Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Femme Fatale

2002's FEMME FATALE may be Brian De Palma on autopilot, but I had so much fun with it I really didn't mind.  The movie came along well after the director had dazzled and/or repulsed the world with his near patented style, seen in a gallery of movies like DRESSED TO KILL, THE FURY, and SCARFACE, to name a few.  Aside from CARLITO'S WAY and the first installment of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, his more recent films had been disappointments, though there was no denying that the director was still working his magic.

FEMME FATALE centers on a jewel thief named Laure Ash (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) who double crosses her accomplices during a heist at the Cannes film festival.  De Palma immediately establishes her character by opening his film with having her watch DOUBLE INDEMNITY in a hotel room.  The heist sequence is typical of the director's long takes, slow tracking and nimble dollying. You will be reminded of several of his previous works.  Also, De Palma's preoccupation with steamy liaisons is well represented by a lesbian encounter in a bathroom - though it does have plot integrity.

As in De Palma's idol Alfred Hitchcock's films, there will be mistaken identity, blonde/brunette doppelgangers, and European locations as Laure makes off with the loot.  Through a series of circumstances for you to discover on your own, she will leave for America and then return to France years later, only to be recognized by her old co-conspirators when her picture is plastered around Paris.  Behind the camera lens was paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (amiably played by Antonio Banderas), who will later find himself heavily involved (in every possible way) with the femme fatale.  To his detriment?

When you reach a revelatory moment late in the movie, you'll realize that De Palma, like Hitch long before him, was playing you.  His trick is cheap, and one you've seen before, but if you've enjoyed the ride you'll likely not mind.  I just laughed.  Then I recalled several earlier moments that gave clues.  Pay attention, invisible audience!  FEMME FATALE exists as a showcase for an artist who plys his trade with as wicked a smile as ever.  His film pulses with life in ways that few do anymore.  De Palma is a great modulator - he knows when to ramp up and down.  His script is a funhouse of deception.  Emotion, too.  When things seem nihilistic he doubles back and even reveals a heart!

And his direction employs all the slow motion, 360 pans, split screens, split focus, and Dutch angles fans have come to love.  There are a few moments of brutal violence and intense sex. FEMME FATALE can sometimes seem smug and aware, but if you buy into it early you should have a fine time.  The film was not a box office success but does enjoy a cult following.  And Rebecca? She's pretty good, suitably duplicitous and cunning most of the time.  But perhaps Brian De Palma should've rather called Linda Fiorentino?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

In Memoriam

My stepfather-in-law passed away two years ago.  How time gets away from us.  His loss still stings, all the more as my wife and I live with his widow in their home of twenty-five years.  Every room, corner, even the eaves are a reminder of him.  I often expect to hear his voice at any moment.  It's impossible not to wonder how he, a highly articulate purveyor of the zeitgeist, would've reacted to the current political circus.

In April 2015, a beautifully performed ceremony was conducted at David's church of many years, Mary Immaculate.  Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication that prevented the Navy, in which David had served, from participating at that time.  Since then, my mother-in-law has been attempting to correct this, to put together a follow up, which finally occurred this past Easter weekend.  Three individuals, clad in naval whites, met at a park near Juno Beach Pier with David's remaining family (widow, sons, grandchildren, et al.) to perform a brief, yet moving tribute.

Two of the sailors performed the ritual of folding the American flag in thirteen steps, the meaning of which you can read about here

The third sailor played "Taps" on a muted ceremonial bugle.
The flag was presented to my MIL.  A stranger wandered over and asked me what was happening.  He was a veteran himself and quite appreciative of this tiny service.  He approached the sailors to thank them.  A few minutes later, we adjourned for the final act - dispersing some of David's ashes at sea per his wishes.  His widow had divided them up into twelve blue bags.
The remains had been in a large plastic bag housed within an urn.  His widow had kept it in the family room all this time. Comforting, in a way.  As she measured the remains, she noted their quality - not entirely fine but somewhat course, with pieces of bone.  I was fascinated by this, but it was also so very sad and grim.  This was our loved one, that dear man who provided so much love and wisdom in his seventy years.  It was only his earthly body, true, but even those with eternal hopes and assurances can't help but feel the poignancy of it all.

The plan was send him off at the beach, to wander into the surf and give the departed his eternal rest, but the winds were awfully high that morning.   The sons suggested we instead go to Sawfish Bay Park, a few miles away.  We stood on a small fishing pier and released our friend along the Jupiter Waterway.  Everyone, including David's young grandchildren, were quiet and reverent.  I had never participated in such an act before.  It was both solemn and jubilant.

A second ceremony, one which I could not attend, was performed a few days later at a military cemetery west of town.  The remainder of David Roy's ashes were placed in a wooden box constructed by one of his sons (both are carpenters) and placed in a three foot deep plot.  It was now complete.

See you later, fine sir. 



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Better Off Dead

It's been widely reported that John Cusack hates his 1985 film BETTER OFF DEAD.   In fact, he's dismissive of much of his resume, stating a few years back that he's only made "ten good films".  I think there're a few more than that, but would BETTER OFF DEAD be among them?  Cusack was apparently quite angry when he first screened the movie, but honestly, what was he expecting?  Another valid question would be why he would re-team with writer/director Savage Steve Holland for 1986's ONE CRAZY SUMMER (unless he was already committed to it)?  That one was a mildly enjoyable, forgettable comedy/romance but BETTER OFF DEAD is some kind of teen classic, in my opinion.  Not in the league of John Hughes' movies and certainly not SAY ANYTHING, in which Cusack starred a few years later, but a wildly silly, crazy, creative trifle that, for much of its running time is quite original.

Lane Meyer (Cusack) has lost his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) to the captain of the ski team.  He tortures himself with memories and sad songs on the radio.  He also imagines that every other guy in the world wants to date her -  including one of his teachers and even Barney Rubble from The Flintstones.  Lane has weird parents and a brother who always seems to have something odd going on in his bedroom.  His life is more surreal than that of most teenagers: Asian guys who talk like Howard Cosell over a loudspeaker mounted atop their car in repeated efforts to drag race and taunts by a determined paperboy to collect his two dollars are commonplace.  But are they just musings, flights of fancy, like when he escapes his dreadful fast food gig by imagining the ground meat he works with turns into guitar strumming hamburgers that play Van Halen?

Does it matter? BETTER OFF DEAD is a fairly consistent string of at least smile inducing gags that holds up until the last act, when a plot involving a ski race takes over.  Honestly, Savage Steve, nobody who sticks with this movie will give a tinker's damn about the plot, but I guess it's necessary to have one in an American film.  The collection of off the wall moments is what makes this film memorable.  I don't want to give them all away.  The cast is quite good, with graduates of many other '80s teen films and T.V. shows in support of Cusack, who admittedly doesn't get to show his chops here but does cement his uniquely likeable persona that's been visible ever since.  This movie is not one to be ashamed of, John.  Now, some of your more recent films.......

My favorite bits in BETTER OFF DEAD? Ricky and his mom. The sanitation worker's quip.  The hamburger video.  Also, Lane's brother's special guests in his bedroom and his final exit, the last image we see before the credits.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bellman and True

1987's BELLMAN AND TRUE is a richly detailed, lovingly composed motion picture that was originally made for British television, shown in three parts.  The theatrical cut was edited to under two hours from its previous one hundred and fifty minutes.  Despite this, the story flows smoothly, each scene nicely interlocking with the previous and subsequent.  Each scene is also a well sketched individual character study, revealing choice nuances of its players, even if the full version likely gave so much more.

I first became aware of this picture after seeing Siskel and Ebert review it on their program in the late 1980s.  Something about their descriptions, and the clip they showed, stayed with me.  There have been many films with which I've become intrigued, only to feel the mystique evaporate when finally seeing it.  Not this time.

Computer expert/inventor Hiller (Bernard Hill) is first viewed on the run with his son, identified in the credits merely as "The Boy" (Kieran O'Brien), fleeing criminals who seek inside info on the security system of a bank at which Hiller once worked.  Salto (Richard Hope) had hired Hiller to steal a disc with such info. some time back, but it proved to be unreadable code.  Not too much later, Salto and associates apprehend and hold Hiller and his boy hostage in an abandoned house, demanding the info be translated. Salto is a bad guy, but he's written to not be without a certain charm and polish.  He repeatedly calls Hiller "dear heart".

Salto also repeatedly assures Hiller that he'll release him as soon as the job is completed.  But then he realizes he needs the poor guy, whose wife has just left him, to help the team recruited to pull off a twelve million pound heist at said bank.  In what is probably my favorite scene in the movie, Hiller explains to the "bellman", slang for an expert in alarm systems, what sort of counter measures are necessary to beat this most elaborate of security stables. The scene reveals not only the characters' (and screenwriter Desmond Lowden, adapting his novel) intelligence, but also treats viewers like  informed co-conspirators, sharp enough to follow the minitiuae.

Hiller's skills render him the new bellman, and a nail biting heist, beautifully directed from start to finish by Richard Loncraine, will follow.  It's quite ingenious and suspenseful, a worthy heir to everything from RIFFIFI to THIEF.  But BELLMAN AND TRUE is more than just its centerpiece.  There are many quiet scenes of dialogue, each entirely compelling that advance the plot while likewise creating strong portraits.  Hill is mighty fine in his role.  Even though some characters are seen briefly, they are quite vivid, including a prostitute named Anna (Frances Tomelty) given to watch out for the boy.   Loncraine's film, with its great use of locations throughout London, is also commendably unpredictable, though I was a wee bit disappointed by the climax, which seemed somewhat standard compared to what came before - including a raucous getaway involving a doomed vintage Jaguar.

BELLMAN AND TRUE is one of several efforts produced by Handmade Films, founded by George Harrison and Denis O'Brien.  Some of their other films include WITHNAIL AND I,  TIME BANDITS, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and Loncraine's THE MISSIONARY.  As with the others the mark of quality and patient craft is in just about every frame. Cheers!

P.S. The closing credits are quite lovely.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Chinatown

It's a rare film - one that you want to dismantle into a million pieces to examine its beautiful ticking parts. Each comprised of the finest quality.  And yet the sum, as they often say, is greater than its parts. It is a film to watch over and over and to savor. Not just to peel back layers and discover something new, but to re-examine the surfaces and find they were indeed quite deep to start with. A movie where everything is just perfect.  Many have used that word to describe 1974's CHINATOWN, and every bit of ink spilled over it to that end is entirely warranted.  Perfect.

It doesn't happen often.  Many of the films I would consider great have at least one flaw, even a wince worthy element in an otherwise stellar presentation.  I think of the unfortunate narration in LITTLE CHILDREN.  Quentin Tarantino's cameo in PULP FICTION.  Some have a bad score, or an odd choice of tone.  Maybe even a weak script that is nonetheless overcome by the actors and director.

CHINATOWN does not have a weak script.  Robert Towne's work in fact is often cited as the screenplay to which all others should be measured.  That word "perfect" is used to describe it.  What is the standard of measure here? Syd Mead? Why is the blueprint for this landmark film "perfect"?  Because it plays within the rules of film noir, the genre of years before that CHINATOWN emulates?

I believe it is perfect because in addition to its golden blueprint, it looks and feels right.  John A. Alonzo's photography is sharp in L.A. sunlight as to almost X-ray the deception under every fascade.  And it captures 1930s architecture and props in a very organic fashion. Nothing is out of place.  The movie is also perfect for its exchanges between low rent private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and recent widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), dialogue that crackles with life and valuable info (if you're paying close attention).  Staccato retorts are common among all of the wonderful players in CHINATOWN.  It all plays like the sort of classic noir to which the film aspires, and possibly even surpasses.

The story line is complex.  It involves crooked plots within the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to acquire land cheaply for later profitable development, all by depriving that land of irrigation. The story is inspired by turn of the century battles between L.A. and the Eastern Valleys in which aqueducts were constructed to feed the burgeoning city, while the outlying areas starved.

But CHINATOWN is a also a psychological play, with lurid family secrets to be revealed that are as important as any other plot detail.  How does Evelyn's father, the malevolent tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston), figure into the nefarious plot, the familial tragedy? Quite significantly, left for you to discover.  Both elements are woven beautifully by Towne and director Roman Polanski, whose work here is so amazing, never flashy, and so hard to articulate in a summary.  I find that some of my favorite films are difficult to review because they touch me in ways that I don't even fully comprehend.  There's so much to say about the movie, but it's as if words just can't quite get it across.

The final line in the movie,  "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," refers to the hopeless jurisdictional woes the LAPD face when dealing with that Asian population, but also the complexity of human behavior, rarely to follow anything resembling logic.  That sort of conundrum may also (in a good way) relate to my difficulty in expressing my admiration for what I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Director David Fincher, a contemporary cinematic master, shares a commentary with Towne on the CHINATOWN Blu-ray.  His enthusiasm is never hidden.  I enjoyed one of his analyses, something to do with a repeated motif of duality, represented by pairs of objects. Towne says he has no recollection of any m.o. to that end.  Art transcends the artist, yet again.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Heavy Metal

1981's HEAVY METAL is a film I will always defend, always make excuses for, always find time to watch.  Chalk it up to perfect timing. It's one of those movies that, no matter how old I grow, will feel like I'm seeing something I oughtn't.   This animated feature, based on Heavy Metal magazine, was the forbidden catnip for many adolescent males of the day.  While most of us could not get in to see the movie short of switching auditoriums in a multiplex, it was clearly aimed at our demographic.  We waited with baited breath for its cable TV debut.  Kids with HBO and the like were very popular, indeed.  Well, kids who also either had very liberal or-absent-at-the-time-of-its-showing parents, that is.

Yes, the older I get the more sophomoric and juvenile HEAVY METAL seems.  I've always, even in my widest eyed days, been able to understand why many people detest it.  It's an anthology of graphically violent, vulgar, and sexist fantasies that clearly were born in the minds of horny geeks who jerked off to images of cartoon females and probably didn't know how to talk to a real woman.  Well, maybe that isn't really true, but in some of the more salacious moments the film does seem that way.

For starters, every woman in this film is quite shapely, and shown naked, at least some of the time.  All have breasts the size of basketballs.  Until we reach reach the final episode, "Taarna",  all are essentially sexual playthings for men (even for a robot in one segment!).  Taarna herself is also shown in the buff a few times, but she's nobody's victim or mere bed mate.  She's a heroine.  In fact, spoiler alert, she sacrifices herself to save the universe from a mysterious green orb which is the essence of evil itself.

The orb, introduced early on as an astronaut unleashes it in his house (and quite unaware of its power), corners a young girl and then figures through all six stories in HEAVY METAL.  It (known as Lok-Nar) also provides opening narration for each episode, explaining its pull, its dominion over a variety of humans and other life forms.  Each tale features characters falling to the old vices of greed, lust, power.  Some of the episodes have comedic (sometimes druggie) overtones, but the predominant air is of hopelessness, of doom.  Sometimes the good guys win, but not always.

Can viewers (those not stoned) take away some sort of moral from HEAVY METAL? The messages are mixed.  Every time you think you may discover something, um, decent about human nature another moment comes along to refute it. While the episode "Den" (about a scrawny kid who becomes a muscular hero) seems pretty optimistic, it's essentially a sleazy wish fulfillment saga about getting laid. "Harry Canyon" is also pretty cynical, but has an amiable hero.  It is also sports the crappiest animation of the lot.

HEAVY METAL is a collection of several contrasting styles via artists from around the globe and overseen by director Gerald Potterton.  The animation, much of it rotoscoped,  gets better and better with each episode, culminating in the Moebious inspired "Taarna", which is worthy of comparison with the visions of H.R. Geiger.

Then there's the music.  The only track that I would consider to be "heavy metal" is Black Sabbath's "The Mob Rules".  The remainder features the likes of, in addition to obscure artists like Riggs and Trust,  Cheap Trick, Devo, Journey, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, and even Donald Fagen! Many of these tunes rock if just a little, but some are downright mellow.  Many can be considered throwaways, but all work well as placed within the movie.  I listened to the heck out of that soundtrack.

HEAVY METAL played the midnight circuit for many years.  I went to see it in the late '80s or early '90s at the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach.  The audience was very devoted, almost to a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW level.  People were cheering and hooting all through the movie.  I found it kinda funny and weird that a guy was shouting "Alright HARRRRY!" to a cartoon figure.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Nice Guys

2016's THE NICE GUYS attempts a tricky hybrid of traditional mismatched buddy comedy and eccentric indie-type humor and doesn't quite make the mark.  The movie's somewhat variable and confused tone might explain its box office failure, but nonetheless makes for an reasonably entertaining few hours.  I happen to enjoy both sorts of films, and stories that take place in the 1970s, so I was part of what is apparently a limited target audience.  I did not make it to the theater to see this movie, so shame on me.  Maybe I shoulder a small percentage of blame.  The fact that I picked the Blu-ray up at the library for a free rental recently does not absolve me any further.

Co-writer and director Shane Black, who wrote the original LETHAL WEAPON thirty years ago, helms this story of two slovenly, low rent private investigators who investigate the disappearance of a young woman named Amelia, whose absence is somehow related to the death of a porn star named Misty Mountains. Actually, Jackson (Russell Crowe, who's packed on the weight and reminds one of John Goodman) was originally hired by Amelia to put some muscle on Holland (Ryan Gosling) to keep his distance from her. Got that?  This is because Holland was originally hired by the aunt of Misty Mountains to find her.   Aunt Glenn (Lois Smith) is insistent that she saw her niece alive, even after her violent demise in a car wreck (which opens the movie).  Holland sniffs around and realizes Amelia's connection.  And here we are back at Point A.

The complexity of the story takes a bid from Raymond Chandler and maybe even Robert Towne, and with Los Angeles again the perfect backdrop. L.A. in 1977.  Ideal all around.  But figuring it out isn't too difficult.  I've made it sound far more impenetrable than it is.  The strengths of THE NICE GUYS are the characterizations and sometimes hysterical interplay of the two leads.   They're really not nice guys, by the way.  They're essentially immoral scumbags, not very bright, and not above taking advantage of their clients.  For example, Holland only hesitates for a nanosecond before agreeing to take on another missing persons case for an elderly lady who "hasn't seen my husband since his funeral."  When the P.Is first meet, Jackson breaks Holland's arm.  In the great buddy movie tradition, they begrudgingly agree to join forces, clumsily piecing together how a Dept. of Justice higher-up (Kim Basinger) fits in the story.  If you can't guess that within a minute of her introduction, invisible audience, you need to put the bong down.

Black does a generally good job of creating this off kilter vibe of both goofball and more oblique humor with a few big action scenes, but maybe there wasn't enough of either for summer audiences.  The effort to combine LETHAL WEAPON with THE BIG LEBOWSKI only succeeds in individual moments, though some of the more slapstick ones (my favorite - Holland's overthrow of a gun to Jackson) work best. Black plays homage to himself occasionally, as when Holland falls several stories out of a hotel window into a swimming pool while trying to best a criminal (who also goes down).

One element of THE NICE GUYS that really doesn't work is the character of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland's precocious young daughter.  It's hard to say why Black makes her such an integral force in the plot.  She's smart and funny, but also slightly annoying, and her exposure to the porn world and some serious violence will make more than a few viewers wince.  I was also baffled by the inclusion of her heartfelt pleas to Jackson, on two occasions, not to finish off vicious bad guys as death hovers over them. Was Black trying to make Holly the one source of light in this cesspool? Not sure it fits with the rest of the picture's WTF attitude.  And that Holly also exhibits some of her father's cunning just makes it inconsistent.

I also wish someone would've have done their homework and not included songs in this movie that were recorded after 1977.  And that JAWS 2 billboard? Guys, that didn't open 'til '78! But I'm nerdy like that.....

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Something Wild

In the middle to late 1980s director Jonathan Demme created a pair of quirky, entertaining treks through  American landscapes distinguished mainly by their kitsch.  Movies with well developed characters to match the vividness of their surroundings.  The tackiness of mafia culture in NYC and Miami was explored in 1988's highly entertaining MARRIED TO THE MOB.  Two years earlier, Demme took us on a dynamic journey called SOMETHING WILD, somewhat edgier.

It is an apt title for such a colorful movie featuring Jeff Daniels as a button downed businessman named Charlie who succumbs to a mysterious kook in a dark wig named Lulu (Melanie Griffith). He follows her after a dine and dash. They spar and flirt.  He tells her he's married.   Everything happens so quickly.  One minute Charlie is with his new friend on the streets of Manhattan, seemingly the next he's handcuffed to a motel bed for an illicit afternoon encounter.  Soon after, he finds himself meeting Lulu's mother in another state.

Demme exhibits a fun, near anarchic spirit in these early scenes.  A real sense that anything can happen.  It's exhilirating to watch a movie that is so unpredictable, so filled with energy.   Perhaps we feel a bit like Charlie. We enjoy funny cameos by film directors John Waters and John Sayles as a used car salesman and motorcycle cop, respectively.   But SOMETHING WILD isn't all kookiness and light.  Reality begins to expose itself like a Polaroid.  Lulu admits her real name is Audrey. When she eventually drags Charlie to her high school reunion, her ex-sweetheart Ray (Ray Liotta, in his debut) is there, seemingly a nice guy but even in the earliest moments you know there is malevolence behind that smile.

The remainder of the movie takes some dark turns.  The events are dominated by Ray's character, a psychotic and dangerous criminal, none too pleased to see his old girl with Charlie. E. Max Frye's script transforms into, well, something wild(er), albeit in a more traditional, even melodramatic way.  Some complained that the movie became too routine by the time Ray arrives, but I think Demme shifts gears with great skill, orchestrating a curious dream that morphs into a nightmare.  If you view this in some moralistic fashion, a cautionary tale perhaps, you might come away with a different picture than I did.  I found a guy's metamorphosis, a crazy trip with some wisdom to be gained along the way.

The actors are all fine, but special mention must go to Liotta.  What an explosive, complex performance. Maybe little boy innocence at odds with adolescent to adult rage. Wild insecurity but with a disarming charm that can melt away in a millisecond.   By the time he gets into an argument with people in the next room through a hotel wall, you're witnessing the birth of a star.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Your Audiology Tutorial: Tuning Fork Tests

That steel, two-pronged fork that you may have seen in your ear,  nose, and throat doctor's office is used for some pretty quick and efficient diagnostic tests.  In other contexts, of course,  it may be used to tune musical instruments.  Tuning fork tests can be used to determine if a patient's hearing loss -if in fact there is one- is conductive (middle ear: eardrum, Eustachian tube) or sensorineural (inner ear: cochlea, cranial nerve).  In many ENT clinics, a 512 Hz fork is utilized.

There are four type of tuning fork tests, each named after a German otologist:

1. Weber:  After lightly striking fork against hand, the examiner places the stem on patient's forehead. The patient is asked if the resulting tone lateralizes to either ear (is heard louder in one or the other). If heard equally loud in both ears, the test is considered negative for hearing loss.  If the tone is heard in the ear reported to be worse, the loss may be conductive. If heard in the better ear, sensorineural.

2. Rinne: Patient is asked to put finger in the opposite of the ear being tested.  Stem of fork is struck by examiner and first placed on mastoid bone (just behind your pinna, or outer ear).  The patient is asked to respond when he or she no longer hears tone.  The stem is then placed in front of, but not touching the outer ear. The patient is asked to report if the tone was heard longer/louder.  If so, this can indicate a conductive hearing loss.  If heard louder on the mastoid, the loss may be sensorineural.

The following tests are less commonly performed:

3. Schwabach: Stem of fork is placed on patient's mastoid, then examiner's, alternated until one of them no longer perceives the tone. If patient hears tone longer than examiner, it may be conductive. If patient hears tone for shorter time, it may be sensorineural.

4. Bing: Stem is placed on mastoid while patient inserts and removes finger at entrance of ear canal.  If patient reports that sound alternated in intensity with finger in and out, loss may be sensorineural; if no change, conductive.

You can imagine that there are several confounding factors to these tests.  Certainly the patient's lack of understanding of procedure and the examiner's possibly sloppy technique (especially during the Schwabach) should be considered.  What if the examiner has a hearing loss?

Audiologists don't usually do tuning fork tests, as testing air and bone conduction (with different transducers) with an audiometer will confirm the nature of the hearing loss.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Challenge

When THE CHALLENGE was released in 1982, I was quite obsessed with martial arts epics.  Not just Bruce Lee movies but also the more obscure kind of things that have been shown on the El Ray network.  While I didn't own any of the associated props, I did mess around with my (even more obsessed) friend Paul's Chinese throwing stars and (rope and chain) nunchucks.  I regret to report that I did not take any karate or ju jitsu lessons, never got my black belt.  And why didn't that bratty thirteen year old catch this movie at the Cross County 8 or wherever it was playing?  I think it came and went too soon, lost among many big releases of the time.  And it just didn't seem distinguished enough.

Regarding the talent involved, I was wrong.  Recently, I actually sought the film out for its pedigree.  John Frankenheimer directed, Scott Glenn had the lead, and John Sayles co-wrote the script.   Surely this mix would produce something beyond the typically low grade actioner? While I'm not exactly singing its praises, I wasn't disappointed.   Sayles wrote several scripts for B-fare during this time period, movies like ALLIGATOR and THE HOWLING, which were several notches above the usual manure.  THE CHALLENGE essentially is a B-movie, albeit one that is just as fascinated with East/West culture clash as with swordplay that may or may not conclude with someone's head being split vertically into two halves.

Glenn plays a slow witted L.A. boxer named Rick who is approached by a wheelchair bound Japanese man named Toshio and his sister.  Rick is to smuggle a rare sword to Japan for a few grand.  As his life is apparently without many prospects, he almost immediately accepts, without voicing too many suspicions.  This proves to be regrettable as soon after landing Rick is ambushed by the Toshio's brother who appropriates the sword and informs the American that it is in fact, a fake.  Rather than kill Rick, he gives him the option of infiltrating his uncle's (Yoshida) martial arts academy, where the real sword remains separated from its twin, owned by his father, Hideo.  The opening scene of the movie sets the stage with a backstory dating back to 1945.

THE CHALLENGE spends much time in Yoshida's school as Rick slowly becomes indoctrinated to the ways of Bushido.  He will sample their cuisine, consisting of often still alive seafood, and be tested by remaining buried up to his neck in the sand outside for five days.  None other than Toshiro Mifune plays Yoshida-san, a sensei given to meditation and old school weaponry.  His presence certainly elevates this movie from the usual muck of ninja dramas, and he is fun to watch.  The drama of the two brothers' battle to reunite the swords is to honor a centuries old tradition, no matter how much arterial spray must be shed in the process.  Hideo represents Western excess with his million dollar deals and arsenal of machine gun toting minions.  Rick will be tested by both sides for his loyalty and allegiance.

Sounds standard, and certainly is for the most part.  The screenplay, co-written with Sayles by Richard Maxwell and Marc Norman, covers most of the bases of the genre.  For good measure, a subplot involving Rick's mentoring of a little boy at the academy is woven in, though it feels gratuitous, as does an obligatory sex scene. Frankenheimer, who made an interesting assortment of films during his career, frames everything competently.  The dialogue in this movie is a bit sharper than in say, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, likely due to Sayles.  I found it interesting that the evil cousin (son of Hideo) talks like an American, complete with vulgarisms like "hide the salami", certainly in line with the modernist culture to which he's been exposed.  I wonder also if it was Sayles' idea to stage the final battle in an office, where in addition to the precious swords a stapler becomes a key weapon.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bernie


SPOILERS!

You have probably met a guy like Bernie Tiede, especially if you've ever lived in the South and attended the local Baptist church.  He stands out from other males his age in such environments: eternally single, keen interest in the performing arts and travel, deft with interior design.  He is also unfailingly polite, charming, active in said church, serious about his work, and honest.  Even after he kills the local widow.

Well, not right away.  He leaves her body in a freezer for several months before the authorities discover her.  He does not deny his crime when apprehended by the police.  Bernie, an assistant mortician, calmly explains through genuine tears that he was waiting until he could properly prepare her for burial.  He truly believes that his falsehoods to the residents of Cathage, Texas were means to an appropriate end.

2011's BERNIE recounts this true life story, complete with interviews with the actual folks who knew Bernie (Jack Black) and his friend Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater scatters their Q and A as punctuation throughout the story, one that could've easily merited one of those tacky "true crime" docs you see on cable.  Instead, Linklater creates an engaging bit of Southern Gothic (with frequent use of old hymns on the soundtrack) that never feels lurid 'cause, dammit, that Bernie was such a nice feller.  

And Black's performance is so on the money that we are smitten with him too.  Some viewers may agree with all those townsfolk who refuse to think Bernie is guilty, even if they know he did it.  But how could he do such a thing?!  Nugent was a contemptible old snake and she deserved it, you see.  Fact, Bernie was her only friend.   He spent quite a bit of time dining, going to shows, and traveling with her.  But she became possessive, demanding all of his time.  Even a sweet soul like Bernie can have a breaking point after months of nagging and abuse.

Makes one wonder why Bernie's lawyer did not play the temporary insanity card (Did Bernie think maybe Satan whispered in his ear or something)?  How would that have affected Danny Buck Davidson's (Matthew McConaghey, clearly enjoying himself) - the local D.A.-  strategy?.  He does recognize that a jury pool from Cathage would be unfairly biased, that a conviction would be impossible there.  Davidson successfully has the venue changed to a town fifty miles away.  A place the residents of Carthage think is filled with morons.  One interviewee unapologetically explains that he thinks Bernie's jury all shared one brain.

Bernie was convicted for life, but his demeanor, although saddened, remained as sunny as ever.  He even becomes a teacher and encourager of his fellow inmates.  Watch those closing titles.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Color of Money

Pool hustler "Fast" Eddie Felson was a character who warranted an update.  Many fictional characters really don't, either due to their inherent lack of interest or that their previous story was quite sufficiently wrapped up. As seen in 1961's THE HUSTLER, Felson was more than your average fresh faced hood, and left in a world of pain by the time he shook hands with Minnesota Fats one final time.  He walked away and perhaps viewers mused on what ten cent game he would join next, or even if he would live another few months. 

In 1986's THE COLOR OF MONEY twenty five years have passed and we find Eddie (Paul Newman, reprising his role) has become a wizened sixty-something, now a liquor salesman who's done well for himself. He's still hanging around smoky billiard halls and organizing bets with younger hotshots.  It seems he rarely picks up a cue these days.

When Eddie sees Vincent (Tom Cruise), skilled but undisciplined and cocky, he begins to instruct the young man how to scam larger amounts of dough from small timers.   Vincent has some innate ability but is a bit slow on most things, especially the idea that a con involves scaling back, pretending to be an average player.  Eddie plans to mold Vincent into perhaps a more savvy younger version of himself, and finds that using Eddie's girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to inspire jealousy can be effective.

Like its predecessor, THE COLOR OF MONEY is really not attempting to milk suspense from high stakes contests, at least not the ones on the felt.  The shadowy figures who drift through dank parlors, guys like Julian (John Turturro) and Amos (Forrest Whitaker) are playing games at every moment, waiting to snare their prey.  They'd as soon do it with three card monte or some other trick if nine-ball wasn't their preference.  Richard Price's hard boiled script, based on Walter Tevis' novel, mines the psychology of the players, their bleak surroundings. Often very effectively.  It's also a film of atmosphere, and director Martin Scorcese provides the grit and seediness almost as vividly as in TAXI DRIVER.  The soundtrack is filled with Robbie Robertson's moody scoring and a few more uptempo tracks, including Eric Clapton's "It's in the Way That You Use It".

Scorcese fixes Michael Ballhaus' camera on faces as much as fancy pool shots (some of which are very close-up).  Newman's face is seen from multiple angles in a series of fades that tells us his thoughts before he actually explodes in frustration. The actor's Oscar winning performance really is perfect, even if the film around him isn't.  THE COLOR OF MONEY meanders and often seems to lose interest in its story, allowing the low key vibe among the characters to become near catatonic. I found the events in the climactic moments of the movie to be lacking, though realistic. Many viewers will be frustrated by the final scene's inconclusiveness.

Cruise, becoming a big star by this time, does convincing work as a wet behind the ears kid.  Mastrantonio is also fine in her quiet sultriness.  But this is Newman's picture all the way, a Star Vehicle I can get behind.  Scorsese lends his visual magic but it's all there to service his lead actor, and that's just fine.  I wouldn't have even minded seeing another chapter, to see how "back" Eddie Felson really was.

Monday, March 13, 2017

West Side Story

At once very dated and to the moment relevant, 1961's WEST SIDE STORY, an adaptation of the Broadway hit, is unique among Hollywood musicals for many reasons.

While many of the NYC locations are created on soundstages, the film has a distinctive faux real urban texture.  Tenements, streets, basketball courts, underpasses, etc. all have a lived in, somewhat gritty feel.  While we are entirely aware of the pageantry at hand, director Robert Wise has a good sense of the way such a story on the West Side of the city might play: artificial yet convincing enough to be plausible fakery.  Put another way, we always know that the drama involving the turf wars between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks (and the lovers caught in between) is updated Shakespeare yet within these confines it's still convincing.  There is a sense of menace and urgency but examined closely, these youths are really just a few degrees more threatening than the Bowery Boys.

The astonishing choreography, by co-director Jerome Robbins, is distinguished by step work done in time with Leonard Bernstein's elaborate scoring, often incorporating unusual time signatures.  The result is a jerky, perhaps less polished round of dance that suits the action.  Not just street brawls and knife contests.  There's a vibrancy throughout, a real sense of life, but also a nervous energy.  An uncertainty.  This is a tragedy, after all.  Witness the post brawl number "Cool",  one of the most complex exercises of its type I've ever seen on film.  It apparently was quite a bear to pull off. 

While many critics deride leads Richard Beymer (Tony) and Natalie Wood (Maria) for their lack of charisma, not being fiery enough, etc., etc.  I think within this artifice they do just fine.  Are just right.   Each perhaps represents that eternal pie in the sky hope that we can all just get along.  That romantic dreams can come true.  That love can conquer all within in urban nightmare of racism and poverty.  There to level this utopia are Oscar winners Rita Moreno as Maria's friend Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo, brother of Maria and lover of Anita.  They are the voices of (sad) reason, with no illusions of their environment.

And the plight of the unwelcome immigrant infusing WEST SIDE STORY is still as potent as ever.  Some of the corny dialogue actually holds weight, and the signature tune "America" nicely sums up what it meant to be Puerto Rican in their new land in the '50s and '60s, and what it means to many others today.   

Friday, March 10, 2017

Respect the Stoagie

I haven't partaken of a cigar in close to twenty years.  I was never fond of the taste.  Maybe I didn't smoke enough of 'em.  Maybe I still remember, all too vividly, that time in 1994 when I did things rather incorrectly.

West Palm Beach was celebrating its centennial.  A group of us were downtown, pub crawling.  Cigar bars were becoming trendy at the time.  We stopped in one and spent too much money, minutes later puffing like pros in the humid night air.  I'm sure one of us grabbed a port wine to go with it.  The activity felt very grown up and refined.  I was the novice of the group, something that would really hit me about twelve hours later.  I think I smoked two stoagies that night, all the while inhaling the smoke.  I think we had a big dinner somewhere on Clematis that night as well.

I went to bed without incident. No coughing jags.  I woke up feeling fine.  It was Sunday.  I went to church. I donned the robe as usual, sitting among my choir mates in the loft in the front of the sanctuary.  The pastor was deep into his sermon.  Something became very wrong.  Like someone threw the switch on my nausea receptors.  My stomach felt as if it was distending.  I had to clumsily make my way over the knees of those in my row, racing up the back stairs to the second floor hallway.  I was close to the restroom and then it hit.  I sprayed the wall like that kid in STAND BY ME.  It was epic, my most dramatic emesis ever.  Thankfully, no one was there to witness it.  But embarrassment would've been secondary at best in that moment.

After I cleaned it up, I began wondering why the reaction was so delayed. Was some time release mechanism at work?   I knew even then that the tobacco leaves were probably cured with some chemical after harvesting. Was that it?  Maybe it wasn't even the cigar? Did I get food poisoning instead? Dunno.  Maybe someone can answer.  I know that I never inhaled cigar smoke again.  Granted, I only did the deed a few more times, quite gun shy and only puffing and blowing a few times before discarding.   I was sufficiently spooked.  I was slightly tempted that time in Vancouver, when I saw Cuban Cohibas for sale in a shop window.

My wife is happy that I do not smoke anything these days.  She is not pleased that her father still enjoys what he would call a hobby.  She might call it a habit.  I do still enjoy the aroma.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hammett

There's quite a story behind 1982's HAMMETT, an imagining of the life and times of pulp writer Dashiell Hammett.  The movie was produced by Francis Ford Coppola's (ill-fated) Zoetrope Studios and directed by German auteur Wim Wenders.  After photography was completed, the studio was unhappy and ordered a complete reshoot.  Wenders had filmed this neo noir on location in San Francisco, apparently going more for the essence of a detective's existence than a complex narrative.  A year later, after Wenders shot another movie, he returned to frame the action on soundstages and backlots.  There were and are many rumors that Coppola actually reshot the movie himself.

When HAMMETT was finally released, only some of Wenders' original scenes remained.  The director was quoted as saying the new version was "all story and no soul."  Given such a troubled history, it would seem that that the result would be a disaster, and many critics and fans were less than thrilled, but I find the film to be a real lost treasure, an entirely pleasurable evocation of a bygone era through the prism of patent artificiality.  I do lament the lost maiden effort (reports state the original film was destroyed), and it's impossible not to wonder how this movie played in its first incarnation.

Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), an old pal, shows up at Hammet's flat one afternoon with a request to help him find a Chinese lady of the evening called Crystal Ling.  Hammett isn't really interested, especially as it smells like a ticket to his old life, working for the Pinkerton snoops.  He's been behind the typewriter of late, eking out a living composing short stories. There is a manuscript he's trying to sell.  He coughs up his lungs and nurses whiskey no matter the hour.  But a friend's a friend.

Jimmy goes missing after the pair make their way through Chinatown.  The mystery is just beginning.  Hammett, known as "Sam" to several others in this movie, including his sexy neighbor, Kit (Marilu Henner), winds his way through a labyrinth of blackmail and hired assassins.  Duplicity lurks behind the eyes of many of the characters.  Periodically we are treated to dramatizations of Hammett's writings, nicely stylized in the traditional of great, smoky noirs.

But the entire feature can be described as such, and Wenders does a fine job of conveying the spirit of yesteryear crime dramas in every possible way.  The backlot settings only add to it, in my opinion.  Ling sums it up well as she slinks over Hammet's recliner, dreamily remarking how masculine his apartment is.  It's cluttered and drab, yet far more romantic than your average bad neighborhood shithole mancave might look.  Everything clicks in HAMMETT: the reliably snappy dialogue, the astounding production design, Joseph Biroc's beautiful photography.  While Forrest (a stock company reg for Coppola) was not Wenders' first choice he is excellent in the lead role.  A well balanced mix of confidence and weariness.  Noir fans should not miss this movie.  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Grato

If you live in West Palm Beach or the surrounding area and have not made your way to Grato just yet - you're really missing out.  I've been hearing nice things for the past year.  The attractive fascade on Dixie Highway is a real head turner as you cruise southbound, across from the large plot of dirt that used to be the Carefree Theater (soon to be a new theater/living/retail space).  My wife's birthday was this past Tuesday and a perfect opportunity to try out this newish Italian restaurant.

The menu is fairly sparse, but well selected.  There are pizzas, which looked and smelled tempting.  My wife had the chicken parmigiana, very nice.  I had the paccheri pasta (homemade), covered in "Sunday gravy" and sausage.  Atop the dish was ricotta cheese laced with herbs.  Wonderful.  My mother and grandmother always called the tomato sauce - that sat on the stove for up to a day before being served - gravy.  The portion was just right, not the oversized madness you'd likely get elsewhere, or at your momma's house. I briefly worried it wouldn't be enough, but it's amazing how satiated you can be when you eat slowly, allowing your brain to catch up.

Slow eating will also allow you to thoroughly enjoy the interior of Grato.  Ceiling ductwork gives a cool, hip, retro atmosphere, but not one that will make you wince.  The chandeliers add some old school class. We sat by the front windows, behind us a well arranged assortment of various sized tables and a full bar.  The crowd was quite a mix of ages and attire.  I still can't understand why people wear shorts to dinner.  Yes, it's Florida but c'mon!

By the way, don't skip dessert.  We shared the bread pudding, with a scoop of incredibly rich cappuccino ice cream on the side.  All the sweets sounded excellent.

Just go.

Grato
1901 S. Dixie Hwy.
West Palm Beach, FL  33401
(561) 404-1334
gratowpb.com

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Arrival

S p o i l e r s

For the past several fall seasons filmgoers have been offered the annual Overrated Science Fiction Drama, films with big stars like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, and Matt Damon.  Films that embrace huge emotional sentiments wrapped in a sci-fi scenario you've seen (in one form or another) many times before.  The critics and general public tend to agree on the films' brilliance.  The Academy takes notice.  Everyone seems to bring each other to orgasm over them.

Last year ARRIVAL joined this dubious group.  It featured Big Star Amy Adams as a university linguist, haunted by the death of her daughter, who is once again recruited by the military for her translation and interpreting skills, though the stakes are far higher this go round: extraterrestrials have parked their disc shaped vehicles vertically in twelve spots around the globe. An Army colonel (Forrest Whittaker, in a role he could've played in his sleep) puts together a team to discover why the aliens have come.  Jeremy Renner, a pretty big star in his own right, is aboard as Ian Donnelly, there to offer his skills as a theoretical physicist, though other than one breakthrough moment, mostly he just stands around.  Louise Banks (Adams) uses her considerable knowledge of languages to try to decode the aliens' ("heptapods") symbols, which are sprayed onto a glass wall (between them and the humans) via their tentacle like appendages.

Meanwhile, the soldiers get restless.  They do incredibly questionable things like rigging the aliens' spaceraft with explosives.   Everyone is spooked by China's itchy trigger finger.  Time is tight. Banks will be given a revelation by one of the aliens mid-way though the movie.  What viewers thought were flashbacks are something else entirely.  The ending will be hailed by some as transcendent and hopeful, others as head scratching nonsense.  For me, I was unfavorably reminded of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.

I realize that my review of ARRIVAL thus far sounds like a total slam.  Thing is, the film is actually very well produced.  Eric Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chaing's "Story of Your Life" is often intelligent and appealingly humanistic.  Bradford Young's cinematography is wondrous.  The score by Johann Johannson and Max Richter is by turns unsettling and sweeping.  The actors are very good.  Director Denis Villeneuve, currently in post production on BLADE RUNNER 2049 and set to take on a new adaptation of Dune, mounts the scenario well, weaving elements of thriller, end-of-world spectacular, and quiet exposition with equal skill.

The ending seemed to work for me as it was happening, but later, when I pondered it, I wondered if Louise would really "do it all again", despite the horrible emotional crush it would entail.  I also wondered what else she would do with this "tool", how she would help humanity.  One person's story here is meant to be representative of mankind, perhaps a way to bring us all together.  Your average Trump nationalist of today will balk, calling out the "libtards" who would embrace this global message.   I wondered if Neill Blomkamp had contributed to this movie in some uncredited way.

ARRIVAL's aspirations to be a latter day 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are far grander than the execution.  There are too many holes in the plot, too many scientific nitpicks.  Heavy drama that isn't as effective as intended.  Similar problems occurred with GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, and THE MARTIAN.  I liked those films (to varying degrees) too, but the amount of praise they received seemed unwarranted.  Where are the Isaac Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes these days? ARRIVAL, as good as it is, even falls short of CONTACT.  Will it fall to Neil deGrasse Tyson to pen the next Truly Great Science Fiction Drama? Not sure how he is with character arcs, though. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oh, George

I've spoken of George a few times in this blog.  Brash, loud, foul mouthed, Italian.  In his eighties, but still lifting weights and going for runs, at least until the last couple of years.  He was one of the attendees of my mother-in-law's monthly Saturday night gatherings.  That bunch was colorful, even before the wine was poured.  Remember Harry? He was also a regular.  I wrote about him even more frequently.  If you've been following my writings for a while you might recall that he passed away nearly five years ago.  My step father in law, co-ringleader of the soirees, passed away in 2015.  On Jan. 2nd of this year, it was George's turn.

I thought he would've left us sooner.  He drank excessively, right up to the last time I saw him, in Jan. 2016, at one final party that turned ugly as we stopped his bartender service early.  George was becoming a hazard, a supremely unpredictable guest who was causing great discomfort and embarrassment.  I met him in 2001, soon after I began dating my future wife.  I attended the Saturday parties and watched the circus with great interest.  Harry with his jug of Gallo, singing in French.  Molly with her biting, often unbearably funny and snobby digs.  Angela, a former model, telling fascinating tales of '60s and '70s era NYC.  Debra, George's much younger wife, laughing continuously and running outside for a smoke every fifteen minutes or so.  George would always, from the earliest days, pepper his dialogue with expletives, much to the chagrin of my MIL.  But in recent years, George became the dreaded mean drunk.  His words were getting harsher, as was his tone.

One time, George went too far and insulted MIL, prompting her to fling a glass of red wine on his white Polo shirt.  He got up and chased her around the house.  A bad scene.  It was about a year before George would talk to her again.  Poor Debra, a woman with whom my MIL had worked in Palm Beach retail for many years, was caught in the middle.  She did not drive, so she was unable to socialize with us without her husband.  Begrudgingly, George eventually sort of apologized and he was invited to more, but infrequent, gatherings.  He was never the same.  One time I had to argue with him for his car keys.

But George and I always got along.  I wish I could've known him in the earlier days, represented by the above and below photos.  That bottom one was shot during his stint as a Marlboro Man.  No kidding.

George always commented on my weight loss or gain, depending on the year.  I encouraged his rowdiness to some degree, usually regretting it.  I really miss the guy.  I feel doubly awful that I missed his memorial - not a funeral, or a wake.  He wanted those left behind to have a dinner party at a local restaurant.  It was on a Sunday afternoon, the one when a flu began to take hold on me.  It was a really nasty one this year.  I just couldn't make it.  Sorry, George.  I'm sure you'd understand.  May God have mercy on your soul.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Heat

1995's HEAT is unquestionably director Michael Mann's signature motion picture.  His magnum opus. A big, stunning work of art that has almost as much substance in its screenplay as it does style to burn, visually and aurally.  Atmospheres of nighttime are a specialty of the director's, and the great expanses of darkness are as evocative as the smear of city lights.  Many of my favorite auteurs shoot their films as if hovering about in some unseen height, creating an other worldly, supernatural feel.  It's not cinema verite, not docudrama.  The settings are real but the approach is something beyond, as if glimpsed by something of another world.   Mann is well known for his extreme meticulousness, right down to the sound certain hangers make when someone is pushed against them.  The style is the substance in a Mann film, to me the very essence of film appreciation.

The story is based on real characters and events.  Neil McCauley was a prolific burglar and bank robber in the 1960s.  His namesake is played by Robert DeNiro in another iconic performance of minimal words and intense stares.  Al Pacino is Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a sharp as anything cop who obsessively hunts McCauley and his crew, played by actors Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and others.  The two leads are perhaps cut from the same mold, opposite sides of the same coin.  Both are consumed by their work, methodical in their execution.  While Hanna is prone to frequent outbursts and emoting, he shares with his rival a careful observational take on every surrounding, their peripheries are as clear as what is in front of them.

In an interesting scene, McCauley and Hanna sit down for a cup of coffee.  They explain their respective paradigms, what they must do when the moment of truth comes down.  There's a mutual respect, gentlemanly acknowledgement, like in a Western. McCauley may well know that he's on the wrong side of the law, but resigns himself to his role, seeing little other purpose in his life.  Plus he's damned good at what he does, just like his quarry.

That scene would be extremely unlikely to happen between cop and robber in real life, but HEAT makes no stab at hard reality, even as it features the familiar hardships of significant others who are virtual widows to their men, as well as elements of drug addiction, poverty stricken landscapes.  Mann shot the entire film on Los Angeles locations, no sound stages, and it is as perfect as any stage for Mann's uniquely studied point of view.  As in so many films, L.A. plays itself in all its alluring mystery, a place with infinite secrets.

Also a place where violence can and will erupt at will.  HEAT features a lengthy firefight between McCauley's gang and the LAPD following a broad daylight bank heist that is one of the most brutally effective such scenes in film history.  Brilliantly staged and frightening. Influential, too.  Watch THE DARK KNIGHT again and observe.

But for all the talk about Mann's flashy style, his screenplay does not suffer.  His characters are complex and well drawn, right down to the smallest roles.  Neil McCauley echoes the character of Frank in Mann's earlier THIEF.  James Caan played a master safecracker who yearns for connection with friends and lovers just like the next guy but will not hesitate to walk away from everything within seconds.  Neil likewise is always ready to walk out on even those he loves in "30 seconds flat" when the heat is approaching.  But the itch for revenge may be a fly in the ointment for him.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Player

SPOILERS

Robert Altman's Tinseltown satire THE PLAYER from 1992 is one of his most realized, disciplined efforts.  It has a linear plot! It's a film that often plays as a genuine thriller, to boot.  Yet all in that somewhat recognizable style, so Altmanesque. Akin to a provacateur wandering through gardens and offices and restaurants, picking up snatches of conversation and perhaps focusing more on those in the peripheries than the ones in the foreground.  In Hollywood, a town of endless meetings and parties, the opportunities are plentiful.

Altman never was a "player".  Maybe in the wake of MASH's success in the early 70s he enjoyed some attention but his decision to remain true to his idiosyncratic vision thereafter made it unlikely that studio types were kicking in his door.  Unless it was to wrestle away final edit on his latest eccentric opus.  Being an outsider but inside enough made the director the perfect overseer for Michael Tolkin's dark (could it be any other way?) tale of a studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins).  Mill is plagued not only by competition from a new story exec named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), but also a string of death threats from an anonymous screenwriter.

Mill rejects lots of story pitches and script submissions.  But the postcards he receives from his mystery would-be assailant grow more ominous. Eventually he suspects writer David Kahane (Vincent D'onofrio), and after an unsuccessful attempt to entice him with a deal over drinks, Kahane ends up dead.  The exec arranges the scene to appear as if a robbery had gone wrong.

Do Hollywood types like Mill have a conscience? Only to save their own skin. Mill becomes suspect number one in the eyes of a pair of sardonic detectives played by Whoopi Goldberg and Altman reg Lyle Lovett.  And then the death threats continue...the real stalker also is now aware that Mill has assailed the wrong person.

THE PLAYER continues the storyline with a fair amount of detail straight to its wildly clever and (naturally) cynical finale.  Tolkin's script (adapted from his novel) reads like the work of someone who's submitted one too many entries to a studio "slush pile" or waited in vain by the phone for that call from someone who "loved (their) work."  It seems pretty astute into the vagaries of the Hollywood game, with its hotshot producers and creepy relatives of hotshots who think they can just ring up Winona Ryder or someone equally famous for a date because of their lineage.  The chain smoking writers who get less respect than the guy holding the boom mic.

Altman's caustic outlook never goes over the top (even during Goldberg's tampon twirling scene), as some Hollywood satires have been known to.  His laissez faire direction allows many long takes of several well known actors just going about their business, like Burt Reynolds rambling at a lunch or John Cusack looking suitably embarrassed when Mill says hello to him.  Or Jeff Goldblum appearing as if in traction at a party.

But THE PLAYER also disturbingly has us rooting for the bad guy.  A protagonist who has murdered an innocent and carried on with his girlfriend (Great Scacchi) while ignoring his own (Cynthia Stephenson).  I recall that this very notion was too much for a friend of a friend who joined us for a matinee.  He walked out at one point and waited for us in the lobby.  I bet Altman would've been pleased to know that.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part IV (CONCLUSION)

2004 brought The Spine, an agreeable but somewhat bland entry in the They Might Be Giants catalogue.  The creative highs heard on No! and Mink Car were not repeated here.  The album, two of its tracks heard on a preceding EP called Indestructible Object, seemed to be phoned in.  The Johns firing on merely a few cylinders.  So tired.  "Au Contraire" name drops Jodie Foster and Mahatma Gandhi to little fanfare.  "Stalk of Wheat" sounds like drunken merry go round music.  Yes, the lyrics were still witty, particularly on "Prevenge" and " I Can't Hide From My Mind", but everything has some sort of malaise.  The production is competent but without surprises.  Many songs have traditional rock arrangements.  That is, however, used to amusing effect in the middle of "It's Kickin' In".  The most interesting song for me is "The World Before Later On" which describes a sort of limbo in which the imagined, anticipated future has sorta happened, but without flying cars and space faces.

I think my main problem with The Spine is the association I've made with its release.  It came out right as grad school was becoming grueling and unpleasant.  Hearing it brings back a certain nausea.  It's not the guys' fault.  At that time, I was also really getting into another wiseacre duos' output - 10cc, and TMBGs were beginning to suffer in comparison.

There were three more children's albums in the oughts: Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s, and Here Comes Science.  I have not absorbed them as thoroughly as No!, but they are as inspired as ever.  You needn't have kids to appreciate them.

In between was another so-so album, The Else (2007) which does sport a funny cover.  "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" grabbed me on first listen, but I plateaued early with the rest.  I actually found more enjoyment from the bonus disc, Cast Your Pod to the Wind, which is filled with the kind of short and sweet novelties that TMBGs do best.  The Else, I bet, deserves re-assessment.  Maybe I'll report later.

In 2011, They Might Be Giants returned with an obvious bid for the glory days with Join Us.  So many poppy hooks and good old fashioned weirdness.  For me, it was an immediate winner.  From the strangely poignant "Old Pine Box" to the oddly relaxing "Let Your Hair Hang Down", and a lot of distorted voices and whack time signatures in between, this is just flat out fun stuff.  I guarantee that "Dog Walker" will stay in your auditory cortex for some time.

Nanobots followed a year later and many were comparing its abundance of short (some very short) tracks to the "Fingertips" suite from 1992's Apollo 18.   Some are only a few seconds.  Do they tie together? Not like they do on the earlier album.  But the hit and run aspect of them creates a weird, almost hypertensive feeling if you listen to this album straight through.  The rest of the batch are catchy and as erudite in that great Linnell/Flansburgh tradition.  "Icky" should have dominated the charts with its infectious phrasing and arrangement.  "Black Ops" could've easily fit on 1989's Lincoln, so the retro longing continued.

There are more albums, including 2015's Glean and Why?, and 2016's Phone Power, all consisting of material from an update of the Dial-A-Song project.  I haven't heard a note of any of them, but plan a delve soon.

They Might Be Giants will always occupy that happy space in my brain for smart and silly music making.  The boys switch genres with ease, and their ambitions have taken them to both good and fair places.  Never awful.  I prefer their stripped down music.  As much as I appreciate the full band, especially live, I yearn for the low budget sound of two guys from Massachusetts, who would make Brooklyn their home.

And there you have it, invisible audience, "The Wiseacre Duos" series comes to a belated close.  What was intended to last a few months has stretched into what, nine years?! Albeit with some long gaps.  If you hung on, God bless you. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Room with a View

Lucy Honeychurch stands at a window and finds that she in fact does not have a room with a view.   She and her chaperone/cousin Charlotte are aghast that their guest house in Italy could not offer them such.  Mr. Emerson and his son George, who do possess the coveted view offer to switch with the ladies.  Charlotte will have none of it, finding the offer an offensive gesture.  Her Victorian sensibility would not allow this chance for indebtedness to the friendly but socially crude elder Emerson.  Lucy is intrigued, and will continue to so be with the younger.

Back home in Surrey, Lucy becomes engaged to a wealthy, polished boor called Cecil Vyse.  Face always in a book, he's the sort who immerses himself in the arts but never finds a real connection with it.  Or with people, for that matter. A man who asks permission for a kiss, but those blasted spectacles do get in the way.  But it is he who alerts the Emersons of a cottage for rent in town.  I forgot to mention that Miss Honeychurch had shared a passionate kiss with George in a barley field back in Florence.  George and the lady will reunite.  Does she love him? Is she in denial? Does Cecil really love Lucy, or just the idea of her by his side? 

1985's A ROOM WITH A VIEW is a James Ivory/Ismail Merchant/Ruth Prawer Jhabvala production.  The directing/producing/ and writing collaboration that would later bring us HOWARD'S END and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.  Their productions sparkle with class and wit, never reeking of pretension or smugness (even if some of the characters do).  The fourth individual of this team is English writer E.M. Forster, whose novels (including the later Maurice along with Howard's End) provided the others with a meticulous framework from which to work   Themes of class structure, free thinking, mores, and even passionate love flow throughout these works and the Ivory adaptations.

Through the leisurely paced but never dull A ROOM WITH A VIEW (which even allows some innocent nude frolicking in the countryside) we explore the heart and the mind, how amazingly they can coexist.  By the end, anyway.  Lucy agonizes over her feelings, while George is entirely comfortable with his. They represent a changing tide in British society as the twentieth century charges along.  The Emersons may be ignorant of social graces, but have embraced a curiosity about life, other cultures.  But lest you think Ivory and company get too carried away with bohemian lust, George is seen falling to the ground, downed by the snapped twig he clutches as he screams his love for nature.  A nice moment of gentle deflation.

The cast is wonderful.  Helena Bonham Carter gets her first real showcase as Lucy, a study of confliction and reconciliation with her true spirit.  I love how her character may be defined by her furious playing of Beethoven on the piano, giving way to more self awareness as she discovers her feelings for this alleged ruffian, or rake, if you will.  Daniel Day Lewis is funny, almost Chaplinesque in his clueless dance. Denholm Elliott is fine as the always seemingly inebriated, unwashed, but honest Mr. Emerson. Need I mention Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, effortless in their embodiment of Edwardian era England polarity?  A place where break ups are engineered with such politeness and everyone seems most concerned about having tea.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Red Army

Slava Petislov seems quite put out in his interviews with RED ARMY director Gabe Polsky.  He's not the most agreeable subject.  He stops to look at his cell phone, answers questions obliquely.   He even gives Polsky (and the viewer?) that dreaded finger gesture.  He behaves like a spoiled celebrity at times, a tired old man at others.  Some would say that the world famous ice hockey defenseman, who played for the Kontinental Hockey League (Red Army League) in Moscow during the Cold War years and later with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, has earned the right to act as such.  As a player and later as a coach, he won three Stanley Cups.

The road there was paved with punishingly difficult practices under a martinet of a coach named Viktor Tikhanov.  Neither Slava or any of his teammates have anything nice to say about him.  When the Red Army Team was handed a dramatic loss by the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, well, things only got worse.  His players were sequestered away from pretty much everyone and everything for eleven months of the year.   Like being shipped to Siberia!  Tikhanov is portrayed as a heartless machine, a real asset to the iron fist Communist regime he served.  In some old clips, he argues that his methods produced the best team in the world, backed up by multiple championships and Olympic gold medals.  His team operated as a unit; the five men worked as a single-minded collective.  They were not singled out the way someone like Bobby Orr would've been in the States.  The team reflected their homeland's socialist mantra.

When Slava attempted to leave the U.S.S.R. to play for the NHL, his coach conspired with government officials to block him.  When he finally quit the Red Army team out of great frustration, he was ostracized from all corners and even threatened with imprisonment.  His experiences, recounted by himself and his wife, sound like something out of a Soviet thriller paperback. 

But unlike some others, Slava never defected to the West.  He felt it a betrayal to his country.  His loyalty was strong.  He did his years in the U.S., eventually being reunited with the other four players (known as The Green Unit during their years in Russia) who had a very stylish method of play.  Like the Bolshoi Ballet.  This was a strategy at odds with the other players and Western fans.  But eventually their old magic came back, winning over coaches and spectators and scaring the hell out of their opponents.  One amusing piece shows Wayne Gretzky lamenting that the Russians were impossible to beat.

But Slava would return to his country, even assuming a position of Minister of Sport, to which he was appointed by Vladimir Putin. Later he would hold post in the Federal Assembly.

Slava Petislov recounts all this in what comes off as a slightly irritated demeanor, though you can see some wistfulness as he recalls the death of his brother and his long estrangement from fellow defenseman Alexai Kasatanov.  There are some brief interviews with the other team members, who also are amusingly gruff.  Tiknahov refused to participate with this 2015 film.

RED ARMY is a fascinating, compact documentary that deftly assembles game footage, interviews, and graphics to give a sort of Reader's Digest version of a particular time in history, pre- and post-Glasnost (described by Slava as meaningless term, as "openess" with the West was not truly beholden behind the Iron Curtain).   The film works both as a sports and political doc.

My favorite bit, though, is a newspaper clipping that reads "Slava signs pact with N.J. Devils!"  God bless sportswriters.  And Polsky too, who gets to fire a dig back at his interviewee when he dismisses him as a California boy.

"I'm from Chicago."


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Christine

SPOILERS

If it bleeds, it leads.

Even in 1974, this mantra was uttered by local network affiliate managers across the U.S.A. who found that sensational crime stories - the grislier the better - got the Arbitron numbers.  When did integrity in T.V. news journalism die? When someone discovered that most viewers harbored bloodlust? Had zero attention spans? When the advertisers followed suit?  Where does this environment leave a serious field reporter like Christine Chubbuck?

Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a Sarasota, FL station doing human interest stories about strawberry farmers and chicken coop wranglers.  She desires promotion, to do real investigative reporting and perhaps sit behind the anchor desk. Advance to a major market.  She's ballsy and ambitious, frequently locking horns with her boss Michael (Tracy Letts) over the content and style of her work.  He's blatant in his desire for more violent, crime laden leads.  After getting a tip from a police scanner she obtains, Christine interviews the victim of a fire, but keeps the camera fixed on his face.  Michael wonders why she didn't get some shots of the wreckage and flames.

Last year's CHRISTINE, a biography of the real life Miss Chubbuck's existence in and out of work, has much to say about the state of television news, though nothing you haven't seen already in NETWORK and BROADCAST NEWS.  But this is more than just another bitter corporate satire; this is a study of the last days of a severely troubled young woman.  A woman wracked by an unspeakable depression that lead her to take her own life.  Right on the air, during her big opportunity, finally reading the top of the broadcast lead stories on WXLT.  A gun behind her right ear.  A supremely grim bit of irony, of her ability to finally give viewers the blood and guts they crave.  You can look it up.

Paddy Chayefsky, author of NETWORK, apparently did, reportedly inspired by the story for his screenplay.  You can see a bit of Howard Beale's mania in Chubbuck.  A crazily frustrated fist shake at the media in which she slaves, a recognizance of increasingly banal standards for television news. All of this would be hypertensive enough, but Christine suffers a private hell stoked by her inability to relate to others in a healthy fashion.  She dismisses compliments, lashes out at those trying to be her friend or confidant, including her mother, with whom she shares a small apartment.

Christine's room in the apartment, filled with pictures of rainbows and juvenile artifacts, is evidence of her psyche, resembling a gangly, grossly insecure teenager who, emotionally at least, never found her way to adulthood.  She is humiliated by her virginity, then devastated when she learns she will lose an ovary, practically ensuring she will never have children.  Is her volunteer work as a puppeteer at home for handicapped children a form of therapy in this regard? An outlet for her yearning for motherhood, love?  Her unrequited crush on anchor George (Michael C. Hall) quietly erodes her confidence, but one night he invites her to dinner....

But we know how this story will end.  Is CHRISTINE merely a grim death march?  Two hours of time marking before the big moment? Sylvia Plath in the newsroom? Director Antonio Campos brings the drab surroundings of 1970s Florida to life without ostentatiousness, allowing snippets of the impending impeachment of Nixon as background to another tragedy.  Craig Shilowich's screenplay changes some details of Chubbuck's story (leaving out, curiously, an interview with a policeman about how one would commit suicide), but what's there is always integral to this character study. It's unavoidable that every event in this movie is colored by our knowing the outcome (with some effective small moments of foreshadowing), but that just makes the whole thing more powerful.

And Rebecca Hall is simply great. I kept wondering if she made Christine more interesting than she really was, or was just amazingly skilled at fleshing out a shell of a woman. That's at least how she might've appeared to others.  There in fact was a deep well within.

And dammit, Hall should have been Oscar nominated.   I haven't been as knocked out by a performance in some time.  She really disappears into the role, embodying the look, posture, and voice of a driven but stunted unfortunate who is filled with self-loathing but is perhaps confused by it and powerless to reign it in.  Prone to rage but then just as capable of falling into a ball and allowing a hug to comfort her.  My descriptions sound like pop psychology but Hall's performance does not reek of it.  She's quite incredible.  I don't often cry during movies but this one got to me, and it's all because of the performance, which allows us, before and after she's gone, to deeply ponder a short and tormented life.

To put a fine point on it, there's that quiet, unbearably sad last scene with Jean (Maria Dizzia), Christine's co-worker, a camera operator at the station.  A woman who unsuccessfully tried to reach out to her and was even perceived as a threat.  Jean has just edited a montage of news clips for Chubbuck's funeral and returned home.  She flips on the television.  She sings along to the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Maybe ironic in its use.  Christine Chubbuck didn't make it after all.