Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

SPOILERS!

Bad City is a dour landscape of dull architecture and oil derricks, sucking the land dry.  The latter  might be an intended metaphor for 2014's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, which features a mysterious girl who indeed spends her time walking home alone at night, intriguing and startling the young and old as she virtually hovers over sidewalks in a black chador.  Who is she? What is she doing? The city is meant to be somewhere in Iran, but if you've ever been to inland towns in California, it should look rather familiar.

"The Girl" (Sheila Vand) retreats nightly to a one room apartment, spinning pop songs on vinyl.  She loves music.  It may be more alive to her than anyone she meets in Bad City.  I can sometimes relate to that idea.  We learn early on that the girl is a vampire, albeit with a conscience.  She kills three people in this movie.  One, a vicious pimp/drug dealer, clearly deserves it.  But what about another man, an elderly heroin addict? He does force a prostitute to share a needle with him.  Then there's an anonymous street person, slumped over in an alley.   Maybe he was evil in some way, too.

Is the girl some sort of angel? She spares a young child, after scaring the shinola out of him.  "Be a good boy," she warns.  Her chador suggests she has been the victim of many not so good boys, perhaps an entire society of them.   She takes the kid's skateboard after he tears off in fright.  Seeing the girl riding it under streetlamps is one of the many oddly beautiful images in writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's moody art piece.  Lyle Vincent's black and white photography is absolutely stunning.  It makes a literally colorless locale come to near phantamasgoric life, even if the film evokes more indie cool ala Jim Jarmusch than sheer terror or dread. Calling A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT a horror film does seem a bit of a stretch, aside from a few moments.

The girl also meets a fairly decent youth named Arash (Arash Marandi) and after deciding not to sink her fangs into his neck, finds he seems like someone she can connect with.  She even lets him pierce her ears.  How their relationship plays out will be one viewer's tedium and another's mellow poetry.  Amirpour places visual lyricism in every shot.  It may distract you from what seems like a thin script, or perhaps expand on it. 
 
Amirpour is as mysterious as her main character.  In an interview with Roger Corman, who comments on the Jarmusch vibe, the director shrugs and admits she's not a big fan of his work (aside from ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, of course) -  "I like Robert Zemeckis."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Young Frankenstein

1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is writer/director Mel Brooks' finest hour, hands down.  A beautifully directed, wholly affectionate parody of Universal Pictures' Frankenstein adaptations in the 1930s.  A lot of love, and perhaps more tellingly, restraint went into this motion picture.  It's a spoof that doesn't feel the need to assault the moviegoer with a gag every few seconds.  Contrast this with Brooks' 1981 opus HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I, which grows increasingly desperate in its efforts to make us chortle and guffaw, usually resorting to out and out vulgarity.  That film doesn't know when to quit, and runs out of gas long before its conclusion.  Perhaps Brooks was trying to cover too much ground.  We'll analyze it another day.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still has a plethora of jokes, not all of them successful (a few groaners), and for the most part uses innuendo as an occasional ingredient rather than as the main course.  Er, even with the "Schwanstucker".  Brooks and his lead actor and co-screenwriter Gene Wilder are far more interested in characterization and mood, very deftly evoking the feel of the old pictures.  The movie was shot in black and white, utilizes old school camera tricks, and features actual laboratory props from the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN movie.  Wilder (as the reluctant physician of a dubious legacy) and cast are truly suited to their roles, especially misaligned eyed comedian Marty Feldman, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, ahem, Frahnk-en-steen's assistant Igor.

Well, by the time the good doctor travels to Transylvania to check on the family estate, he has given in to his checkered lineage.  His dismissal of the plausibililty of re-animating dead bodies changes after he reads his grandfather's old journals, and soon Frankenstein and Igor, aided by the shapely and flirtatious laboratory assistant Inga (Teri Garr), bring a rather large cadaver to life.  Unfortunately, Igor mucked up the doctor's instructions to retrieve the brain (from the local Brain Depository, of course) of a noted intellectual and instead brought home one from a jar marked "Abnormal".

What is interesting about YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is while it is consistently funny, it may not evoke all that many belly laughs. Certainly far less than some of Brooks other pictures.  This is a movie one smiles through more often than holding his or her sides.  The humorous possibilities build, are carefully laid and gel into "comedic interest" rather than are randomly dropped into a scene for an easy gag (most of the time).  Peter Boyle's performance as "The Monster" is wonderfully earthy yet graceful.  He's really skillful with his eyes, almost as much so as Feldman.

I particularly enjoyed moments with The Monster and the blind hermit, nicely played by Gene Hackman. With that scene and as with Boris Karloff long before him, we feel a certain sympathy and pity for The Monster, and Brooks never merely treats him as an endless gag.  There is a funny twist on that scene from the original film with the little girl by the lake.   And how he sings "Puttin' on the Ritz" does always make me laugh out loud.

P.S.  Kenneth Mars is quite amazing as Inspector Kemp, he of the exaggerated German accent and prosthetic arm.  His movements suggest that of a figurine, a wind up toy.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sleepwalkers

There are really only two reasons to watch 1992's SLEEPWALKERS: the women and the cats.  Two of God's best, most beguiling creations.  One of the few things this movie manages to achieve with any degree of success is the utilization of these creatures for sheer intrigue.  You might take issue with my calling a woman a "creature", but "Mary Brady" (Alice Krige) is in fact a shape shifter, a sort of vampire whose source of fuel comes from virgin women.  She employs her son/lover "Charles" (Brian Krause) to use his good looks and charms to lure pretty young things back to their house for the refueling.

The incestuous pair (yes, there's a sex scene) have taken their act on the road, forced to vacate more than one town as in their wake they've left corpses....and trees filled with dead cats.  Felines are the Bradys' mortal enemies, for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Stephen King's original screenplay.  King (who has a cameo, of course) doesn't really explain much at all about these nomads, whose mirror reflections reveal the alien-looking beasts within. What of their lineage?  I guess it doesn't matter.  The movie establishes from its first scene that this will be nothing more than a dopey popcorn muncher.  Why is it when King writes for movies that his unusually perceptive takes on the human condition and psychology are muted, quite unlike that in his novels? SLEEPWALKERS and the King directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are just so, dumb.

Most horror fans don't care, but films like SLEEPWALKERS don't help non-fans take this genre any more seriously.  Apparently King had some unfinished ideas for a short story or novella, and decided instead to write a screenplay.  The raw materials are there for a decent tale.  Director Mick Garris does competent work, but his staging of big moments is usually unexciting and by-the-numbers.  An example would be the graveyard scene, when latest would-be victim Tanya (Madchen Amick) suddenly realizes the cute guy in her creative writing class is not the beau she was looking for.   The struggle between them is blocked awkwardly, and the awful special effects certainly don't help.  In fact, cheesy visuals undermine several key scenes.  Were Tom Savini and Richard Edlund too busy for this gig?

Some of Garris' buddies in the biz, such as directors Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, and John Landis, have brief, undistinguished cameos.  None are especially good actors.

Ms. Krige, however, does some effective work as the ghoulish matriarch.  She portrays the right dangerous mix of sexiness and otherworldliness.  Amick manages to be both cute and lust worthy.  That gang of cats forever hanging outside the Brady house also have their moments, though not enough of them.  Clovis is a real hero, though. 


P.S. Fans of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF may enjoy two of the other casting choices.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Get Out

I watched this year's GET OUT the night before the violence unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I had this film on my mind the entire weekend afterward. Timing.  Many feel that writer/director Jordan Peele's horror film was a runaway smash because it opened soon after the victory of Donald Trump.  The "Make America Great Again" a platitude at best, a thinly veiled call to the multitude of  racist Caucasians at worst to many Americans.  When a neo Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counter protestors, after a day of demonstrations by white supremacists who carried tiki torches that appeared to be purchased from Bed, Bath, & Beyond,  this movie's themes loomed larger, more forboding, more resonant.

It's a horror film, with traditional scary music by Michael Abels and jump out the shadows scares.  A terrible moment of realization that your friend is actually your enemy.  There are also campy moments of mad doctor brain surgery, stabbings, impalings, and more.  Peele is paying homage to directors of several eras.  Had it been a "straight" terror pic with an empty head, it would've merely been an impressive calling card for a new talent.  But the director has created something far more ominous and thoughtful.  I'm pleased to at least think that the film was wildly popular because it touched a collective nerve, got folks talking.  Many thrillers mask political and social themes with shocks and mayhem, or at least use those elements to personify them.  What is the real terror out there?

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is joining his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a weekend at her parents' home in the country.  Potentially intimidating, especially for a black man dating a white girl.  Even in present day.  Dean (Bradley Whitford), a physician and Missy (Catherine Keener), a hypnotherapist are hospitable and warm, but something is odd about their African American help.  Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) seem very Stepford like in their relentless politeness, speaking like those who are trying to put on a performance for listening ears while meanwhile plotting something.

What's happening? GET OUT is a film of surprises, so I won't reveal them.  The eventual explanations owe to the great traditions of horror and science fiction, and even as we plunge deeply into some pretty improbable and outrageous scenarios, the film is always driving home some pretty devastating points.  Peele's screenplay ingeniously uses historic events with real life notables to figure into the latter day plot, which again makes some uncomfortable proclamations about racism.  The more I think on the script, the more impressive it is, even if at first glance the movie is plotted like many a genre offering.

But look deeper.  And carefully.  Even the smallest of moments mean something, and go back the very real themes of discrimination, something sadly still faced by our brother and sisters of color.    Peale wants to entertain, and certainly does, but also wants you the feel uncomfortable for more reasons than your usual horror movie hangover.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Blob

SPOILERS!

I've always heard that 1958's THE BLOB was an allegory for Communism.  I guess you don't have to dig too deeply.  The film's antagonist, an ever expanding red colored glob of what resembles raspberry jam, engulfs residents of Everytown, U.S.A. before it is discovered that anything cold is the only defense.  It's all right there.  If you need any other overt signs, check the scene where a little boy, clad in cowboy duds, symbolically fires his cap guns at the blob, of course to no avail.

And other than grocery store freezers and carbon dioxide from fire extinguishers, nothing can stop this mysterious gelatinous blob, which originates within a meteorite and one night lands in a rural Pennsylvania town.  Local teens, led by twenty-seven year old "Steven" McQueen as Steve, try in vain to convince the police that something is out there, killing folks.  The reasonable Lieutenant (Earl Rowe) and his hard ass Sergeant (John Benson) have been pranked too many times in the past by these hot rodders to buy such a wild tale, especially since there is no trace of the blob or its victims. 

Criterion has included this low budget sci-fi/horror in its library and you may come to the conclusion of it wondering just why.  Historical significance, for sure.  All the political subtext, probably.  The screenwriters deny that they created anything other than a modest chiller meant to play the drive-in circuit, but again, the case can certainly be made.   THE BLOB is a fairly serious movie, with far fewer unintentional laughs than expected.  McQueen is just so earnest in the lead, though there is at least one moment where he appears to be holding in a chuckle.

Director Irvin Yeaworth does a workman's job, maintaining something that resembles suspense without actually making you feel that anxious. Admirably, he doesn't give us too many shots of the red mess.  Less is more. Less is more.  Yeaworth does wring an emotion or two when our heroes are trapped in the cellar of a diner.  Prior to that, the blob infiltrates the town cinema, interrupting that classic of expressionist terror, DAUGHTER OF HORROR.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It

The current IT is indeed one of the best filmed Stephen King adaptations. Faint praise? I cite THE SHINING, THE DEAD ZONE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, CARRIE, SALEM'S LOT, and a handful of others in that small class.  All classics to some degree.  The novel It was one of King's epic horrors that was more about how folks band together than perhaps the very thing that terrorized them.  But yes, the terror does often define them as well.  This would certainly be the case with this story of a group of adolescents in small town Maine who are scared shitless by a malevolent clown who hangs out in sewers and wells and scary old houses, waiting to lure children to a gruesome death.

I only saw bits and pieces of the miniseries that aired in the early '90s, so I can't comment on that.  I've heard that Tim Curry was quite animated as the clown. 

IT opens with a young boy tragically reaching out for his toy in a storm drain.  The evil known as Pennywise is there, and he seems to know a lot about Georgie, and his older brother Bill, who gave him the paper sailboat.  The clown mauls and abducts Georgie, who joins the many who mysteriously vanish in the town of Derry.  We'll learn later that over the past few hundred years, cycles of missing children plagued the town.  What is Pennywise anyway? Is he, er, it real? An embodiment of their fears?  Of everyone's?

The time period from the novel has been switched from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. This allows for some nifty period jokes and references for us Gen Xers.  Here is a rundown of most of our heroes, the "Losers' Club":

Bill (Jason Lieberher), who stutters, is the leader of a group of social outcasts who are chased by town bullies and trade the usual boy insults.  Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is the funniest, a smart and foul mouthed brat with huge glasses that overwhelm his face. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the son of a rabbi who is having difficulty focusing on his upcoming bar mitzvah due to his lack of interest.  Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the hypochondriac and germaphobe of the group.  He has a smothering mother who is clearly the source of such misery.  Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid who is painfully shy and overweight, an easy target for the bullies who call him "tits".  Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the African American, homeschooled kid, a sensitive soul.  Bev (Sophia Lillis) is the one girl, who suffers an unfair reputation at school for promiscuity and very real sexual abuse from her father.

As many have stated, IT is like THE GOONIES in many ways, and the comparison is favorable and accurate.  Siimilarities to STAND BY ME are also inevitable.   IT plays best as an ode to friendship, to beating the odds, to never quitting, even when things are really, really bad.  To growing up.  Old hat cornball stuff, but it works.  The movie is well cast; the kids are endearing and most of the adults are portrayed effectively as either evil or worthless or both.  This is a kid's story after all.  And King really captured how a kid's story would be told, with outrageously heightened imagery.

The screenplay of IT (one of its writers is original director Cary Fukunaga) makes changes and omissions from the novel that in my opinion do not detract.  Director Andy Muschietti delivers the shock scenes with panache and serious intensity, although sometimes his film feels like a clumsy volley between the frightening and the heartwarming. Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise with a terrifying ferocity, always out in the open, ready to scare the you know what out of everyone. We may see a bit too much of him, but he does in fact own every moment, CGI or not.  Skarsgard seems to have a good handle on how this particular brand of evil would act as a clown manifestation.

Overall, this movie delivers the goods, and is finally just good old fashioned scary fun.  The end credits inform us that we just watched Chapter One.  You do know this story picks up years later, when the kids are adults, right? We'll see if the producers milk this franchise for more than one sequel.  Or a miniseries...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Horror Month '17

I never planned for this to be an annual thing, but here we are once again. Horror month!  This October will be devoted exclusively to films designed to make you shudder and clutch your date, should you be blesssed with one.  Maybe laugh, too, intentionally or otherwise.  There is one spoof among the offerings.  A Stephen King adaptation, and another that the author penned for the screen himself.  Another is a highly regarded classic piece of camp. There is also a very socially conscious thriller.  An Iranian "horror" film.  A Canadian one, too.  Two of the films were released this year.  I don't see many contemporary chillers, but these are worth the time.

Turn down the lights and enjoy!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Out West, Part Three

You see I-84 cut through this beautiful landscape, a shot taken from a hiking trail at Multnomah Falls, outside of Portland, Oregon.  We took that interstate back west from Boise, Idaho after a nice few days with our friends.  In the last entry we discussed our strolls through its downtown.  To cap that wonderful day, we drove deep into Idaho City to a hot spring resort.  Sorry, I do not have the name, shame on me.  There are several in Idaho City.  Ours had a giant swimming pool and a hot tub, all filled with natural source water.  A blues quartet came out to play for awhile.  You can rent a private bungalow with its own hot tub, if you wish.  This was a much needed few hours of bliss.   Later that night, we were back downtown for some dinner at Red Feather Lounge.

The next morning we were back on 84, Multnomah bound.  One rest stop had some interesting bits of history about the old trail on which we were driving.  Travel was far more perilous in earlier times.

We had a delicious brunch at the Oregon Trail Restaurant in Baker City along the way.  Squirrels had their lunch right outside our window.  The waitress knew them by name, telling us how one only had one eye.  Smalltown life such as this has a great appeal to me, and hearing this lady describe such detail made me want to stay around there a little while.

At long last we made it to Multnomah Falls in the town of Bridal Veil.  It is an expectedly tranquil, beautiful site. There is an historic Lodge and restaurant that dates back to the 1920s.  The falls have two major drops, with a footbridge near the lower.  We hiked to the upper - the trail was about a mile and a half each way.  You reach a point at the apex where the breezes from the waterfall feel like natural air conditioning.  You want to stay around awhile there too.

We were there on September 1st. On Sept. 2 a wildfire began along Eagle Creek Trail, pushed by winds toward the falls and the Lodge.  I-84 was shut down in both directions around the site.  Firefighters battled the blaze for days  The flames had wrapped around the waterfall, heading for the Lodge.  It was eventually contained, but the area is now closed to tourists for an indefinite amount of time.  I read that over one million visit yearly.  We were among them.  We were there one day before the fires (said to have started from a kid's firework) engulfed this beautiful area, with its winding trails and majestic cliffs.  One day.  Blows my mind.  We were among the last to wander around this amazing place before the disaster.  The Lodge has been saved, the water still rushes down.  I wonder about that lovely trail we took and hope it hasn't been scorched beyond recognition.  I realize that the vegetation and trees will grow back, but I look at these and many other pictures we took and feel I likewise have captured things that are now forever lost.

So yes, we flew out the next day.  The night before, we stayed in a hotel near the airport and had pie at Shari's, a chain found also in California and Washington state.  I was sad to leave Oregon, a place I could definitely see myself.  Natural beauty all around, with hipster culture aplenty in Portland if you seek it.  I'm glad I didn't know about the fires until after I was back home.  The long plane ride back would've been even sadder.  The entire trip was filled with awesome sights that have become sweet memories.  I pray this view hasn't been tainted too much.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Out West, Part Two

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which runs along the Willamette River downtown, was one destination on our second day in Portland, Oregon. It is an attractive, peaceful spot, though also a bit rugged looking in places. This is a working port, you know.  The Park has several festivals and concerts (Beck was there but we missed him) throughout the year, while hordes of joggers and cyclists and ducks can be seen at any moment.  Plenty of the homeless, as well, though no one was aggressive.  We wound our way around the River, walking over great ancient bridges and laughing at a guy who was swimming (clad only in trunks) down in the Willamette.  How cold is that water, sir? How filthy? He was carefree and relaxed, even doing the backstroke.  It was another of those great "city" type moments of The Bizarre. Those so common in places like NYC.  Another was the old man playing a trumpet, horribly, by the entrance of a Ross store, for no apparent reason.

When you've had your urban fix, Washington Park is a nice escape.  There are hiking trails, an archery course, a Japanese garden, and the International Rose Test Garden, which has well over five hundred varieties.   It was very chill; we visited it twice.  The second time we met a Brazilian man and his American wife, selling ice cream made with all natural ingredients.  They were very friendly and the man was quite talkative, sharing his tales of life in several states and countries.  He was a knowledgeable film buff as well, always a pleasure for me to encounter.


Later in the week we made the six to seven hour drive East to Boise, Idaho.  My wife has a college chum who lives there.  She and her husband had tired of South Florida ("You don't say...") and gambled on this new spot.  Most of the drive over is in Oregon. It was probably the most scenic Interstate route I've taken.  Mountains, rivers, canyons, amazing.  Once you make it to the Gem State, you notice how brown everything is.  You are now essentially in the desert.  Our friends have a lovely suburban home they share with three very different cats and a dog.  We tried to barbecue the first night but the windy conditions made it very difficult.  We had our shish kebobs roasted in the oven instead.  It was excellent.  We divvied up those Voodoo donuts for dessert.


Early the next morning we witnessed the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic at Ann Morrison Park.   It was a crisp, bright A.M. as we watched the balloons inflate and hover high above us as the announcer, who had one of those "heyyyyy" radio voices, gave some backstory of them and their sponsors.  That famous Remax balloon was there, as were Darth Vader, Yoda, and Road Runner (those guys did not leave the ground on the day we were there for some reason).  There was also "Tick Tock" which had the face of a clock on each side: one happy, one demented. No, we were also not among those leaving the ground, but it was fun to watch just the same.



After a while we walked away from the fields, on the joggers' path.  One of the entrants began descending; they ended up on the path.  No one was hurt. Watching them deflate was nearly as interesting as the preparation skyward.


For breakfast we hit a place downtown called BACON.  Truly says it all.  Best breakfast I've had in some time.  I indulged and had an omelette that was smothered in biscuit gravy.  Good thing we did a lot of walking later that day (stops included the Capital building and a depot). Before our meal, five shot glasses, a "flight", if you will, were brought out for us to sample.  The maple rosemary was my personal favorite.


In our wanderings we happened upon the Basque section of downtown, of particular interest to us as my wife's father and stepmother own a chateau in Baigorry, France.  Scroll back to my 2010 entries for a document of that fabulous trip. This street in Boise had several restaurants and a cool mural around the corner.


We also walked through what is known as "Freak Alley", an area with buildings covered with disturbing artwork that runs the gamut of silly to horrifying.  All of it was fascinating.  One had a depiction of a mushroom cloud in its background while a twinkie and a cockroach walked away hand in hand, wrly smiling.


For the finale: Hot springs and the drive back to Portland, with a stop at a waterfall.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

1988's WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN is such a perfect farce it is easy to understand its classic status, and why it was later adapted into a stage musical. This is a riotously funny good time.  Pedro Almodovar has written and directed a zany, slightly dark door slamming ode to the messiness of love affairs with a real sense of the madcap, and with an art director's (extremely vivid) eye.  That eye never misses a comic beat, but wavers enough to distract us with, say, a striking deck umbrella or window decal. Or multiple pairs of high heels and sneakers.  It is all part of the show.

Pepa (Carmen Maura) is a T.V. soap star in Madrid whose life is beginning to resemble her art.  Her older, married lover Ivan (Fernandon Guillen) has just broken up with her over a series of answering machine messages.  He can't even do it in person, going so far as to requesting she leave his suitcase downstairs with the bellman.  The spineless lout! We get a lovely introduction to Ivan in a brilliantly funny early sequence as he walks past a wide assortment of female admirers; with each he uses a romantic cliche in the same silky voice he uses to dub American films into Spanish.  Pepa is distraught, popping sleeping pills and setting her bed of illicit activity on fire (while hilariously melodramatic music fills the soundtrack).

Her busy answering machine also has messages of despair from another woman on the verge - Candela (Maria Barranco), who has her own romantic dilemma that quite unfortunately involves Shiite terrorists.  And Ivan's, wife, Lucia (Julietta Serrano)? She too is on the verge, insanely jealous of Pepa but little dreaming her beloved is planning to fly to Sweden with yet another lover! She will, armed with two guns, eventually infiltrate Pepa's apartment, where her son Calos (Antonio Banderas) and his snooty fiancee, Marisa (Rossy de Palma) have quite coincidentally been spending the afternoon during their apartment hunt.  Some barbituate spiked gazpacho, a group of animals in twos (think Noah's ark), a suicide attempt, and multiple items thrown out the window will add to the melange.

Everyone's timing is right on.  Jose Salcedo's editing is oddly effective.  Each situation is given time to develop and nicely overlap with others. It's not a gag a minute, but rather more deliberate in its building of comic scenarios.  Familiar yet utterly original.  You may be frustrated by a gaggle of unresolved story threads by the end but if you go with the funky groove of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN you'll hardly worry about such trivia.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Out West, Part One

We'd never been to Oregon or Idaho, so for this year's summer vacation we scooted West for a major change of scenery.  We flew into Portland, Oregon and spent a few days getting to know this funky, surprisingly gritty city.  We stayed at the sleek Hotel Lucia downtown.  The lobby was filled with cool artwork.  The hallways and rooms had black and white photographs of many past notables.  One pic near our room had a paparazzi squatting by a swimming pool in which Gerald Ford was doing laps.  The frame in our bathroom was of a guy holding a boom mic over the cast of Seinfeld on set.

One day we drove West to visit Tillamook Forest. No cell service within.  We did a three plus mile round trip hike to a small waterfall, the Wilson waterfall.  We saw a small black snake along the narrow part of the trail, but he slithered off without incident. We ended the hike at a river, where families had pitched a tent and went swimming.  This pic is further up, much rockier.


Then we headed to the coast.  We saw the Tillamook Cheese factory (didn't do the tour; hear it is fun).   Made a stop at a the Nehelem Bay winery for a tasting.  Bought a bottle of Merlot. We later parked for a few minutes in Seaside, shown at the top of this posting.  Absolutely breathtaking.  We continued on Hwy 101 to our destination: Cannon Beach.  Lewis and Clark stopped here in the early nineteenth century.  Later in the 1800s a U.S. Navy schooner ran aground nearby and the ship's cannon was discovered in 1898.  It is now housed in a local museum   Here is the famous "haystack" rock:


We met a very friendly lesbian couple from the East Coast, preparing a bonfire as they settled in. We likewise wanted to see the sunset.  My wife was able to catch it after a great meal at an Irish restaurant across the street.  I made it out just in time to see the big ball sink into the Pacific.


Back in Portland, we hit a few must-see landmarks.  One was Powell's City of Books, a city block long and wide marvel.  I've never seen anything like it.  Only The Strand in NYC comes close, in my experience.  Every imaginable genre is represented.  In the Rare Books room -which requires a special pass- we met the overseer, a young lady who is the girlfriend of one of the store's managers, who is in fact a son of the pastor of our local church. We met the son later in the week on a second visit.  Very nice folks.  And that store! "Wow" is the only word.


Yes, it's touristy, but we made a trip to Voodoo Donuts in a rougher part of Portland, near Chinatown.  I was somewhat taken aback by how many homeless people were there (the entire city, really) but near the donut shop tents and sleeping bags piled along streets and on corners.  One of them made at scene at Voodoo, knocking the tip jar off the counter while she yelled obscenities and crashed into the velvet dividing rope.  The police were called, and they sported the same tired look as the cashier.  The woman was more than happy to take credit for her performance.  My wife offered to be a witness for the cops.  "No need," the cashier sighed, "Stuff like this happens every ten minutes."

We selected a half dozen crazy varieties.  There is a menu on the wall outside.  We did not partake of these cereal and maple laden goodies until we saw our friends in Idaho.

Next: A walk around and over the city's bridges, seven hours to Boise, and hot air balloons.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return

Spoilers, of course

The post mortem on Twin Peaks: The Return could be a very ugly thing indeed.   I could easily bellow displeasure and disappointment over how this twenty-six year delayed third season of one of the most original television programs ever to infiltrate the airwaves failed to fulfill expectation. Fans tend to clutch and take ownership of their beloved art, believing they know best as to where it should go should its creator(s) decide to keep the timeline going. "Timeline" is really the right word to describe the Twin Peaks universe, by the way.  How many there actually are is an ongoing source of debate.

The Return was a limited run, eighteen part miniseries that ran on the Showtime cable network and concluded on September 3rd of this year.  All summer, fans and detractors alike were transfixed on the odd journey of FBI Agent Dale Cooper back to the titular Pacific Northwestern town in which, twenty five years before, the murder of a local teen exposed a torrent of dark secrets beneath the picturesque facade.  This of course was one of co-creator David Lynch's favorite themes.  At the end of the old show, Cooper emerged from the Black Lodge as a doppleganger inhabited by the evil spirit known as "BOB".  The Dale Cooper we knew and loved remained trapped in the Lodge, seemingly doomed for a long while to listen to "MIKE" and the Man From Another Place do their backwards/forwards speak, and Laura Palmer scream.  But what is time?

Flash forward - Evil Coop has apparently run amok around the world and done some hideous things, including at least two rapes.  Good Coop does find his way back into the world, but spends most of the series inhabiting the body of a sleazy insurance adjuster named Dougie.  There is a murder investigation in South Dakota.  A mysterious glass box in New York City.  A basement in Buenos Aires.  As you begin the new adventure, you see precious little of Twin Peaks and the old characters to which so many viewers were endeared.

If you are not familiar with the original series or the prequel film FIRE WALK WITH ME, you should not bother with this new series.  Although, bafflement is part of the Lynch experience.

As the series progresses, new story threads are introduced rapidly.  All the while, you rightly wonder if they will ever be resolved (or even referred to again). Tulpas (check your Tibetan mythology) figure heavily.  You ARE familiar with Lynch, right?

The Return was intended by Lynch to be an eighteen hour film, not a series broken into as many parts.  But that's how it had to happen, and most episodes conclude with a musical number performed at the Roadhouse. Some are decent, some not very good.  I wondered how Trent Reznor and Eddie Vedder figured into this new series; there's your answer.  The latter does a nice job in a later episode.  The former plays with Nine Inch Nails as part of Episode Eight, one of the most amazing hours of T.V. I've ever witnessed.  You've probably heard about it.  Most of it takes place in the 1940s.  It just has to be seen.  It may be the ultimate litmus test as to who the true Lynch fans are. 

But…you may also say that about Episode Three, my personal favorite.  Especially the first half, as Cooper re-assimilates into the real world.  Er, maybe.  He leaves the Lodge, at least.  The second half of the episode flirts with slapstick, and makes the leap.  Episode Four, with "Wally Brando" is less successful in my book. And Episode Eighteen, the finale? Still mulling that one over.  You may likewise have heard that it was a cheat, a maddeningly inconclusive finish. That's highly arguable.  Again, if you are familiar with David Lynch, it should not be unexpected.

And Episode Twelve? Just like that of the subject of Judy, we're not gonna talk about that one.

Though, some story lines are neatly tied up.  Some of the characters - old and new - are actually given happy endings.  Many are left dangling.  Lynch himself does nice work, returning as FBI Chief Gordon Cole, in a role much larger this time out.  His interplay with Albert (the late Miguel Ferrer) is the front and center bromance, somewhat echoing Cooper and Sheriff Truman's in the original series.

Harry Dean Stanton reprises his role as Carl, and his presence has a gravitas and near angelic air.   I am thankful he lived to complete his work here.  Harry passed away last Friday.

Kyle MacLachlan deserves recognition for playing multiple roles.  He's appealing even as the slimy, long haired doppelgänger.   All the principal players do good work, even if their parts sometimes seem unnecessary.  Even Jim Belushi, playing a Vegas mobster, is pretty decent.  Laura Dern, a frequent Lynch collaborator, has some really powerful moments as……the never before seen Diane.  Although she gives just about every character she encounters a "Fuck you!" as well.   The late Margaret Coulson reprises her role as the Log Lady, in sequences that are enormously poignant.

There are so many theories, interpretations, and connections to be made with this new series.  I could devote an entire blog discussing the alternate timelines, fingernail polish that may be code, the "119" junkie girl, the woodsmen, the Fireman (aka ???????), and so on.  That is part of the joy of it.  Why there is such a devoted cult.  It has been said that this series is more for Lynch fans than Twin Peaks fans. While Mark Frost returns to co-write with Lynch, most of this new series seems to be all David.  But there are some nice character moments, some further soap opera-ish intrigues, and many laughs among the relentless darkness. SUNSET BOULEVARD plays a part in Cooper's return.

Twin Peaks: The Return is a real mishmash of exhilaration, tedium, brilliance, amateurishness, cheesiness, utter genius, hilarity, and terror.  And there's never been anything else even remotely like it.  And remember, not matter how convoluted the storylines get as you wade through the episodes, it's ALL about Laura.

P.S. - The DVD/Blu-Ray ("The Third Season") is due to be released on December 5th. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Irma, and Aftermath

The outer bands of Hurricane Irma pushed through eastern South Florida last weekend. The eye was supposed to pass over us.  It was predicted that we would get a Category 3 or 4.  On various maps, our coast was highlighted in shocking pink, indicating potential for catastrophic damage. It was unsettling, to say the least.  We'd been through storms before, but this looked like a real mother.  Should we evacuate? I'd never fled the Sunshine State pre-hurricane before. We decided to stay, come hell or... It's a logistical nightmare when thousands or even millions jam one of three main arteries north.  Florida is only about one hundred and thirty miles at its widest.   If you're one of those out of staters who wonder why more of us don't just "get out of dodge", let that marinate in your brain a little bit. 

Irma tracked west.  Those who evacuated to Ft. Myers and Tampa were now in the hot zone.  That must've seemed like a cruel joke, or the loser's end of a gamble.  Thankfully, by the time the eye pushed up the Gulf side, the category had downgraded.  It could've been far worse for everyone.  I realize this is little consolation to those who had to be rescued from flood water laden apartment buildings, or those who lost a roof, or the many who can't even read this this week, as they wait on FPL to restore power.  God bless those workers (and the armies of assistance who have traveled from as far as Canada), by the way.

I have no horrific tales of Irma.  The electricity flickered, but miraculously never went out.  After Frances in 2004 and Wilma in '05, I had no power for a week, especially difficult with an elderly grandmother.  This time we had no flooding or damage to the house.  There were a plethora of downed tree branches and palm fronds. I spent an afternoon cleaning out the pool, a strangely therapeutic task - the water was not "bathtub warm", but refreshingly cool.  I returned to work two days after the storm and my office sustained several disintegrated ceiling tiles on its east side, facing the Intercoastal waterway.  It reeked of mold.  Re-scheduling patients was erm, challenging.

But we were spared the undiluted fury.  We pray for the season to quiet down.  Jose will spin in the Atlantic and not be a threat to the U.S.   We always hope the storm goes elsewhere, but then we think of those in the islands.  Sometimes I think Haiti should have its citizens relocated to a less dangerous terrain, that nature never intended a human population there.  You could argue that about New Orleans.  And Florida (Read This).  Where would we go?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Paper Chase

When I at long last sat down to watch 1973's THE PAPER CHASE I almost immediately felt that stomach churn so familiar to my grad school days.  This film comes closer than nearly anything else I've seen (or remember seeing) to capturing the anxiety of trying to excel within, heck, survive the rigors of higher education.  While the setting in this film is the awesomely intimidating arena of Harvard law school, my little square of the Health Professions Division of the university I attended was filled with the sort of adrenaline and dread experienced by the first years here.

Timothy Bottoms plays James Hart, a Midwesterner sweating out the usual pressures of law school and being a fish out of water.  He anticipates all nighters and no social life other than study groups.  But his real challenge is his contract law professor, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., played brilliantly by John Houseman, who copped an Oscar for his work.  Hart suffers a few classroom deflations before sufficiently preparing and rising to the occasion. Then he fails again.  And so on.  He longs to join the "upper echelon" of students who actually raise their hands before being called upon, those who dare to engage in Kingsfield's utilization of the Socratic Method of learning.  The professor becomes Hart's obsession, enough so for the young man to break into that special room in the library which houses Kingsfield's notes, taken when he was a student.

Despite warnings from his compadres in the trenches about the incompatibility of such things with law school, Hart becomes involved with an intriguing, attractive young woman named named Susan (Lindsay Wagner).  He doesn't learn right away that she is Kingsfield's daughter.  There are complications, naturally.  One of them is that Hart is so busy with her father's course he can't get away for a weekend with her.  But she knows the territory; she is about to be divorced from a law school dropout.

THE PAPER CHASE alternates between Hart's combative relationships with father and daughter.  The former is beautifully rendered, but I found many of the scenes with Susan to be a bit self-conscious, as when Hart walks on a thinly iced over pond during a discussion about taking risks vs. playing it safe.  Writer/director James Bridges does many fine things in his film debut, but his sketch of Susan is confused and underdeveloped.  Did he intend for her to contradict herself when she berates Hart for being too organized and mannered while she explains that she left her husband back in Europe because he was too rootless?  The script, an adaptation of John J. Osborn Jr's novel, is also quite abrupt in portraying the on-again off again between these lovers.  And in the Questions You're Not Supposed to Ask in Movies category, I kept wondering what Susan did for a living.  She seemed to have an awful amount of free time.

But Wagner's performance is not to be faulted.  She's quite appealing, as is the entire cast.  Early roles for Edward Hermann and James Naughton (as fellow students) are also noteworthy.  Bottoms again (following THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) demonstrates perfectly natural acting.  But Houseman....he positively excels as the rarely impressed, chilly academic who (feigns?) demonstrates a lack of memory of his students'/victims' names - that seating chart comes in handy.  Kingsfield is emblematic of so many fearsome professors and even many professional types with whom most cannot hold a regular conversation.  His command of every scene, especially in the classroom, is a marvel to see.

THE PAPER CHASE, artistically photographed by Gordon Willis, is a drama, but has a fair amount of humor, including the hotel sequence near the end of the picture, when Hart and classmate Frank Ford (Graham Beckel), a fifth generation legacy, hole up for three days to cram for finals.  More poignant is an examination of Kevin Brooks (Naughton) who struggles in his studies as he has a photographic memory but little to no ability to synthesize that information, to employ the critical thinking necessary to practice law.  Though Bridges' ultimately lets him down with an unecessary, really contrived final scene.

And speaking of really contrived final scenes - the finale was also a bit too obvious in its symbolism.  It feels a bit anticlimactic, though I'm sure a few grad students have felt this way.  I liked an earlier moment far better, when Hart walks around Kingsfield's empty classroom one night, thinking about everything.  I did that.  I also returned years after I graduated and walked those aisles again, now with relief and wistfulness.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Mr. Becker

Mr. Walter Becker left us this past Sunday.   I found out via a text from a close relative, one with whom I've shared a love for Steely Dan for a majority of our days.  It was expectedly shocking, but also a gut punch, a twist in the stomach.  For many reasons, it felt as if a family member had passed.  Becker and his Dan co-founder Donald Fagen have created a bonding force between me and my loved ones.  I can't elaborate on this further right now, but know that it was and is immeasurably powerful.

Steely Dan has been discussed at length on this blog.  There isn't much left to discuss about the history. My connection to the music has gone beyond "entertainment" or "diversion".  I've always snickered along to the darkly comic lyrics, always been taken aback by the musicianship of the duo and their players.  But hearing a Steely Dan tune is like a comfortable session with one of your smartest friends. And despite the chilly air of their music, Walter and Donald's songs created an unexplainable warmth.  Warmth of familiarity, but also of a shared recognizance.  In a society filled with banality infiltrating every aspect of life: politics, art, faith, etc., a Steely Dan song was not only the expected raspberry back at them, but a mark of quality.  Even detractors admit the music (and the recording of it) was top notch.

Walter was described as being the snarkier of the duo, that most of the causticism was of his design.  Becker always struck me like a grouchy university professor, one always ready with a sarcastic retort, but also some nugget of wisdom.  Be it of the high brow or even the mildly smutty.  Pop music likely never had another like him.   R.I.P.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Nocturnal Animals

There is a distinctive life in words, in writing.  Sometimes it may resemble the author's personality, a mirror of his or her day to day actions that are visible to others.  Perhaps more often, it may be an entirely different voice.  Perhaps scathing, more erudite than what the tongue tied wallflower may typically verbalize.  One's writing may be more honest than they allow through utterances and even facial expressions, behavior.  When an author passes away, their "voice" remains as long as there is a medium through which we can read their words.  Since we are discussing film, I can relay that I feel Roger Ebert is still with us through his library of reviews.  Such a patented, distinctive point of view.  A mind as sharp as any on the Chicago Sun Times staff, or his many film critic peers.  I can open one of his essays and feel as if he is sitting across from me.

Metaphor comes in handy for writers.  Not for just those concerned with fiction.  Sermons, news articles, even some technical writing employs this handy device to use something to represent something else, often in a vivid, colorful fashion.  In the early moments of 2016's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS,  a woman named Susan (Amy Adams) receives in a gift in the mail from her ex-husband: a galley of his first completed novel, Nocturnal Animals, dedicated to her.  We will learn through flashbacks that Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a sensitive, tortured artist who found he could do nothing but write, even as he attempted to support his more career driven spouse.

Susan is currently married to Hutton (Armie Hammer), a cold, faithless business executive who barely acknowledges her.  She's become skilled at convincing her friends (and herself) that's she's content, fortunate for her success as an art gallery owner and her affluent lifestyle, one that was never possible with Edward.

With Hutton out of town, Susan immerses herself in the novel.  It is a relentlessly bleak tale of a family terrorized by a gang of punks on a lonely West Texas highway.  Also, its terrible aftermath.  She frequently slams the book shut in horror.  It is not an easy story to read, nor is it for the viewers of this movie to watch.  Director Tom Ford visualizes the events of the novel without relief.  The lengthy scene on the road is incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing.  While later events - involving a hard as nails detective named Bobby (Michael Shannon, who excels) - do offer some sense of justice, the darkness pervades.  Nocturnal Animals will be as bleak as anyone could imagine, right to the end.

Why did Edward write this novel? Why did he dedicate it to his wife? What demons was he exorcising?  You'll find out, invisible audience.  The metaphors are devastating, suited to their real life counterparts.

I'm not sure what I was expecting with NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.  Possibly something along the lines of ADAPTATION, Spike Joneze's mindbending 2002 drama.  I did not know much about the movie beforehand other than via some hastily written synopses, vague enough to intrigue.  And that's how it should be.  I did not watch the trailers.  This movie is not as complex and metaphysical as the Jonze movie, but its statements of how life begats the written word and vice versa are no less fascinating.  This is a movie that continues to reveal its concepts days after viewing.  A rabbit hole of themes:

-The future commenting on the past, and the past elucidating what is to come.
-The validation of one's choices in life, perhaps also as a weapon of....
-Revenge, that's fairly obvious.  We even see a painting with those very letters in Susan's gallery.
-Art as catharsis, possibly because of its role as a vessel of revenge.
-Art as exploitation, announced with great audacity during the opening credits. I don't believe I have ever seen anything like it.  Quite Lynchian, in a way, but I bet even David would be taken aback.

Some viewers will exit NOCTURNAL ANIMALS feeling as if their souls were bathed in acid.  This is a grim movie.  Three movies, actually.  Present, Past, and Fiction.   When we get to the final scene, we understand why it happens.  We'll come away with a heavy heart, and because of that I would say the film achieved its objective. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Keanu

It was because of a co-worker that I'd even heard of comedy duo Key and Peale (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele).  She showed me several of their bits on YouTube - some funny, some not so.  These two were clearly talented.  A few weeks later, 2016's KEANU, starring both guys and co-written by Peele, was released to a mild reception from fans and critics.  The premise was real bait for certain audience members - an unbearably cute kitten arrives on the doorstep of a sad sack artist named Rell (Peele), but is later kidnapped by intruders who turn out to be gangsters.  Rell and his cousin Clearance (Key), an uptight straight arrow with a strong affection for George Michael, enter the L.A. underworld to get him back. 

Cute kitty.  Wisecracking heroes.  Tough violence.  A plethora of bad language.  And George Michael.  All generously packaged and delivered by director Peter Atencio.  And...curiously flat.  The movie does nothing surprising or new, and seems content with recycling the old buddy comedy/action formula without really trying to spoof or comment on it.  The guys, pretending to be gang bangers named Techno and Shark Tank, are amusing (mostly in their put-on dialogue) but not enough to sustain a one hundred minute running time.  When a character's big revelation comes during the film's climax, it feels tired.  As does the Anna Farris cameo (and its eventual explanation).  Yes, at one point the cat talks (during a character's hallucination) with the voice of....well, I think you might be able to figure that out.  And somewhat expectedly, we just don't see enough of little Keanu.  There's too much of the other stuff.

The George Michael gags continue throughout most of the movie.  They bring smiles, but the idea was exploited far beyond welcome.

Many cat lovers will blanch at Keanu's near constant proximity to peril.  You do hold your breath as he runs between hails of bullets (lots of shootouts in this movie), but you know that the filmmakers wouldn't let anything happen to the little guy.  Keanu does get to be heroic,  gnawing through rope to free his owner and leaping from the hood of a car to thwart a bad guy (Luis Guzman, perfectly cast and very funny), but it's not sufficient.  The ads promised a doo rag wearing feline who may have wandered to the dark side, but that idea is not explored, though how one could do this without being cheesy and ridiculous is open to question.

My favorite part of KEANU - Rell recreates scenes from famous films with the kitty for a calendar he's creating.  They are showcased during the credits and are the funniest thing about this movie.  

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Your Audiology Tutorial: In the News

Yes, the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 was recently passed by the House and Senate, but we'll talk about that another day.

Here are links to two recent stories that should be quite fascinating to audiologists and audiophiles alike. 

Cuban Diplomats Expelled After U.S. Embassy Staff 'Incidents' In Havana

Christopher Nolan explains the 'audio illusion' that created the unique music in 'Dunkirk'


Saturday, August 26, 2017

My Bodyguard

1980's MY BODYGUARD is a compulsively watchable, wildly entertaining coming of age drama that resonated strongly with yours truly.  It was released while I was still in elementary school, though junior high was not far off and loomed forbodingly.  Like a ten foot tall 7th grader standing at the end of a dark hallway,  punching his left palm with his right fist, staring right at you.  My classmates and I talked about our fears, how we virtually expected to have our asses hung out to dry on the first day.

Some of the older kids in my neighborhood took great delight in warning/terrorizing us with stories of incoming students who dared mouth off or merely looked at someone the wrong way.  I can still taste the nausea, feel the butterflies.  The summer between sixth and seventh grade was, pardon my French, pretty fuckin' terrifying, mainly due to the imagery my brain conjured.  Scenarios of dread that featured my certain death (or at least significant injury).  This movie did not assuage my fears.

Clifford (Chris Makepiece) is a well to do kid who lives in Chicago with his father (Martin Mull) in the luxury hotel dad manages.  Life is just grand until Clifford begins at Lake View High School, where he is almost immediately bullied by Moody (Matt Dillon) and his cronies.  The bullying and extortion for lunch money is justified by the goons as protection from an even more fearsome kid - Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), reputed to have committed all sorts of heinous acts and allegedly killed his brother.  Legends such as this spread like wildfire among students, especially ones like Carson (Paul Quandt, quite funny) who offers to Clifford - "Feel under the desk.  The gum's not so bad, it's the boogers that freak me out."

Clifford is a bit wiser and more pragmatic than his peers and meets with Ricky, though mainly as a plea for his services as a bodyguard.  Ricky agrees, and the two bond, learning about each other's worlds.  Clifford learns that the big guy is really a big softie, a decent kid who's suffered a fair amount of tragedy.  Things look up after Moody's playground ambush is thwarted.  But the story isn't quite over yet.

Alam Ormsby's screenplay and Tony Bill's direction for MY BODYGUARD are just a cut or two above a made-for-network-T.V. movie, albeit a solid one.  The story has many expected developments and scenes, but also a few surprises.  The film treats its characters like real people, and that's especially refreshing when most films of this time period treat adolescents as either sex-crazed or merely fresh meat for a serial killer (or both).  These kids sound real too, no litany of the sort of phrases that seem to dominate youth culture these days.  Maybe some of the scenes with Clifford's grandmother (Ruth Gordon) feel like gratuitous comic relief, and the entire film is pleasant and upbeat, but not too much so to take the edge off the story.

My appreciation for this film may well have been different had I not been of age during its original release.  Had I been older it may not have resonated as strongly, though maybe it in fact would've.  Incoming students have always faced these pressures. Such fears are timeless. 

I survived junior and high school with no more than a few harsh words flung in my direction, by the way, but the anticipation is usually the worst part, you know?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Butcher Shop Beer Garden & Grill

How I missed the April opening of The Butcher Shop Beer Garden and Grill in West Palm Beach is a mystery; I frequent the Bank of America complex across the street weekly.  Though, it's a funny location.  The restaurant has assumed a very old, rustic looking space that had been vacant for many decades, one in which it is believed that seaplanes had been constructed.   Sixth Street is not a hub of foot traffic, not close to any other pubs or eateries.  The sign is high above the entrance and easily missed if you walk or drive by.  It has not stymied this new establishment's popularity in any fashion.

Earlier this month, I was there twice within two days.  Both visits were planned ahead: one was a small going away party for a co-worker; the other a post church lunch with an old friend.   The first night was an orgy of  appetizer offerings: ahi poke (raw tuna in poke sauce), several sections of jumbo Bavarian pretzels (with rich cheddar Bechamel), Buffalo and Mongolian chicken wings, and Polish pierogies (filled with potato and cheese).  I also had the prime sirloin burger, which was fabulous.  Everything at The Butcher Shop is, in fact, aside from those pierogies, which were a bit bland.  I had chorizo sausage and (over easy) eggs for brunch the next visit, which was very good.

The West Palm Beach location comes after the success of the Wynwood area eatery in Miami, which combines a beer garden with a butcher shop.  A place where multiple local brews are on draught and the meat counter offers high quality, grass fed beef and sausages made in house that can be taken home.  Igor and Fred Niznik, a father and son team, have replicated that formula here in West Palm with a bright, open floor plan that utilizes the ancient building's retro cool, airplane hangar-like interior to good advantage, other than (as with many restaurants) that there is nothing to absorb sound.  The din of conversation and the live music can create a challenge to conversation.  But those overhead trusses are nifty and authentic.  There is also outdoor seating, of course.

The Butcher Shop..is a very inviting, kid friendly establishment with a menu that also includes vegan options.  Brews from Due South, Twisted Trunk, and Saltwater Brewery are available.  Well worth your time.

The Butcher Shop Beer Garden and Grill
209 6th Street
West Palm Beach, FL  33401
(561) 812-2336
butchershopwpb.com

Monday, August 21, 2017

The King of Comedy

Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.

How alarming it was to watch 1983's THE KING OF COMEDY again in this age of social media and YouTube.  Of reality television.  These things did not exist when Vernon Zimmerman wrote his original screenplay back in the late 1960s.  Or when director Martin Scorsese filmed it over a decade later.   So it seems very ahead of its time.  But its examination of extremely maladjusted New Yorkers, anonymous and famous alike, is also as timeless as they come.

Aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) has a singlemindedness - becoming famous.  He has few interests, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of celebrities.  Not just their work, but the most trivial aspects of their lives.  A certain vicariousness, you could say.  Rupert lives in his mother's basement and is never seen going to a job.  He seems incapable of a "normal" existence.  But then, so does the current object of Rupert's obsession,  talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who seems virtually catatonic in his insular life as a celebrity.

Rupert is so taken with Langford that in addition to countless fantasies of the pair talking business over lunch and in meetings, he has a life sized cardboard cutout of him, and frequently pretends to be one of his guests (alongside of a cutout of Liza Minnelli). The film opens with a golden opportunity - outside the studio, Rupert shields Jerry from hordes of rabid fans, including Rupert's rather intense acquaintance named Masha (Sandra Bernhard) and even gets in the limo with him for a ride.  Rupert is left curbside with hasty recommendations to call Langford's secretary.  It's an obvious brushoff, but Rupert Pupkin instead sees this as his first step to a guest spot on the show.

One of the intriguing elements of THE KING OF COMEDY - for all of Rupert's unwillingness/inability to face reality - he nonetheless sounds like a more rational sort when Masha exhibits similar stalker behavior toward Langford. Perhaps Rupert is also unable to deal with himself, to see his behavior laid bare in another.  Perhaps an adult is trapped within? Or are his harsh words toward Masha simply reeking of low self esteem?

Rupert repeatedly makes efforts to contact Jerry by visiting his office and parking in the reception area.  He even crashes Jerry's country estate with would-be girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) in tow.  Each effort is spectacularly unsuccessful, but does not deter him.  More desperate measures follow.  We reach an eye opening finale that has been debated for years.

Some think it's a dream.  I think it's literal.  It certainly embodies the main points of Zimmerman's script.  If the events are only in Rupert's head, well, for all the quietly wicked points this film makes, THE KING OF COMEDY may just seem like a psychotic's mere flight of fancy.  The climax of the film is inevitable from that great freeze frame shot during the opening credits, as Rupert gazes through the limousine's window at someone trapped inside, hands pressed against the glass.

Scorsese's work here was described by some critics as unusually static and arid.  I disagree.  Minus the energetic dollies and zooms, the director still achieves an uncertain, nervous vibe with this picture.  I never once found it dull or uninteresting.

DeNiro is simply amazing.  I can't recall him every playing these notes elsewhere. His Rupert is all persistence.  He's frightening in how ingratiating he can be, even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances playing it all off like a minor inconvenience.  But it's an important skill for a celebrity, one Langford can portray in his sleep as he dares to walk Manhattan streets as fans whistle to him, including one lady who fawns over then turns on him in a New York minute.  Lewis is also quite good in his restraint; there is none of his yesteryear persona to be found.  He's stated that he just played himself, an aloof, possibly diffident individual who's learned the game and become comfortably numb.

The fan/celebrity relationship is perhaps best summarized by this exchange:


I'm gonna work 50 times harder, and I'm gonna be 50 times more famous than you!

Then you're gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life! 


R.I.P Jerry



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.