Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ask, and It Shall Be.....

From The Bacon, a satirical blog/occasional periodical poking fun at Palm Beach Atlantic University's r and r, clearly inspired by The Onion.

Timely entry, and very funny. Although, I'm not so sure if some of the comments posted following the article aren't even more amusing (or depressing).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Caught You Up

Well, hello there. I reckon I oughta fill you in on what's doing, invisible audience. My blog activity has been sparser than what had been, even my celluloid and music analyses. I have some good reasons:

1. Way deep into finishing a research poster for the American Academy of Audiology convention in Dallas, April 1-4. Yikes! That's only a week and a half away! Still trying to finish my narratives, stats, graphs, in time for FAU's graphics dept. so they can create the product. Doesn't help that as I type I'm battling something ressembling a flu. I'm about 70/30 on the nap/being productive ratio scale right now.

2. Been bringing my work home with me more and more. Ugh. Just ugh.

3. Been assisting in the planning of a wedding. That's right, mine! Of course, more extensive notes to follow.

4. Haven't seen too many movies, even on DVD. Just too occupied. I still have to write a review of EUROPA, and I still have THE FOUNTAIN and DAY FOR NIGHT to watch. Nothing I really want to see in the theater, although I am curious about WATCHMEN. I have to type up my first entry in the They Might Be Giants portion of the "Wiseacre Duo" series, too. This thing may never conclude!

4. Thanks to Facebook, I've been reconnecting with peeps from all periods of my almost 40 years. A few weeks back, we attended the big 4-0 celebration for a woman I hadn't seen in a long while. Actually, it had only been 7 years, as she had come back to visit a friend who happened to be in my church singles' group. The birthday girl was and is one of the sweetest people I've ever known. She is dating another of my high school classmmates, a guy who I had more of an adversarial relationship with in the 80s but lately, since seeing him at my 20th a couple of years ago, he has been much friendlier. They are a fine couple and I am pleased as punch for them.

I also had a wonderful night out at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach with another old friend I had originally met in jr. high school. Last time we spoke was circa 2000 at the late Maya Azteca, a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach owned by friends. He was about to move to Alaska at that time. Prior to that, I had run into him at Respectables, a local club, in 1994 after not seeing him since graduation.

We spent 3+ hours catching up on each other's lives and of those people we knew and know. It was a great meal, too. Best swordfish I've ever had! I had several glasses of wine and got a bit carried away during one reminscence, enough to shatter one of them. The waiter took it in stride, drolly informing me that I had just broken an extremely rare bit of glassware passed down by the Countess Something-or-Other. He was quite funny. Also gave us an interesting history lesson of his over twenty years of service to the restaurant.

Almost flew to NYC this weekend to rendevous with some undergrad friends, all of whom I have maintained contact with regularly even before I succumbed to the FB phenom. Would've been a blast, but another time.

5. Had some hearing aid training seminars, including the most recent, in Baltimore, MD. Another where they comp your airfare, hotel, and copious amounts of food and drink. The seminar itself was about a 6 overall, but I did take away some new bits of knowledge. The big thing these days with hearing aids is the implementation of Bluetooth wireless technology. With a device reseembling a remote control, one can pair the aids with cell phones, mp3 players, etc. More tutorial. I ran into 2 former grad school classmmates, and because of them this trip was far more entertaining than it would've been. More catching up, more recollections. More libations.

Speaking of which, after the opening night dinner, I also met up with some friends who live in Baltimore. One of the classmates joined us and we socialized in a joint called Friends, a spacious bar in the Fells Point district. There were only two others there, one of whom was the bartender. We played cool tunes on the jukebox and laughed a lot. Had an Irish car bomb. Oh, dear. This on top of all the wine I had already downed at the dinner and a few more beers. I paid dearly the next morning. I'm not 25 anymore.

Things will continue to be quite busy from now on. Conventions, birthdays, weddings, honeymoons, and more. I'm sure there may be another Facebook engineered meet up or two.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An American Werewolf in London

That roar, that’s what I always think about when someone mentions AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, writer/director John Landis’ 1981 comedy/horror mini-classic. Such a ferocious, terrible bellow. Gave me nightmares when I was 13, almost as many as those courtesy of the twin sisters in THE SHINING. What’s so disturbing is that timbre, that tone of sadness, defeat. It’s appropriate as the titular werewolf is a likeable collegiate named David (David Naughton), backbacking abroad on holiday with his caustic friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). An ill-advised jaunt on the fog choked moors leads to the slaughter of Jack and nearly fatal mauling of David by what appears to be a werewolf. Arriving just seconds too late, some local pub patrons dispatch of the monster with their rifles.

Upon awakening in the hospital, David learns of the death of his friend, but himself seems to be well on his way to repair. Helping matters is a cute nurse (Jenny Agutter) who decides to take him home. All is well until the next full moon, when David undergoes the painful transformation (a famous scene that most deservedly sealed makeup maestro Rick Baker’s Oscar win) to hairy beast. The lad had been bitten, you see. Several unlucky Londoners expire in very graphic ways. David wakes up naked in the zoo the following morning. Confused, but utterly, oddly energized, he continues his pleasant dalliance with his own English Florence Nightingale. But strange things happen, not the least of which are the increasingly gruesome visits by his dead friend Jack. After hearing on the telly of a string of mysterious murders, David puts 2 and 2 together and faces some awful decisions.

We hear that roar several times, usually eminated from a distance. We know that it is David, reduced to a carnivorous horror, and I always felt that it is a howl of self-awareness, a helplessness. I don’t know if Landis intended (or even thought of) this, but it adds a poignant dimension. Orginally penned by Landis in 1969 while he was working as an extra on KELLY'S HEROES, AMERICAN WEREWOLF was and is a unique entertainment, a genre bending film that deftly switches gears between the comedic and the horrific, as well as often achieving both in the same sequence. Jack’s appearances as a rapidly decomposing corpse are perfect examples. He continues to speak like the sarcastic college student, bemoaning his fate as one of the undead. “You ever talk to a corpse? It’s boring!” he relays. Jack also informs David that in order for him and David’s victims to rest in peace, the poor bastard will have to kill himself. At one point, Jack brings all the victims, freshly killed and dripping with gore, to encounter David at a movie theater. Each victim offers helpful advice as to how David should off himself. It is a ghoulishly funny scene.

Ghoulishly funny is a good way to describe AMERICAN WEREWOLF. Seriously violent is also accurate. When Landis was approving a remaster of the film for DVD (after not having seen it in years), he was taken aback at how gory the film really was. A brilliantly staged attack scene (filled with the director’s near fetishistic interest in vehicular mayhem) in Picadilly Circus can be cited as an example, as well as an amusing dream-within-a-dream that the director claims was inspired by Luis Bunuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOUGEOSIE.

Humor does leaven the gloom, but this is still strong meat, not for the squeamish by any stretch.. I remain impressed with this film, despite my acknowledgment of some hokey elements, even after over 25 years. How Landis was able to orchestrate such a paradoxically funny/scary film is quite a mystery, and definitely worthy of earning him some respect, no matter what one may think of a lot of his other films. Many fans rank this among the highest in contemporary horror, and I think that is apt. It works on many levels, but what really gets to me is the central tragedy of an innocent, lead to (and leading others) to sacrifice. I mean, how else can one respond to the opening scene, where David and Jack are hitching a ride in a truck full of sheep? You hear it in the howl.

Still Crazy.....

I spent many an hour peering behind a Mad Magazine in my halcyon youth. Some really witty satire. While I was browsing an airport bookstore today I saw this cover. Nearly spit out my coffee in laughter. Glad to know "the usual gang of idiots" are still at it. Something comforting about that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

American Gangster

Gangsters of cinema seem to have certain identifiable behaviors: they lecture their underlings on how the business works, show their horrifying authority in a moment of swift violence, feel conflicted when their siblings are given key roles for which they are clearly unfit, and demonstrate considerable charity to the less fortunate, as if an attonement for their multitude of sins. Perhaps real life gangsters also exhibit this behavior (didn't Gotti have a philanthropic streak?). Frank Lucas was a real gangster who became the premier heroin dealer in Harlem in the early 1970s. As played by Denzel Washington in director Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, in him we see the familiar blueprint. His deadly authority is announced in the opening scene, as he cavalierly sets an unidentified man ablaze with no seeming hesitation.

Lucas inherits his position after the death of his mentor, a respected and feared chap named Bumpy Johnson. Bumpy isn't riddled with bullets at an eatery, though. He dies of natural causes, just like Don Corleone (who wasn't real, of course). After this death, the streets of Harlem become overrun with amateurs who frighten tenants out of protection money and sling low grade junk with no sense of pride. Lucas winces as the dealers make their own rules; he instead is a sharp capitalist who, once on top of his game, grows irate when one of his customers dares to dilute the H with fillers and still use the trademarked name ("Blue Magic"). It just ain't professional.

Lucas builds his empire with a clever importation system for the heroin that utilizes American military helicopters as they transport dead soldiers back from Vietnam. War is profitable. Meanwhile, we also get to know Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), apparently the only honest cop in the NYPD. He's so damned honest he actually returns drug money he finds on a bust back to the precinct. No one can understand this, and Roberts finds himself shunned by nearly everyone on the force. No good deed goes unpunished. He also has the usual difficult life real and cinematic cops tend to have: busted-up marriage, disappointed kid, dirty dishes in the sink, a steady diet of Chinese takeout. Richie's a bit more ambitious, though; he's taken the bar exam, hoping to become at least a ham and egger down at City Hall someday.

Richie catches a break when he's recruited to head the Federal Investigation Force of Narcotics. He assembles a rag-tag team of likeminded cops from around New York who focus on the rampant heroin epidemic. Their investigations eventually identify Frank Lucas, and the movie becomes a mano-a-mano contest between him and Roberts. There are the inevitable parallels between the men's lives, which director Scott illustrates with contrasting scenes of their respective domestic lives. We also get the scenes which illustrate my opening remarks, as Lucas coldbloodedly kills a rival in broad daylight in front of Lucas's minions, verbally berates and repeatedly bangs a baby grand piano lid down on a wayward family member who screws up, and also hands out a truckload of frozen turkeys to the needy in Harlem every Thanksgiving, carrying on the tradition of Bumpy before him.

AMERICAN GANGSTER, in other words, is less than original. Every story thread, every detail, has been seen many, many times. It has been said that there are only 100 storylines in Hollywood, but Scott and colleagues do nothing to make these ideas fresh or truly compelling. Even in a true story. It is a pretty good movie, engrossing and entertaining, if long in tooth. It plays like a commedable programmer, designed to be a time killer at home. Barely remembered a week later.

The movie has good performances by the leads and a game supporting cast; Ruby Dee won an Oscar nom for her brief appearance as Lucas' mother. Washingston pretty much nails the suave but icy cold criminal, and Crowe again effortlessly pulls off an affable everyman trying to Do The Right Thing. Harris Savides' washed out cinematography helps to evoke the time period, as does the exemplary art direction by Arthur Max and Beth A. Rubino, both also nominated for Oscars. Scott knows how to block the action, and expectedly brings visual flair to most of the staggering 350 + locations on which GANGSTER was filmed. But the sum was strangely dissatisfying for such an ambitious production.

After it was over, I felt much like I had at the end of SCARFACE, NEW JACK CITY, and BLOW, all of which GANGSTER ressembles: worn-out and willing to be done with it. Like another episode of Law & Order. Yeah, crime doesn't pay. What THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS did was leave the viewer with plenty of larger than life, almost mystical issues on which to ponder. When all the blood money is retrieved, all the friends and family lost, and all the henchmen are buried, how does one respond? I think I'd rather leave the theater with Michael Corleone's or Henry Hill's torment than Frank Lucas' bemusement.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Funhouse

Ah, what a magical time, the early 1980s. After enduring a childhood of network television, I finally got cable. Suddenly, I could watch movies on HBO and Showtime without edits or commercials. The former was a bit of a problem for my parents, seeing as now changing channels was like Russian Roulette. If it was 8 P.M. or later, one never knew what might flash on the screen-a severed head, a profane rant, or worst of all, a pair of female breasts. Sometimes all three, as would've been the case with director Tobe Hooper's 1981 THE FUNHOUSE.

Oddly enough, I never did watch the entire thing in those days. It did, like many movies these channels ran, play endlessly, however. But I always seemed to catch a few minutes here, a scene there. It was usually on way past my bedtime. I had sat through all manner of craptastic horror films in those days, and seeing THE FUNHOUSE now, I sorta wished I had stuck with it. Or not, but I'll get to that.

Hooper opens his film with an overt homage to PSYCHO. A young girl is showering while we get the POV of someone slipping on a Halloween mask (nod to J. Carpenter) and grabbing a knife. The soundtrack crescendoes, the curtain is pulled back. The knife meets flesh. The girl screams. Then we see the knife is a rubber toy, and the would be psychopath is a young boy, the brother of our heroine. She chases and threatens him. Like siblings do. One threat involves her not taking him to a local carnival.

Not the most clever intro but we move on quickly to the real story-the girl joins three other friends for a night at said carnival, the sort of sleazy extravaganza complete with sweaty barkers and rickety rides. We follow our none-too-interesting protagonists as they do all the usual midway things, plus as they argue, smoke a little weed, and try to scare each other. They see a tent filled with mutant animals: two headed cows and the like. They also peek behind another tent filled with over-the-hill strippers, strutting their sagging forms for a crowd 'o slobbering locals. Several bizarre characters wander around, including a ancient lady who yells "God is watching!" from bathroom stalls. She seems like she wandered in from a David Lynch movie. But if you've ever been to one of these fairs, you'll recognize it as fairly accurate.

Finally, one of the guys in the group has a brilliant idea-why not spend the night in the funhouse ride! How awesome would that be? Well, don't answer that, reader, especially if you're beyond your teen years and have an IQ above that of lint.

After some hesitation and blatant lying on the phone to their parents, our group breaks away and hides in the funhouse after all has shut down for the night. As creepy and vile as things were during normal business hours, can only guess. After some attempts at intimacy, the teens hear some ruckus and then witness a murder. The victim? Madame Zena, the fortune teller. The killer? The dude in the Frankenstein mask who mans the Funhouse. But the mask is ripped off to reveal-a mutant! One frightful looking creature, courtesy of another of make-up artist Rick Baker's impressive jobs. How and why the killing occurs doesn't really matter, but it sets the story in motion, particularly when the carnival's barker (vet actor Jeff Conway), the mutant's father, shows up. He discovers the teens and then a deadly game of cat and mouse begins.

The possibilities of this scenario are well exploited. The ingenious sets allow some imaginative scrapes for our "heroes" (though truth be known at times I was rooting for the mutant; the main characters were quite the unlikeable bunch!). Hooper uses suspense over easy gore "money" shots quite effectively. Suspense builds, especially in the final reels. Of course, if you've seen enough of these slashers, you know that the virgin is almost always the lone survivor. But not before she tangles with the mutant in a really well-done climax in a boiler room, complete with rusty chains, gigantic metal gears, ominous bursts of steam clouds, and hanging hooks (nice TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE nod to yerself, Tobe). Up to that point though, the character of Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is as vapid a leading lady as I've seen. Her later turn in AMADEUS was similiarly less than spectacular.

Hooper succeeds firstly and lastly with the atmosphere. The film just oozes the filth of a traveling fair. You can almost taste the cotton candy and diesel. The sense of dread really makes this film an uneasy watch, and that's why perhaps I'm glad I didn't watch this all the way through as an early teen. I would've never visited my beloved South Florida Fair ever again! I guess I never wanted to believe that these affairs reeked of the basest of human behavior, but I'm sure I knew better. The scariest scene in this film doesn't involve bloody hatchets or dismemberment but rather that when Amy's parents come to retrieve her little brother (who sneaked out of the house to follow his sister) from one of the carnies. The little boy is on the carny's greasy couch in his trailer, somewhat sleepy. As the guy explains to the parents how hard it was to get in touch with them, he touches the boy's arm. The implications of what happened before are unthinkable.

The main reason to watch THE FUNHOUSE is nostalgia. It reminds me of a simpler time. The movies of this ilk were mostly crap, yes, but generally fun. The latter day remakes have been coming faster and furious. A few weeks ago, FRIDAY THE 13th was re-imagined. A few weeks before that, we got a 2009 3-D MY BLOODY VALENTINE. Gorier, louder, and more frantically edited (so I'm told). Hopefully, THE FUNHOUSE will be one chestnut left alone.