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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bellman and True

1987's BELLMAN AND TRUE is a richly detailed, lovingly composed motion picture that was originally made for British television, shown in three parts.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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. The closing credits are quite lovely.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Heavy Metal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Nice Guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Something Wild

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Your Audiology Tutorial: Tuning Fork Tests

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

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

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

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

The following tests are less commonly performed:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bernie


SPOILERS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Color of Money

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

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

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

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

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

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