Thursday, August 17, 2017

Night of the Juggler

The late 70s/early 80s saw a long slate of tawdry urban action dramas.  The genre was quite diverse.  During that period several films depicted concrete jungle wastelands as the stage upon which desperate urbanites fought back against the oppressions of poverty, corruption, racism, random violence.  Movies like FORT APACHE, THE BRONX tried to put us in the muck with weary cops and make us understand just how third world our own backyard had become.  Others with gang members as protagonists like THE WARRIORS were more stylized and cartoonish.  Perhaps taking a cue from 1974's DEATH WISH, and no doubt real life, FIGHTING BACK and the telefilm WE'RE FIGHTING BACK considered the Everyman whose own neighborhood had become a battleground, a place where you were afraid to travel, where even going out for a slice at the corner pizzeria became a hazard. 

1980's NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER considers a divorced ex-cop, now eking out a living as a truck driver, named Boyd (James Brolin) who lives in a rough neighborhood with his teenage daughter.  After parting with her as she walks to school, a creep (Cliff Gorman) snatches her, thinking she's actually the daughter of a wealthy local politico.  The event happens at just the right moment for Boyd to witness it and thus begins a relentless daylong pursuit that will take him through some of the roughest and sleaziest portions of Manhattan.  This would of course include a Times Square peep show.  Any gritty movie set in NYC in the '70s has to involve those sidewalk barkers and scantily (some non) clad dancers.

But the real shithole? The South Bronx, in all its rubble and defeat. The very definition of late twentieth century neglect.  Where our weirdo scumbag racist villain still lives in his childhood apartment despite the alarming decline around him: "It used to be a nice place, then all the niggers and Spics came in" he laments several times.   NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER was filmed entirely on location.  You can fake the physical devastation on a soundstage, but it's much harder to fake the vibe. And that special rotten feel, the palpable fear you got in the City in those days is perfectly captured in this movie.  For that reason alone it is worth something.  When Boyd finally tracks down his daughter and her captor, it's in an area of jaw dropping devastation.  A glaring failure of city government.

As a result perhaps, Boyd's mere presence inspires a gang of Puerto Ricans to taunt him. During a frantic getaway, a black female cab driver offers this summary: a white man showing his face in the South Bronx alerts the locals that he is either a debt collector or a cop.  But as Boyd has demonstrated throughout the movie, he is no one to be messed with.  He beats the hell out of the entire gang not once but twice.  Prior to that, he bests one of his former police force colleagues, the crazed Sergeant Barnes (a bug eyed, wild haired Dan Hedaya) who blames him for his shattered domestic life after Boyd wouldn't join him in a ring of corruption.  That Barnes is pretty crazy,  firing a shotgun at Boyd through the streets of Manhattan, even with hordes of bystanders at every corner.  That scene, by the way, is one of the dumbest and most improbable I can recall seeing in any movie.

There are too many improbabilities to list, honestly.  Like why the daughter just sits quietly in the kidnapper's car instead of struggling to get out after she's abducted.  Or the scene at the peep show.  Or Boyd's seemingly superhuman strength (and lack of any discernable fear). Or Mandy Patinkin as an Hispanic cabbie who joins in a wild car chase (where are the cops?) And speaking of... Richard Castellano, good ol' Clemenza from THE GODFATHER, is on hand as the busy Lieutenant who finds himself trading New York causticisms over the phone with the kidnapper.

Director Robert Butler had overseen many Disney comedies before this real 180 of a direction change, and his work is fair, nothing remarkable.  But the climax is very poorly lit and abrupt.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Detective Story

Spoilers

Jim McLeod is unconcerned with grey areas.  Or maybe he is just unable to see them.  As a detective with the NYPD, he witnesses a nonstop procession of lowlifes, many who show little interest in or ability at rehabilitation.  But there are also the first time offenders, those who commit petty thefts out of desperation or to get attention.  McLeod's colleagues argue that such individuals deserve another chance, that a booking will stay on their records and possibly ruin their lives.  McLeod is unrepentant, determined to hold up the law to the letter, even when a man who was embezzled by his employee wants to drop the charges.

Have the realities of the job hardened this man?  "I'm drowning", McLeod (Kirk Douglas) admits late in 1951's DETECTIVE STORY.  By that point, the reasons are more personal.  But throughout the movie, he describes a lifelong hatred of his father who had a "criminal mind" that stokes his fire toward crime and those who perpetrate, regardless of the severity.  Is this why he relentlessly torments shamed physician Karl Schneider (George Macready) for a year after arresting him? Enough to make the doctor, wanted for malpractice, turn himself in so the abuse will cease?

McLeod will learn how Schneider is connected to his loving wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) during the second half of DETECTIVE STORY.  It is about that time that the film unfortunately stumbles, loses its surefootedness in portraying the realities of being a cop or a criminal in the Big City in the mid-twentieth century.  The associated melodrama of the McLeods' story is powerful and involving but overwhelms the movie's previously steady observation of how folks view the law, or perhaps react to it.

Some are devil-may-care, like longtime criminal Charlie Gennini (Joseph Wiseman), who mocks the detectives with shrieks of hysteria. Others are small time thieves like Arthur (William Reynolds) who steals from his boss only so he can afford to take an old girlfriend out for a fancy dinner.  Or a sad, unnamed shoplifter (Lee Grant, in her debut) who is scared of even being fingerprinted.  A lonely woman who is so eager to get married her only apparent criteria is that the guy wears a pair of pants.

A majority of the story occurs on one set, the police precinct.  This echoes the film's origins, a 1949 play of the same name.  Director William Wyler uses that set in very creative ways, always finding another bit of business to keep it interesting: the way a cop uses his foot to keep a door from slamming, the dispatcher's use of his desk. The actors embody the space very naturally and believably.  It feels lived in. Wyler establishes an atmosphere capturing what seem like real lawmen going about their business.

But punctuating it is some heart thumping drama, which include taboo-for-the-time elements like premarital sex, abortion, and even a cop killing.  There will be an act of contrition that perhaps sufficiently resolves one character's awesome flaws. As you examine those, consider the attitudes of an American male in the time period.   If screenwriters Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan had dispensed with the Big Revelations and just given us a slice of life, I would've been satisfied.  But DETECTIVE STORY is a well acted, fine drama nonetheless.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Automatic for the People

I have a friend who feels that "each R.E.M. album is worse than the previous." He's one of those I.R.S. label snobs, i.e., he feels that the band never made as intimate or exciting an album once they signed with Warner Brothers.  I vehemently disagree.  As late as 1998 they were still breaking ground with their Up album.  As much as I adore the early efforts like Murmur and Life's Rich Pageant, my absolute favorite in the R.E.M discography is 1992's Automatic for the People, which will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary this October.

Such a wonderfully arranged album. Lots of slow tempo ballads. String arrangements are as common as guitar charts.  The mood is somber and mostly defeated, yet there is a strange sense of hope, especially with the album's closer, "Find the River", an astonishingly beautiful song that considers both youth and old age.  Similarly, the gentle remembrance "Nightswimming", with its lovely piano and oboe seduces listeners with some unexplainable, almost supernatural air.  Lyrically, the band seems to be lamenting the passage of time, increasing concerns of mortality, even merely wondering if there is a place to sleep ("The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite").

"Try Not To Breathe", with its end of life lament, has haunted me since the first listen.  It is my favorite track on this album.  In more recent years, my interpretation of it has gone beyond that of someone at the end of his life to perhaps someone who has already passed on.  Imagining the words are coming from some of my deceased loved ones has brought me to tears.   Yet, its sad poetry has this comforting assurance, through its words and also perhaps in part with its conveyance of both melancholy and occasionally more dissonant C & W guitar work by Peter Buck.

Despite the peaceful vibe of most of the album, angers springs forth in the politically charged "Ignoreland", during which lead singer Michael Stipe is railing against the previous Republican Presidential administrations. His delivery is muffled; it takes some effort to catch all the words.  It's as if Stipe is shouting the song through a bullhorn at some rally.  "Drive" seethes in a slower drawl, but is no less pissed at the state of early '90s culture.

"Man on the Moon" was a tribute to the late comedian/provacateur Andy Kaufman, and its title was used for a 1999 film bio directed by Milos Forman.  The unconventional structure of the song (how appropriate for its subject matter) is a tribute to Buck and drummer Bill Berry's adventurous writing, nicely rounded out by bassist Mike Mills.  Stipe's vocal performance on this song is fabulous, suggesting pathos and joy, often at the same time.

My least favorite tune is one of the most popular from this album: "Everybody Hurts" has always been a treacly, over the top, melodramatic bit of pop that just rubbed me the wrong way.  It feels like a deliberate plea to have a hit.  When I read that the song was "aimed at teenagers", those young souls for whom every romantic slight is the end of the world, it made sense.  It didn't help me appreciate it any more.

P.S. "Sweetness Follows" and "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" are respectively used in the films VANILLA SKY and BABY DRIVER quite deftly.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Sting

Spoilers Within

The shine of 1973's THE STING has happily not been tarnished by decades of cinema similarly featuring confidence games.  Elaborate plots by grifters to swindle and cheat their rivals, usually out of a large sum of money.  Films such as THE SPANISH PRISONER and NINE QUEENS delight in keeping audiences guessing as to who is conning whom, and subsequently pulling out the rug when all indications prove entirely wrong.  Some of these films allow us certain knowledge, to be "in on it", but usually there is at least one hoodwink which we didn't see coming.

The finale of THE STING has such a moment, and it's a doozie.  My saying that alone may be a spoiler, so beware.  What is the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? Hasn't everyone of a certain age who seeks out film already seen this box office smash? Or at least that its outcome is widely known? Something akin to Darth Vader's revelation to Luke Skywalker?   I did read that co-star Robert Redford, who plays the wonderfully named Johnny Hooker, didn't watch his own movie until 2004, over thirty years after its initial release.  I had forever caught individual scenes but did not see the entire thing until 2016.  So shhhhh, already!

It's 1936;  Illinois con man Hooker participates in small time hustles until one day he nets a windfall - a cool 11 K from a mark who quite unfortunately turns out to be a courier for the hissably mean crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).  Hooker gets this information a bit too late from dirty cop William Snyder (Charles Durning) - who is looking for a piece - as he's already blown his entire share at the roulette wheel.  When Hooker's friend and colleague ends up dead, he scrambles to Chicago, where he hooks up with legendary con artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), now a face down drunk who operates a merry-go-round.  But legends don't die easily.

Hooker is thirsty for revenge.  Gondorff is wise enough to know such a driver is bad for the business of grifting, but he sees potential in the kid.  A plan is hatched to hit back at the vicious Snyder, one that will involve poker and horse racing and lots of faked locations: offices and parlors and the like, and even Federal agents.  Oops, I did it again.  It's difficult to talk about THE STING without giving things away.  And while we're privy to the boys' and their accomplices' trickery, David S. Ward's exemplary screenplay still provides a few gotchas in the later going.  We don't share every conversation with these guys.

There is pleasure as well in watching this great cast work.  Newman and Redford re-team with their BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID director George Roy Hill and turn in some natural, charismatic performances.  Star performances,  with merely a wink or even a belch.  The supporting cast is comprised of actors like Eileen Brennan and Ray Walston, all turning in perfectly whimsical yet sorta gritty turns in a Depression era landscape where everyone is hungry.  If you have not viewed this classic you owe yourself.  Even if you've heard Marvin Hamlisch's adaption of Scott Joplin ragtime music a million times.  And it's still just wonderful.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

I dunno, invisible audience.  I found this year's THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE to be a real disappointment.  Probably moreso because this was a spin off that I thought could really be something.  One that really earned its existence as a spinoff.  Batman was one of the many delights of the original LEGO movie; his supersized ego delivered via that patented growly voice was truly hilarious.  He just about stole the movie.  How easy it would be to give him his own adventure.  This should(ve) be(en) a slam dunk.

Well.....first the good points.  Will Arnett does another great job of voicing the superhero/Bruce Wayne.  His rasp is still perfect.  He doesn't merely have eight-pack abs; he has a ninth!  The screenplay (credited to five writers) gives him several funny lines. Gotta love that password!  I also loved the random moment when he begins wailing on an electric guitar deep within the Batcave.    The movie works in clever references to just about every Batman movie and T.V. show dating back to the 1940s.  The music and onscreen exclamations (Pow! Zap! etc.) of the Adam West program are amusingly woven in.  The computer animation is sensational, if overly stimulating.  This movie feels like the equivalent of a child who's been unwisely allowed to consume too much sugar.

So....the bad points? It's too much.  Too much action, too much noise.  That sadly may just mean I'm too old for THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE.  I love frantic movies as much as the next overgrown adolescent, but they seem to be upping the ante on chaos with each shiny new studio product.  Is everyone so deficient in their attention spans that they have to be assaulted with color, noise, and movement at every second? Probably, yes.  That opening scene is a great example.  Seriously, I almost bailed on this movie because it was so ridiculous.  Shame on you, director Chris McKay!

Back to the screenplay.  A feel good message about working as a team is the main take home here.  Batman has always been a lone wolf, a sociopath exorcising some major demons.  When the Commissioner's daughter, Alfred the butler, and an adoptee who eventually becomes Robin repeatedly badger the big grouch to allow them to help him fight the bad guys you might forgive the movie's excesses, though the message itself is sometimes brought across with just as much as a sledgehammer approach as everything else.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE also addresses the complicated relationship between Batman and the Joker, his main nemesis.  A bit surprising.  Not explored in any dark manner ala the comics or the Christopher Nolan movies, but given a whimsical spin with a few snarky moments.  I might've appreciated them more if THE MOVIE JUST CALMED DOWN A LITTLE BIT.

Ahem.

Your kids will probably love it.  There are a lot of butt jokes.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dunkirk

In their wild praise, some film critics and fans of writer/director Christopher Nolan have proclaimed his current film DUNKIRK as the best World War II film ever made. For the latter group, it's unsurprising.  Have you encountered any Nolan fanboys on forums or social media? Defensive lot.  They find no fault with their hero, no nitpicks of his works.  As if he is criticism proof.  No artist is or should be immune from reproach.  I am a huge fan of David Lynch and am currently digesting his new Twin Peaks series, which has proven to be everything from mind blowingly brilliant to maddeningly amateurish, depending on the episode (even the scene). I have no hesitation in calling him out if I think he's failed in some fashion.  To worship an artist is to be blind to his or her deficiencies.  But also, to me at least, those shortcomings can be as intriguing as what makes them so renowned.

I can point out several deficiencies in DUNKIRK, mainly what isn't there that I think should be.  I've seen numerous war films: everything from "B" programmers to works I would consider poetic. I, and apparently many others, have expectations for narrative and characterization.  Mine would not be as comprehensive as perhaps that of other viewers.  I don't need flashbacks, or characters sitting around and reminiscing.  I don't need a lot of exposition.  Yet, as the triptych of DUNKIRK's narrative was unfolding, I at times was craving some familiar meat.  Nolan's film is a disorienting, battering experience (especially in IMAX, highly recommended. Hell, a must). You can surmise that that was the idea - just like that of the young British private who, after a stunning opening scene, escapes to the perimeter of the beach only to be plunged into a week long nightmare of narrow escapes on land and sea.  He, like many thousands of others are trying to survive the Nazi invasion of France, awaiting evacuation.  Nolan expertly stages a series of harrowing scenarios of sinking vessels, some torpedoed by U-Boats, others picked apart by Germans using the vessel for target practice.

Also at sea are an armada of private boats on orders of the Royal Navy to retrieve downed fighter pilots and other escapees - quite a remarkable story in itself.  Nolan focuses on one vessel, commandeered by a middle-aged man who brings along his son and a young deckhand for the mission. This section will exemplify one of the film's main thrusts - that these men were never seeking individual adulation or glory, but always working for the greater good.  History tells us there were far more boats (and soldiers) than DUNKIRK shows.  Nolan is well known for avoiding unnecessary use of CGI so his scope may have been limited.  It's a choice I can certainly live with; thank God for the director's steadfast refusal to join all the others who've resigned their visions to digital.

The third story is in the air, as Spitfire pilots battle with Luftwaffe planes.  Of the three airmen, one is left, with barely any fuel, to take down bombers who are attacking the beach and sea vessels.  His final glide (on thermals, one would assume) is dramatic in the quietest possible way, at odds with Hans Zimmer's relentless, stress inducing score that does not stop for the entire running time.  I have to agree with my mother-in-law, who loved the picture but felt that silence (at least here and there) would've been just as effective as all the noise.

Nolan was going for a down and dirty immersive experience.  To put you in the water.  At one hundred and six minutes, DUNKIRK is the director's shortest movie, and every moment has been carved away from a would-be fatty narrative that might've allowed backstories and military meetings.  Possibly even a love story of some sort.  There are many great war films with such scenes, but DUNKIRK owes more to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS than STALAG 17.   

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Maureen

You were a souped up car in that rent-a-go-cart town.




One of the finest tributes to a lost friend I've heard.  You may cry.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Groove

By the time rave culture hit South Florida, I was more or less done with the entire club scene.  So for me to relay that the events in 2000's GROOVE are you-are-there accurate or otherwise would be thoroughly dishonest.  It does seem somewhat authentic, with its glimpses of Red Bull cans and shadowy locations, secured without the cooperation of law enforcement.  The widespread use of Ecstasy.  The lack of a bar serving alcohol.  Lots of bottled water.  In GROOVE, there is also an overdose, but nothing too grim.  No one dies or even vomits.

If you've ever partied all night, whether weary or chemically altered or both, you'll recognize moments in this movie.  Where I believe its true strength lies.  The sudden soul baring to strangers.  A group all lying on top of each other and saying funny things.  Someone getting up and announcing something random.  Nonsensical philosophy.

The music and the dance sequences are terrific.  Use of slow motion is mostly effective. 

The rave in GROOVE takes place in an abandoned warehouse in San Francisco.  We begin with spearheader Ernie (Steve Van Wormer) and his cronies mapping out the battle plan. Ernie is not driven by how much he can charge a head but lives for the rave itself, the experience, and "the nod".  Then we meet two brothers: the fun-loving Colin (Denny Kirkwood) and the more mature,  responsible David (Hamish Linklater) who will fight and hug and reminisce as the X takes effect and various relations develop throughout the night.  Colin surprises his girlfriend Harmony (Mackenzie Fergens) with a marriage proposal, but we'll learn that he's not quite ready for such a commitment.  David will meet Leyla (Lola Glaudini), a frustrated woman from the East Coast who is older than the rest of the ravers.  Who's stayed at the party while many of her friends went on to have careers and babies.

The plot introduces other characters, including a guy who supplies everyone with various substances ("You've just won a trip to your cerebral cortex!") and an argumentative gay couple who never make it to the party - they were given the wrong map.  We see them in their car, getting out of it, fighting.  It felt contrived.  You could rightly say that director Greg Harrison's script does little to flesh out his characters, but in hindsight it sort of makes sense.  The night is a flash, a blur, a memory almost even as it's happening.  Two characters will share moments of deep conversation and connection, then a few hours later find themselves with half-hearted promises to stay in touch.  That's realistic.  As are the final scenes with Colin and Harmony.

What is perhaps not so realistic is how Ernie can afford talents like DJ Digweed (appearing as himself).  Does the famed vinyl spinner find that the true payment is adoration from his fans (as seen late in the movie)? Does he too do it all for "the nod"?

P.S.  The cop who busts the party is played by none other than Nick Offerman, later of Parks and Recreation.  Perfect casting and funny as hell to see all these years later.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Fast Company

Completists of director David Cronenberg may scratch their heads over 1979's FAST COMPANY, a standard issue drama set in the world of competitive funny car racing in Canada and the Northwestern U.S.  Aside from an odd nude scene involving motor oil, there is nothing here that could be described as "body horror", despite this film being made between RABID and THE BROOD.  You might consider that Cronenberg made the picture for tax reasons, or that he was merely a director for hire.  I did in fact read that he is a big fan of auto racing and something of a gearhead.

And the gearheads among you will certainly enjoy this movie's loving detail with engine prep and repair.  But that's the only clinical approach Cronenberg takes this time out, otherwise delivering a yahoo squealing tire epic that plays like a less goofy version of STROKER ACE.   If you're mining for continuity of theme with the director's other movies, you might cite the character of Phil Adamson, a slimy corporate manager for FastCo., played by B-movie regular John Saxon.  Adamson is a bona-fide company guy, comfortable with pressure upon his shoulders ("That's where I like it!") and unconcerned about his ace drag racer Lonnie's (William Smith) actual win record; he's there simply to sell a lot of product - tickets to the races and that damned motor oil.  Corporations as evil forces would recur in SCANNERS and other Cronenberg fare.

FAST COMPANY follows a leisurely pace, much like a that of a lazy afternoon at the track, as it tells its oft told tale of driver rivalry, long distance romance, hotshot upstarts, and duplicitous corporate types.  There's even a weasely mechanic who does Adamson's evil bidding to sabotage someone's engine.  Nothing in this movie requires much thought or reflection.  It's all in the moment time killing.  A movie that does things efficiently, competently (especially the nice, smooth editing by Ronald Sanders) and then ends.  So it might seem odd that while many other, similar drive-in features of its time are neglected, this movie gets a sharp remaster, looking as good as a low budget movie such as this possibly could.

In addition to Saxon, other B-movie luminaries such as Smith and Claudia Jennings (under used and quite atypically clothed the entire time) are appealing, making this outing essential for students of '70s exploitation cinema and those just plain curious to observe Cronenberg's work here, which honestly is indistinguishable from any number of Roger Corman footmen like Steve Carver and Lewis Teague et al.

Speaking of Corman, that bizarre aforementioned nude scene features two topless young hitchhikers, one of whom has FastCo oil poured on her breasts.  The scene is completely out of place (and step) with the rest of this rather tame motion picture, and it feels like something Roger might've mandated to get an R-rating, to further satisfy a coderie of salivating male filmgoers.

P.S.  FAST COMPANY's cheesy appeal is hindered/enhanced by some hilariously awful saxophone laden imitation Springsteen tunes that champion the regular guy racetrack life. Makes you want to hoist a Miller High Life and emit a lengthy belch in agreement. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Here We Are Now

It's been nearly two years since we moved in with my mother in law, following her husband's passing.  So how's life in our new 'hood?  As usual, I've merely alluded to things about my current day-to-day.  This time we are in a very pleasant gated community bordered by a golf course.   I probably should be more specific, as entries such as this will be of great interest in a few years, after we've moved on to the next stage of life.

I sometimes go back and read about my time in past apartments. I find them invaluable. They really capture my state of mind.  I've composed posts as I was leaving one place, about to move into another.  There were many others before I ever started this blog.  At least one abode no longer exists, part of an ancient multiplex that was leveled for a higher priced living and retail space.  It was right down the street from a cool one screen movie theater that ran mostly independents but also showed THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW every weekend.  When the new tenants came in, they were none too pleased with the crowd that filled the streets in the wee hours, possibly re-enacting the movie right under their windows.

Another was a two room garage apartment I lived in several months after I graduated college, and after the break up of an engagement.  The only window was in the door.  It did have a decent bathroom.  There was this red floodlight in the ceiling that doubled as a heat lamp.  When you turned it on it bathed the room in what looked like a 1970s horror pic.

I had a roommate once.  That was the next place.  He was a youth leader and sometimes I would find teenagers asleep on the living room floor when I returned home late. He requested that I not keep beer in the fridge when they were coming.  A really great guy, a true mensch.  We keep in touch on Facebook.  He never married, and seems to be quite fulfilled.  He's about to move to St. Augustine.

In 1994 I hopped around from one ill-advised living situation to another: friend's mother's house, then the house in which my mother was working as a nanny, and the oddest of all, the house my grandmother had recently sold (to a woman at her church) after living there for over twenty years.  I was now paying rent for the same place I had spent much of my childhood, and later lived in during my senior year of college.  It was like some kind of strange joke.  There are many stories about all three places, most of which will never be recounted here.

Eventually, I moved in with my mother and grandmother (two separate apartments in the same complex) when I decided to go back to school.  Before that I had moved to Atlanta and NYC.  In between was a really cool place that was the second floor of a house. Spacious Florida room in front. Very nice wood flooring. Great location.  Kitchen sucked, though; you could barely turn around in it.

But here and now we are content in a spacious DiVosta floorplan, not quite thirty years old. We're saving some money.  Hopefully we are both a pleasant distraction and a blessing to my MIL.  You might think that such a living arrangement may have its red flags, and honestly, there are times when it's a bit restricting and difficult.  My wife and I are quiet people who don't require much, and sometimes MIL wants more extroversion and conversation on our part.  We do our best.  Sometimes the three of us eat dinner together. A great time to verbalize our blessings.

There is a pool.  I've been in it exactly once, after some schvitzy yard work.  It's silly - we always talk about but never use it.  We are always so tired.  We work very long hours during the week and by the weekend we're spent.  We have been doing a weekly couple's workout every Saturday morning.

The above picture was taken on the night of July 4th.  We had a nice, mellow holiday which began with cleaning the bathroom, then lunch and a movie, then strolling around our 'hood.  I stopped and thought about the stillness of the moment.  Visions and low rumbles of firework displays to the north and south (a few amateur shows close by).  It was so peaceful.  Even the humidity didn't bother me just then.  We were mostly silent during our walk - not awkward silence.  Contented. Blessed.  One of those calm moments you want to last forever.  Seeing the silhouette of my wife on the left of the picture (if you can in fact discern that it is a human shape) might inspire wonder for someone who wasn't there.  Who is this? What of her life? I do that with certain images.  The scene had to be captured, savored.  Looked back on months and years later.  A picture of serenity.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Searchers

When a viewer approaches a film that has long had an impossibly grandiose reputation, it's tempting to blame yourself when you reach the end of it and feel somewhat disappointed. Were the taste makers incorrect? Were you born too late? Are you cognitively deficient in some way?  I was concerned that this would occur with Johns Ford's 1956 classic THE SEARCHERS, so I put off seeing it for some time.  Critics and filmmakers have sung its praises since its original release.  David Lean, Martin Scorsese, and even Jean-Luc Godard were inspired.  So was Buddy Holly, who named a song after an oft repeated line.  But by the time John Wayne was seen as a silhouette in a doorway near the end, an image as iconic as it gets, my fears were proven entirely unfounded.  Long before, in fact.

Wayne and Ford worked together so many times I imagine some unspoken symbiosis existed between (even with reports of Ford's taunting of his star).  As Ethan Edwards, Wayne has perhaps his most complex role as a Confederate soldier who irritates the Texas Rangers by refusing to join them, among other grievances.  In his wanderings, Ethan fought with the Mexicans in their revolutionary war.   Edwards also possesses a cache of gold coins that may have been obtained under shady means.  

When Ethan's brother's family is attacked (some of them killed) by Comanche Indians, the wanderer joins forces with Ranger Captain Sam Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse in pursuit.  Soon after, they are ambushed (more than once) by the Comanche and the searchers are down to Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter).  Their campaign to locate Martin's missing sister Debbie (played by Lana and Natalie Wood at different ages) will stretch into several years, much to the dismay of a young lady named Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), whose family housed the men for a time on their journey.

Eventually the men will learn that a brutal Comanche chief called Scar (Henry Brandon) has abducted Debbie and made her one of his wives.  In a plot point that apparently mirrors many true life stories, the now adolescent girl has adopted the ways of her clan.   Ethan's hatred of the Comanche will lead to a decisive moment between him and Martin, as the latter attempts to protect Debbie from both the Indians and his uncle.

THE SEARCHERS quite artfully explores the racism that seethed between the Indians and their quarry.  Both sides justifying their hate and vengefulness by atrocities committed upon them.  Both perhaps are justified. Each believes the other is unworthy of life. Ethan is tainted by character flaws and inconsistencies and is single minded in his belief that Debbie is better off dead than as an Indian.  Does Ford portray the Comanche unfairly or inaccurately? Is the tribe only taking back what was taken from them before?

Frank S. Nugent's screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Alan Le May) also allows much implication: of the physical defilement of young woman absorbed into an Indian tribe, of how some relationships among the Edwards clan may not be what they at first seem, leading to more implications of the motivations of the main characters.

Much food for thought.  Maybe overly familiar to young viewers weaned on later movies that pay homage to this undisputed classic.  Some films lose a bit of their punch when admirers/filmmakers lift scenes and dialogue for their own classics.  Maybe I was born too late to get the full effect of Ford's film, though I still found it powerful and unforgettable.  Winton C. Hoch's cinematography is among the best of its era and is as much a reason for THE SEARCHER's status as anything else.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Boys From Brazil

SPOILERS!

I don't know how Ira Levin's best seller read on the page, but its 1978 adaptation THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is quite the camp fest. A straight faced film with more laughs than many comedies of its time (and possibly since).  It might have been unavoidable.  The story involves the efforts of thoroughly loony Nazi physician Joseph Mengele, now based in South America, to create a new master race of Aryan children.

The raw materials are there for an effective meld of sci-fi, social drama, political drama, and thriller.  All of these elements are included in Heywood Gould's screenplay but intentionally or not this production readily embraces the sensational at every turn. Director Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) seems to have followed his worst instincts and ignored the sort of restraint he's exhibited in earlier pictures.  The blame also must fall, quite unfortunately, on its stellar cast, which includes Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (obviously based on Simon Wisenthal) and Gregory Peck as Mengele.

Lieberman gets a call from an enthusiastic young Jewish man (Steve Guttenberg) who has been staking out Third Reichers, including Menegle, in Paraguay.  There is a devious plan of some sort brewing, the man exclaims to Lieberman's disbelieving ears.  The kid gets too close and loses his life.  When Lieberman eventually decides to investigate himself, his travels gradually reveal a complex plot involving murder, adoption, ova fertilization, and cloning that is explained in a lengthy scene with a university professor (Bruno Ganz).

This is all fascinating, and the idea that all of it could potentially occur will give many viewers pause, maybe even send the intended chill down one's spine.  There are some potent moments, but not enough to temper the plethora of laughs and overracting.  And yes, this would be courtesy of the leads.

Olivier sports a bizarre high pitched accent and flails around.  Peck, in a very uncharacteristic part, chews the scenery like never before, particularly during a Nazi ball.  Watching the great actor go ballistic on a woman ("You ugly bitch!") is both hilarious and depressing.  Then comes the finale, where the adversaries find themselves rolling on the floor in a lengthy fight.  I've read that the actors had trouble nailing this scene as they could not stop laughing at its absurdity. Then come the Dobermans, and things get pretty ugly.  And then one of the Nazi clone kids arrives, emitting a "Holy shit!" when he realizes just who is in his living room.  Of course, he then has to take lots of pictures.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL therefore is little more than a globetrotting potboiler with a glossy veneer.  The screenplay, filled with hysterical dialogue and racial slurs, could've easily been another '70s drive-in B movie.  Perhaps the subject attracted the world class actors.  Or maybe Olivier sought subsidization for an expensive rug he fancied.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Founder

If I saw a competitor drowning, I'd shove a hose down his throat.

Ray Kroc billed himself as founder of the McDonald's Corporation, but in fact was the guy who multiplied the franchises across the U.S. and eventually around the globe.  Maurice and Richard McDonald were the true founders, a pair of nice guys who, after several failed to mediocre businesses, hit upon a formula to deliver well prepared food, fast.  Their San Bernadino, CA restaurant became an almost immediate local smash.  They were meticulous in how the restaurant was designed, how employees moved around, station to station.  How much ketchup was on each properly flipped patty.  The place was immaculate. The menus were limited to hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes.   They cared about their employees.

Kroc was selling milkshake makers when he met the McDonald brothers.  Their demand for several of them was enough to bring the middle-aged salesman (with several failed ventures of his own) out to California to see what it was all about.  He is immediately smitten.  The employees were quick and accurate.  The wheels began to turn.  Kroc thinks big.  The brothers aren't so sure; their few attempts to expand lead to compromised standards in the other restaurants.  Kroc thinks he can maintain them in dozens of locations.  Maybe more.  Yeah, many more.

At first, he is as exacting and caring of the McDonald's paradigm as Mac and Dick.  He angrily raids locations that cater to hooligans who like to loiter and leave trash about.  Franchises that corrupt the menu with fried chicken and burritos.  But a man like Ray Kroc can forgive details in the name of expansion.  Soon, he is convinced that Insta-Mix powder tastes as good as a milkshake made with ice cream.  Refrigeration costs are a bear, after all.

When Kroc learns that true profit comes from ownership of the land on which those franchises sit....

2016's THE FOUNDER tells the McDonald's story soberly, in as straightforward a fashion as you would expect from director John Lee Hancock, who previously directed THE BLIND SIDE and SAVING MR. BANKS.  The screenplay is by Robert Siegel, who penned THE WRESTLER. His decision to tell this story from Kroc's point of view makes it all far more interesting and even complex.  It's an absorbing movie, utterly fascinating at times.  We get a fair amount of detail about the restaurant business and the legal machinations which entail.  Apparently Siegel pretty much stuck to the truth.  The story really didn't require any embellishment or contrivances.

That's all fine, but what really makes THE FOUNDER more than another standard issue biopic is Michael Keaton's performance as Raymond Albert Croc, a seemingly kindly, enthusiastic fellow who gradually reveals his teeth, his taste for the jugular.  His ambition takes him down those familiar dark roads of severed friendships, broken marriages, dishonored business contracts.  Keaton displays his trademark tics - the friendly cocked back head and endearing Pennsylvanian (though also slightly Midwestern) accent, but he also sports his ice cold game face - sullen cheeks and coal black pupils, when his empire grows.  We've seen that visage morph in his other roles, comedic and dramatic, from NIGHT SHIFT to CLEAN & SOBER to BIRDMAN, and here it personifies the unrepentance of a hard business (but not necessarily a bad?) guy.  One who many would simply call a good capitalist who saw a golden opportunity and ran with it.

John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman lend their own quietly effective notes respectively to Maurice and Richard, perfectly embodying the American spirit of persistence, hard work and sweat ethics. Oh, and honesty (cough).  But where does that hard work lead?  Kroc was a tireless worker too, and uses a motivational speech record as his driver.  Both Lynch and Offerman give their real life counterparts a sort of sad humility that basically underlines the "Nice Guys Finish Last" cliche.  Their final scene, as they watch their old sign come down, is quite poignant. 

In the closing moments of THE FOUNDER, Kroc is seen several years after his first meeting with the McDonald brothers,  rehearsing a speech he will give to California governor Ronald Reagan.  He pauses when he comes to that part where he declares himself as the founder.  Is there some regret? Some, any bit of humanity?  Will your Big Mac be a little less satisfying after you watch this movie?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver

I remember hearing that frantic rock instrumental (with periodic yodels) "Hocus Pocus" by the band Focus while riding the school bus sometime in the mid 1970s.  Vivid recollections of our hippie-ish driver speeding over a gigantic pothole on Belvedere Road, sending us off our seats like rag dolls.  She had a transistor radio on the dashboard, forever cranking out Me Decade rock 'n' roll.  It was probably my first exposure to such music, and that this occurred during episodes of reckless stunt driving is a fitting precursor to my appreciation of this summer's BABY DRIVER, a film that marries the excitement of a great tune with deft tire squealing.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an ace getaway driver for a criminal mastermind named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who employs disparate bands of volatile criminals to pull off various heists.  Baby is taunted by his far more hardened team members for his youth, his habit of not taking much, and constant use of an iPod.  Baby has had tinnitus since childhood, when a car accident took the lives of his parents, and the music effectively masks the offending high pitched ringing.  As an audiologist, I'm aware of FDA approved sound therapies that Baby could use instead, but that music doesn't work as well when throttling at top speed through the streets of Atlanta after a robbery.  Thundering tracks by the likes of The Damned, Queen, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in fact are quite necessary for Baby's impressive stick shifting away from the law.  When he loses his iPod in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, he struggles to find something workable on FM radio.  Haven't we all?

It seems that Baby, who lives with his deaf, elderly foster father, never wanted to be involved in the underworld, but he's still paying on an old debt to Doc.  When Baby meets a cute, music loving waitress named Debora (Lily James, interestingly reminiscent of Madchen Amick when she was on the original Twin Peaks), his incentive to leave the life increases.  In fact, there's even the promise of that infamous "final job" after which Baby can quit the business for good and drive west on I-20 into the sunset with his new friend.  But as any filmgoer knows, if "you're in", exits are hard to come by.  At least one that doesn't involve a body bag.

BABY DRIVER is writer/director Edgar Wright's loving homage to the movies, and not just the obvious influences.  He has cited THE DRIVER as one.  Of course for the thrilling chases. Wright mounts some truly nail biting, wildly exciting and imaginative pursuits.  Real stunts, not computer generated.  Makes a huge difference.  The FAST AND FURIOUS movies by contrast look like heightened Grand Theft Auto video game sessions, with absurdly over the top crack ups. There's no investment (in characters or otherwise) in that.   What makes an effective chase scene is the adrenaline of great editing and stunt choreography but also a sense that someone could really get hurt or killed.  Add some choice pop/rock songs and you have pure cinema.

You've seen it all before, but having the music be so integral to the plot makes it all seem original and fresh.  The film has a massive, well selected soundtrack.  The rhythms and beats also sync with the action onscreen in ways that will take multiple viewings to truly catch.  There is a lot of detail in this movie; the opening title sequence alone is a treasure of clever visuals. What is also distinguishing is how sweet and downright moral the movie is.  Baby is a decent kid who is concerned about others, including innocent bystanders, and Debora does not turn out to be some femme fatale in a tired plot twist.  Seeing genuine folks (who are not angelic dolts) as protagonists in a film like this is increasingly rare.  They are not boring.  And they're just so danged likeable.  Almost like Clarence and Alabama in TRUE ROMANCE.  A certain innocence in a cesspool of peril.

Having actors Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Eliza Gonzalez play such menacing, fearsome lowlifes makes a beautiful counterpoint to our heroes.  Hamm in particular plays a character that is surprisingly complex.  Spacey almost steals the movie with his wily performance, a man who can be fatherly and then deadly at the drop of a dime.

"Hocus Pocus" is one of  those cool tunes on the BABY DRIVER soundtrack, but curiously is used during a chase on foot.  Its nervous energy suits the moment, much like it did when I wondered if my elementary school self would live to see adolescence as we bounced around West Palm Beach back in the day. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Right Stuff

1983's THE RIGHT STUFF is to my eyes an undisputed American classic.  A film that deserves rank with many revered pictures of earlier decades, even vintage Hollywood.  But unlike many of those films, it dares to be critical of its fabled humans, a group of "flyboys" who represent the U. S. of A.  This movie ain't no nationalist propaganda, the sort that might've been seen in the 1940s.   It boldly takes the image of the squeaky clean patriot to task.  To look behind the curtain, but without bringing it down.

The three plus hour film is based on Tom Wolfe's sprawling book, and paring it down must've been daunting.  There's some interesting history behind the screenwriting - William Goldman's script was rejected by director Philip Kaufman for being "too patriotic", and not featuring enough of Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to go supersonic and break the sound barrier.  Yeager was not among the astronauts who would later orbit space.  NASA wanted college grads, part of the image. War hero Yeager was a hot shot Major at Edwards Air Force Base, inspiring the likes of Air Force captains Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), those considered to have the right stuff.  Chuck remained there while the others got the press.

THE RIGHT STUFF follows the astronauts, which included Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Navy man Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn), who are put through their paces with rigorous, sometimes humiliating (note the enema bag scene) physical tests to confirm their right stuff.  It is during these scenes that the film most obviously reveals its sense of humor, its lighthearted point of view. Much of the film has this tone.   This is not a dark, cynical movie, though many jabs at the media are present -news reporters are shown to be like wolves, scaling fences and the like. Future president LBJ is also hardly shown in a favorable light.   The Space Race against Russia was an anxious time for America, and policymaker and engineer alike are painted somewhat broadly, perhaps accurately.

Where does that leave the astronauts? None are ever shown to be angelic, and that is another reason why this is a great piece of work.  They ARE portrayed as real, flawed, perhaps studies in arrested development who succumb to narcissism, saving face, celebrity, and being juvenile.  But Wolfe and Kaufman perhaps make the point that it is such a rambunctious spirit, albeit pardoxically, that makes our land great, that pushes the boundaries to move forward.  At times the men do exhibit what might be seen as heroism, not just in flight but, as an example, in a refusal to do an LBJ interview.

THE RIGHT STUFF is grand entertainment -epic, sweeping in the grand tradition but never becomes pompous, self-important, or boring. Bill Conti's energetic score is never too much.  It's celebratory and revealing.  A championing of the individual and team spirit alike, though perhaps favoring the former.

And so by film's close, there's Yeager, still out at Edwards, still trying to break records ("that nobody cares about") within the Earth's atmosphere while the golden boys are wined and dined and watch a feathered dancer.  He'll push the new NF-104A up 12,000 feet, seeing the edge of space, only to suffer a scorched blow back down to Earth.  But he makes it, not yet joining those before him in memoriam on that old barroom wall.  He too had the right stuff.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

30

My thirtieth high school reunion.  I had to let those words sink in.  They hit me last Saturday night, in the parking lot of the Singer Island Hilton.  It was actually early Sunday morning.  As I walked to my car, I recalled Project Graduation, an alcohol and drug free celebration on the football field on graduation night, 1987.  I had stayed till 3:30 A.M. or so.  I tiredly walked off the field and up through those old outdoor concrete halls, out to the front of the campus and then homeward (I had no car at that time) without even a hint of sadness or regret.  I was ready to move on.

Funny what time does to your psyche.  I skipped my ten year reunion but became more intrigued with the whole idea later on.  The 20 was overall an OK experience but hardly a confirmation that I had missed anything prior.  The 25 was far better.  You can read about those on this blog.  The 30 had been discussed on Facebook for the past few years.  I was tired of it before it even happened.  Sort of like a Presidential election and its long campaigning trails. The 25 was quite satisfying.  It ended on such a good note I did not want to taint it with some awkward epilogue.   Honestly, much of life feels that way.

My closest hs buds sent me texts and messages months earlier.  Was I going? Yeah, sure.  Mainly 'cause they were.  I had no expectations this time out.  It felt more like an obligation.  There was a fair amount of guilt, too; many of these folks live locally, and I hadn't taken time to see (a majority of) them in five years.  For shame.  I feel less social with each passing year.  I do love and care for people, but I find I am much happier, more energized when I am with just my wife, or a few friends or family members.  Forced social interaction is deadly and just plain silly to me.  But...you never know what effect you may have on someone.

Earlier this week on Facebook I read a nicely worded summary of the past weekend.  This was from a guy who graduated one year earlier than me.  The Class of '86 had some miscommunications and their 30th didn't happen.  He and his wife flew from Washington state to attend our party, which as with the 25th was spread over three evenings (I was unable to attend the first night, a meet and greet at the hotel bar).

So Saturday night, after the festivities? A few of us went out for a snack and some quieter conversation and someone asked: "What did you think of the reunion?" The first thing that came into my mind was that this was asking me what I think of football, sunsets or video games. I.E. so much to like I'm not sure where to start, but I will now attempt to provide a deeper answer. As Ingrid said, it's not the venues, decorations, music or other accoutrements that made this a success though all were excellent. The chance to see old friends combined with family was terrific. Better yet is when someone whose time in HS was a little rocky and who stayed mostly out of touch for 25 years can come back, to a celebration largely focused on another class, even, and feel like they never left. Better still is when my darling better half, who went to high school 2000 miles away and had her own dramas from that era can come along and be made to feel like one of the gang. Best of all is when I can feel instantly connected to people that maybe I didn't know or wasn't the best of friends with, recognize how far each of us has come and make new friendships with folks I didn't know at all. Thanks to everyone who was involved in this incredible experience. 

I was one of those who joined him for "a snack and some quieter conversation".  I had met him once or twice during high school.  Was I part of his warm feelings? I like to think so. Despite an increasing (and yes, liberating) apathy as to whether people like me or not, I try my darndest to be open and friendly.  It's risky - sometimes you're met with rejection or even hostility.  I know how it feels on both sides.  That this new friend felt welcomed by his juniors speaks well of the social dynamics of the reunion.  

Oh, there was still some cliquishness to be observed.  The popular ones still sat together on the Friday night trolley ride and at the Saturday night semi-formal.  But I saw and experienced more interaction among everyone.  People do grow up and learn how to associate with others outside their old strata.  Most, anyway.  We had about fifty to sixty (out of a class of about four hundred twenty five) attendees.  Maybe most of the bona fide high school meanies didn't show.  Ah, a few did, but were cordial.  Or just drunk?

The trolley took us downtown for a pub crawl.  Bars with which I've long been familiar transformed into a temporary surreality.  We climbed several flights of stairs to a rooftop bar.  Many joked we were all too old for that.  The trolley ride was raucous, with '80s tunes blaring into distortion and several open containers.  A can of beer rolled up and down the aisle.  I'm sure the driver was elated when the night ended.  But before that, we had dinner and watched a band at my classmate's Greek restaurant.  It too was a bit noisy.  While waiting in line for the bathroom, I was asked by the belly dancer what sort of crowd we were: aggressive, rowdy?  Fire was a big part of her show and she seemed concerned.  I assured her, and there were no incidents.

There were several late coming surprise guests that night, including a guy who was always quite gifted at getting into trouble. I got into some with him back in junior high.  His father is one of my patients now, something that amuses all three of us to no end; I used to hang out at their house. Even more amusing is that my old friend now has a responsible job as an archivist.  

The next evening was a very low key dinner with OK food and a nice slide show.  Seeing old photos can be both hilarious and depressing, for multitudes of reasons.  The tables were decorated with Rubiks cubes, cassette tapes, Trivial Pursuit cards, and reading glasses. There was music, but no one danced.  The two ladies who worked extremely hard to organize the reunion were given plastic tiaras and wands, and lots of well deserved accolades.  One of them did her organizing all the way from Arizona.  

I could go on.  There's always so much to say about these things.  I had some good catch-up with my closest old high school friends, and even some quality time with those of whom I wasn't as friendly back in the day (a few dating back to elementary school).  It was a good time, but ultimately, as always, it evaporated moments after it concluded.

But that someone felt so welcomed and included is quite rewarding.  One never knows what encouragement you can give someone when you reluctantly drag yourself to that umpteenth gathering, be it a church social or even your thirtieth high school reunion.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Monty Python and the Holy Grail


The cult of Monty Python is large but scattered, at least in my experience.  Earlier in life I was surrounded by many such royal subjects, but on into adulthood I find fewer and fewer who would respond appropriately if I greeted them with "Ni!". They may well call the guys with the nets. So it was a great moment that one summer in Minneapolis; I was attending a hearing aid training and met someone who was well versed in Python turns of phrase.  She would have been one of those guffawing and belly laughing at 1975's MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL from the first viewing.  Some I've watched this movie with sit in silence, usually casting a snarky or confused glance my way.  Britain's bad boys are an acquired taste; those with literary bents and a macabre sense of humor and are not easily offended are the most likely to embrace their brand. 

After a mandate by God himself, King Arthur and his Knights embark on a quest for that holiest of utensils, the Grail.  Oh, originally they were journeying to Camelot, but it was deemed to be a silly place, complete with singing and dancing.  The quest is met with much peril - a Black Knight who doesn't let a little thing like dismembered extremities get in the way of guarding a pass, a three headed giant, a Bridge of Death (where one must answer certain questions to cross), and a prince in need of rescue from an arranged marriage.  Attempts to storm a French occupied (and aren't they rude) castle are disastrous, especially when they attempted to infiltrate via a Trojan Bunny.

Along the way are also accused witches and the Castle Anthrax, to which Sir Galahad followed a Grail-ilke beacon but instead finds a coderie of amorous young ladies.  Pythonesque humor often involves death and violence, including a recurring gag where someone is pronounced dead but is actually alive, then summarily finished off.   There are also a myriad of puns, anachronisms, inaccurate subtitles, fourth wall breaking, animations (by Terry Gilliam, also co-director of the film with Terry Jones), movie jokes, and great embarrassment for its participants.  Of the latter, my favorite bit involves the minstrels surrounding the "brave" Sir Robin, whose songs go into great detail of his hasty retreats from danger.  

I see I've given away much of what happens but I couldn't possibly translate the pleasure of watching into words.   While quoting lines like "I fart in your general direction" may make my invisible audience smirk, you just have to witness the artistry and timing of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and Gilliam and Jones yourself.  Maybe you'll not find it all that funny.  Maybe some viewers will get through it by noting the curious similarities between HOLY GRAIL and the Mel Brooks comedy BLAZING SADDLES from around the same time.

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.