Thursday, June 21, 2018

Summertime

Here we are again.  The New Year, which arrived seemingly five minutes ago, is now half over.  I've previously discussed this phenomenom all people of a certain age experience: the rapidity of time passage.  Days turn into weeks and all the rest.  You look up, and it's another season.  Summer, again.

There isn't a lot of point to this entry - just another time marker.  Something to look at years from now and reflect upon.  A remembrance of my circumstances, and perhaps state of mind.  Recently, we had rainfall for what seemed like a month straight.  I guess this happens every year.  I used to love rainy days.  Now I find overcast and wet weather a bore, and quite disgusting (necessary as it is, yes).

As I type, I still live and work in the same places.  The "season" is winding down and our snowbird friends are returning Northward.  Things on the job will remain steady through the summer months, but little to none of the double bookings and running room to room I do in the winter.  Will I want to be in such a frantic environment when I'm sixty?

I think about the many forced naps (ones I now covet) of childhood during the summer.  Turning my head and through the bedroom window watching planes in the sky, their distant rumbles some sort of cruel reminder that I was stuck in my little corner of the world.

I think of all the summertimes in my life, most memorably the church Youth Camps in Melrose, FL. Lake Swan.  It was where I truly became a Christian, professing faith for real.  I can never forget the night the power went down during a service and many kids just honestly spoke about their lives.  It all felt genuine. Some, including many of those with whom I grew up who no longer profess that faith, may argue the source.

One year our cabin won the neatness award, which meant the losing cabin had to carry our luggage to the bus.  Our leader, someone with whom I'm still in contact, was very competitive about this, and even created a "Hair Care Center" in our bathroom, complete with ornate sign and symmetrically placed gel and shampoo bottles on the counter.  I remember my summer of '84 ('85?) girlfriend Lonna, a relationship that didn't progress too far after we returned back home, to reality.  The camp grounds had a sort of magic quality.  Mainly, my Christian faith was the true magic of the scene, and I believe that it was because of God such a scene could exist.  But can "good" exist apart from God?  We had many debates in my undergrad days.

Back home, still on a spiritual camp high, there was some unchecked piety, and attitudes of perfection that didn't stand up to the temptations in every corner.  It was my first lesson in Christian humility.  Valuable.  Still learning, and unlearning some of what in hindsight seems quite childish and even toxic.  'Tis a journey.

One of my favorite summertime memories? More recent, say around fifteen to twenty years ago.  The dearly departed Barnes & Noble at CityPlace in West Palm Beach.  On weekdays off I would go at opening and park myself in the upstairs cafe for hours as I wrote short stories and drank coffee.  I consumed a lot of baked goods.  There was inspiration there, even if what I wrote wasn't Nobel or Pulitzer Prize worthy.  There was something about the sun breaking through the windows and the smell of the java and ice cold a/c that made me feel totally at peace.   A few years later, I would study and write abstracts for grad school in those same seats.  I really miss that B & N.

Summer.  So much to write.  Maybe I should close with the lyrics to Jonathan Richman's "That Summer Feeling".  Relatable.  Maybe too relatable.

When there's things to do not because you gotta
When you run for love not because you oughta
When you trust your friends with no reason, nada
The joy I've named shall not be tamed

And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
When the teenage car gets the cop down on it
That time is here for one more year

And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

If you've forgotten what I'm naming
You're gonna long to reclaim it one day
Because that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life
And if you wait until your older
A sad resentment will smolder one day
And then that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
And that summer feeling's gonna taunt you
And then that summer feeling is gonna hurt you one day in your life

When even fourth grade starts looking good
Which you hated
And first grade's looking good too
Overrated
And you boys long for some little girl that you dated
Do you long for her or for the way you were?
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you the rest of your life
When the Oldsmobile has got the top down on it
When the catamaran has got the drop down on it
When the flat of the land has got the crop down on it
Some things look good before and some things never were
But that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

Well when your friends are in town and they got time for you
When you and them are hanging around and they don't ignore you
When you say what you will
And they still adore you
If that's not appealing, it's that summer feeling
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

It's gonna haunt you
It's gonna taunt you
You're gonna want this feeling inside one more time
It's gonna haunt you
It's gonna taunt you
You're gonna want this feeling inside one more time

When you're hanging around the park with the water fountain
And there's the little girl with the dirty ankles
But she's on the swings where all the dust is kicking up
And you remember the ankle locket
And the way she flirted with you
For all this time how come?
Well that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life 

You'll throw away everything for it (2X)

When the playground that just was all dirt comes haunting
And that little girl that called you a flirt
Memory comes taunting
You pick these things apart, they're not that appealing
You put them together and you'll get a certain feeling
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Face in the Crowd

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

"Lonesome" Rhodes, in all his caffeinated rebel yelling, might've seemed like a fantasy to audiences in 1957.  Perhaps like Howard Beale did in 1976.  What compels these men to grandstand on the airwaves, literally screaming their observations about the American Dream? Beale was in a post Watergate, post Vietnam society of burnout.  A society sobered by continuous televised footage of war atrocities and assassinations.  Rhodes is wagging his finger at a A Leave it to Beaver era audience that may or may not emulate that buttoned down veneer, but he's also got that finger on their pulse.  The stale marriages, the vain attempts to keep up the vanilla, mom and apple pie facade.  Lonesome spews folksy tales and sings songs about the everyday American, and they love every minute.  He achieves a level of fame so pronounced that he is seriously considered for the President's Cabinet.  Who is this man?

Not long before, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) was a drifter lying in a drunk tank in a small Arkansas town.  Local radio host Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) gives him a mic and tries to coax something interesting out of him for her show.  It isn't until the sheriff promises to release him the following day that Rhodes pulls out his guitar and howls a paean to rural life and love, clearly wowing the young woman.  She dubs him "Lonesome" and not long after he's a local sensation on the radio, then on to a Memphis television program, where his unfiltered honesty leads him to insult the show's sponsor, a mattress company entrepreneur, and his product.  No matter.  Folks love Lonesome and even as his denigrating rants lead some to set fire to the mattresses in the street, the company's sales go through the roof.

From there, the firebrand yokel goes national, getting bigger and increasingly uncontainable.   The cult of personality can turn the tide either way.  If you have a figure like Lonesome to persuade the masses, you can get away with almost anything.  Most folks don't act on intellect or careful analysis. They may not smell a faker until the underbelly is right in their faces.

I'm sure this scenario does not remind you of any current political figures.  Funny how ahead of their time movies like A FACE IN THE CROWD or NETWORK really are. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg (adapting his short story "Your Arkansas Traveler") seems to have a crystal ball of sorts.  But as with Paddy Cheyefsky's later screenplay, the men saw the handwriting on the wall.  The consumerism, the commercialization.  Lonesome is brought in to help inspire a vitamin company to market their pill as sexy, even if a chemist analyzes the supplement as near worthless.  Who cares? People take to placebos like fish to water.  In a dazzling series of ruthless parodies of commercials, the Vitajex product is even touted as a male potency enhancer! This is the late 1950s!

Director Elia Kazan has a firm handle on such scenes, and on his lead actor, who is ferocious as Lonesome.  Griffith like you've never seen him.  Sure, the voice sounds like the beloved Andy Taylor, Matlock, and all the other small town beloveds he's played, but the words are like daggers, the intensity is close to Brando in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Rhodes is also a habitual womanizer, as faithless as they come, though he may actually love the one who created him, the woman who may perhaps have to erase a mistake.   He and the movie somehow never spin out of control.  A FACE IN THE CROWD is far from subtle, at times a bit didactic and too obvious (note the late elevator scene), but is positively jaw dropping to watch.  Sometimes points are best made with a sledgehammer.  And an acoustic guitar, son.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Spies Like Us

1985's SPIES LIKE US was originally conceived by co-star/co-writer Dan Aykroyd with his old partner John Belushi in mind.  By the time of filming, Belushi had been dead for two years, losing out on this project and another of his old pal's ideas, a script that would eventually become GHOSTBUSTERS.  So instead we have a different Saturday Night Live alum, Chevy Chase, playing the idiot to Aykroyd's straight man in this mild comedy that recalls many of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's ROAD movies.  As John Landis was the director of SPIES LIKE US, it should be of no surprise that Mr. Hope in fact makes a brief cameo appearance.

The plot involves two underachievers: a low on the totem pole, slovenly codebreaker named Austin Milbarge (Aykroyd) and wiseass diplomat/son of an envoy Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase) who, after being caught cheating on the foreign service exam, end up as decoy agents in the U.S.S.R.  As is tradition in slob comedies, these (somewhat) lovable screw ups survive multiple instances of peril despite their incredible ineptitude and even save the day.  I won't bore you with the plot details, of how the real operatives are trying to capture a Soviet ICBM missile, and how the Defense Intelligence Agency attempts to test an anti-ballistic system.  Which of course goes wrong.

The real fun of SPIES LIKE US are the gags, in-jokes, and gratuitous cameos.  Like that of many Landis outings. There's a funny montage of the boys' rigorous training on a military course.   Look closely at the posters on the wall during a shoot out with Soviet soldiers (one of whom is played by director Costa Gavras, ha ha). B.B. King and Joel Coen are guarding an abandoned drive-in that is actually concealing an underground military bunker.  And so on. Oh, and we can't forget the famous "Doctor. Doctor. Doctor...." gag.  If all that fails to enthrall you, Donna Dixon (Aykroyd's real life bride) plays a sexily aloof American spy.

SPIES LIKE US is pleasant and amusing enough, but barely seems to have a pulse.  Aykroyd and Chase are funny, but seem tired.  Their line delivery is usually off, and the lines themselves aren't that great to begin with ("What's a dicfer? To pee with!").  Landis' direction is similarly lethargic; the comic timing he brought to earlier pics like TRADING PLACES and ANIMAL HOUSE is barely in evidence here.  Even though the Cold War was still in effect, perhaps the story's timeliness was long past.  I guess as an homage to those Crosby/Hope films it succeeds to some comfortable, unambitious degree.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Texasville

I wonder how 1990's TEXASVILLE will play for someone who has not seen THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.  Possibly like some tedious, terminal soap opera.  Larry McMurtry's characters wearily traverse their small Texas town and bed hop as naturally as they breathe and drink.  In the original film, the relationships among the residents of Anarene were poignant and had some spark of life.  TEXASVILLE rejoins them three decades later.  They might've been a bit melancholy before; now they're beaten down, broke, and still no better regarding fidelity.

Duane (Jeff Bridges) was captain of the football team in 1952.  He and his friend Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) competed for the same girl, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), neither ultimately the victor.  Duane went to Korea but returned to Anarene and got rich with oil wells.   Sonny stuck around and bid the years running the local market.  Somewhere along the way his mind began to fail him.  Jacy went off to Europe and acted in some low budget films. She began a family but recently lost her son.  She returns to town a much wiser soul, not seeking to rekindle any affairs but rather to take stock of her life.

Jacy befriends Duane's wife Karla (Annie Potts), who has long resigned herself to Duane's wandering eye.  Karla and Duane had some kids, one of whom is named Dickie (William McNamara) and shares his father's skills in getting the local ladies into bed.  He even gets one pregnant - the wife of a local businessman named Marlow (Dennis Quaid), to whom Duane is in hock for twelve million due to plummeting oil barrel prices.  Jacy and Karla share notes on Duane, forming a bond that may even threaten Duane's family stability (not that it wasn't fragile to begin with).

As with LAST PICTURE SHOW, the plot sounds like any ol' cheap trashy paperback.  There is so much cheating in TEXASVILLE you may well give yourself a headache trying to connect the dots.  At times, it becomes comical, rendering investment in the characters (and what happens to them) near moot.  The earlier film was stunning and beautiful.  The damage these characters did to each other was never celebrated for carnal joy or otherwise.  TEXASVILLE seems blase in the face of so much sleeping around.  Director Peter Bogdonovich returns to direct and adapt McMurtry's novel and has created a shapeless, rambling movie that just sorta plays and ends.

Is this film amoral? It feels that way at times.  But we always see Duane's frustration, inertia, sometimes pain.  He's damned tired.  He has sex with many women 'cause it's something to do, 'cause he can.  Well, most of the time.  Early in the film he threatens to shoot his penis off "because it doesn't work half the time anyway."  Karla, patient but caustically realistic, still loves him and is perhaps waiting for that moment of Realization for her husband.  Potts is very appealing and believable in this role.  Bridges does fine work too and Shepherd, whose career has been erratic, gives a nice take on middle aged recognition and associated wisdom.  She underplays what could've been a more flamboyant part and leaves off her makeup to look more weathered.

Other characters from LAST PICTURE SHOW return: Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) is now Duane's secretary/bookkeeper, forever dispensing advice and far more energetic than she was in earlier times.  Eileen Brennan is back as Genevieve, the waitress in Sam the Lion's old cafe who once consoled young Sonny with a free hamburger.  Neither character is really given a sufficient update.  Ruth has a few fleeting recollections of her affair with Sonny - such a vital relationship in the earlier movie - but I was craving more.  Especially as Sonny himself is now living in an apartment connected to her house.

Sonny is representative of the sad state of Anarene itself moreso than anyone else.   He's reduced to sitting and watching the sky, slowly losing his neurology.  It's a sad sight to see.  So is the town.  So is the movie?

Not entirely.  TEXASVILLE is a bit long in tooth, frequently quite silly, and aimless but is nonetheless fascinating.  Most characters are drawn well enough to be vital, and the relational dynamics, while often frivolous, will keep you wondering what will happen next.  This film is not the poetry of the original, not by a long shot, but is still an effective portrait of damaged people trying to make sense of their lives, how cruel advancing years may be.  Cycles are not easily broken.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Marcello's La Sirena

La Sirena has been in West Palm Beach since 1986.  Mind blowing to me.  I remember when they opened, assuming the old Sportman's Inn (a pizza joint) on South Dixie Highway.  Very near my old neighborhood.  I was still in high school, and I lived close enough to walk to the restaurant.  I did not make it there until the 1990s, when I occasionally had enough money to enjoy a nice meal.  I joined my wife for our ninth anniversary celebration last month.

Marcello's parents opened the restaurant, and he and his family continue the tradition today.  Surely they are doing something right to sustain three decades of service.  I believe the key is simplicity.  Simple elegance. Oh, the Northern Italian menu offerings are diverse and the wine menu is the most comprehensive I've ever seen.  A single decorated dining room with a bar on the east end.  The outstanding wait staff are impeccably dressed, and wear red sneakers.  This a trademark that, to me, announces that while you are enjoying the privilege of dining in an upscale, highly regarded restaurant, you're on the west side of the bridge, dear.  It's perfect.

I began with the spinaci salad, perfected sized with just the right amount of walnuts and goat cheese.  My entree was the Costoletta di Vitello Sirena - breaded veal chop pounded and topped with arugula.  No frills, and delightful.  My wife ordered the Penne Aumm, Aumm, a delicious pasta dish with eggplant and mozzerella.

 Dessert was a Tartufo - a hard chocolate shell filled with pistachio ice cream.  Yes, heavenly.
La Sirena's atmosphere is very homey.  I've never felt airs, or some desperate attempt at being posh.  It's very European, and its clintele is always similarly heterogeneous.  When I dined this past May I had this pleasant sort of feeling overcome me.  We were mere blocks from my grandmother and grandfather's old house, the one they bought in 1972 after moving from Brooklyn.  I grew up having made from scratch, simple but delectable meals there.  Not a hint of pretension, ever.  La Sirena is certainly a more formal and stylish place but the warmth is similar.  Both my grandparents have passed and their house has long since been sold, but being close by felt somewhat natural, organic.  Retro, of course. Very pleasing.

La Sirena is closed for the summer but will reopen for the new season, their thirty fourth, on September fifth.

Marcello's La Sirena
6316 South Dixie Highway
West Palm Beach, FL  33405
(561) 585-3128
www.lasirenaonline.com  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Florida Project

I didn't like Moonee at first.  She acted like a bona-fide brat, manipulative and disrespectful of peer and adult alike. Her cohorts in mischief, Scooty and Dicky, were little better.  But as it goes, they only imitate what they see in their parents.  Mothers, at least.  2017's THE FLORIDA PROJECT focuses on Moonee and her mother Halley, who live in a dive hotel on Highway 192 in Kissimmee, not far from the Walt Disney World theme parks.  Not far in miles, but for those dirt poor souls pushed to the margins of society, it may as well be across the globe.

Their life is rough.  The hotel is tacky and filthy.  They scrounge for cash by selling trinkets and perfume to ambushed tourists in parking lots. The garishness of gift shops and attractions both delight and remind them they are firmly on the outside of the consumer paradise. This is not the Orlando many people see, at least not on purpose.  When things get increasingly desperate, Halley may not be above stealing theme park passes, or selling herself.  Halley is a profane, somewhat pathetic young woman who just never had a shot at anything.  We don't learn her backstory, but it wouldn't be too hard to figure.  She loves her daughter.

There is a bright spot in their lives: Bobby, the hotel's manager.  He watches with a paternal eye and protects the girls from repercussions that perhaps should be felt, lest lessons be learned.  That sounds harsh, easy to hand down from the confines of a comfortable room while clacking a keyboard.  I have to go back to the immersive, beguiling experience of viewing writer/director Sean Baker's film and recall how I too felt protective of Halley and Moonee at every step, even when the shit inevitably comes down hard at the end. Nothing like some raw, cinema verite-like voyeurism to confront your own prejudices and judgments.  What would many of us do in Bobby's corner? Halley's?

Bobby, beautifully and quite naturally portrayed by Willem Dafoe, extends a father's concern that manifests as frustration, playfulness, and hard discipline in equal measure.  But there will be moments when his authority will be usurped, perhaps due to his own inability to face the crushing realities of poverty, those of his tenants and maybe even his own.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT captures the sweaty banality of central Florida better than most anything I've seen.  Only Larry Clark has been as successful behind the camera.  It's a shattering, sobering film that won't leave my thoughts anytime soon.  Baker employs Alexis Zabe's cinematography to create a fashioned yet very realistic seeming drama, one which is so engaging you feel no escape, one that makes you feel as if you're as desperate as the characters.  Aside from Dafoe, the actors are first timers, selected because they were right, not because they were a Flavor of the Year or a casting director saw them shopping on Melrose Avenue.

The final few minutes of this movie have not pleased everyone, but I found them to be perfect, just the way children might respond to an enveloping trauma which promises no rosy future.  God bless those like them.  Think about them the next time you enter the Magic Kingdom.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

I've long been fascinated with the observance of film characters as they go about their current paces, heads filled with memories of past experiences.  Where have they been? What have they seen? What has shaped who they are?  I do this with real life folks as well, of course, but today I'm focusing on the STAR WARS universe.  The prequels documented the earlier life exploits of Annakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others.  It was fun to watch Episodes 4 - 6 again, knowing what many of the characters had been through.  I like to believe their body language and their faces tell a story, their eyes unavoidably elucidating an eventful past.  Good actors working with richly drawn characterizations can convey such (even under colorful costumes or a Darth Vader mask).

Han Solo was always one of the more interesting and mysterious of the bunch.  An ace pilot but also essentially a common thief and smuggler.  Egotistical, brash, opportunistic.  Despite these flaws, a caring individual, a hero.  We never really learned what made him tick in the four STAR WARS movies in which he appeared.  When it was announced that this character would get his own spin off film, I had mixed feelings.  The mystery surrounding Han was always part of his appeal.  The mystique was appropriate to this rogue of a guy, forever talking his way out of debts to murderous crime lords and always looking over his shoulder.  Surely his earlier years were filled with larceny, time spent in dank back alleys of his home planet, Corellia.

This summer's SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY answers questions that may or may not have been nagging you.  Like how Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) got his name.   We meet him as a twenty-something scavenger, running from criminals, just as we would expect.  He has a girlfriend/partner in crime named Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) and with her tries to escape their depressing shipbuilding planet.  They've acquired some very coveted fuel called Coaxium - their ticket away (and quite integral to much of this film's plotting).  Things do not goes as planned, and the lovers are separated, but surely they will meet again.   We learn how Solo became such a skilled pilot, even though he was kicked out of the Imperial Flight Academy.  How he becomes involved with a gang of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and most importantly, how he meets his Wookie pal Chewbacca.
Han Solo's backstory is not what I would've expected.  I pictured vignettes of his teenage years, pulling small time jobs and erecting the foundation of his morally shaky point of view.  Maybe a comparatively uneventful (free of spectacular f/x laden scrapes, at least) narrative.

This movie, directed by Ron Howard after original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ousted for deviating too much from the screenplay (penned by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter of whom is no stranger to the world of STAR WARS), tells a much lighter tale than I think would be befitting for such a rascal.  In light of the more recent, darker, more nihilistic STAR WARS films, I was hoping for a grittier take, though with Howard at the helm...I guess I should've known better.  But, admirably he does not make the film a comedy, which is reportedly what Lord and Miller attempted.  Despite some really awkward attempts at humor (mainly involving the droid L3-37) that don't work, SOLO maintains a cool, even tone, fairly serious but not forboding.  The Kasdans' script does not fashion a nasty tale by any means, rather one that champions teamwork and empathy over greed and self centered-ness, yet with some realistic plot outcomes (about how Life, filled with untrustworthy scoundrels, can be a real B I T C H sometimes).  Maybe things that did indeed shape the cynical outlaw we've known and loved since 1977.

Fine, but in this film Solo is drawn too much as an idealist.  I didn't really buy that.  I would think this streetwise orphan would've already been sufficiently hardened.  That maybe any notion of love would've already been squinted at with suspicion.  In any event, Ehrenreich does a decent job, and works in some Harrison Fordisms quite nicely.  The cast is good, including Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian (though what is up with him and that droid?).

Where SOLO really delivers? The action scenes.  The heist of Coaxium from a train on the planet Vandor is a real piece of showmanship, a set piece that reminded me of something out of the INDIANA JONES movies.  Delirious fun.  Kudos to Howard; he should direct more movies with these kinds of moments.  It may be a bit of a shot at a filmmaker who has long since explored subjects that should've made classic films, but his workmanlike approach, solid as it is, is best suited for popcorn.  And SOLO is purely that.  If you can let go of the seductive but self serious STAR WARS mythos, you should have a fine time with this movie.

P.S. - Yes, Chewbacca gets lots of screen time, lots to do.  His relationship with Han is nicely rendered. 

P.P.S - I was not elated with Bradford Young's often murky photography, but it isn't as unsightly as that of many fantasy adventures of recent times.