief.  Another longtime pal, a dear soul with whom I served on the media crew at my former church and who had a gentle but acerbic wit ala Ms. Fisher, passed away last summer in her home town of Pittsburgh after a decades long battle with ulcerative colitis. That was a gut punch. Memories of Laureen could fill several postings.  Her Facebook page remains, with occasional remembrances to brighten her wall.  I'm glad no one has taken it down.

For me, this was a good year. 2015 was far worse.  While two of the major reasons for that, changes in my workplace and living quarters, remain, things were much better this year.  The clinic in which I've served over seven years has undergone tremendous changes, with only a handful with whom I began still around.  Early this year several more left, on to either retirement or to strike out on their own, quite a difficult thing.  Just last month one of my colleagues - who'd worked there for over a decade - was let go.  This sent some serious shock waves with his patients, who feel dispossessed now. I've assumed many of them, trying to maintain continuity of care.   The reasons why the man no longer works with us are numerous and as before, I can't elaborate.  Many of the reasons are valid, others are just, well, life.  How it goes.   But it too feels like a death.

I think about death, unavoidably, when I go see my mother, still floundering in a nursing facility.  This coming February will mark ten years.  A tragedy.  Lately, her spirits have been higher and she actually laughs a bit.  But motivation for her to get out of bed are just empty words.  Her fear is great.  I've tried many times to intervene, short of pulling her out myself.  As always, prayers are appreciated.

I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time this year.  I got a new car in March.  I attended my cousin's wedding in Chicago.  My first gay wedding.  It was a joyous time.  The ceremony was brief and tasteful.  The music was outstanding.  Unfortunately, the supremely raunchy comedienne who did her act after the reception (why not at an after party?) was one of the most squirm filled hours I can remember.  That was the one dark spot.

Speaking of Chicago....THE CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES! I'm still basking in that one.

Donald Trump elected. Yeah. You know how I feel about that one. And his appointees? Ugh.

But I look to 2017 with hope, as always.  Things look grim in the world at the moment.  Going back to Chicago - - I was reminded by a NPR newscast this week of the record breaking homicide rate there this year.  My lovely city.  Please stop.  I pray for our President elect and his staff.  It's hard to write anything positive, but my spirit quenches the anger, the bitterness.  My faith has saved me from many things.  I pray it continues to save me from myself in the new year.

And to where we began....undoubtedly, more famous folks will pass in 2017.  We'll weep in disbelief, especially for those who were so vital to our early years.  I wrote posts about such people in '16, like Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen.  I did not give George Michael a shout on Lamplight Drivel but he was right in there, a piece of my life.  I imagine, Lord willing, I'll compose a similar year end entry in 365 days.  I pray it is filled with more light.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

MAJOR SPOILERS!

Even if you get nothing else from ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, you'll be reminded (albeit all too briefly) that Darth Vader was a malevolent, murderously light saber swinging, patently evil SOB, not merely a cuddly toy action figure or cute Halloween mask.   Vader only has a few scenes in this new spin-off adventure, which in the STAR WARS timeline occurs right before EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (originally simply called STAR WARS, before the dynasty took off), but his formidable presence leaps off the screen in ways it hadn't since, well, possibly ever.  There's a late scene in this movie that....well, we'll get back to that.

ROGUE ONE concerns an effort to retrieve the schematics of the Death Star, created by the Empire to pulverize entire planets with a powerful laser.   Jyn (Felicity Jones) is a young orphan who leads a group of Rebels - including a former Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has defected and a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2S0 - on this ultra perilous mission.  Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was the lead designer/engineer of the gigantic weapon of mass destruction, but his participation was not by choice.  This information is not known to Rebel Intelligence, who dispatches officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to assassinate Erso.  That information is not known to Jyn, leading to some expected drama, as Cassian is along for the mission. 

After Jyn views a hologram (smuggled by Bodhi) of her father explaining a deliberate design flaw he programmed within the Death Star, she's eager to breach the Imperial data bank on the planet Scarif to retrieve the plans.  The Rebel Alliance is not so sure of this pursuit (or the validity behind it) and refuse to offer their fleet.  Politics!  But Jyn and some other frustrated rebels hijack a ship, now dubbed "Rogue One" and head for the palm tree lined Scarif. Also on hand for the fateful ride are blind, constantly chanting warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a muscular rebel mercenary who always has Chirrut's back.

ROGUE ONE is a distinguished entry in the STAR WARS series as it largely eschews humor and lightheartedness (aside from a few of K-2SO's lines) and goes about telling a serious, often grim story of unquestioning sacrifice for a Larger Cause.  There's a reason why you don't see these characters in the later chronology.  I was surprised at Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's screenplay, how surefooted and sober it was, right to the end.  This movie plays like an old Hollywood WWII drama at times, with a certain nihilism that has not sat well with every fan.  One friend posted on Facebook: "...at least 3 people lived in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN."  For me, it worked very well.  Everything did: the exciting land and space battles, the performances, the special effects (some of those X-wing fighters quite charmingly looked like toy models, the way they did in the original 1977 STAR WARS).  There are appropriate nods to the original trilogy, but plenty of new elements that work as well.

I was a bit creeped out and weirdly fascinated by the use of CGI to bring an old character (played by an actor who's been dead for over twenty years) back to life, a method used in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, TRON: LEGACY, and several others.  This character has several scenes. Additionally, there's also use of an another actor at an earlier age in the very last scene, which will be even more poignant after today.....

But right before that...Vader blazes through a jaw dropping scene that will wow any fan.  Reestablish that he is a consummate badass.   Gareth Edward's direction of this scene (and honestly, the entire movie) is dead on perfect. You are left wanting much more.  EPISODE IV will never be viewed the same way again.

P.S. -  Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Episodes IV - VIII passed away earlier today.  I am one of millions who grew up crushing on her feisty, brave fictional character, but also with time appreciating her biting wit in a series of books and interviews.   Read some of her quotes about her father and Elizabeth Taylor sometime. Ouch! Her death caps a truly awful year for celebrity passings.  I trust the Force will be with her always.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas in Brooklyn

I had four Christmases in Brooklyn, the last of which was at age three.  My parents and I moved to West Palm Beach. FL in August of 1973.  I've cursed them ever since.  Not really.  Well, at times.  Usually due to the plethora of warm Dec. 25ths I've endured.  Today, 12/25/16 is no exception if the weather forecast is accurate at the time of this writing.  I've carped about this before.  What do I expect from a tropical environment? But I do remember 1983, when it was in the mid 30s on Christmas morn. Ahhh...

I had been back to Brooklyn at Christmastime in the early years, but never on the Eve or the Day.  I always wondered about it.  How exciting it must've been.  Not just because it was cold.  Christmas was always anticipatory and unbearably thrilling when I was a boy, but I'll bet the homey, warm atmosphere in the borough would've made it near perfect.  I love old neighborhoods. They seem to breathe, pulse with life.  Have a soul.  Reflect their residents' (and their progenitors') cultures.  Especially in Brooklyn.  A real communal feel, even with that guy down the street you never really got to know but saw every day.  I do remember (some of my earliest flash of memories) the block parties, when everyone came out of their brownstones and talked about everything under the sun and shared laughs and tears.   At Christmas, I imagined neighbors would sample each others' cookies and complement their modest outdoor displays. Electricity in the air.  Hard to put all of this into words.

My old N.Y. neighborhoods, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, were largely Italian.  I know that racism brewed under many a surface.  Those thoughts sober my flights of fancy.  But in some 'hoods red and yellow, black and white could all mingle, respect their differences, and even learn from each other.  I hope this still exists, and thrives.

Maybe my thoughts are insular, born of some fantasy.  Maybe my idea of Christmas is some misguided, secular nonsense.  Even devout Christians seem to forget why and what we really celebrate.  I've never lost sight of that, meanwhile enjoying all the cheesy earthly elements.  I grew up with my own Christmas tree in my room, and can recall learning Bible verses by its twinkling lights.  My mother telling me that I'd ruin my eyesight.

I did create my own happy Christmases, even in the midst of my parents' stormy, disintegrating marriage.  Even as I walked outside, blinded by sun rays, hit with wet warm blanket humidity on Dec. 25.  Donning shorts and playing basketball with my buds in my SoFL 'hood   And I always wondered how they would've been had I grown up in Brooklyn.

Merry Christmas.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

More Human Than Human?

Thirty(five) years later.  Harrison does return.  Is he a...? Or isn't he? Don't ask Ridley Scott, director of the original 1982 film.  He does not helm this sequel; that duty was handed to Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO).  Scott is on board as producer.

Ryan Gosling debuts.  Maybe he'll find out about Deckard's true nature/self.  Maybe we all will in 2017.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Rush: Time Stand Still

"Not many quarterbacks and prom queens are Rush fans" states a self-described socially awkward Rush fan in this year's documentary RUSH: TIME STAND STILL.  That's the conventional wisdom, though I knew some jocks in high school who were dyed in the wool fans of the music of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart.  Not too many females, though, and of that select bunch they were of a more artistic bent.  Yes, often really good at science, too.  Besides an appreciation for the music, what makes someone a Rush fan(atic)? Someone who would attend dozens, perhaps over one hundred concerts over several decades? Collect Indonesian cassette imports?

TIME STAND STILL is as much about the hardcore fans as it is about the final large scale tour that unfolded in 2015.  It was an indescribably sad time for those who would attend "RUSHCON", an annual meeting of obsessives who would share their love of Peart's legendary drumming and his insightful lyrics. Lifeson's insane fretting.  They would also probably debate the quality of the front and center keyboards of Lee on the '80s and early '90s records.  The organizer explains the cultdom, how when she sees a complete stranger in a Rush T-shirt she feels absolutely compelled to speak with that person.  Perhaps another loyal subject, perhaps one of those lonely outcasts Peart wrote about in "Subdivisions".

The Canadian power trio are getting older. Peart's athletic, superhuman stick work surely couldn't go on forever.  Three hour shows.  Long worldwide tours.  The guys were doing two hundred plus nights a year, dating back to the 1970s when they opened for the likes of KISS.  Lifeson began to suffer with arthritis.  Perhaps it was time for the guys to...call it quits? Slow down? Peart needed convincing even to do the '15 tour.  Despite his weariness, he kept up his tradition of marathon motorcycle treks between gigs, contracting a debilitating foot fungus after he rode in wet conditions.  He continued to play, even when he could barely walk. "If a sniper shot Neil in the shoulder, he'd still finish the fucking set!" muses Rush's manager.

TIME STAND STILL, directed by Dale Heslip and narrated by Paul Rudd, chronicles the penultimate tour, counting down the number of shows until that finale at the L.A. Forum, a place Alex states is full of great memories for the band.  It's an emotional wringer for everyone: band, fans, crew.  One roadie optimistically wears a "RUSH 50" tee.  Many, especially Geddy, try to put their emotions aside and remain professional to the end.  When he feels Neil's arm around him during the final bow, he just about loses it; Peart had never "crossed that boundary" in forty years of touring.

The doc is expectedly melancholy, but not overwhelmingly so.  Lighter moments find Alex and Geddy reminiscing about the early tours: the less than luxurious transportation, the pranks. The drinking contest with Thin Lizzy?!  I enjoyed this quite a bit as Rush always had the reputation of being studious nerds.  That wonderful doc BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE never told us about "Mr. Bag"! TIME STAND STILL also recalls the endless, thunderous applause the band received at their induction at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.  That moment elucidates the trio's appreciation for their fans, those who've kept the spirit alive for so long.  Rush never got critical acclaim or Billboard success, but the devoted kept coming, kept buying the albums, even through some pretty significant stylistic shifts over the decades.  Even when Peart almost left the band after losing his wife and daughter within a single year.

The film takes its name from Rush's 1988 song, one whose narrator is "not looking back but I want to look around me now." I think those lyrics rang especially strong for the guys in 2015.  I pray we'll see them again.  They'll grace a stage somewhere sometime again, hopefully.  But one of my old friends - who would qualify as a hardcore fan and was at that L.A. show - isn't so certain.  When I recently texted him about the doc, he responded that he knew that night at the Forum it was truly over when he saw Neil Peart join his band mates for the curtain call.   I am plenty discouraged that they might not tour anymore; I only got to see them once back in 1990 at the Miami Arena.   Just one more time, please, guys? Even if it's in some little Toronto coffeehouse?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Holiday Party '16

Holiday party #8 at my practice was held at a local entertainment complex centered around that entirely unglamorous (but great fun) sport of bowling. Revolutions opened a few years back at CityPlace in West Palm Beach, occupying spaces that had previously been several stores and restaurants.  35,000 square feet.  Twenty lanes.  Two full bars.  An arcade.  Several screens, including on the lanes.  It's a place to "eat, drink, and rock & bowl".

We ate crispy chicken tenders, soft pretzel bread rolls, and this sorta Asian eggroll/quesadilla thingy, along with chips and dips.  Two free drinks were allotted.  I drank a few draughts from Due South, a local brewery.  John Cougar Mellencamp and Tom Petty videos filled the two hours my co-workers and I bowled with varying success.  Without bragging, I can tell you I, with a score of 130, beat the pants off my teammates, who rolled several gutter balls and those damned splits.   I hadn't thrown a bowling ball in years.  It was an activity I'd always enjoyed, dating back to my childhood when I hung out at Fair Lanes in Palm Springs and Verdes Tropicana in West Palm.  It's perfect for a party as you have plenty of time to chat between turns. Alcohol and bowling also seem to be a natural mix.

Enjoyment was had. All but one of our medical doctors showed up. One of my dearly departed audiology colleagues, who retired two years ago after a thirty plus year stint, was also on hand.  That was a very pleasant surprise.  She mingled well with the new folk, a much younger bunch than with whom I started seven years ago.

This party was on a weekday night, which limited, at least for me, how late the festivities would last. Though the place was rented for only two hours.  Our lanes shut off promptly at 8:00.  A few bowlers' final turns would go forever unscored, the balls finishing their journeys on the wood in the dark, unceremoniously knocking down the pins.  Two of the ladies I work with decided to start dancing on the lanes at that point.  A sort of twerking.

We used to close the office at lunchtime on a Friday and party all afternoon, with the inevitable evening after parties.  If I focus on the food from this year's celebration, well...this was the first holiday party with this office that wasn't a full meal, some of which were quite good in the past.  The snack table was a poor substitute, honestly. I also suffered some serious indigestion later that night.   But it was all about the bowling.  Such a social sport.  Really brings everyone's personalities to the forefront.  It was fun to root for your co-workers when they picked up a spare.  Interesting to see when someone finally got a strike and was disappointed to find that no one (on their team) happened to be watching at that moment.  Some of the previous shindigs did not encourage more than chatting with those who were sitting near you, though dancing did occur here and there.

My workplace has changed dramatically in the past two years.  Very little of what made it so unique and special remains.   I won't elaborate here and now.  As they say, it is what it is.  But I've rolled with the changes and while I miss my old compadres the newer ones are dedicated workers and good people.  We do have a lot of laughs at work.  As they also say, you have to laugh as to not cry (or go insane).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Godfather

Leonard Maltin called 1972's THE GODFATHER "the '70s answer to GONE WITH THE WIND", and that's as good a one line summary as I can imagine for this cultural benchmark of a movie.  A seeming conception out of the most divine elements of the possibilities of fiction.  A behind the scenes saga of organized crime that makes no particular effort (or claim) to follow the truth, to expose real life "families".  While such details are interesting, I agree with director Francis Ford Coppola, who admitted later that he really didn't give a damn about the "mafia".  The grandeur, the mythology, the operatic, epic, sprawling nature of such a story is the point here.  It is what separates it from a hundred other underworld dramas (and shlocky "true crime" programs).

Yet THE GODFATHER remains compact enough to maintain an intimate involvement with its larger than life characters. GODFATHER II, for all its greatness, covered perhaps a bit too much ground and lost some of that intimacy.  Here, in the opening minutes of this movie, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) immediately casts a powerful figure in cloaks of darkness in his inner sanctum.  He's listening to a desperate man describe the horrible violence which befell his daughter.  The man has come to Corleone to ask for a favor, customary on a Don's daughter's wedding day.  But the godfather reminds the man that he's never even been invited over for a cup of coffee.  Friendship, at least gestures of it, are highly valued and almost as vital as loyalty.

Don Vito Corleone grants the man his request, reminding him that someday he may ask for a favor of his own.  Others will come with pleas as Connie's (Talia Shire) lavish party of matrimony unfolds just outside. Consiglieri Tom Haden (Robert Duvall), an Irishman who as a child was adopted into the Corleone family, is there to manage the procession of requests.  We quickly learn that he is as much a son to Vito as the volatile Sonny (James Caan), clumsy, half-witted Fredo (John Cazale), and quiet war hero Michael (Al Pacino). In the nearly three hour running time of THE GODFATHER, each character will be fleshed out thoroughly and brilliantly.  They will become like, yes, family to many viewers.

Many reading this, I imagine, are familiar with Coppola's saga enough to create their own character sketches and quote the dialogue.  Involuntarily hum Nino Rota's score.  My first immersion into this world was as a child, some years before I saw the original cut.  My mother had the sheet music and it featured several stills from the movie, all of which were works of art in themselves.  Sonny beating up Carlo. Barzini framed against the artwork of a train on a wall during a meeting.  Haden and movie producer Jack Woltz in the horse stable. Scenes from the wedding. Luca Brasi's final moments.  Enough can't be said of Gordon Willis' gorgeous color photography.  Incredibly meticulous, resulting in many scenes that appear as almost paintings.

I will not spoil any of the plot, but I think it's no secret to anyone with even an inkling of film knowledge that Michael will rise to be his father's successor.  He proves himself in action as well as with his cool head, much unlike Sonny, who explodes at the drop of a hat and can't even keep it in his pants during his sister's wedding.  Michael's trajectory will follow an arc that is majestic and tragic, the path of which will continue through two sequels.  The exploits of the Corleone family should be the envy of any storyteller; this is some of the most compelling drama I certainly have ever seen.

Mario Puzo (and I agree with Roger Ebert; he's a better storyteller than writer) wrote the original novel with studio Paramount's guidance; everyone knew this would eventually be a movie.  I can't imagine anyone would predict how huge it would become.  A part of pop culture that is as relevant today as in 1972.  Coppola is reported to have nearly been fired several times from the picture, and chafed at studio involvement.  Despite any production woes a certified classic was born.  A movie that deservedly ranks with the works of Golden Period filmmakers.   When you analyze it, you realize that THE GODFATHER is essentially dime store fiction transformed and finally elevated to the highest annals of cinema.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cookshop

Over Thanksgiving weekend in Manhattan we brunched at an attractive Chelsea spot called Cookshop, one of many "farm to table" restaurants that have become common in many U.S. cities over the past decade.  The atmosphere is bright and friendly.  We had reservations on a Sunday afternoon at 3 and the place was packed. Mostly locals, it seemed. I could tell more by the snatches of conversations overheard and facial expressions than by the clothes.  When you've been somewhere for awhile or several times you get a sense of who is a tourist and who isn't.  Pretension was at a minimum with clientele and wait staff alike.

The brunch menu includes old favorites like tuna melts and pancakes, though with alternative touches like capers and pepitas.  Whipped mascarpone is in the buttermilk batter. Vanilla poached grapefruit can be found in the baked French toast.  I ordered the fried egg sandwich and it was a beauty, stuffed with potato hash, sausage, and jalepeno cabbage slaw.  Our brunch quartet shared beignets filled with ricotta and dabbed with spiced honey. A Dutch baby pancake can also be selected, not to mention Vermont burrata.  Is your mouth watering?

I also recommend the Gentleman Collins as a cocktail.  There were several bloody mary choices as well.

If you find yourself on the High Line or thereabouts you should give Cookshop a try, though reservations seem to be a good idea.  It was a nice finish to a fabulous few days in northern Jersey and the city, and a welcome break from turkey leftovers.

Cookshop
156 Tenth Ave. (at 20th)
New York, NY  10011
(212) 924-4440

cookshopny.com 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Chimes at Midnight

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was not among those offering accolades to Orson Welles for his performance in 1965's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.  For the actor's interpretation of  Shakespeare's Jack Falstaff, Crowther dismissed it as "a dissolute, bumbling street-corner Santa Claus."  I find that very funny, as Welles does in fact look like a St. Nick gone to seed, carousing with other merry men at the local watering hole.  The actor/director/writer was always a formidable presence onscreen, in all that such a statement would entail.  His resemblance to Santa Claus is quickly forgotten though, as Welles entirely disappears into an ultimately highly tragic figure, putting forth the Bard's words with a rich basso and ambling with an inebriated gait so befitting.

Among Falstaff's charges is Prince Hal, son of recently crowned King Henry IV (John Gielgud).   Hal willingly engages in a lifestyle of drink and thievery perhaps as a raspberry to his father, who achieved his position through the murder of Richard II.  Yet Hal maintains that he will one day assume his place among the nobility, a rightful heir.  Falstaff and company hear but do not listen.  There is the angry son of Richard, along with cousins who plot Henry's overthrow.   There is a battle, one in which Falstaff (sort of) participates.  An ill king.  A final kiss off.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is a patchwork of text from several of Shakespeare's tragedies, including Henry IV (Parts I and II).  John Falstaff was a recurring character in his works and here acts as a paternal figure to Hal, albeit a rather "dissolute" one.  Hal's divided loyalties to Henry and Falstaff forms the main conflict of the picture, until that climactic speech, as crushing as ever:


I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.



Film buffs may recall another adaptation of this famous siloloquy in 1993's MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO.  The material is timeless and quite adaptable.  Welles creates a plentiful, lyrical stew for the faithful, himself remaining devout to the sacred text.  Those words are indeed musical, and reading/hearing them is always heady and intoxicating.  Easy to get lost in them.

Criterion has presented another impressive remaster, even with the occasional mis-synched bit of dialogue. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT's low budget was a hindrance for some but for me does not detract from the lonely, patently theatrical and cinematic atmosphere. Gielgud's familiar voice works interestingly, as does his performance. He feels as if emodying a different space than the other actors, as if still in an actual stage play.  It works in some odd way.   The limited budget also did not prevent a ten minute battle scene that may not be as well choreographed as other adaptations but does manage to capture the appropriate chaos.

I have to agree when critics say that Welles had perhaps his greatest role as Falstaff.  So carnal and mischievous, so tragic.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Looking For Mr. Goodbar

SPOILERS!
 
One of the most quietly electrifying performances I can recall is that of Diane Keaton in 1977's LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.  You can call it brave, fearless, go-for-broke, a tour de force.  All true. But never desperate or over baked, as such a role could've easily become.  She plays Theresa Dunn, a thirty-ish single woman attempting to navigate a promiscuous lifestyle in the big city in tandem with her job as a teacher of deaf children.  A double life that will have the inevitable overlap, and dire consequences.  Keaton seems to understand Judith Rossner's (author of the novel upon which this film is based) character with an insight that almost seems to be a peer into the author's head, but also distinguished by her own wise choices.

Guiding her is director Richard Brooks, overseer of such classics as ELMER GANTRY and IN COLD BLOOD.  I was surprised by how sensitive his methods are.  He too seems to have a real handle on Theresa, a woman who is repelled and enticed by the sexual inhibition she observes in sleazy bars and night clubs.  Such an attitude is foreign to her psyche, one deeply forged by a Catholic upbringing.  Rossner more than suggests that the fundamentalism still fervently practiced by her parents (mom even slips a Bible into Theresa's purse) has given her a warped, unhealthy view of sexuality, especially her own.  Theresa is also  branded with a physical scar on her back, a constant source of embarrassment, the result of surgery for scoliosis when she was a child.  A mark of shame.

Women are often simplistically assigned the role of "Madonna" or "whore".  Does Theresa transform from one to the other? Was she always just one, trying to break out of the other? The roles of some of the men in Theresa's life are fairly clear.  Tony (Richard Gere) is the stud, the "you don't bring home to momma", unreliable party boy who excites and terrifies Theresa, particularly when he jumps around her apartment wielding a glow in the dark switchblade. James (William Atherton) is the nice, responsible welfare caseworker who helps one of Theresa's students get a much needed hearing aid.  He bonds with Theresa's parents.  He wants monogamy, but a liberated gal like Theresa will have none of it, feeling restricted by such traditions.

But in an interesting scene, James tells a sad story that moves Theresa to tears as she invites him into bed.  She mocks him for wearing a condom (this was pre-AIDS).  He then jumps up and laughs, revealing he made up the story as he stumbles out.

Theresa's low self esteem and confusion is furthered by the behavior of her sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld), a flighty young woman whose relationships/marriages reflect the swinging times - orgies are commonplace and affairs are almost written in the contracts.  Katherine was always clearly dad's (Richard Kiley) favorite, a "perfect" little girl without any flaw in his narrowed eyes. Our glimpses of Katherine make Theresa seem angelic by comparison. 

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is a reminder of what films aimed at grown ups used to look like.  Brooks achieves a deep grittiness that, despite some backlot shooting and use of rear screen, feels palpably real.  The director's often maligned use of fantasy sequences throughout the movie worked fine for me, for the most part. There is much humor in them but always with the undercurrent of portent. And death imagery is everywhere in this movie, which bears quite a bit of similarity with the same year's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Not just in tone.

GOODBAR might be viewed as a conservative tract against a hedonistic existence.  Or perhaps even worse, a hypocritical "double life".  A cautionary tale of what can happen to a sinner who rejects not only faith, but traditional goals like getting married and having children.  The movie can also be viewed as a feminist diatribe against the Establishment, against the double standard of prizing males for the hunter/gatherer/stud role and damning women who seek the same.

You might conclude that her fate may have in part been due to a lack of role models.  She does reach a moment where she realizes her life is nowhere.  But then she meets a guy named Gary (Tom Berenger).  Curiously, the film's point of view shifts from Theresa's to his.

I won't reveal the ending, but it is a shocking, brutally effective piece of film that is guaranteed to haunt your thoughts.  And honestly, it should.  Whether you feel Theresa has paid a price for her sins or became a martyr for feminism will depend on you, invisible audience.

P.S. No, this film is still not available on DVD.  I keep reading this is due to music rights.  The film does have a very effective medley of disco tunes.  TCM has shown it recently.  There are a few uncut YouTube uploads as well.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Bridge of Spies

2015's BRIDGE OF SPIES is one of the more satisfying efforts of director Steven Spielberg's recent career.  A good old fashioned Hollywood entertainment that boasts nifty direction, fine production design, and a very workable pace.  I was expecting this movie, a legal drama, to be far more dense and arid.  Though, it being based on attorney James Donovan's (Tom Hanks) defense of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and his subsequent efforts of an exchange of the latter with two Americans (downed American pilot in the U.S.S.R and a student in East Berlin) was good source material.  The film does lend itself to an inspiring story, which Spielberg pulls off with great polish.

1957.  Donovan is an insurance lawyer who finds himself defending an accused traitor, a Soviet spy who intercepts secret messages under park benches and operates radio equipment out of a hotel room in NYC.  Donovan is reluctant but soon is immersed in the case, always looking to the Constitution while the F.B.I., C.I.A. and seemingly everyone else just wants to send the spy to the gas chamber.  Donovan himself played prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, but cites that his client is entitled to civil liberties, something many in the name of nationalism are too willing to forgo.

Donovan repeatedly notes that Abel was acting as a patriot for his country, and that Americans do the same in the name of theirs as they go about the business of espionage overseas.  The lawyer's crusades are unpopular with the public, even his own family.  Abel is expectedly convicted, but Donovan successfully lobbies the judge to hand down a jail sentence rather than the death penalty.  His reasoning - what if one of our own finds himself in the same predicament in Russia?  An insurance policy, if you will.

Sure enough, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is facing charges in a Soviet court after his U-2 is shot down some time later.  A swap of sorts is considered by the U.S.S.R for Abel.  Donovan travels to East Berlin for a series of frustrating meetings with Embassy officials and even KGB to broker the deal, which the lawyer further insists includes the release of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  The attorney will find himself subjected to "spy stuff", somewhat dangerous.

Quite encouragingly, the screenplay credits the participation of Joel and Ethan Coen along with Matt Charman.  The Coens apparently added quite a bit to the negotiation scenes, and some of their quirky humor is visible during moments with East German Attorney General Harald Ott (Burghart Klaubner).  But the screenplay suffers a fair amount of predictability, even if most or all of the events are true (with altered timelines).  When Donovan loses his overcoat to street toughs, you just know someone is going to tell him how crazy he is to be without one in Germany's punishing winter.   I also found the train scenes in NYC to be too "Hollywood" as when the disapproving eyes of passengers stare at Donovan over newspapers.  And then at the end, as Donovan is vindicated, those eyes soften. Bah.  BRIDGE OF SPIES didn't need such "movie moments".  It's the sort of thing of which Ron Howard is often guilty.   Some of Thomas Newman's scoring cues are also a bit too obvious.

But BRIDGE OF SPIES is an engrossing, entertaining bit of history that does in fact make you happy to know that men like Donovan do exist.  Who are tirelessly advocating for the forgotten and dispossessed even when they perhaps just want to fall into their own beds.