Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, One Last Time

If you're of a certain age you'll note how much faster time goes as an adult than when you were a child.  I recently had this discussion with one of the doctors I work with.  He had read an article in a neurology journal that explained the reason for this curiosity - our brains are chock full of experiences and memories, thus making everything move faster.  Kids are still acquiring experiences, making those forced naps and long waits for Christmas Day interminable.  Interesting.

2017 was indeed a flash, a year that was not the parade of significance as in previous, but still filled with every emotion.  Highlights:

-Attended my thirtieth high school reunion (You can read about it here).  I was initially reluctant for numerous reasons.  For one, the twenty-fifth was so satisfying I didn't want this new one to be some weak epilogue.  Aside from a few minor disappointments, it was a success.  How many more will I grace?

-Traveled to Oregon and Idaho for the first time.  I've always been enamored with the American West, and these were frontiers yet to be crossed.  Loved both places.  I did write about them (three entries).  You'll have to scroll back for those, slackers!

-Lost several patients this year.  I'm talking mortality.  I've been through this many, many times but it stung worse than usual in 2017.  Especially the fifty-seven year old I fit with new hearing aids who died a few days after her third appointment with me.  Fifty-seven.  I wept after hours in the office over her and for one special lady (in her late 80s) who had told me in 2016 that she had cancer.  The call from her daughter came last July.  Not hearing Lorraine's Southern drawl in the exam room makes things a little bleaker. 

-Endured a rather scary hurricane warning.  Irma was predicted to be a Category 4 monster, but thankfully only packed Cat. 1 conditions for our coast.  Unsettling time nonetheless.  The folks in Puerto Rico were not so fortunate with Maria.  Any time I complain these days I stop and remember those over there, still without power.

-Had a white Christmas (here)!  The flurries came down during our pre-Christmas trip to northern NJ, and created little kid excitement for myself and (I think) my wife.

-Completed a full year of couples' workout.  We had two trainers extraordinaire at Ultima Gym in West Palm Beach: Austin for the first quarter and Kathleen for the remaining.  Learned a heckuva lot and despite a continued battle with the abdomen, got in better shape. Still a lonnnggg way to go.

You may have noticed the absence of a December tradition this year here at Lamplight Drivel - the holiday party summary.  One did occur, at a sports bar chain that is somewhat of a go-to for decent food but hardly my first choice for a Christmas bash.  I was enjoying the snow in Waldwick while my co-workers exchanged white elephant gifts.  Sorry to have missed it, but I think I was in a better place.

Speaking of work.....pretty good year.   The growing pains of the early days of our practice's merger are largely past.  For the most part I've been able to continue my diagnostics and amplification services in the same manner as I always have.  September marked my eight year anniversary.  As with each of those, many faces changed around the office. Even the office manager.  In 2017, the front desk staff completely turned over.  I realize that such a position is usually transitory, but in my earlier years we had some longtimers who did their jobs and did them well.  I don't want to be yet another grump who cracks on Millenials, but........

How's mom? Still in rehab.  Still hard to discuss.  Pray. Yes, it works.

In the news? Trump, yes.  No rehashes or rants this time.  How about that rash of ruined careers over allegations of sexual innuendoes and misconduct, some from decades ago? Producers, actors, T.V. hosts, senators, and others watched their reputations fester as many came out of the woodwork to reveal long ago indiscretions meted out by these apparent male scumbags.  I am not defending anyone here.  Please don't accuse me of trivializing any wrongdoing.  I am not "victim shaming."   If these men are guilty of these acts, they should pay somehow.  Though some of these charges are far less heinous than others, and many more notables would be toast if their closets were shaken.  If this were the pre-Internet age, I'd offer: "Get a good press agent, yet-to-be-revealed predators!" Hope the fallen were smart with their millions.

For actors, musicians, and authors, I have this apparently keen ability to separate the art from the artist.  Old story.  I will continue to appreciate Kevin Spacey's past work.  I just don't understand how folks "can't watch him anymore."  You do realize that your beloved thesp may well have done worse things than Spacey, right? Is ignorance bliss for you?  Speaking of Spacey, you probably know that his scenes (as J. Paul Getty) in the current ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD were reshot with Christopher Plummer.  Unprecedented.  A money move, and one I understand.  Would it have been fair to the cast and crew if the film had been shelved? So how about GORE, the already filmed biopic of author Gore Vidal with Spacey in the lead that has entirely been scrapped?

By the way, Plummer ain't no saint.  Ever read his autobiography In Spite of Myself: A Memoir? The one in which he reveals much lascivious behavior, some of which I'm sure was not consensual?  No backlash for him.

LD continued to be mostly about movies in '17 and there's no indication that will change in '18.  I have quite a storehouse of reviewed films to share in the coming months.  There were some personal entries and I'd like to contribute more in the future.  I could do another series - like the previous ones about undergrad, my time in NYC, and the twenty years I toiled in pharmacy - about graduate school, but maybe more time needs to pass.  That was quite an experience.  Maybe I'll save it for my memoir.

May your 2018 be filled with joy, health, and peace.

Friday, December 29, 2017

New Year's Eve

Year to year, New Year's Eve is quite different for us.  Maybe for you as well.  Even though it's frequently called "amateur night", we may go out, grab dinner somewhere.  One recent year we went to a movie (AMERICAN HUSTLE).  Another we went downtown, grabbed a drink at (the now long gone) World of Beer and meandered until the waterfront firework show.  There was also that one when we found ourselves out with a large group, eating huge steaks at Abe & Louie's in Boca Raton well after midnight (not a wise decision, not for the restaurant but the time of consumption).  A few years we fell asleep long before the ball dropped.

In November you had an entry of Thanksgiving recollections so now you have this one.  My childhood NYEs were usually at my grandmother's house.  Lasagne was the dish and it was always fabulous.  Unlike many Italians, my grandparents were not into seafood so pasta ruled the night.  I remember watching Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve several years, with Barry Manilow singing "It's Just Another New Year's Eve."  We had those noisemakers with the handles, around which spun metal rectangles.   Those long blowers, too.  We threw confetti around the living room.  Happy memories.  My parents did not drink.  As you've read, my grandfather did, and was typically out like a light before things lit up in Times Square.

One year (when I was quite young) was spent at a neighbor's annual bash.  She was an affluent, elderly woman who loved to cook and show off her house, which was easily the most beautiful on our block.  I've spoken of her here before.  Her husband, Buddy, had suffered a stroke some time back and was reduced to utterances of "da da da.." over and over.  One of the folks on our street told us that years earlier, Buddy taught his parrot curse words, which the bird directed at the mailman, who was finally so irritated and offended he refused to deliver parcels any longer.

In more recent times, a few Eves stand out, ones during my twenties, the "wild years".  One was spent at the location seen in the above photo.  It is a square at a local shopping center, just down the street from where I am currently living.  One Eve in the early '90s, several of us sat on the benches and shared a bottle of champagne after a dinner at John Bull, at the time housed in the center background of this picture. Great place.  Food, interior, staff - all fine.  We did not intend to spent the entire night by that fountain but it turned out that way, and was a great time of laughs and reflection.  I walk past this area several times a week and always smile at the memory.

During another I joined a dear friend and her fiance to witness their marriage vows. I was the only guest.  Then we, including the officiator, all went to a very nice restaurant (can't remember which).  I had met Bonnie in the church choir a few years before and after I helped her with a move we bonded. Like brother and sister.  Unfortunately, that NYE marriage didn't end well.  Bonnie has since moved around a bit, including a return to her old stomping grounds in New Orleans. I visited her there in 1997.  She remarried about three years ago and is very happy. She's on Florida's west coast now.  We've been planning a double date with them for some time. 

In the late '90s I joined a few co-workers for NYE downtown on Clematis Street, hitting several bars.  I don't think they had fireworks at that time.  But there certainly were ones of a different sort at a nearby Denny's at 3 or 4 AM that New Year's Day.  A fight that began in the restaurant continued in the parking lot.  We did not go out to watch but heard thumps against the window - the guy losing the fight was pushed against it a few times. Happy New Year!   Post clubbing at Denny's was a ritual in those days, and there was usually at least one memorable event each time.  Even if finding 1/4 of the remains of a previous customer's hamburger smeared on the menus was the only highlight.

This year? Not sure.  Maybe we'll go to someone's house again.  Or maybe we'll just conk out.  Maybe Barry was right.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Let It Be

If one believes what he or she reads, 1970's LET IT BE has been dismissed and all but buried by surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who are said to be concerned about how the documentary portrays the Fab Four in the studio.  Those pesky creative differences of which we often hear.  This film has the reputation of being morose and maudlin.  Sessions filled with infighting that led to George Harrison's brief exit from the band.

LET IT BE is eighty minutes in length, distilled from hundreds of hours of footage of the quartet's rehearsals and recording of an album that McCartney wanted to be a "back to basics" collection.  Songs not distinguished by multiple overdubs and post production wizardry.  His mantra: write it simply, then complicate it, not vice versa.  The film was originally intended for television, but as time dragged on (and tensions mounted) director Michael Lindsay-Hogg felt he had a feature.  No argument.  With a plethora of cameras the director manages to capture both the excitement and ennui of the recording process.  By 1969, the boys were itching for outside projects.  John Lennon was also heavier into drugs and was now joined at the hip with Yoko Ono, who appears here as if some washed out waif, a grim reaper of sorts in the studio.

The film is not (entirely) the expected downer.  Lots of fun moments are captured: Ringo and Paul duet on the piano.  Paul sings "Besame Mucho" in that playful voice.  Billy Preston brings some cheer on the electric piano. We get some full length performances during the recording.  But there are also the well known scenes of Paul and George's minor dustup and Paul's long blather to John, who barely responds.  Moments where everyone looks uncomfortable.  Paul seems to get the most screen time, often coming off as bossy and boorish.  Maybe that's why LET IT BE hasn't had a legitimate home video release in over thirty years.  Will we have to wait until the remaining Beatles pass before we get that remastered Blu-ray?

The final third of the film documents the famous lunchtime rooftop concert, the one atop Apple Studios.  Tony Lenny's editing is excellent - shots of the growing crowd on street (and a few climbing to the top of the building) are cut with the boys jamming through their new tunes, and actually looking happy.  Especially Lennon.  Did he know just then that it would be their final bow? We get a few brief interviews from those down below.  Most are pleasantly surprised, one guy feels that while, ahem, such music has its proper place, it is just plain disruptive today.  

Being a consummate Beatles devotee, I was fascinated with every single moment of LET IT BE, even some of the draggy studio footage.  I can watch musicians noodle and experiment for hours.  Maybe Lennon and McCartney were done with each other by this time (though remarkably regrouped to write and record Abbey Road after Let It Be).  The 16mm blowup may make the film look like crap, but it feels like long lost home movies, and the scratchy print only added to the experience for me.  I feel like I did indeed discover old reels that someone tried to bury.  It's worth the effort.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

White Christmas?!

Yes, it's true.  This Florida boy experienced a Christmas with snowfall.  Albeit ten days early.  My wife and I spent a long weekend with family in Northern New Jersey, enjoying all the company and tantalizing arrays of food, and got to see some flakes on Day Two.  I was already excited as we were landing in Newark the first day, seeing accumulations on the ground and on roofs.  I was setting up a Blu-ray player when I noticed the air outside that Friday.  We took walks each day to enjoy the frosty air but this time we were also greeted by tiny bits of precipitation that fell into dry powdery formation.  It was snowing!

In our caps and scarves, hand in hand down the sidewalk of a great old neighborhood, we must've appeared like a scene out of a Hallmark Christmas movie.  I always dreamed of walking by houses adorned with holiday lights as I crunched through the snow.  I think I may have done that once as a child when visiting Brooklyn, but 2017 has given me a new memory, one I captured with stills and video to cherish later.

I will milk this further next month as I comprise a separate "snow" entry.  But for Christmas weekend I wanted to share this brand of excitement, one which anyone who knows me is quite vital to my disposition this time of year.  I will never reduce the meaning of Christmas to weather conditions or decorations, but this earthly feeling and senses pleasing vista really made this holiday season special, even as I will endure another warm Christmas Day in South Florida.  My heart is still in Jersey, baby.

Merry Christmas!!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

SPOILERS!!

The fanboy outrage is t h i c k for the latest installment of  the STAR WARS saga, THE LAST JEDI.   I saw the film late last Thursday evening in Manhattan with members of my family who are also SW nerds (to varying degrees), and spent the Uber ride back to New Jersey reading missives of vitriol on imdb, Letterboxd, and various forums.  "Remove this film from the canon!" "My childhood has been ruined! Thanks, Disney!" "How dare they kill off ____ so early..!" "There's no character development!" "Lazy writing!" "You turned Luke Skywalker into a grumpy old man!"  My favorite: "The attempts at humor are puerile!"

These criticisms are puerile.  And misguided.  But, I get it.  People have such strong associations with their beloved fictional worlds and characters that anything they perceive as a violation of it is met with daggers.  The Twin Peaks revival earlier this year saw such fan reaction.  Similarly, this eighth episode of STAR WARS has caused debates between those who consider themselves "real" fans and those who may be just as passionate but far less ham fisted about the whole thing.  I have been a devotee since 1977, when I was a wide eyed kid.  The memories are strong of my initial gasps to George Lucas' vision, an ode to old time serials and Kurosawa films.  I bought into the storyline fully, even reading supplemental novels, assauging the interminable wait between installments.  I consider myself a real fan.

Like many my age, I was less than impressed with the prequels.  Lucas was back in the director's chair, and still knew how to direct action, but with his actors he was far less deft.  It was as if he felt more comfortable on the second unit.  Then Lucas sold the franchise to Disney.  J.J. Adams dared to realize EPISODE VII, and did a fine job.  Sure, the movie was somewhat of a rehash, but delivered the goods for the most part, and introduced fairly compelling new characters.

Now Rian Johnson assumes the hot seat and dares to upend the legend.  To go off in new directions in plot and tone alike.  Yet, for all the choices the fanboys are whining about, there are just as many "moments for the fans", moments to make that uber geek stand up and cheer.  And my audience at the AMC on 34th Street did.  They yelled when an old time character made a surprise cameo. And when an evil character made an uncharacteristic choice.  And when Luke,  now a recluse on the oceanic planet of Ach-To, performed heroic acts by proxy (just see the movie).  To me THE LAST JEDI was a highly successful meld of the old and the new.  An episodic (the most since RETURN OF THE JEDI) rip roarer in which characters learn lessons about teamwork, letting go of the past, exercising trust (and knowing when not to) and so on.

Johnson does not disrespect or destroy the franchise ala Richard Lester with his SUPERMAN movies (particularly the third one).  The discontent there had some merit.

I won't divulge too much of the plot, or the "big" scenes.    LAST JEDI follows Resistance fighter battles with the First Order in increasingly deadly and costly attacks and counterattacks.  Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) leads charges and evacuations while X-Wing fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disagrees with her orders, often causing further complications.  Things get especially thorny when Leia is knocked out of action (in another scene that have some in a lather) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) assumes the bridge.  Rey (Daisy Ridley) visits Ach-To and repeatedly tries to draw the curmudgeonly Skywalker - still reeling from his failure with Leia and Han's son Ben, ne Kylo Ren - back to help the Resistance.

Ren (Adam Driver) finds he has a sort of telepathy with Rey, leading to some intriguing moments.  Another outcry from fanboys comes with Ren's disclosure of who Rey's parents really are.  I found it refreshing that writer/director Rian Johnson decided to go a different route, to create a new character who may not be limited by the weight of mythos.  I could say that about many of Johnson's decisions, including some really surprising, quite bizarre moments of humor, especially the landing of a spaceship that upon pullback is revealed to be, um, something else.  The lengthy scenes on Canto Bight (mainly in a lavish casino) with Finn (John Boyega) and new characters Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and DJ (Benicio del Toro, doing another weird thing with his accent) have also been criticized heavily, but are consistently amusing and lay framework for later episodes (revealed more fully during LAST JEDI's final scene).

Do I have any carps? I was a bit disappointed with Leia's arc during the movie, aside from a few scenes - including her emotionally charged reunion with Luke, all too brief.  Plus, she's absent for much of the running time.  This stings all the more knowing that Fisher passed away a year ago.  How will they handle this in EPISODE IX? Otherwise, I have nothing but praise for THE LAST JEDI.  John Williams again scores the proceedings with irresistible zest.  The large scale battles are exciting.  A martial arts inspired scene involving Rey, Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his guards is a stunner.  Its liberal use of red has been interpreted by some more rational fanboys as all the bloodshed the STAR WARS films hasn't showed us: all the downed fighters, the fallen heroes and villains.  The body count is very high this time out.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is what the series needed - a risky, adventurous entry that announces a new attitude while acknowledging a considerable backstory, one impossible to ignore or best.  Rian handles it beautifully.  Don't feed the trolls.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trading Places

For all of its qualities, 1983's TRADING PLACES might work best as a basic primer on the U.S. Stock Market for the average viewer.  No kidding.  Amidst its humor -which runs the gamut from dryly witty to downright silly - the movie is surprisingly educational, taking time to explain how commodities are traded and how the market functions. We are not bogged down in jargon, and explanations are brief enough to never become dry.  While a randy gorilla does figure prominently in the plot, the finale involves an elaborate scam to corner the frozen orange juice market..  This does not sound like the makings of a smash hit studio comedy.  But, you know, Eddie Murphy.

This was his second feature, and he's so assured and energetic that it's not hard to see why his, hmph, portfolio rose so quickly in Hollywood.  After his highly impressive debut in 48 Hrs., Murphy easily shifted gears into a more genteel sort of comedy, somewhat of a throwback to the days of sophisticated social farces but also Three Stooges routines.  The Saturday Night Live alumnus plays a street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine who accidentally bumps into a stuffy broker/manager named Louis Winthorpe III on a Philadelphia street and sets into motion a tale of switched lives.  Billy Ray assumes the pampered life and Louis is out in the streets.  Engineering this are the elderly Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Amache), owners of the brokerage house in which Winthorpe works.

To them, it's an experiment, a game.  They argue over nature versus nurture.  Will the streetwise Valentine adapt to his plush, encouraging environment and emerge as a Wall Street hotshot, or will he revert to his thieving, conniving ways of old? You could make the argument that Burberry clad stockbrokers are not much different, that they are merely hustlers in wingtips, but....And how about Winthorpe, he of Ivy League breeding and all the "right" friends?  Will he retain his integrity and morality within a filthy environment of flophouses, prostitution, and drugs?

Director John Landis does some nice work in TRADING PLACES.  I disagree with the critic who felt that he "crudely slammed the story forward".  What is most noticeable is his sense of timing.  And for once, he does not engineer over the top gagery.  There is a nice balance of the high and lowbrow.  The director also coaxes solid performances.  Aykroyd has one of his best roles here and carries it off beautifully.  His stuffed shirt persona is absolutely perfect, never spoofy or caricatured.  Landis always did well satirizing upper crust society, with moments in ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS nicely prefacing this story, which was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod.  The supporting players, including Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis, are equally good.  The former has numerous amusing reaction shots.  Certain scenes with Curtis have become legend among horny male viewers.

TRADING PLACES cemented Murphy's fame at the multiplex, and can also be enjoyed as a modern day Christmas classic of sorts.  And how many movies feature a lead actor who inspired a namesake section of the Wall Street Transperancy and Accountability Act?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tokyo Drifter

Many summaries of TOKYO DRIFTER excitedly the describe the 1966 film as an infectious stew of several cinematic genres and styles.  One even (inexplicably) invoked the name of Russ Meyer.  This being a somewhat flashy entry in '60s Japanese cinema the connections to and influences on Quentin Tarantino were widely discussed.   I suppose I can see all of this, and why the movie is highly regarded.  Criterion released it as one of their first DVDs back in '99.  What I can't do is pretend that it was not a "meh" experience for me.  A frustratingly and curiously flat motion picture.

The style is there, and refreshingly, not as garish as in other films (including QT's).  The opening scene is in black and white, bathed in a blindingly harsh bright pallate.  Almost like a dream.  A man is beaten down by several others in a railway yard.  Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) is that man, a former hitman for a defunct yakuza.  But he remains loyal to his old boss, Kurata, who has also given up on his criminal ways.  But Otsuka, a syndicate rival, whose men did their dirty work on Tetsu, wants the young man to join his gang.  Of course he refuses and will find himself wandering Japan, the drifter of the film's title.

Tetsu is pursued by an assassin and eventually sheltered by a friend of his boss's. Loyalty is tested, betrayals are carried out.  But also, reconsiderations of nefarious orders at the last minute show that honor and trust are not entirely dead.   Will this be characteristic of those trusted the most? Along with yearnings to "go straight", these are salient questions in yakuza cinema.   Will a loving woman be left behind because a wanderer can have no one by his side?

As stated, the style is always present (bold colors, ornate shot composition) in TOKYO DRIFTER but never goes over the top.  Director Seijun Suzuki maintains a subdued, at times somber tone, even during a barroom fracas that manages to pay homage to/rib the American Western (as does the entire film, really).  The fights and gun battles play more in a theatrical than cinematic style, causing some wags to feel the blocking was a bit sub-par for this sort of film.  The battle choreography seems a bit rudimentary compared to other films.  So what sort of picture is TOKYO DRIFTER?  More like a pop-art, avant-garde exercise, long on mood but perhaps not emotional enough.

Maybe that was the problem I had with it.  The film never developed the characters to my satisfaction.  Early scenes get bogged down by a subplot involving particularly complex real estate dealings/scams.  There could be some depth to the relationships among the characters and while they are not buried under any overt flash, a certain hollowness prevades.

Monday, December 11, 2017

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

John McCabe isn't good for much.  He's a businessman but seems more content with low stakes poker games and egg in his beer.  He can't even do arithmetic. He's had some degree of success but barely thinks beyond saloon walls.  There's a rumor that he killed an important man some time ago.

In the Pacific Northwest in the turn of the century, McCabe finds himself in a town called Presbyterian Church, but most folks there don't seem too devout to things spiritual.  Brothels do a brisk business.  When Mrs. Miller rides into town, she seeks to expand McCabe's low rent whore house into something classy, with clean linens and all.  Even a bath house.  This would be quite something in this muddy wasteland of a town that must reak of alcohol and dirty overalls.  Mrs. Miller is smart, sexy, and has a head for business. She brings in some girls from San Francisco.  The kitty fills with cash.  She explains that when clients are slow to arrive you gotta keep the girls busy otherwise they get bored and read the Bible. Then the church fills up instead of the house.

How does a two bitter like McCabe fit into Mrs. Miller's life?  Business partner? Lover? She charges him the top rate of five dollars, just like any other client.  She makes him take a bath like all the others.  But she will soften eventually.  She doesn't tell him of her opium habit. What will happen when representatives from a mining company offer to buy out McCabe's enterprise?


1971's MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is nominally a Western but refuses to play like one. Even with a climactic manhunt when pistols are raised.  Robert Altman directs with his usual wandering eye but this time the audience is never denied what the key players are saying or doing.  That multi talker babble/overlapping soundtrack is there as always, but even if you're not listening through headphones you should catch what you need.  You'll want to pay particular attention to McCabe's ramblings, particularly towards the end, when he describes himself as "full of poetry" during a realization that he is not the smartest or bravest of his gender.  But he is not the only flawed, tragic figure in this story.

With many of his films, Altman distances himself from the material (THE LONG GOODBYE, QUINTET, even MASH) but here he seems to be as invested in his characters as they are. There is more dramatic tension than usual.  His script, co-written by Brian McKay, is more than just a jumping off point for improvisation. The social observations are as pointed as ever.  But also, so many points made about the encroachment of progress, technology, and the timeless vice of greed.  The Old West was dying, choked by corporations that nary give a whit about the individual.  Altman could certainly relate to that.  Maybe he saw himself like McCabe, downed in a snowdrift.

The director clearly sees through D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond's dirty lens, capturing the grime and ice so vividly as to make the viewer feel somewhat immersed.   The use of three Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack only adds to the overall feeling of isolation and defeat.  The loneliness is palpable. This is my favorite Altman picture.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Aerial

Are you old enough to remember the heyday of T.V. antennas? Your only method of receiving signals from local (and some faraway) stations? You can still see them atop some houses, hospitals, businesses.  To me, they are not blights on the landscape, but rather comforting reminders of simpler times.  Those that remain stand tall in this digital and even nearly post-cable age, almost defiant in their stance, like a soldier holding a post, despite frequent punishing weather.  VHF and UHF forever!

Yes, I realize that antennas are still used, they just don't receive analog signals.  One needs a digital converter box if the television is analog.

Until the early 1980s, we had one.  The last one was shaped like an arrow.  While the stations from Broward county were still a bit snowy, I fondly remember Channel 45, with its reruns of Leave It To Beaver and Channel 51 showing old Bat Masterson episodes.  The Holy Grail was the VHF Channel 6, which seemed to be very intriguing programming (I was a TV Guide maven in those days).  It was an independent out of Miami, and even people in Ft. Lauderdale had trouble picking it up.  Once for a few glorious days I was actually able to get it on the little black and white in my bedroom, with its bent two pronged square protrusion in the back.  It was astonishing.  The wind must have been blowing just right.  Radio host Big Wilson did some spots. A between programs bit called "Snippets", aimed at children, had educational value.   Things like this thrilled my young heart.

How crushing! Hurricane David sent out beloved aerial into our backyard in 1979.  We also lost power for several days.  I stayed with my grandparents, who lived a bit east of us.  They had no such setbacks.  I helped my dad reinstall the mighty antenna, and it remained there for another two years or so.  Actually, a bit longer.

My friend down the street got cable circa 1981. The Showtime pay TV channel.  Of course I was down there as much as possible.  After a round of Marco Polo in his pool we'd watch uncut movies like AIRPLANE! and MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  It was magical.  No commercials! People were swearing! When we happened to catch the sketch comedy show Bizarre, we got to see female breasts.   We were twelve.  A very big deal.

Somehow, I convinced my parents to subscribe to Showtime.  I can still remember hearing my mother gasp in the other room when she first watched Bizarre.  She was not as liberal as my friend's mother, who actually let her son and I watch such "smut".  I was raised in an environment where you were more or less taught that you would go blind if you saw female nudity in a movie or show.  Violence was OK.  I've never understood that, or heard a satisfactory explanation in its defense. Why? Because there isn't one.  Talk to someone who grew up in say, Europe in earlier years.  Nudity was very common on T.V., even in commercials.  I imagine most of those impressionable viewers turned out to be well adjusted adults, free of the hang-ups that plague so many Americans.


So now the mighty antenna was just a prop, an ersatz weather mane.  No longer needed.  Cable cleared the snow.  I was not nostalgic for "regular TV" though I still watched plenty of network shows well into the 80s. My father finally pulled old faithful down.  I don't recall being even slightly sad about it.

When analog signals ceased to be transmitted in 2009 (excluding some low power stations), many aerials remained but their time had certainly passed.  I always think of childhood when I see them.  Innocent family time around the T.V. before cable invaded and desensitized us.  It's a nice memory, a warm feeling.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Verdict

1982's THE VERDICT is a filmed masterpiece.  A choice example of how to polish the old underdog victory tale and create what I consider to be a work of art.  David Mamet, known for a very distinctive style of dialogue, did write the screenplay, and is good as it is, to me it is the weakest element of this movie.  Great films don't necessarily come from great screenplays.  I say this regarding THE VERDICT for several reasons: there are holes in the plot; there are questionable actions committed by lawyers and judges that would likely get them dismissed (if not disbarred); there are some contrived elements.   Viewers who appreciate and recognize how to discern cinematic art will not be distracted by such deficiencies.
 
Orchestrating THE VERDICT is the great Sidney Lumet, director of too many landmark films to mention.  THE VERDICT joins them.  Rarely has a film been as effective in stillness and silence as it is in its more audible moments.  Many of the later scenes occur in a courtroom, with a few intense exchanges and a witness stand breakdown.  Just about every movie and T.V. show with this setting have verbal fireworks in chambers and in court.  To convey the urgency of a broken soul vying not just for a professional comeback but also some sort of redemption requires less, for more.

Newman plays Frank Galvin, a once prominent Boston lawyer whose whistle blowing against corruption in his firm some years back earned him jail time and a broken marriage.  He now spends his days drowning in booze and playing pinball.  Reduced to scouring the obituaries and trolling funerals for potential clients.  When his old mentor Mickey (a feisty Jack Warden) sends a medical malpractice case his way, Galvin sees a potential glimmer in the darkness.  Mickey, too, knowing that the Archidiocese would rather settle out of court than have the Catholic hospital suffer bad publicity.  But then Frank visits the victim - a young woman who became comatose after improper administration of an anesthetic - in her facility.  He sees more than a surefire payday; he feels a moral obligation.

Frank's decision to go to trial is a surprise to everyone, including the obstinate judge (Milo O'Shea).  The victim's sister and brother-in-law are angered and bewildered.  Does Galvin really believe he can win?

Lumet uses interiors and exteriors very effectively.  The drab color palate suits the mood . Deep browns of courtrooms and offices.   Dark spaces, barely lamplit.  The bite of winter informs outdoor scenes, whether seen in close-up (Frank's realization that his star witness has bailed on him) or from a bird's eye view (Mickey informs Frank of a stinging betrayal). I especially like the second example, filmed with only the sounds of the city.  Perhaps Lumet felt it more effective that way.  I agree; the pain Frank feels at that moment is best observed from such a vantage point, with the loneliness of the city about him.  Andrzej Bartkowiak's cinematography is perfect at every moment.

Newman is simply great, using expressions and relatively spare dialogue to convey his personal hell.  The bathroom scene, the one in which he is crippled in anxiety, will ring painfully familiar not only to recovering addicts but anyone ever paralyzed by the fear of failure.   James Mason is appropriately menacing, yet always so dapper and polished, as the opposing counsel.  Charlotte Rampling is elegantly downtrodden, beautiful yet unspeakably sad, as Laura, a woman with whom Frank becomes involved.   The attraction is understandable for several reasons; they do have much in common.  

I also really like the final scene, where one pays for their sins and the other, though perhaps troubled in the moment, enjoys a moment of respite. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Logan

SPOILERS

It's encouraging to see a superhero film like this year's LOGAN, and it does most everything right.  While some of the darker tinged comic books collapse under their own seriousness, this installment in the X-MEN series closes a chapter on one of its most celebrated mutants without feeling like a two plus hour dirge.  In other words, it's still an exciting super hero movie, with powerful action scenes and demonstrations of super powers and big special effects.  But it's appealingly grounded, in every sense of the word.  I guess the right description would be, human.

Nonetheless, some viewers may not want to see an aging/aged Wolverine, ne Logan (Hugh Jackman) addicted to booze and analgesics while pushing his old mentor Professor X ne Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who's suffering degeneration of his brain, in a wheelchair.  It's 2029.  The last mutant was born a quarter century before.  Logan makes a living as a limo driver in Southern Texas.  Across the border, he lives in an old smelting plant with Charles and albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant).  Logan's efforts to lay low are destroyed when he is approached by both a mysterious Mexican woman and a guy named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who is looking for her.  There is also a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who may be the woman's daughter, and may not be what she appears.

Much of LOGAN is on the road, as after a series of violent showdowns Logan and Charles escort Laura to North Dakota, where there is a rumored safe haven for "special" children.  The journey is expectedly perilous, and the trio brings death and destruction to many they encounter.   I'm leaving out lots of details, but I think you can fill in the blanks.  Even though LOGAN is not a film that lives or dies by surprises and certainly not by its oft told story, I won't ruin it for you.

The film does feature the bloodiest violence I have seen in an official comic book movie.  Those retractable claws do some serious impaling this time out.  This is perhaps the balls-out film Marvel fans have been waiting for.  While certainly not the caustic equivalent of last year's DEADPOOL, LOGAN does release the shackles of any previous restraint with its relentless mayhem and truckloads of profanity.  This is an unapologetically R-rated feature.  I did not find a moment of it gratuitous.

Director/co-writer James Mangold in fact has created a drama (quite similar to a Western) about the end of a life that just happens to involve a man who is one hundred and ninety seven years old.  But middle agers like me will recognize that he looks to rather be merely pushing fifty. That's relatable.  So is the fact that he doesn't heal like he used to (never mind that that includes gunshots).  And so is the fact that Charles Xavier's failing telepathy results in violent seizure like events (never mind that they cause seismic rumbles that render anyone within a few city blocks paralyzed).  To call the film great drama is a stretch, but like other exemplary films of this type it effectively transcends its comic book origins to become something more.  More serious, more involving emotionally.  Not another mere video game.

I like how throughout the movie, Logan rifles through X-Men comic books and shakes his head, damning what he considers an exaggerated account of his and his old colleagues' exploits.  Nice touch.

LOGAN is quite moving as its former super heroes are facing mortality, with perhaps a new generation to take up the reins. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Metropolis

It wasn't until 2010 that modern audiences were able to see writer/director Fritz Lang's (almost) complete original cut of his classic 1927 film METROPOLIS.  You may have read that long missing footage was discovered in a museum in Argentina in '08.  Over the years, various editions were released, including one presented by composer Giorgio Moroder, with '80s rock songs (curious about that one).  Earlier this year I finally took the time to watch the 2 and 1/2 hr. edit that is described as "95% complete".

The missing footage is in rough shape, but is mostly necessary to continue and/or bridge scenes.  It is a bit jarring to watch beautifully restored shots that cut to frames riddled with vertical lines, but I am grateful for the painstaking effort.  Some scenes are still lost, remedied by text that explains the action.  It all plays together quite seamlessly.  METROPOLIS' timeless story of class struggle will resonate with those who seek out/stay with the film, and not simply because we are now closer to the film's time period: 2026.

Certainly in the 1920s (in Germany and elsewhere) there were rich industrialists who literally looked down on their wage slaves.  Manual workers toiling for hours in deplorable, unsafe conditions.  METROPOLIS features a namesake city that seems to not house a middle class.  One is either high society or an underground plebian. Forever attending black tie galas or pushing impossibly heavy objects connected to machines, one of which seems to power/run the entire dystopia above.

Straddling this divide is the youthful Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city's "master".  We first see Freder in a lesiurely place, a garden filled with greenery and women, but it's clear he is far from content, especially after a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) invades the idyll with a group of poor, soiled children who were born to the workers. This intrusion brings reality to Freder's eyes, and soon he is investigating the world below, even disguising himself as one of the laborers.  To find Maria, but also in deference to his father, discovered to be an ambivalent despot.  Is Freder destined to be a mediator between the classes?

Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an eccentric inventor who has a rather unpleasant history with Fredersen, is also introduced.  He has built a robot that is intended to be a recreation of a lost love.  Fredersen  instead orders him to kidnap Maria and transfer her visage to the robot, leading to various complications and eventually chaos, including a climactic flood that threatens Metropolis.

Much has been written of METROPOLIS' eye popping special effects and it's all valid.   The very old school use of miniatures and mirrors still looks impressive.  Astonishing, really.   Lang was quite exacting and merciless with his actors and crew, keeping his actors in freezing water and housing them for hours at a time in uncomfortable costumes.  The film took a year to shoot.

Thea von Harbou's adaptation of her novel jettisons many science fiction and occult elements to focus on the sociopolitical.  Some critics ultimately found it simplistic, though many of the most effective statements are made simply and clearly.  And damn does this movie look sensational.  The reconstructionists should be proud of their toils.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Every '70s Movie

Want to truly indulge your jones for '70s movies? Check out "Every 70s Movie", an excellent blog of reviews by author and filmmaker Peter Hanson, who has spent the past seven years seeking out every film released in the U.S. in the 1970s.  He also occasionally devotes a week or two to films from 1980, which he argues merit inclusion as they were made in the '70s.  Hanson does exclude '70s films that did not play on American movie (or T.V.) screens during the Me Decade, like 1979's STALKER (which you will see on this blog sometime in 2018).

You will learn quite a bit about both mainstream and obscure cinema from this (arguably) best of eras for the medium. "The Best, The Worst, The Weirdest, and Every Far-Out Thing in Between."  What a formidable task for Hanson.  He requests donations as seeking out some of the lesser known titles can be expensive.  I imagine he had to watch some on VHS.

Hanson reports that his mission of providing daily posts for this task will likely conclude this coming March.  A few hundred titles of which he is aware will go unseen and un-reviewed as availability is nil.  Hopefully readers can fill in the blanks by sharing a videocassette dub made off of television back in the day or even a 35 mm print?

Every70s Movie

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


I've spoken of Christmases past a few times on this blog, but how about some memories of Thanksgiving? Someone recently told me it is their favorite holiday as it involves families and friends coming together without all the concerns of gift giving. No argument.  Some of my more recent ones have been the best ever, with time spent up North with family.  Amazing trimmings, lots of laughs, and even a football tossed around.  In the early '00s I went to Monterey, CA a few times to visit my girlfriend (now wife) as she would help prepare a neighborhood feast with her grad school roommates.

Childhood Thanksgivings are murkier.  I have snatches of recollections of all the food.  I grew up as an only child, and we usually spent the Day with my grandparents, who lived nearby.  Some years we went to their place, other years they came to ours.  My mother and grandmother did most of the talking.  I'm sure I chatted about school.  My grandfather usually got more vocal by his third of fourth can of Busch.  Sometimes he would become unpleasant, necessitating my and my parents' exit, but I think he usually just retreated to his bedroom to nap it off.  He would get up after a few hours to join my father and I as we watched a game or movie.

But it's all like a barely remembered dream. Odd, as many other moments and events of those years are crystal clear.  I have no tragic Thanksgiving memories, or of turkeys that were burnt or hijacked by our dogs.  All the food was great, excepting that Ocean Spray cranberry goop that retained the can's shape as it was unceremonious dumped in one of my mother's ancient bowls.  These days my wife makes a sublime cranberry dish flavored nicely with navel orange gratings and ginger.  I always liked "Turkey Day", even if I was secretly envious of my friends who had larger gatherings, or got to fly off to a cold weather place for the festivities.

Even hazier are my young adult memories of Thanksgiving.  Did I join some of the other singles from church at someone's house or apartment?  I'm sure I did, but darned if I can place it.  I'll bet I turned down a few invites.   I assume many were spent alone, with maybe a visit to see my mother, who worked a variety of live-in nanny jobs in those years.

And the Publix commercials with Mannheim Steamroller music playing over images of folks traveling home for the holidays?  I do remember being affected deeply by them. In earlier years, my reality did not match them.

I am so thankful and blessed to be surrounded by family and friends near and afar these days.  I value solitude but wouldn't trade what I have now for all the free, aimless, empty T-Days of yore in the world.  I like to think that this blog may provide some diversion for the lonely.  Besides having an outlet for writing for myself,  this is why I keep doing it.  I hope you have a warm day of thanks, and know that even if you are by yourself someone is thinking of you.  Even if you don't believe that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Godfather, Part II

THE GODFATHER PART II introduced many filmgoers to underworld words of wisdom that found their way to the lips of  those in legitimate businesses in real life.  As far as I know, at least.  Did CEOs spout "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" prior to 1974? Probably, in one form or another.  That oft used "It isn't personal, it's just business" is one of the most fascinating misnomers.  It's all personal, paisan, you're dealing with people! I always want to scream that aloud.  When Jewish gangster/kingpin Hyman Roth, in well modulated seething, looks Michael Coreleone in the eye and explains that he understands why his friend Moe Green was assassinated on a massage parlor table on orders of an anonymous hit ("business"), we also see through Lee Strasberg's expert performance that the man not only knows damned well that Michael ordered the hit, but that the phrase itself is utter bullshit.  Everyone knows it, even as everyone says it.

Writer/director Francis Coppola continues the GODFATHER saga with a lengthy,  melancholy examination of two generations of the Corleone "family".  Michael (Al Pacino) ascended the ranks to become don by the close of Part I.  A meek, unassuming college boy and war hero transformed into a ruthless, cold blooded murderer.  An expert in using fear and paranoia even among his inner circle to preserve the family name and its business interests. In PART II, Michael brokers deals with crooked senators and the multiplicitous Roth, a man perhaps cut from the same mold.  Periodically, the film travels back to the early twentieth century as young Vito Corleone flees his mother country after the slaughter of his family, arriving in America with a boatload of other immigrants. Vito grows into a decent young man who fosters honor and respect with his peers and family.  But he also builds the eventual empire on a foundation of theft and murder.  Perhaps like many other celebrated entrepreneurs? 

The Corleone family has always been a metaphor for the American Dream. The hard work ethic. The overcoming of adversity.  The burgeoning family of would-be successors, the money, the means by which to achieve success. Also, the underbelly.  The offspring who don't measure up, or are cut down before their prime.  Hopefully many of us don't order garrotings in our drive for upward mobility, but how often do we extort, swindle, deceive, compromise our own morals in that pursuit?  Have you ever made a living in sales? There you are.

Perhaps Mario Puzo was just trying to tell a compelling story, not so concerned with specific real life parallels.  But they're unavoidable.  Especially when the GODFATHER movies use real life backdrops.  Here, the last days of Batista in Havana, Cuba are integral to the plot. Who does Michael represent in this scenario? And what about Roth, in pained excitement telling his business partner that they're about to be bigger than U.S. Steel?

THE GODFATHER PART II is extraordinary filmmaking.  I am not among those who feel it is better that the original, but in many ways this sequel outdoes its predecessor. Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis again frame the story in both emotional and tangible hues.  The transitions between the young Vito and more contemporary scenes are appropriate and effective. Coppola stated that he loved evoking the early days, happy to write many scenes of the new Americans building their city, and lives.  He could've easily taken three and one half hours with just that.  Robert DeNiro (talking Italian) delivers a perfect performance as the up and coming don, a stand up guy shown to kill only when it protects others from oppression.  But also in the name of vengeance.

Michael is all about vengeance, even against his own brother.  The heartbreaking central story of this movie is the kid brother discovering that Fredo (John Casale) has betrayed him.  This family drama is some of the most arresting cinema I've ever seen.  Do not discount the storyline of Michael's wife Kay's (Diane Keaton) miscarriage, which leads to a powerhouse confrontation between husband and wife.  Pacino handles these scenes so beautifully.  Watch his eyes.  They're slicked over and red when he learns the truth about Kay's tragedy, or anytime he speaks of his older brother.  The actor spends most of the movie betraying nothing with his icy veneer; it's a performance of nuance, and must have been monstrously difficult and draining.

And those final moments, when a man's fate is sealed.  His character, his destiny.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

War of the Roses

You really have to hand it to writer/director Danny DeVito for seeing 1989's WAR OF THE ROSES to its bitter end.  How such a downbeat climax made it past studio executives and test audiences is some kind of showbiz miracle.  It's really the most logical and appropriate (to say nothing of ballsy) ending to such a pitch black comedy/drama.  Framed in flashback between attorney DeVito and an unnamed client who is considering a divorce.  A cautionary tale.

Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner) are an affluent, seemingly happy couple living in a grand old mansion filled with everything a materialist could desire.  Oliver is a successful attorney, while Barbara contents herself with homemaking and raising a boy and a girl.  But despite the fancy trappings and an athletic sex life, the years are not kind to the Roses and soon a raging contempt builds between them.  Mainly from Barbara, who suffers Oliver's condescension and narcissism beyond tolerance.  She finds a new lease on life when her husband thinks he about to lose his after what is believed to be a heart attack but is really just a hernia.

That's when the knives are unsheathed.  The mean business of THE WAR OF THE ROSES begins as the feuding spouses begin to section off the house; "I've got more square footage!" Oliver boasts to his attorney.  Battle lines drawn, literally.  But then things get downright vicious.  Artifacts are smashed.  A few family pets may get in the way.  As Barbara attempts to spread her wings and open a catering business, Oliver is there to sabotage a dinner party in a rather obscene and disgusting manner.   Caught in the middle is Gavin D'Amato, played with the right amount of resigned sadness by DeVito, who begs his client to work with his wife and just start his life over.

Instead, Oliver fires Gavin and represents himself.  Things escalate further, and then....that ending happens.  Never has the flick of a hand underlined a point with such devastation.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES ain't no date movie.  It will bring great satisfaction to bitter divorcees and those who've been wronged in relationships.  I enjoyed a viewing or two under the latter circumstance in my 20s.  But there's more than just morbid and grim satisfaction with Devito's (often very creatively directed) film.  Michael J. Leeson's script takes many of the standard scenes - including an early meet cute - to build a tower of portent that should serve to educate as well as vindicate anyone who's ever felt wronged.  The movie is billed as a comedy but be aware it is of the darkest variety.  And there's real pathos and sadness here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The American Friend

1977's THE AMERICAN FRIEND may take its title from more than just the fact that the film's protagonist, a German art framer, meets and becomes somewhat of an ally with an American, who deals in art forgery.  Iconoclastic director extraordinaire Wim Wenders quite intriguingly uses much imagery of American products to underline his points of how this Western culture has positively saturated Europe.  With its movies and music, yes, but also its soft drinks and toys.

Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley character (played this time by Dennis Hopper) is the American friend.  He's crafty, wealthy, streetwise.  He's also a bit thin skinned, allowing a minor slight to essentially ruin a man's life.  The man is Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), our German who, in his first meeting with Ripley, dismisses the criminal by refusing to shake his hand and uttering "I know who you are". Ripley gets even by suggesting Zimmerman to his boss, a French criminal called Raoul (Gerard Blain), as a potential hit man to knock off a rival.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND follows Jonathan, who is dying of blood disease, as he reluctantly accepts Raoul's offer.  He needs the money to assure he can provide for his wife and child after his demise.  There will be deception and death along the way, of course, but Ripley and Jonathan will form some sort of bond, even trust, that may not be tainted by the more neo-noirish elements of the story.

Wenders, as usual, is not all that interested in the mechanics of the story.  He understands that story is the framework, and what drives the movie, but isn't what makes great cinema.  The director is an artist, fascinated with color schemes and composition. His use of locations throughout Hamburg and Paris are as vital as any script business. The how of THE AMERICAN FRIEND is also what distinguishes it from being a routine thriller.  The hit in the Paris Metro is not blocked and edited for heart stopping excitement, but rather plays long enough to make us feel how both awful and absurd it is.

Characterization is rich in Wenders' films.  Hopper does his eccentric tics but never flails over the top.  Ripley is a complex fellow but perhaps decent enough.  He operates on the criminal's code of honor, loyal to like-minded individuals.  Jonathan becomes a co-conspirator out of necessity and survival but also out of a similar brotherhood; Ganz is just fine in his role. And Wenders is the right person to showcase them with his patient, painterly direction, a natural extension of his screenplay.  He says much with his use of art forgery as a plot element - is this his statement on film itself?  And in several frames are bold Canada Dry neons and for Johnathan's son, a Snoopy bubble machine.  Did Wenders feel his country's identity was becoming more and more defined by American products and pop culture? A confusion as to where one begins and the other ends?

Speaking of endings, I was a bit disappointed by the final moments of THE AMERICAN FRIEND, a bit too pretentious in my opinion, but maybe thematically consistent.  Note must also be made for the effective use of songs by the Kinks and the Beatles.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wildflowers

Tom Petty passed away early last month, leaving a void in the music world and a hollow feeling in my heart.  Celebrity passings never used to affect me as much as they have recently.  It truly does now feel as if a family member or dear friend has shaken off the mortal coil.  I got to know at least some essence of the man through his music and interviews.  He seemed genuine, unafraid to show his emotions without being dramatic. A Gainesville, FL boy made good, who went all the way to L.A. and sang about her, too.

I grew up listening to Petty.  My first real memory was of "The Waiting" on a South Florida rock station.  By then Tom had recorded a few albums and had a lot of success.  He even had a battle with his record label over their decision to raise the list price by a buck.  He threatened to name the new record "9.98".

I enjoyed his videos, from the spare performances of Hard Promises selections to the futuristic wasteland in "You Got Lucky" to the Alice in Wonderland dark comedy of "Don't Come Around Here No More."   Petty's songs were well used in films, particularly "American Girl", featured prominently in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  He wrote and performed the soundtrack to the 1996 romantic comedy SHE'S THE ONE.

By 1994, Petty had covered a lot of ground both with his band The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.  There was quite a back catalogue of hits and just straight ahead great tunes.  But "Wildflowers" was really something special.  For me, his finest work. It's called a solo album, though most of The Heartbreakers play on it.  The heartland rock style was perfected in this collection of mostly melancholy, reflective songs that address fame "("It's Good to be King", "You Don't Know How It Feels"), broken families ("To Find a Friend"), and also with the self explanatory "Time to Move On".  Tom wasn't much for lyrical puzzles.  He created narratives that always felt as honest as a hard bitten guy busking on a street corner, albeit with some sweet production values.

Petty does rock out on the infectious, great-for-driving number "You Wreck Me" (a good companion piece for the earlier "Runnin' Down a Dream") and the blistering "Honey Bee", which includes the old classic "buzz awhile" lyric.  The title track and "A Higher Place" are perfect summer songs that make you feel good.  Honestly, there isn't one weak track on "Wildflowers", including the B-side "Girl on LSD", which was omitted from the album.

In some ways, "Wildflowers" feels like a summary, a valediction of a stellar career.  There was much more music to follow, including the wonderfully retro (1960s style) 2010 album Mojo, but "Wildflowers" assures a spot in music history that will always demonstrate Petty's most heartfelt output.  A true classic.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Red Turtle

Advertisements for 2016's animated feature THE RED TURTLE immediately intrigued me, but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected by this film.  Thankfully, I did not read too much about it beforehand, knowing only that its story was of a man, stranded on a deserted island, who encounters the title creature.  The stills' illustrations were impressive, indicative of a more traditional, perhaps even primitive style.  I was not interested in another three dimensional computer exercise ala FINDING DORY.  I was also aware that the film had no dialogue, further piquing my interest.  What was it Depeche Mode said about words...?

The first section of the film shows the man cast onto a shore by tidal waves.  We assume he was separated from his ship.  After surveying his lush surroundings and dire predicament, he soon learns to gather food and build a raft out of the island's plentiful bamboo.  His efforts to sail away are thwarted by the upward nudges of something under the water, destroying his vessel.  He rebuilds.  After the third attempt he finally meets the culprit: a huge, beautiful red turtle.  It seems fascinated by the man, meaning no harm and clearly not wanting  him to leave.  Defeated, the man retreats and cries out in despair.  He later sees the turtle ambling on the beach.  In vengeful fury, the man pushes the red turtle on its back, leaving it to die.

The man eventually feels badly, but will find the turtle has transformed......

Into what is something you will have to discover for yourself.  It will be difficult to explain why I truly love THE RED TURTLE without giving away these developments, but part of why this film was so magical for me was its great discovery.  Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film will follow the man and turtle relationship over quite some time.  The film is a rare contemporary entertainment that encourages a respect for and a co-existence with nature without resorting to overt cuteness.  There are no smart talking, personified animals with celebrity voices.  There are some hermit crabs that provide lighter moments.

Beware, possible spoiler......

The film, a French/Japanese co-production, also details a beautiful family story, the simplicity of its narrative allowing viewers to engage writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit's wellspring of themes all the more.  Complicated plots often mask shallow subtext.  THE RED TURTLE will reveal much as it is remembered hours and days later.   I suppose theological implications exist here.  I found the film worked primarily on an emotional level.  The final scene left me a weeping wreck. The implications get deeper and deeper as you replay those final moments.  I can't imagine anyone who has ever loved someone/something and spent their life with them will emerge from this film without misty eyes.  I've written elsewhere on this blog that I rarely cry during movies; maybe I'm getting more sensitive (or less steely) in my middle age. Especially when stories involve animals, which of course can be highly effective when trying to convey the realities of the "circle of life."

That's what THE RED TURTLE is about.  Life and death.  Nothing novel.  The choice to have a wordless narrative makes it as immediate and powerful as ever.  Words might've done it violence.  This has become one of my all time favorite films.  A film to seek and re-visit and share with others.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Weird Science

As entertaining as 1985's WEIRD SCIENCE may be, it was still a miss for the bard of teenage angst, John Hughes.  The writer/director dominated the genre in the mid-80s with his insightful, sometimes broad and silly high school sagas that, distilled to their essences, were just age old plots about the desperate need to fit in, to seek approval from peers.  Hughes gave his characters uncommonly intelligent dialogue and keen self-awareness. 

In that regard, WEIRD SCIENCE is no different.  Gary (Hughes reg. Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan-Mitchell Smith) are two nerdy guys who are tired of their dismal social standing and humiliation by the cool people.  While Wyatt's folks are away, the boys hatch the farfetched plan of creating the perfect woman on a computer.  With FRANKENSTEIN to inspire them, they hook electrodes to shapely dolls and feed images of pinups and Albert Einstein and hack a government server to create Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), a stunningly beautiful, brilliant, and adventurous young woman with all sorts of powers at her disposal.  While Lisa is at the service of our heroes, willing to do whatever they desire, she's also a fiercely independent spitfire who sets about to right their lives, give them the confidence they desperately need.  But they have to at least feel comfortable showering with her first.

It sounds like some softcore cheapie designed for Cinemax, right? The scenario could easily travel that route, but this PG-13 movie is no exploitation tease.  The seamier elements are mostly kept in check, though there are plenty of sexual innuendoes and anatomy jokes. The film is fairly vulgar, but not in a SPRING BREAK or HARDBODIES sort of way.  Hughes riffs on all the familiar high school cliches: parties, drinking, popularity with his usual sharp eye, but this time with a bevy of special effects that get fairly elaborate.  A piano flies out of a house.  A motorcycle gang of mutants crashes said house.  Wyatt's loathsome older brother, Chet (Bill Paxton, achingly funny) is transformed into a giant frog-like creature.  It all makes sense in context.  It just gets a bit out of hand.

Some scenes just don't work.  Like when Lisa pulls a gun on Gary's dad when he refuses to let him go out. The rhythm, the acting, and the dialogue just don't flow, or make the point in any really humorous fashion.  The scene just sorta lies there.  Of course, it's revealed later that it was just a water gun.  When Lisa brings the boys to a blues club, it's a similarly D.O.A. moment.  Was Hughes going for something akin to that scene in ANIMAL HOUSE when the Deltas visit the all-black joint?

Nonetheless, WEIRD SCIENCE is a fun, highly quotable little flick, now considered a cult item. The performances are just right for this material and there's another decent soundtrack.  Quite the "experiment" for Hughes - melding sci-fi and his brand of high school soap opera - that doesn't quite make it but is still essential viewing for devotees.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

SPOILERS

I was the first to arrive on a Monday evening at the 7:00 P.M. showing of this season's BLADE RUNNER 2049.  It was in an IMAX auditorium at a local multiplex that's been around for seventeen years.  I went to see the movie alone as my wife was not exactly a fan of the original 1982 film.  I looked around the theater and thought of the many times I had attended movies by myself since my teen years.  To me, the activity lends itself to going solo.  Especially movies like BLADE RUNNER, which in fact my father had taken my thirteen year old self to witness.  As it turns out, this new film also seems to be one best viewed by one's self, to process without commentary from another.

I felt lonely during the new film's two and one half plus hours.  This was a favorable reaction.  Just like before, for that old film I'd seen dozens of times.  The sense of dread for a not so far off future positively saturated Ridley Scott's art/sci-fi that was based on Philip K. Dick writings and involved humans and artificial intelligence.  It was always night.  Usually raining.  Neon signs for familiar corporations, which likely owned everything by that point, threw off a luminscence that was blinding.  The Tyrell Corp. created products known as "replicants" that looked like humans but were entirely engineered by man for slave labor.  A Los Angeles cop named Deckard was an expert at identifying and "retiring" rogue replicants, ones who dared to try to escape their plights and choose their own paths.  Not in the blueprint. 

That was 2019.  In the years that followed, L.A. suffered a long blackout that erased all the hardrives.  As one character quips, only the paper survived.  As time progressed, the Tyrell Corp. went bankrupt, but another company emerged and replicants were now being bio-engineered at a faster rate to keep society on Earth functioning.  Someone had to fill all the jobs those lucky enough to have secaped for the "off world" (mentioned numerous times in the first movie) left vacant.  Positions within the LAPD, for example.

The protagonist of this new film is a lonely cop/blade runner (and new style replicant) identified as "K", the name derived from his serial number.  His mission - dispatch the old remaining "skin jobs", the Nexus 6 replicants who were not necessarily programmed to blindly obey orders.   K is good at his job, much as Deckard, now long missing, was before.  K returns nightly to a dreary apartment in a dreary building in the shadows of those neons.  His companion is a holographic image of a female called Joi, manufactured by the new replicant corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Lehto).  As BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens, K (Ryan Gosling) hunts down and dispatches an older model replicant who lives long enough to inform his murderer that he feels sorry for him, that he "has never seen a miracle."


But soon, K will see one, perhaps more. Maybe he himself is one.  Hampton Fancher returns to create this new story, with additional work by Michael Green, and updates us on the fate of Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard (Harrison Ford) fell in love in 2019.  Her bones are found in a box buried on the farm of K's dispatch.  Forensics reveal she died during childbirth.  Replicants were not supposed to get pregnant. Where is the child? Was there more than one? Is Deckard still alive?

These questions are answered, but many more are asked.  This frustrates many audience members.  As I write this review, there are several articles describing what a big box office failure BLADE RUNNER 2049 is.  Surprising? Not at all. The first film tanked as well.  Too cerebral.  Did the studios expect anything different this time?

Does anyone under the age of 40-45 care about BLADE RUNNER? I'd like to think so, but there aren't enough of them. Some of the reviews I've read, from otherwise very insightful and intelligent critics, call 2049 "dull", "plodding", "confusing". Really inconceivable, to me.  Again, it's history repeating itself. Folks don't want to think, to work for answers.  To see connections.  To consider what is beyond the visuals, which again are simply astounding.  They may well outdo the original film.  Roger Deakins' photography ranks with some of the most awe inspiring and beautiful I've ever seen, especially in IMAX.

The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is appropriately dissonant and frightening and includes cues from Vangelis' original work.  The overall sound editing adds to this effect.  Given the striking visuals and aurals, along with its feast for the mind, it is no exaggeration to say that BLADE RUNNER 2049 was one of the greatest filmgoing experiences of my life.  I was entirely engrossed and could've easily watched another hour.  I did not find the film confusing at all.  If anything, it's less ambiguous than the original.  It's a challenging narrative, with deep ideas about humanity, politics, theology, technology, sexism, sexuality, and identity.  Love, too.  The scene in which Joi and a prostitute named Mariette "merge" for K won't flee my memory anytime soon (likewise the "birth" scene with Wallace and his hatchet woman, Luv). But despite the darkness and chilliness of the film, there is also warmth.

I will revisit BLADE RUNNER 2049 again and again and again, as I've done with the thirty five year old original.  I know I will post additional blogs, probing themes and offering interpretations.  I could already spend a day discussing implanted memories and their creation, again a large element of this world. We even meet a character whose job it is to create them for replicants.  How those memories define a man, or a replicant made to look like one will haunt you long afterward.  Many of the struggles Deckard faced in BLADE RUNNER are mirrored here, although from a different perspective.  Many ideas are turned inside out.

Director Denis Villeneuve, you have done a "man's job", and should be proud.  You've orchestrated a film just as - and possibly moreso - thrilling, exciting, and contemplative as that of Ridley Scott, who I am now not so sorry did not resume the chair.   How daunting a task it must've been.  This film will likewise eventually find its audience.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween III: The Season of the Witch

I can appreciate what they tried to do with 1982's HALLOWEEN III: THE SEASON OF THE WITCH.  The franchise had suffered a minor setback with HALLOWEEN II, a decent but uninspired slasher that was an inferior knock off of the original, classic 1978 chiller.  Writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace, who had worked with John Carpenter on earlier films as an editor and art director, concocted an entirely new story that had nothing to do with the masked, knife wielding lunatic named Michael Meyers.  A fresh take is always welcomed, but this time the result was a total wash. HALLOWEEN III is a vile piece of refuse that, despite some novel elements, is less of a film than even the worst of the proper HALLOWEEN sequels.

The story involves a crazily nefarious plot: the murder of millions of children on Halloween. Uh huh.  The CEO of Shamrock Novelties, who creates Halloween masks that are quite popular with the young ones, is an old man named Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy).  He seems kindly enough.  His company drives the economy of a small town in California.  It is there that a physician (Tom Atkins) and an attractive young woman (Stacey Nelkin) investigate the death of her father, a local shopkeeper.   Not unrelated to this is said dastardly plot.

Should I spoil it for you? It's pretty disgusting. There is no mad slasher on the loose this time.  The villains are corporate heads and their army of reinforcements, and Wallace does make a few points worthy of a head nod or two.  Shamrock plays a series of television commercials inviting kids to wear their special masks in front of the T.V. on October 31st for a big surprise. In a scene straight out of a James Bond movie, our heroes have been trapped by Cochran, who demonstrates with a local family what this big surprise is.  It is ugly and disheartening.  Gross in the traditional sense, but also in the soullessness behind such a plot (and that someone would bother to create a story such as this).

Then you learn why Cochran would engineer such a ghoulish deed.  I threw my hands in the air in disbelief, even as a fourteen year old.  It's pretty lame.

The disbelief continued when I read in some magazine at the time that Wallace was proud that his film did not contain graphic violence.  I guess the decapitations at the beginning and end of the film don't count.  He does create some creepy atmosphere and throws in a reference or two to the older HALLOWEEN films, but otherwise this is an experiment best forgotten.  A real lost opportunity, and just a bad movie.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blue Sunshine

In the classic Hitchcockian, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King) finds himself holding a bloody knife as the just deceased's best friend walks in.  But moments before, the now dead woman was hovering that knife over a pair of children, and Zikpin busts in just in time.  What would cause anyone to do something so unimaginably heinous? Our everyman hero had learned that the woman was one of several Stanford University graduates who had, ten years earlier, partaken of a dangerous form of LSD called "Blue Sunshine."  In addition to causing murderous tendencies, this apparently very long time released drug also causes alopecia.

Currently, Edward Flemming (Mark Goddard), another Stanford grad and ex-husband of the dead would-be child killer, is running for public office.  His campaign slogan: "Make America Good Again". Yep.  Zipkin learns that Flemming was the head dealer of Blue Sunshine.  But did he ever ingest his own product? Is he due to have his own very bad trip any moment now? What about Flemming's bodyguard, Wayne (Ray Young), a former Stanford football star who has this habit of tugging at that rug on his head? Or Zipkin's old friend David (Robert Walden), a physician who also went to Stanford?

1978's BLUE SUNSHINE is writer/director Jeff Lieberman's attempt at a medical/political satire, wrapped in a standard '70s low budget horror package.  It's a fairly entertaining time waster, occasionally creepy, with some nice editing by Brian Smedley-Aston and Russ Kingston and fluid camerawork by Don Knight.  The recent remaster of this print is gorgeous.

Lieberman is a better director than writer, and tosses off a few decent fright and action scenes.  His script has some fascinating ideas, but they never really gel.  Hard not to wonder what Cronenberg could've made of this.  While there are numerous attempts at humor (one of the best is the cut to a poster of Flemming that has been defaced), most of the laughs seem unintentional, with a few serious howlers.

King, better known for his later softcore epics, inspires both laughter and sheer boredom.  He resembles Rush lead singer Geddy Lee, which for me did leaven his dull performance.  Aside from Walden, most of the rest of the cast deliver painfully amateurish acting.   I did enjoy the character named Frannie, showcased early on as one of Zipkin's party buddies and who sets the story in motion.  Damned if he doesn't remind me of Billy Crystal, I kept thinking.  Frannie is in fact played by Richard Crystal, Billy's brother.

And remember, if you want to slow down your attacker, just blast them with some disco music.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Rabid

David Cronenberg continues his "body horror" theme with 1977's RABID, a film that lifts several ideas from his subsequent SHIVERS.  Namely, that medical science is not to be blindly trusted and that we are also, distilled to our essences, a race of primal urge animals who know only to survive.  In the '70s and '80s, Cronenberg fashioned these ideas in a series of sometimes exploitative, often quite disturbing motion pictures that appealed to gore audiences but also won over the more cerebral among us, despite some in your face exploitation elements.

Viewers only familiar with the director's later films may have difficulty at holding back chuckles with this and some of the other early efforts.   The sometimes embarrassing acting, the over the top makeup effects.  The music in RABID is also distressingly rote and predictable for such a movie.  When Cronenberg met up with composer Howard Shore, things improved dramatically in that department.

The plot: A young couple suffer a terrible motorcycle accident near the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery.   Hart (Frank More) and Rose (Marilyn Chambers) are shuttled to the center for treatment.  Rose's injuries are far more serious, with burns causing much damage to her skin.  Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) tries a new procedure - one that utilizes morphogenetic skin grafts in an effort to replace lost tissue and epidermis.  The procedure is previously untested.   Needless to say, complications ensue.

Rose eventually recovers but now has an insatiable thirst for human blood.  Mimicking what we observed in SHIVERS, a phallic looking organ (which is located on Rose's underarm and eminates from an invagination) attacks many unfortunates, leading them to become zombie like and seeking more victims.   Rose leaves the hospital, trying to reunite with Hart, and infecting many sleazy would be suitors along the way.  Soon, an epidemic of rabid savages brings Quebec to its knees.  The government exercises attempts at control, revealing disorganization on a grand scale.

RABID surprised me for its restraint.  With his second "major" motion picture, Cronenberg was already maturing, not just going for blood and guts. His film is nowhere nearly as excessive as I would've imagined.   There's no actual sex, only implications and themes of it.  The film has a very different reputation, especially with a lead actress whose previous work was in pornographic films like BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, but is less interested in being graphic than waxing intellectual.  Cronenberg's films always thoughtfully consider the medical, political, financial, and social dynamics.  RABID may be rehashing much of the plotline of SHIVERS, but it finds its own eerie rhythm and potent statements to make.

Cronenberg also even finds some emotional weight in this thriller, mainly via the tragedy of seeing loved ones transformed into drooling bloodsuckers.  Rose's journey is not without some salty tears.

The director again embraces and cautiously dismantles scientific methodology.  I found it interesting that a character explains how a certain vaccine is powerless against the infected.  Perhaps artificial vaccinations are not only ineffective but more harmful? Sound like any latter day controversy to you? That Rose herself, the carrier, may also contain the antidote to the crisis should give you plenty to uh, feast on.