Friday, June 23, 2017

Amazon Women on the Moon

By the 1980s, the comedic "anthology" film was already long out of vogue.  The blackout skit genre had a brief heyday the decade before.  Its demise was hastened by a stable of putrid, cheaply made movies like CAN I DO IT, 'TILL I NEED GLASSES?  So 1987's AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON was a surprising effort, not because it was better than expected but because anyone bothered at all.  That John Landis, who oversaw one of the better entries, 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, directs several segments and is the film's presenter makes the movie all the more disappointing.

It tries, though.  Tries hard at times.  Many of the ideas are amusing. The cast is good.  Some skits kinda deliver.  A boy embarrassed to buy condoms at a pharmacy becomes their 1000th customer.  A man's eulogy is delivered by Siskel and Ebert-like critics.  A Playboy playmate describes her everyday life, and is shown going everywhere, even church, in the nude.  A black and white spoof of THE INVISIBLE MAN has its protagonist only thinking he is invisible.

Most of the gags fizzle: a missing baby in a hospital, Arsenio Hall as man having a bad day, a spoof of the old In Search Of... show (called "Bullshit of Not?"), that aforementioned eulogy that turns into a roast (complete with the likes of Rip Taylor and Henny Youngman) and a young guy who rents a video of a girl who would be his real, live date play too long and don't realize their comic potential.  These segments wrap around the film's centerpiece, a fairly lame spoof of the old B-movie CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON playing on a local T.V. station.

The film just has no energy, no rhythm.  It's as if the writers and directors (who also include Joe Dante and Carl Gottlieb) and their actors downed a brandy and a Valium and then tried to be funny.  Attempts to be outrageous are mild at best.  There is no "Catholic High School Girls in Trouble" as in KENTUCKY FRIED, a movie that was fresh and innovative and even felt a little dangerous and subversive.  That sort of element was present in the early years of Saturday Night Live, too, and a few other knock-off sketch comedy shows like Fridays.  AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON by contrast is merely pleasant, easy to take.  You feel a few grins but mostly forced polite smiles.  You might hear yourself groan by the umpteenth time crooner Don "No Soul" Simmons shows up to pitch his whiter than white bread album.

There have been attempts over the years to bring back the short form comedy film, though unfortunately things like MOVIE 43 have been the result, a film I haven't seen but is almost unanimously panned by viewers.  Go back and watch KENTUCKY FRIED or THE GROOVE TUBE to see how it's done.   


P.S. The "Two I.D.s" segment, with Steve Guttenberg and Rosanna Arquette, nicely prefaces our current social media staurated/lack of privacy dominated 21st century culture.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meek's Cutoff

Stephen Meek was a nineteenth century fur trapper who led would be pioneers in covered wagons through the American West.  The emigrants sought a new land but had concerns about hostile Indians.  Meek played guide and took groups of settlers through eastern Oregon through some pretty steep and arid terrain.  In 2010's MEEK'S CUTOFF, loosely based on true events,  the guide is shown to be cocky yet somewhat confused about this route he was supposed to know so well.

The band of couples, with a few young 'uns in tow, become increasingly suspicious that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't really know his way.  Suspicion gives way to concern, then desperation, as food and water supplies run low.  As the two week trip stretches into many more, it becomes all about the water, the desert landscape only making this more palpable with each step. Will the lone Indian they eventually capture, whose language they cannot interpret, lead them to a spring, or more Indians waiting in ambush?

The storyline sounds potentially exciting, but MEEK'S CUTOFF is not your typical survivalist adventure.  Not a standard Western by any stretch.  You might say it's a cross between THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and a Terrence Malick film.  The stunning environment looms from the first image. Incredible detail is woven into even the briefest of scenes.  Night scenes are lit only with the dim lanterns someone in 1845 would've used.  Director Kelly Reichert has created sort of a poem to the human spirit.  To doggedness in the face of trial.  Of the so-called "weaker vessel" womenfolk who are relegated to the margins while their men discuss the next move.  The women who rise up.

Dialogue is not heard for nearly fifteen minutes after MEEK'S CUTOFF opens..  When it comes, it's often spoken very quietly. Sometimes it's Scripture.  Pay very close attention, the words may offer clues to be remembered when you reach the final scene, which will drive several viewers mad with its inconclusiveness.  Right after Meek surrenders and states, "We're all just playing our parts now.  This was written long before we got here."

MEEK'S CUTOFF is a slow but fascinating and engrossing drama that does engage with its story.  The actors, including Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, are effective and believable.  But what really makes the film worthwhile, worth the journey, is Reichert's meticulous direction.  Every shot is beautifully thought out.  Each scene a short story in itself.  A short story that trusts its readers to make their own connections. Is Meek a historic parallel to any twentieth or twenty-first century political figures? Blindly leading his countrymen, his flock? At other moments I thought of that play The Lower Room, where the women met while the disciples were with Jesus.

And all along, you are a witness to how it all probably was on the trail, never once romanticized or overly dramatized.  This is quite a unique motion picture.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Last Splash

The Pixies were dead by 1993.  Their best of disc said as much; it was called Death to the Pixies.  Bassist Kim Deal had formed a side project called The Breeders, and they thundered into alternative world consciousness that year with their infectious hit "Cannonball", from the album Last Splash.  With its intro of squealing feedback and Deal's mic check, there could've hardly been a better announcement that this was no mere lark.  The song was rotated heavily on radio stations adopting the alternative format.  MTV played the heck out of the (Spike Jonze directed) video.

Last Splash was actually the Breeders' second album.  Pod, released in 1990, was expanded from a batch of demos.  The thrashing guitar and sweet sounding melodies were already there.  Throwing Muses' guitarist Tanya Donelly had started the band in 1989 with Kim, but left in '92 to form Belly.  She may have been missed by Last Splash, but Kim's twin sister Kelley stepped in and continued the crunch, even if her skills were lacking (and a drug habit led to lots of legal trouble).  Kelley had been asked to play on Pod, but had other commitments.

"Cannonball" is still a burner, twenty four years after the fact.  It's noise, but crazily rythmic noise.  The rest of Last Splash alternates between industrial screech and more pop friendly tunes like "Divine Hammer", which incredibly played on Top 40 stations at the time.  The atmospheric "Invisible Man" blends the ladies' haunting vocals with strings and keyboard.  "New Year", the album's opener, is a breathless mood setter.  "S.O.S." and "Roi" are sonic assaults.  "Saints" may be the most accessible track, with Kim's near spoken vocals and hook laden guitar work, while also sounding like good ol' garage rock.  "Drivin' on 9", written years earlier, is folky and alt-countryish.  "Flipside" could've been a Go-Gos tune.  This is a fine album, one that works blaring from a convertible on a summer day or in a barely lit room as you drink away your blues.

Note: 1992's Safari EP includes an even slower tempo version of "Do You Love Me Now", which might work better than the later one.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wonder Woman

As a child, I thought Marvel had cooler superheroes than did D.C.  So many diverse, creatively conceived and flawed misfits.  D.C. had the stalwarts like Batman and Superman.  Those guys had been around for decades and even by the time of my childhood felt a bit old hat.  They were square jawed and earnest.   I still loved 'em, and watched the Super Friends (based on The Justice League comics) cartoon every Saturday morning with fervor.  Wonder Woman was part of that bunch.  Most of my memories of her were of the lasso and the invisible jet.

The latter is not featured in this summer's WONDER WOMAN, the first solo big screen outing for the Amazon lady.  Maybe screenwriter Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins thought the jet was incompatible with the serious story they were telling.  Maybe it will show up in the inevitable sequel or one of the crossover D.C. movies (one of which is indeed JUSTICE LEAGUE).  The lasso is there, and is used as a sort of lie detector test around its victims.  This proves handy on a downed airman named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who crashes off the shores of Themyscira, Princess Diana's island home.  After the future Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) rescues him, a coderie of WWI German soldiers follow in their efforts to apprehend the American spy.  The Amazons handily defeat them (with Steve's help), but the soldier is an enigma that an island of women demand to know more about.  This includes Diana, who naturally begins to harbor feelings for him.  He is also the first ("above average") man she has ever laid eyes upon.

Once Diana learns of the atrocities of "the war to end all wars", far away from her tropical paradise, she yearns to go and help the weak, to stop who she believes is the cause - no less than the Greek god Ares.  There is quite a bit of mythology in the Wonder Woman story.  If you're not familiar, I don't want to spoil it for you. Once Steve and Diana enter the dark lands of London, WONDER WOMAN really kicks into high gear.  I was not aware of the storyline beforehand, and that it features a more human, terrestrial backdrop makes this saga far more effective than if it were another sci-fi/mass destruction superhero pic.  The genre has gotten predictable and boring.  While WONDER WOMAN sports super duper effects and action sequences (and some MATRIX-like fight scenes), it feels more immediate, almost realistic.

Heinberg and Jenkins create WONDER WOMAN as a potent story of sacrifice, steadfast belief, and a refusal to dismiss mankind as the selfish, violent creatures they most certainly are.  When a villain tempts WW into joining him in destroying the world, because surely they deserve it, she responds quite simply that "it's not about 'deserve'".  Sound like any other stories or belief systems? Christian imagery is part and parcel of many such movies these days, but WONDER WOMAN makes one of the best allegories of that type I've seen.   It could've been self conscious and preachy.  Few things are worse than a heavy handed super hero movie.  Cinematically speaking, of course.

Feminist? Sure, but never in a hateful, misandristic fashion.  Wonder Woman embodies the traits that define what many would associate with being an exemplary female: caring, nurturing, organized, protective, strong.  Fearless? Princess Diana marches right into battle without hesitation, but Gadot puts forth a very human side to her chracter.  Her eyes frequently slick over in grief, her face suggesting that even with wrist bands and shields that can defect hailstorms of  bullets,  a sense of vulnerability is within.   That helps us relate to her, to not view Wonder Woman as just another indestructible video game image.  But she does get to kick ass, and while she has a man by her side for much of the story, she does not need his hand to pull her along. 

This is the best D.C. movie since the DARK KNIGHT trilogy.  And far better than any Marvel adaptation I've seen.  More of this type, please.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

David Holzman's Diary

I can't imagine how progressive 1968's DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY must've seemed to its original audiences.  Mind blowing, I would think.  Viewed in 2016 it seemed quite ahead of its time, a precursor to YouTube and reality T.V.  That is, once you get past the dated element of having its subject - a young New Yorker who decides to put his life on film - lug around heavy equipment like a shoulder mounted camera and reel to reel tape recorder.  But everything else is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the summer of 1967 and likely well before.

David (L.M. Kit Carson) is a newly unemployed twenty-something who decides to put Jean-Luc Godard's statement "The cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second" to a test.  As Holzman's life seems to be scattershot, frustrating, and without purpose, he wonders if filming himself and his surroundings, then "playing the film back and forth" will offer some enlightenment. Is this because he feels that the camera will objectively document a landscape that is often confusing to process? Or is it that the movies have provided David will some level of comfort in the past? He's very learned of the cinema, discussing the likes of Truffaut and Vincente Minnelli.

The young man's friend, a verbose artist named Pepe, explains why he thinks the whole project is a bad idea. Pepe explains that subjects who know they are being filmed can't act naturally, and will inevitably become concerned about how to pose, what side of the frame to sit in, etc. Real life is no longer real life when it is captured on celluloid; it "becomes part of something else."  Most people do not feel comfortable with an electronic voyeur, perhaps even those who sign up for current shows like Big Brother.  On a side note, I had a patient who once starred on that show and explained, quite conversely, that he didn't mind having dozens of cameras document his teeth brushing and combat with roommates.  He found it quite boring, in fact. One idea that this movie does not consider is how incentivization affects the process.  

David Holzman sometimes sits in front of the camera and discusses his life, other times narrating while shooting street life and the window of the woman who lives across from him.  In an early sequence, David pans down the streets of his Upper West Side neighborhood and describes the significance of certain buildings like The Dakota.  I had an odd moment of recognizance just then, recalling how I did much the same on an early '90s trip to NYC.  I had a bulky camera rented from Blockbuster Video and I pointed it at everything.  There was a moment when I left it running on a brick wall as I walked away.  A passerby politely stated how ill advised that was - "This is New York."

I'm sure I irritated some people.  One early morning on a subway platform I irritated the friend with whom I was traveling, his head shaking as I slowly framed the area.  David irritates his girlfriend, Penny (Eileen Dietz) with his insistence on filming her cooking, sitting, even sleeping. In the nude.  The latter is the final straw; she angrily bolts from his apartment in the wee hours when she discovers his hovering.  David can't really understand why this woman, a model who is no stranger to the camera, is so reluctant.  He explains that she is part of life, so he needs to film her.  Perhaps she did not need to figure out her own purpose.  Perhaps she was content.

DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY, directed by young talent Jim McBride, who would go on to helm THE BIG EASY and a remake of Godard's BREATHLESS in the '80s, really is a stunningly fascinating experiment.  I was expecting another pretentious ego trip; there were many of this type in the late '60s and beyond.  But even though David is a bit of a prig and a cipher (not to mention stalker), we can understand and maybe sympathize with him a little.  Plus there are some really mesmerizing sequences, like the circling of the elderly on park benches while we hear a recording of a voting session at the United Nations. Also, the excitement of the use of a fish eye lens for the first time.  Or hearing radio broadcasts of the news while the camera roams the streets, most tellingly by people of color as we hear news of riots in Newark.

I also found the scene where David unspools a film of his night of watching prime time T.V. - shown like someone is fast forwarding a tape -  a parade of images showcasing hours of programs like Batman and Star Trek and the evening news, along with all the commercials in between - quite engrossing and disturbing.  It plays in a way that perhaps mirrors the way we remember all the television and movies we've seen.  Random snippets flying by, perhaps some laden with subliminal messages.  Like one's own life passing by.

Does David find purpose at the end?  He finds reality.  Perhaps like his many progenitors of decades later would.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Your Audiology Tutorial: Ototoxicity

The term ototoxicity refers to poisoning of the inner ear.  Certain medications and chemicals can damage the cochlea and the semicircular canals (respective hearing and balance organs) and the vestibulocochlear nerve that attaches to them.  Hearing loss (high frequency) that occurs due to ototoxic medications may be quite insidious, especially if the patient is unaware of the levels of their hearing sensitivity prior to exposure.  Tinnitus is a more obvious unfortunate by product.

Most Common ototoxic meds include:
1. Loop Diuretics (Lasix, Bumex)
2. Chemotherapy Agents (Cisplatin)
3. Aspirin (not commonly prescribed 81 or 325 mg doses).
4. Antibiotics in the aminoglycoside category (Gentamicin, Neomycin)
5. Quinine

There are many more classes of ototoxic medications, up to one hundred.   The chemical found in paint thinners and model airplane glue, toluene, is also an ototoxic agent, with known neurological effects as well.  Think back to those times in elementary school you treated that rubber cement as a recreational inhalant. 

Serial audiometric exams (including OAEs)  are conducted during and after administration of these medications when a physician is monitoring suspected ototoxicity.  While discontinued use of diuretics may see improvement of (or back to baseline) thresholds, cisplatin is quite notorious for causing permanent damage.  Interestingly, gentimicin is sometimes used via injections to deliberately ablate the vestibular system, when a patient is suffering intolerable dizziness and/or vertigo.

Sometimes, otoxicity is unavoidable when a medication's intended purpose is to save one's life, or at least yield a benefit that outweighs the side effect.  If you are given a course of any of these type of drugs, be aware that noise exposure can only increase the damage. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Born To Be Blue

The jazzman loves the girl, perhaps more than all the previous; he has ex-wives.  She's resistant at first, but he's awfully seductive.   His heart aches when she tells him she can't be there to see him play at Birdland, perhaps the most important performance of his career.  But there's a greater love/ball-and-chain, one that allows no disloyalty, no divided attention. Jazz? Yes, certainly a consuming passion.  The reason for his very existence, the only thing he knows how to do.  But at this point in life, jazz, legacy building jazz, is made possible by something else that consumes.  Heroin.   That substance that "opens up the notes..."  His mentor, Charlie Parker, suffered such affliction.

There is a moment late in 2015's BORN TO BE BLUE when trumpeter Chet Baker is sitting in a dressing room, about to blow those notes in front of the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, the latter who thinks this white cat from the west coast isn't worthy to mop the floor at Birdland.  Baker has been clean, taking Methadone, accountable to a parole officer, refusing "gifts" from would-be groupies.  But he ran out of Methadone two days ago.  His manager says he can find some.  There is also a needle and a cord on the table......

Ethan Hawke, looking much older than his forty-five years, embodies Baker in ways that are positively eerie. The gaunt, sunken cheeks are what you notice first.  The sickly pallor of skin tone.  What appears to be a processing delay when someone speaks to him.  The actor does his own singing, including a none too shabby rendition of "My Funny Valentine".  I believed his performance most of the time, and that's critical for any biopic.  But with BORN TO BE BLUE, a film that is more the essence of Chet Baker than an accurate recount, that Hawke in all his wraith-like presence is believable as a mid-twentieth century jazzer legend junkie is what matters.  The fact the film calls him Chet Baker is almost an afterthought.

Writer/director Robert Budreau uses an effective conceit - monochromatic footage of a film Baker shot about his life that was never released.  Not real footage, but Hawke as Baker playing himself.  Budreau employs these scenes to show key moments in the trumpter's life: his first taste of the H, the night his wife caught him doing it, among others.  This idea is continued through much of BORN TO BE BLUE, sometimes used to convey Baker's memories, usually when he's suffering misfortune.  Baker is attacked by drug dealers and loses all his front teeth.  The road to re-learning to play the trumpet is arduous.  He has to keep re-gluing his dentures.

But by his side is his former co-star in the movie within a movie: Jane (Carmen Ejogo, quite good), who played his ex-wife Elaine. The surreality of her resemblance to Elaine is played for some interesting moments through BORN TO BE BLUE.  Budreau's film also takes standard issue backstage drama and makes it feel more honest than what is usually seen in a movie such as this.  Chet and Jane share a sex scene that is tender and awkward.  She is unusually supportive, even when she finds him on the floor bloodied, needle by his side.  She's with him when he returns home to see his folks in Oklahoma, and reduced to pumping gas for money.  They live in her VW bus.  She loves him, but will perhaps realize this his first love are those wide notes, and what makes them happen, when she reads his face one last time while he plays. Such a moment is all in the acting, and both play it perfectly.  It's heartbreaking.

Does this film argue that drugs bring out one's best, most creative work? Maybe, certainly at a considerable cost.  The epilogue states that Baker would spend much of his later days in Europe, addicted to heroin for the rest of his life, and quite prolific.  Music that was deemed to be some of his finest.  Another genius who was born to be blue.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Manchester By The Sea

Spoilers

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan captures the messiness and harshness of real life about as well as any contemporary artist I can think of.  Critics of his latest, the highly regarded MANCHESTER BY THE SEA might say things like "Not my real life, these people are genuinely screwed up!" Er, something to that effect.  They will also go to great lengths to explain how depressing this film is.  One of my old friends even ranted on Facebook that she regrets the inability to "unsee" this movie, and sought suggestions as to what to watch to counteract this apparently negative experience.  I offered A Very Brady Christmas.

I just have to feel sorry for folks when they can't appreciate such a fine and honest film.  Many watch movies to escape from family drama and shitty jobs.  MANCHESTER puts such things (and their internal drivers) front and center.   I can understand the desire and even the necessity to immerse oneself in a brainless comedy, numbing action adventure, or formulaic romantic drama, especially when life has enough real tragedy.  For me, great cinema is not an escape, but an essential extension of life.  It lives and breathes and is part of my schedule.  It's not some drug, although it can be addictive.   I don't seek escape, I seek appreciation of what artists can create.  Somewhat the way I appreciate fine cuisine.  It's real, and it's essential.

Lest my Christian brethren think that film/art has become an idol for me, the argument can be made that awareness and understanding of the mysteries of faith can often be augmented by a thoughtful motion picture or novel.  Or painting....or song...I've stated before that art is often what you bring to it, but whatever your background, it's hard to ignore the Christian imagery in a film like BREAKING THE WAVES or TO THE WONDER.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA has such elements, but can easily rather be taken simply as the story of a flawed guy who ultimately does the right thing.  He of course suffers great tribulation beforehand.  Forgiveness is bestowed by and upon him.

His sin? Sizable.   Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets drunk and/or high one night and leaves a fireplace unattended as he goes out for beer.  While his wife escapes the burning house, his three young children do not.  That was in the past, seen (along with other significant events in Lee's life) in intermittent flashback.  In the present, Lee, who is divorced and barely making a living in Boston as a maintenance guy, has returned to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to attend to his brother's funeral.  He carries the burdens of a lost family and gets into bar fights, for no apparent good reason.  He does not seem to be a likely candidate to assume guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), despite his brother's mandate.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA plays deliberately, with scene after scene detailing everyday life. Longeran (who has a perhaps gratuitous cameo) allows characters to misstep, to move about awkwardly like real people do, as when paramedics fumble with a gurney.  This is a finely crafted movie, but simultaneously feels fly on the wall voyeuristic, capturing off the cuff and unrehearsed snapshots of life.  It never feels overly directed.

There are big moments: Lee tries to commit suicide after being questioned by the police; Lee's ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) tries to reconcile (a powerhouse of emotion), but most of the movie comfortably settles into the characters' routines.  Hockey practice.  Girlfriends.  Maintenance of the old family boat.  Things that are threatened by the death of Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler).  Sixteen year old Patrick does not want to leave his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea.  Lee wants to take him back to Boston.  There are too many unremittingly sad memories in the old town, and many of its residents have no interest in a man who's failed so awesomely.

Lonergan's use of classical music is tasteful, though occasionally overbearing.  It almost becomes comical when the score crescendos over a serious scene.  And despite the kvetches of many, there is humor in this movie, particularly as Patrick repeatedly tries to have relations with a girl at her mother's house. Or when that mother attempts to have a conversation with Lee.   I laughed out loud at Matthew Broderick's unexpected entrance (he's appeared in all three of Longeran's films) though I don't think I was supposed to.  

Regarding that - Broderick portrays the born again Christian fiance of Patrick's long lost alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol).  A late scene involves Patrick's attempts to reunite with his newly sober mom.  The meeting is painfully awkward, and may be interpreted by some viewers as a subtle knock on religious faith, though only by someone who does not look beyond surfaces.  Longeran considers spirituality quite deeply, as in his previous YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and MARGARET.  That alone makes his films worth watching, but the acting and genuine emotions are what involve you in the moment.  The scenery in this movie is also quite lovely.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Full Metal Jacket

Some time ago I was counseling a tinnitus patient who had spent time in the United States Marine Corps.  As many of my conversations with these servicemen tend to go, I had to ask about the accuracy of 1987's FULL METAL JACKET.  Namely, the infamous first forty-five minutes, as new recruits on Parris Island are subjected to all manner of verbal abuse by their gunnery sergeant during basic training.  My patient, as many before him, had confirmed that real life vet R. Lee Ermey gave an on the money performance.  The lengthy tirades and dress downs, all accurate.

My patient, let's call him Steve, went on to describe what separates a Marine from those in other armed forces.  Namely that they are not bred to be corporate, chain of command types who have to stick closely to playbooks, contact management to get every little thing done, etc.  This surprised me.  Steve also observed that many idiosyncratic types are found in the Corp. People who bring a variety of quirks.  I thought of Private Joker, so dubbed by Sergeant Hartman (Ermey) and well played by Matthew Modine.  Steve recalled his own gunnery sarge kicking over his foot locker, whispering taunts in his ears while he tried to sleep.  A barrage of psychological games.

As director Stanley Kubrick had explored the theme of dehumanization in several prior films, there must have been some law of cinema that brought Gustav Halsford's novel The Short Timers to his attention.  There are few settings better to exemplify the erosion of soul, the destruction of the individual better than during basic training.  Where hair is shorn down to the skull and uniforms are just that in order to remove any distinguishing characteristics.  And what is learned in the barracks is then taken overseas.

The opening scenes of FULL METAL JACKET explode with a lapel grabbing urgency that no viewer is likely to forget.  Ermey belittles, humiliates, and berates his grunts with some seriously creative obscenity.  He never stammers or repeats himself (apparently he was able to go on for a very long time during rehearsals, even when repeatedly pelted by tennis balls).  He is an equal opportunity offender, but when Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) proves to be inept at even the most rudimentary of tasks, Hartman singles him out for considerable ridicule and punishment, which in the great tradition of societal norms means that the entire group also suffers.

The first part of the film maintains a mesmerizing power, equal parts terrorizing and wryly funny.  The Corp. exists to break men down, then rebuild them as machines. Killers with a single-minded purpose.  We've witnessed basic training scenes before in the movies but Kubrick's are beyond the usual montages of marching and weapon reassembling.  Beyond grand drama, even.  It's as if he's tapped into the fear that lurks in men's (and women's) souls, played out in harshly lit (director trademark) barracks and restrooms.  Not everyone featured in the early scenes will be around for Act II......

....which features the privates in Vietnam.  Pvt. Joker, mainly, as he assumes a role as a journalist but soon enough finds himself in "the shit", meeting a group of colorful individuals like machine gunner "Animal Mother" (Adam Baldwin) and "Eightball" (Dorian Harewood) and his old platoon mate "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), now a sergeant and leader of a rifle squad.  The Tet Offensive has brought the North Vietnamese Army out of all corners, though Kubrick will focus on a lone sniper in the later scenes.

The tone of FULL METAL JACKET becomes grimmer the closer we get to the "mercy killing finale". The sniper ambush scenes leading up to it eschew the satire, and maybe some of the power drains away.  Maybe it begins to feel like an old school war epic, a Sam Fuller production.   Kubrick maintains a consistently caustic tone as platoon leaders preach about how within every "gook" there is an American itching to get out.  Or when a camera crew pans across our boys, each with a perfectly timed witticism.  There are elements of the director's DR. STRANGELOVE in some scenes.

I've seen FULL METAL JACKET numerous times.  Consideration of the entire movie, from gunnery bark to a weary chorus of the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme, reveals both a grunt's worn down perspective and a meticulous director's riff on one or two chords.  Kubrick's limitations on scope allow him to probe a few elements that much more deeply.  Devastating.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

The eventual failure of worldwide music chain Tower Records owes as much to classic overreaching as it does to changing technology. What began as a family business in Sacramento, CA in the early 1960s later became an international corporation with stores in Japan and Latin America.  More and more money was borrowed to open in markets that were not well researched.  And even though Tower was one of the first retailers to have an online presence, Internet downloads would be another blow to the company (as they would be to any brick and morter selling CDs and other media). In 2006, Tower Records filed for bankruptcy.

2015's documentary ALL THINGS MUST PASS traces the company's history through the eyes of its key people - those who remember when the original stores in California were staffed with knowledgeable, fun loving free spirits who cared about music.  Their mantra was sound - do what you love, the money will follow.  Russell Solomon, a highly charismatic guru-type, opened the first store in 1960.  He expanded to San Francisco and L.A., then NYC and beyond.  The stores were extremely well stocked and had an impressively diverse inventory.  They were crammed with imports and rarities, enough records to attract musicians like Elton John, who states that he probably spent more money there than anyone else.

Solomon and others who worked in the early days reminisce of the wild atmosphere in the original locations.  A place where you could show up drunk or stoned and it was OK as long as you could get through your shift (and ring a register). One longtime employee named Heidi Cotler laughs as she recalls all the drugs and sexual encounters that occurred there. You wonder how the company didn't party away its profits.  There to balance Solomon's more eccentric behavior were guys who thought more carefully about bottom lines. But even the straight ones would loosen up after a few drinks at lunch and nail a secretary or two back at the office.

Director Colin Hanks interviews many long timers who began as clerks and would eventually fill important roles in the corporation. One guy begins to cry as he describes the final days.  They're a mixed bunch - a few still seem as if they're wandering Haight/Ashbury.  Russell's son Michael would become a corporate honcho, but was not as easy going and eccentric as his dad (who snipped visitor's neckties and framed them on a wall) and not well liked by the others.  He seems to be blamed for some of the mismanagement that plagued the company in its later years.

In addition to Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl wax nostalgic for Tower Records, expressing the sorts of things that anyone who has spent time getting lost in a sea of vinyl can relate to.  My times visiting Tower in NYC in the '90s and later revealed a more sterile, corporate atmosphere, not at all like what is described in this movie.  It happens.  I wonder if Russell popped in those stores to see if the employees were keeping the vibe.  Maybe it didn't matter by then, when bank notes began to overwhelm the enterprise.

I had mixed feelings as I watched ALL THINGS MUST PASS.  Sort of like I had when Barnes and Noble and Border's shut their doors in my town.  They were the bad guys once upon a time, running the mom and pops away.  Now it was their turn.

Postscript: The sort of record store that Tower apparently once was can still be found in places like Soundgarden in Baltimore and Confusion Records in Lake Park, FL.

PPS: Watching this movie also reminded me of the old beloved chain Peaches.  Holler all my South Florida peeps, if you remember.
 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Paterson

In the midst of my film viewing, it was quite a relief to see 2016's PATERSON.  Truly a "balm" as one critic described.  A palate cleanser, if you will, for the hosts of other movies that are self consciously concerned with portent, foreshadowing, significant dialogue, and all those silly rules we've been taught are integral to storytelling.  Sometimes if you introduce a gun in the first act, you don't have to shoot somebody in the third.

Example: Paterson (Adam Driver) is walking his dog, an English bulldog named Marvin, just like every other night.  A carload of what appear to be gang members stop and make ominous statements about how a guy needs to be careful walking such a coveted pooch around the 'hood.  Someone might snatch him, etc. Next scene: Paterson ties Marvin's leash to a post outside the same bar he visits every weeknight.  We've been set up to think that Marvin will be kidnapped.  Nope.  Paterson has his usual beer, chats with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and goes home.  Life doesn't always have melodrama.  Sometimes people talk shit and nothing happens.

At home is Paterson's wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), forever creating things with black and white patterns, including cupcakes, with which she someday hopes to open her own business.  Laura also wants to be a country music star and orders a guitar advertised by Esteban.  That guitar is expensive, but Paterson, who makes a modest living as a bus driver, only has a fleeting concern because he loves and supports his wife.  She in turn encourages him to submit those poems he scribbles every day before work and at lunch for publication.  Even though Paterson, who shares a name with the New Jersey town in which they live, finds reward in the writing itself, not any promise of recognition.

Another scene that threatens to turn into cheap drama - Paterson is leaving work and notices a young girl sitting alone in front of the bus station.  He's concerned about her, and offers to sit on the wall with her until her mother and sister pick her up.  Paterson and his new friend discover their mutual love for writing poems, and the scene ends without incident. Mom and sis pick her up.  No intimations of inappropriate behavior by Paterson, no contrived misunderstandings by the mother.  See how that works?

You might argue that in real life the scene might raise concerns.  Sad state we're in.  PATERSON is in fact a fantasy, a film that makes what is quite a dangerous city look fairly benign and leafy.  You might also say that an unfailingly loyal, stay at home wife is quite a rarity these days.  As is a main character who refuses to own a cell phone.  Or a bar owner who won't mount a T.V. at the bar for sports fans.  Laura in fact remarks that she feels like they're living in the twentieth century when they go to a theater to see an old B & W thriller. 

Writer/director Jim Jarmsuch fashions his movie that way, allowing his characters to enjoy a simple life, and to be content with it.  They do have dreams, aspirations, but they're not the sort of restless urban- and suburbanites we're used to seeing in films with people in their twenties.  The movie is a celebration of the beauty found in the routines.  The comfort of knowing someone is by your side, always ready to encourage you.  Seeing art on a matchbook or in the snatches of conversations heard on the bus. Not observing the daily grind with dread and ennui, but with anticipation that something fascinating, now matter how seemingly minor, will occur. Jarmusch has made many films that seem to barely move, that are fascinated with repetition and pattern.  That see beyond that and find the pulse, perhaps a blooming flower.

The director allows another moment set up to be something potentially devastating when Paterson's bus suffers an electrical failing and stalls, requiring his riders to get off and wait for the next one.  When Paterson later relays this story, at least two people express relief that the bus didn't explode into a fireball.  You know, like in the movies not directed by Jim Jarmusch.

P.S. What do you make of the "twin" motif, invisible audience?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces

Sunday, May 21st, 2017 is a day Twin Peaks fans have been anticipating with the restlessness of a child on Christmas Eve.  "See you in twenty-five years" Laura Palmer said to Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge during the season finale of the show back in 1991. It turned out to be the series finale.  It also turned out to be a promise that would be kept, in a show biz miracle you don't see very often; cable network Showtime will present - over two and a half decades later - Season Three, in eighteen parts over the summer, all episodes directed by David Lynch and co-written by co-creator Mark Frost.  But back when ABC cancelled the show, many of the devoted felt Laura's words would forever hang in a void, left for fans to write their own sequel.

In 1992, Lynch returned to the Pacific Northwest to cover the final week of Laura's life in the not-well- received prequel TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME.  Many fans felt the show's homespun whimsy was largely eschewed for total darkness.  They weren't wrong.  The movie is relentlessly, decidedly grim, with only the occasional flicker of humor.  I liked it at the time, and have grown to really appreciate it as I've gotten older.  It is a startlingly assured, heartbreaking mosiac of familial dysfunction and its overlap with the supernatural. The T.V. show worked for the same reasons, but lightheartedness and more traditional melodrama helped leaven the terrifying elements, of which there were plenty.  The movie alienated many fans, and baffled everyone else.

So that's one of the reasons why the collection of FIRE WALK WITH ME's deleted scenes, dubbed THE MISSING PIECES, is such a treasure.  It had a Hollywood premiere in 2014 and was then included on the DVD/Blu-ray collection that included the original series and the movie.  I purchased it a few months ago and brushed up on my lore.  Lynch has stated that FIRE WALK WITH ME will point the way to some of developments of this new trip to a small town riddled with secrets.  The missing pieces in fact do include a never before seen plot development that more than suggests how the mysterious ring that Laura unwisely accepted will play into new plotlines.

That comes toward the end of the anthology.  Prior, it is revealed that what hit the cutting room floor could have in fact pleased fans of the old show.  The gentle, eccentric behavior of folks like Pete Martell and Deputy Andy.  The sweet, forbidden romance of Big Ed Hurley and Norma (their late night scene in a car, listening to music is one of the warmest, most romantic things Lynch has ever filmed).  Several Twin Peaks characters who were not in the film make a very welcome return via these clips, and would've made FIRE WALK WITH ME a film that might've made the darkness much easier to digest.  I do wish Lynch had left in a scene with the Palmer family, actually laughing around the dinner table (as they try to speak Norwegian).   The inclusion of this scene would make the other, later, far more serious moments in that domicile even more effective in their contrast, rather than merely didactic.

But...many of the deleted moments are that for a good reason. Not simply because they would've made a long film even longer.  Some scenes feel like rehearsals, actors trying to find the rhythm.  While it was a relief to see Agent Cooper being playful, standing in a doorway, flirting with the infamously unseen Diane, the scene is too long and a bit too goofy.   You might say likewise of a lengthy fistfight between Agent Desmond and Sheriff Cable, though it is a great scene.   Other moments are sufficiently creepy, as when Laura is briefly possessed by BOB, her face bathed in harsh lighting, or the bravura sequence of The Man from Another Place, BOB, and some other dudes, um, communicating in a room over the convenience store.  The latter is an extension of a scene that was included in the finished film, but goes on to reveal more, and is just friggin' scary as hell.

The same can be said of the entrance of Agent Jeffiries, in a sequence that I originally thought was laughably, near blindingly awful - here, the expanded scene explains quite a bit and makes the babbling a little clearer.

So, if you're reading this before Sunday night the 21st (or later), and you're part of that special cult, and you haven't watched TWIN PEAKS: THE MISSING PIECES?  You know, stop what you're doing and watch.  I can't wait to see how it all fits.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Hijack

I sought out the 1971 novel Hijack on premise alone, described in its tagline: "The Mafia takes to space!"  To me, this was irresistible, a promise of high camp, true pulp fiction.  Edward Wellen's novel did not fall short, and was actually far wittier than expected.  His writing style is quite sardonic, and his story of a Mafia plot to hijack forty rockets at Cape Canaveral to escape Earth, believed to be soon engulfed by an exploding sun ("gone nova"), is completely implausible.  What other writing style would suit such a story?

Wellen sounds like some omniscient wiseacre, clever enough to be sitting at the Algonquin Round Table or just plain cranky enough to hang with those old men in the balcony on The Muppet Show who made smart remarks from their box seats. You can almost hear a gruff voice sitting across the room, telling this darkly comic tale between drags on a cigarette.  His book is fairly rich with detail, maybe even some accurate science here and there, but everything is presented to serve the satirical.  What is Wellen satirizing?  Politics? Of course.  Organized crime?  Yes.  The goombahs who carry it out? Sure.  Highly revered scientists? Definitely.  Science itself? Maybe.

Wellen was better known for short stories, mostly sci-fi, several mysteries. Hijack was his only novel, and a concise one at one hundred and forty pages.  The story has many characters, focusing primarily on Nick, a college educated would-be made man who learns, via an enterprising scientist named Buglewicz, of the coming Apocalypse and organizes an elaborate plan to get the "family" outta dodge and into a new world on a space station.  The story has the familiar elements of gangster melodrama: family infighting, sworn vengeance on dead relatives, a dirty cop, a kingpin who orders business from jail, botched hits, sudden death played for humor, and so on.  There's also attempted matchmaking by Nick's mother, and a mysterious, worldly Mafiosa whose past may have caught up with her.

Wellen gives us some amusing details of each character, down to their smallest tics. Everyone gets a colorful sketch, including a parakeet that never talked before but squawks some fatal information at just the right/wrong time.  A real stool pigeon, haha.  Wellen's writing is sometimes confusing - mainly as he attempts to track so many minor characters - but is wildly visual.  You'll have fun imaging your own little movie with this story.  Somewhat surprising that someone hasn't tried to adapt this.

Hijack has a fair amount of gruesome violence, an expectedly high body count, plenty of un-PC dialogue, and the wryest of outlooks. One of my favorite bits -  Nick and Buglewicz discuss the guest list for the big adventure.  The scientist inquires -

"Have you considered taking a few blacks along?"   
Nick smiled.
"What for?"
"I suppose with mores the way they are, the blacks would have to be females.  What for? To deepen the genetic pool.  If you stick to one stock, the Mediterranean, inbreeding will bring out the worst of your recessive traits."


The author allows his mind to run wild with tangents that become integral to the story in the later chapters - including some treacherous dealings with the black Mafia.  It was at that point that I suspected Hijack was more interested in a patently social commentary than in science fiction, although the genre lends itself to such.  When you reach the punchline, you can't help but smile.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Cincinnati Kid

I'm not really into card games, but am nonetheless fascinated when I watch poker matches.  To witness the faces, the pauses, the hesitations.  Of the ones I've seen in person, even a good natured game among friends can reek of sweat and despair, sometimes growing more tense with each hand.  Numerous films have used this culture as a backdrop to examine the psychological profiles of the players.  Often a desperate lot.  All strata of society.  Some wear fancier threads than others, but the anxiousness within and without may be similar.  Many cardsharps find no satisfaction in winning though are driven by that goal.  If reached, they may well sink into a deep depression.  Witness that great final moment of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT.  Elliott Gould's expression says everything you need to know.

1965's THE CINCINNATI KID, to my eyes a bit too similar to the earlier THE HUSTLER, spends a few days with "The Kid" aka Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen).  He's an upstart poker hotshot who seems to possess innate talent for the game, with a quiet confidence to match.  We first see him walking the streets of New Orleans, past a parade of jazz musicians and stopping to pitch pennies with a shoe shine boy; even in that innocent game, "The Kid" always wins.

Lancy Howard (Edward G. Robinson), "The Man", is in town and The Kid wants to take him down.   A dealer named Shooter (Karl Malden, quite good) warns Stoner not to try, speaking from experience. Shooter is a decent soul, a put upon sad sack with an alluring, lecherous wife named Melba (Ann-Margaret) and has spent the last quarter century trying to go legit. When a rich local named William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn) threatens Shooter into crookedly dealing for The Kid during the big match, the poor lug finds himself unable to refuse, what with big debts owed to Slade, who also has some potential blackmail involving Melba.

Much of THE CINCINNATI KID takes place behind tables in smoky, sunlight deprived rooms. You can almost taste the stench of moldy wall to wall carpeting.   Lots of soft dialogue announcing the latest hand.  It never ceased to hold my interest.  Much credit must go to Hal Ashby's editing. It's tense and almost exciting at times.  The average shot lengths are always just right.  No silly inserts of eyes peering over cards.  Let's not forget Norman Jewison's thoughtful direction.  There is a natural drama unfolding as each card is placed on the table.

Who wins? Important, but the movie isn't all about the match.  Ultimately, someone will get some hard lessons in Life. Cliched? Of course, right down to Joan Blondell's amusing turn as Lady Fingers, a grand dame of the parlor.  But there may be a ray of hope to assuage the sad resignation.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Arturo's

Dinner at Arturo's Ristorante in Boca Raton was one of the more amusing nights out I've had in some time.  I joined my wife, her best friend and her husband, the husband's sister and her spouse, and another of my wife's childhood friends, for a truly memorable dining experience back in April.  The occasion was the best friend's birthday, but my own was the next day, Easter Sunday, so to a lesser extent it was for me as well.

It's an Italian restaurant, long in existence. Arturo Gismondi began serving his homemade dishes in 1983, and his children and grandchildren continue the tradition today.  We had dinner on the main floor,  the one with the piano.  We'll get to that.  Our waiter and his assistants brought out the food on those multi-level carts, real old school.  If you order a slice of pie, the server will grab the entire thing from the cart and carve it right there.

The food was good.  Very good.  I had the Caloppina di Vitello alla Francese, battered veal in a white wine sauce.  The others all voiced similar approval for their selections.  The Coda d'Aragosta alla Fiorentina - very large shrimp accompanied by clams and mussels - looked scrumptious.   Honestly, I like the cuisine at Trattoria Romana in east Boca a bit more, but Arturo's menu is still prime.  The atmosphere is very elegant; the restaurant was built to resemble a Tuscan villa.  You can have a small party downstairs, in the wine cellar.

Back on the main floor, the night really got entertaining once the piano man was rolling.  Renditions of Sinatra and Dino made up most of the set list.  Wait, no Rosemary Clooney? No Pat Cooper?  One of the hosts began belting out all the expected sentimental chestnuts.  Many diners that night were of age.  They couldn't help but get up and dance in the small area in front of the baby grand.  A bit awkward, as servers have to pass through there to get to the tables, but it's all part of the family feeling.  The singing ranged from agreeable to downright cheesy.  The same could be said of the dancing.

Much of that was courtesy of a gentleman named Giovanni.  He got out there and tripped the light, well, you know.  No matter that he was Greek.  He even threw down a few (plastic) plates. He motioned to a few younger ladies, including my wife, to join him! Then, pop hits old and new drew a few more wallflowers.  Good times.

But before this giddiness, Giovanni attempted to fire up some bananas foster.  It took two efforts, as he was perhaps foolishly multi-tasking - delivering orders to other tables and every so often watching his project,  trying not to burn the place down.  He did indeed scorch the first plate.  When he attempted to use the same one again, our party balked.  His reaction was best described as disbelief.  His WTF stare was icy.   It was awkward there for a minute or two.  Oddly hilarious, too.  But really, so was the entire night.

During Giovanni's dark cloud moment I was reminded of an unfavorable review I saw online:  "The owner has no customer service skills and neither does the waiter."  I disagree, but I do appreciate the family style, even if you get the occasional dirty look.

Arturo's Ristorante
6750 North Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL  33487
(561) 997-7373 
arturosrestaurant.com

Monday, May 8, 2017

Glengarry Glen Ross

1992's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is not a great movie per se, but showcases a gallery of knockout performances that, while it plays out in all its obscene glory, sure seems that way.  It's easy to get lost in the ferocious performances of Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and in one amusing, classic scene, Alec Baldwin.  For this project, it's all about the acting and the writing.  David Mamet adapted his own play, and has again written dialogue that sounds like music.  It's a joy to listen to.  Someone even coined the term "Mametspeak" to describe the rhythmic torrents that when flying out of the right actors' mouth are as sublime as anything written in its era.

But as a film, GLENGARRY is competent but unremarkable.  James Foley directs minimally, aside from a few stylish touches (rain, colored neon, unusual camera angles) here and there.  This is also not merely a filmed play; several scenes do take place outside the office.    I suppose any director would've been wise to stand back and let the cast go, offering guidance only when requested.  I picture Lemmon maybe having a frustrated moment or two, closing his eyes and asking Foley for a line or a motivation.  It's hard to quantify what makes a film great inherently when you've analyzed all the usual things: editing, cinematography, composition.  I found myself wondering what the movie would've been like if Scorsese had directed - quick edits and zooms, well chosen music. Or Mike Nichols - similar use of lighting, some close-ups? Another "actor's director" approach? Maybe something like Hal Ashby used to do?

No matter.  The cast put this trenchant examination of the American Dream (dubbed by the actors as "Death of a Fuckin' Salesman") over so effectively you're just exhausted and stunned by the time the ending comes.  And I really like how Foley ends this movie, somewhat abruptly as one of the hapless real estate agents once again picks up the phone, trying to convince someone to buy land.  Then we cut to that near constantly present elevated train roaring past the office.  Life goes on.  No matter what harrowing shit goes down in the boiler room, be it robberies, interrogations, or hurt feelings, there will always be a monthly quota to meet.

At the opening of the film, a company guy named Blake (Baldwin) arrives to verbally abuse/motivate the  sales guys, offering a Cadillac for the top seller.  The other options are a set of steak knives or walking papers.  Blake's speech has become legend, constantly quoted.  "A. B. C.  Always. Be. Closing."  His audience isn't motivated, they're defeated and pissed.  Such condescension.  Who does this guy think he is?  They're out there busting hump, given dead end leads by their weasly office manager Williamson (Spacey), trying to make a living.  Moss (Harris) takes it especially hard, in many subsequent scenes describing how Medieval it's all become, this method of intimidation, this corporate bullshit.  George Aaronow (Arkin) can do little but agree with him.  Shelley Levine (Lemmon) is the saddest of all, a former hotshot who finds that his smooth patter doesn't cut it anymore.  His desperation fueled by having a sick wife.

Richard Roma (Pacino) is the #1 slickster du jour, seen in the early moments of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS in a Chinese restaurant convincing an easily convincible man (Jonathan Pryce) to drop several grand.  Roma's pitch will be familiar to anyone who's had the misfortune of sitting down with one of these vipers.  Guys like him are America's "winners", the ones who flash the expensive accoutrements. But even Ricky will have to back pedal, employ crafty dishonesty to try to save a sale.  A scene with Pacino, Pryce, and Lemmon late in the film is probably as real as it gets when it comes to sales hucksterism.  Mamet really nails it.

The insight the writer has into the desperate middle-ager trying to not just get his slice of the pie, but just eke out a living, extends also to some of their clients.  Blake yells in his tirade that if a guy is on the lot, he wants to buy.  But we also learn some customers don't intend to buy anything, they're just lonely and want someone to chat with.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Maps to the Stars

How deeply and luridly fascinating it was to watch 2014's MAPS TO THE STARS, to witness director David Cronenberg's view of Tinseltown dysfunction to the max.  Often, American culture is more clearly viewed through the eyes of an outsider.   To wit, Cronenberg had never shot a single scene in the U.S. until this movie, even though some of his previous were set here.   With a blueprint by Hollywood sorta-insider Bruce Wagner, this movie had the potential to be trashy fun.  In Cronenberg's hands, it's a clinical dissection of hollowed souls who have taken any leave of compassion for others and exist only to survive.  Like subterranean foragers.  SUNSET BOULEVARD with elements of astrology and a supply of Valium.

The characters in MAPS TO THE STARS all cross paths at some point.  Some are related to each other.  One, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just arrived to L.A. after years in a sanitarium in Florida.  She seems kinda off, nihilistic.  She intrigues and repels a limo driver/wannabe actor and screenwriter named Jerome (Robert Pattinson).  Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty, severely disturbed child star/teen idol who already feels washed up, and has already done time in rehab.  His mother Christina (Olivia Williams) is one of those intense stage parents who manages his career.  Christina's husband is Dr. Stanford Weiss (John Cusack), television psychologist/author/lecturer/bogus healer who has genuinely washed up actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) as a patient.

These characters have deep, dark, ugly secrets.  Incest is involved.  Drugs, too, of course.  At least two characters are regularly visited by ghosts.  Some are trying to achieve and/or hold on to fame.  Isn't everyone in Hollywood? The barbs are not easy satire, or just a parade of celebrity cameos (aside from Carrie Fisher, who is integral to the plot).  The seeming collision of Cronenberg and Wagner's points of view somehow gel to create a consistently fascinating, pitch black nightmare that casts its harsh light of interrogation right into the cores of these people.  People who sing and dance when they learn a rival actor's child has died 'cause now they'll get that coveted role for sure, who manipulate others' insecurities and lifelong neuroses and get paid for it, who are driven by a mission to pay for past sins by attempting to "make things right", or at least finish what they started in the first place.

There is plenty of wicked humor, much of it via Moore, who is dynamite.  I imagine her portrayal of a fading starlet living in the shadow of a famous mother is pretty dead on.  Her diva like behavior, her failure at a threesome ("I'm a lousy dyke") and even a moment of constipation wring knowing laughter.  She even gets a MOMMIE DEAREST-type moment. Surely the filmmakers meant an homage? Someone getting bludgeoned to death with an award is also a pretty potent image of life in the fast lane.  Possibly says it all.

P.S. Twenty demerits to Cronenberg for what is one of the worst uses of CGI seen in a movie of this caliber.  Watch for it near the end.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Elle

"Rape is not an act of sex, it's an act of violence" was an oft heard quote as I was growing up.  Be it a talk show or a school counselor lecturing our class. No thin line in between.   But I also heard that some women  entertained rape fantasies, enjoyed being dominated, even if injury occurred and blood was drawn.  Parisian exec Michele Leblanc is raped in her home one afternoon.  She gets up not too many seconds after her attacker flees, clearly shaken but seemingly more concerned with the shards of broken glass and other mess that surrounds her.  When she takes a bath a few scenes later, she nonchalantly bats away the pool of blood that eminates from her vagina.

Michele seems barely fazed by this event.  She does not report it to the police, and even takes her time revealing it to her friends, who respond with disbelief and horror.  Is Michele one of those women who enjoys being violated? She screams and kicks while it happens.  Later, she daydreams that she bludgeons and kills her rapist. Pepper spray and a small axe are purchased.  Maybe she is not one of those people.  But how does she feel about it? Does she feel anything?

Isabelle Huppert plays the central character in 2016's ELLE as a hard, unsentimental Type A who doesn't betray much to her family and confidants.  At least, not what's really happening within her psyche.  Michele's life has been littered with tragedy.  Her father was a serial killer who took his ten year old daughter along for the carnage.  How does one emerge unscathed from such a history? How does it affect your morality, your concern for others? Michele is not the most moral individual - she has an affair with her business partner's boyfriend and flirts with her neighbor, who is married to a devout Catholic woman.  She also repeatedly mocks her elderly mother and her decision to carry on with a much younger lover.

Huppert, a sixty-something convincingly playing a fifty-something, is magnificent.  Never once do we find her trite, caricatured.  Credit David Birke's multidimensional character sketch, but the actress fleshes it out so as to make her vividly real.  Many viewers will be disgusted with Michele's tendency to humiliate others, to disregard fidelity. To almost flaunt double standards. She unapologetically admits her affair to her co-worker.  When asked by her why she did it, Michele replies that she simply wanted to get laid.  Nothing on her face suggests remorse.

Nor did it (or anything else) show during a revealing scene when Michelle is viewed playing lifeless, frigid, and utterly disinterested as that boyfriend thrusts on top of her.  Her lover, he little more than a boastful, primal being with a fragile ego, raves at how "brilliant" Michele was, pretending she was bored.  Right.   Would his manhood be threatened otherwise? Would he be unable to perform if Michelle actually engaged herself in the act of intercourse?

Some may call Michele a bitch on wheels.  She probably wouldn't argue with that.  But she's no less hard on herself.

And you don't have to like Michele.  It may affect your ability to relate to her at times.  I don't need to like or root for movie protagonists. I'm more interested in flawed individuals.   Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven create not some man's cliched idea of a victim, but rather a truly fascinating character who has steeled herself so thoroughly even a brutal sexual assault will not interrupt her plans for take out. She still has a business to run.  Does that make her inhuman?  She is not like the mute rape victim in MS. 45, shooting every male she encounters afterward.  Michele will not give her unwanted visitor or anyone else that much control.  That seems to be what it's about for her.

ELLE is also about consent.  Certainly, Michele did not offer such to the man in the ski mask.  But as the screenplay gels with several (perhaps too many) story threads and characters, "consent" transforms into a far more complex idea.  The movie goes into many unexpected directions.  The whodunit angle is the weakest of the screenplay; the identity of the rapist (revealed long before the finale) should be fairly obvious.  And once we learn who he is, the film really takes flight in examining submissive and dominant roles.  Of a man's power, and how it can evaporate when his victim turns the table - not by fighting back, but encouraging the aggression.  Not responding as a cowering victim.  To what end? You see a theme? This is not a typical revenge picture.

Verhoeven is known for audacious movies.  From his early Dutch art house to his American hits and beyond, he has never shied from explicit content or controversial points of view.  In ELLE, he restrains himself to some degree (the rape scenes, while highly unpleasant, are not filmed for sensationalism), but allows his fearless outlook to explore themes and behaviors you would not see in a Lifetime movie with this subject matter.  Huppert is a perfect match for him.  Despite its imperfections, ELLE is a film with which they should be quite proud.

Friday, April 28, 2017

More Passages

Another year, and more celebrities exiting this troubled world.  This week we lost two who were significant, at different times of my life, in what I spent time viewing.  One was a film director who began writing and shooting exploitation films and would later create some true masterpieces of cinema.  The other was a child star whose success faded, then crashed and burned.   I had admiration for both, for very different reasons.

Jonathan Demme, who fell to cancer this past Wednesday at age seventy-thee, worked for Roger Corman in the early to mid-70s.  His credits included the women's prison flick CAGED HEAT and the Peter Fonda revenge pic FIGHTING MAD.  Corman mandated a formula for success, mainly a certain amount of nude scenes, but otherwise let his directors (who also included Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ron Howard) realize their specific visions.  With limited budgets, this may have been difficult and those looking for Demme's later virtuosity in his first movies may have to work a bit.  But each, especially CRAZY MAMA, had its eccentricities, its touches of humanity for which Demme was well known.  And the director was respected and endeared to many of his casts and crews and peers.

The first Demme movie I saw was MELVIN AND HOWARD, the story of a loser named Melvin Dummar who claims to be a beneficiary to the will of Howard Hughes.  It is a funny and wistful observant portrait of America, the one not characterized by tony suburbs and debutante balls.  With many of his films, Demme chose to mine the plights of characters found in beauty parlors, trailer parks, truck stops, and factories, to tell their stories in a no nonsense yet stylish fashion (Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are big fans).  The director never pointed at or mocked his subjects.  He celebrated them.  Demme must have been great with actors.  He viewed them as collaborators, not puppets.

Not every film was golden.  While the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was a solid remake, I just found it unnecessary.  Likewise with THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE.  But the films for which the director is best known, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SOMETHING WILD, PHILADELPHIA, MARRIED TO THE MOB, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED are all classics in my book.  I've reviewed some of Demme's films on this blog.  I anticipate writing several more.

Jonathan Demme was also known for his fine documentaries. There were the concerts like STOP MAKING SENSE, very likely the best film of its type ever made.  NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD captured the recovering singer in fine form, unobtrusively.  As a friend pointed out, these documents also told stories.  Listen to David Byrne's commentary on STOP sometime.  I've yet to see NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS.   JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS was a highly positive, yet never white washed look at this unfairly maligned former President.  I plan to watch THE AGRONOMIST and COUSIN BOBBY, which details the director's Episcopalian minister cousin, who served in Harlem.

Demme employed signature quirk for some movies, fluid style for others. And he was a warm, caring individual to boot.  There was none like him.  R.I.P.


Erin Moran, who last weekend also succumbed cancerous ravages, was one of my first T.V. crushes.  I had watched Happy Days quite religiously as child.  Every Tuesday night at 8:00 on ABC.  Moran played Joanie Cunningham, the younger sister of Richie, played by Ron Howard.  The show was a valentine to the 1950s, and corny as hell.  I can't get through an episode these days, but as a child, I was transfixed...By the time I hit puberty, Moran was becoming somewhat of a sex symbol, albeit in a girl-next-door sorta way.  I was envious of Scott Baio, who played Chachi, her boyfriend and eventual groom.  They even did a short-lived spin off.  By that time, my interest was waning.  We now had cable and network sitcoms no longer interested me.

But even though my attention to Miss Moran was of a, ahem, prurient nature, I always recognized her endearing personality. When she started on the program she was so cute and perky, affectionately called "Shortcake" by Fonzie. Moran had actually been acting steadily since the 1960s, including an appearance on Daktari.  She later grew into an attractive young woman, and even if she wasn't always the character who got the best lines, she lent more than able support and lit up the screen.

As with all too many child actors, adulthood would not greet her with open arms.  Hollywood is unforgiving, and quite willing to cast aside yesterday's bright lights.  Moran did a few television shows and B-movies here and there, but I always wondered why she didn't continue in film, or at least on another sitcom.  I'm sure she tried.  Even with her connections with her Days co-stars, some of whom who did go on to bigger and better, the roles were not there.  I recall watching a latter day interview where she makes a brief pitch to Howard, to hire her.  It was not pathetic groveling.  What happened?  I think the girl had talent.

You've seen the highly unflattering pictures from the last several years.  Erin Moran lost her L.A. home and was reduced to living in a trailer park with her husband.  She's seen appearing as if strung out on intoxicants, following a trajectory almost as tragic as that of Margot Kidder and some others.  I always feel horribly for these people, even if they "brought it on themselves."  I can't imagine the psychological tolls of childhood stardom.  There are several names in that book: Dana Plato. Corey Haim. Macauley Culkin.  You wonder if they had toxic parents (some did).  I think they deserved better legacies than merely being punchlines.

But then you look at Ron Howard, famous from his very early years, and kept his success running to this day.  He's always seemed incredibly, unusually well adjusted for someone who's been under the lights for so long.  Howard had some nice words for his former T.V. sister, choosing to remember her from the "happy days."  Good advice.  R.I.P. Shortcake.  Fifty-six is far too young for a passage.

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.