Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Man on the Moon

Andy Kaufman had this whiff about him. Dangerous. So unpredictable you would hold your breath, wondering what would occur. Go on YouTube and watch that long-ago clip of him on the David Letterman show, firing profanities at wrestler Jerry Lawler. This was after Lawler slapped him out of his chair. Followed by Kaufman grabbing Letterman's mug and flinging its contents in the wrestler's face. Yes, it was all staged, great theater. But it was electric. Andy was just one-of-a-kind, whether doing his stage act, appearing on talk and sketch comedy shows, or (sometimes) while acting in TV comedies and films.

Milos Forman's 1999 film MAN ON THE MOON attempts to summate the mercurial comedian's time in the spotlight. The director goes as far as to recreate (or co-opt) the same set from the sitcom Taxi, on which Kaufman became a household name. Forman recruited many of the series' stars, excepting Danny DeVito. That's OK, because DeVito is too busy playing Kaufman's agent, the man who discovers and nutures him. The potential for an electrifying biography was ripe, can't miss. Somehow, Forman does.

The fault does not lie with Jim Carrey, who gamely plays the comedian. He obsessively reserached the part, often appearing and acting as Kaufman in public. He does a fine job in every possible way an actor can capture a real person. As a side note, I would have preferred Nicolas Cage as Kaufman, as I feel Cage has the right whiff of danger about him, but never mind. Carrey seems to get Kaufman to a T. I'm not sure if Forman does.

Kaufman was the ultimate prankster. Every bit of contrived controversy was just that-engineered to dupe the audience. His disgusting alter ego, the pathetic lounge singer Tony Clifton, was played not only by him during various appearances, but also by Kaufman's creative co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda (played here by Paul Giamatti). The whole wrestling scenario was another raspberry. Oh, Kaufman really did get into the ring, but only with women. Kaufman seemed to become increasingly consumed by the wrestling thing, leading even fellow comedians to worry about him. The joke was on them, too. I imagine Kaufman laughed himself blind over that.

Forman again worked with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; all three realized the fine THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT a few years prior. That film was another bio of another colorful character, and it worked beautifully. Maybe because the titular Hustler magnate was still alive to consult the project? Maybe because Flynt, while also larger than life, was easier to pin down? Kaufman is perhaps too enigmatic. Only he knew exactly what was at work in that cranium, and even that is questionable.

MAN ON THE MOON is named after a fine R.E.M. song about Kaufman, but to add to this mundane affair, the band contributes a thoroughly mediocre track ("The Great Beyond") for this movie. MOON just didn't work. The rhythm, the cinematicism, not there. You know something is very wrong when a Comedy Central documentary on the same subject (which was running around the same time as this movie) is infinitely better. Especially astonishing when a front line director like Forman (AMADEUS, RAGTIME) is at the helm. Hard to figure. The movie just plays, plays like an amateur's version of fascinating events. Watching this movie is sort of like listening to a really great story (or joke, even) told by someone with no apparent personality, inflection, tone, expression. I bet Andy himself would've walked out on it, honestly.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New York Stories, Part 2

While in NYC we met up with one of my old friends. Prior to the Saturday night before Memorial Day, I had not seen him in about a decade. We tried to meet up in the summer of 2001, when we were in the City for a cousin's wedding, but it did not pan out.

What a pleasant surprise! We were able to communicate and meet with him! He's plenty busy. Not just with work but also with a large, active network of friends. He had been planning to go to a neighborhood BBQ, where "there will be Christians who drink beer," but instead met us at Motorino, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

We were tired after a day on Long Island, but took a breather and headed to the G train and northward. Anyone who's ever ridden the NYC subway on the weekends knows how unpredictable it can be. We were not looking for adventure, but...the dreaded announcement came as the G stopped and people began filing out. Da train ain't goin' no futher. Transfer to da city bus. We ascended and luckily, a bus was right across the street to complete the journey the G shoulda. I was glad that bus was there, because the neighborhood, well, politely stated, was not that welcoming. I'm not at all crazy about city buses, but we made good time.

After some GPSing and phone calls to my friend, we found Motorino, on Graham Avenue. Good, diverse, pizza options; just right crust, decent wine selection. Unfortunately, almost everything my wife tried to order was out, but otherwise, a good experience. It wasn't the sort of knockout fantastic Brooklyn pizza to which
I have been accustomed, but still worthy. It was mainly about the company this night. And we had a ball. How can it be otherwise with this old chum?

In my view, the guy has made an interesting journey over the years. When I met him, he was a guy from Snellville, GA with enviable artistic bents. He still is that person. However, he has become a New Yorker. Bound to happen after 15 years? Sure, he's more cynical, peppers a sentence here and there with an expletive. But, it's much more. I was listening to his summation of West Palm Beach, a place in which he spent about 6-7 years going to school, working, finding some artistic fulfillment in the theater. For the latter, he had first won an apprenticeship at what used to be called the Jupiter Theater (previously the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater), then stayed on there as a stage manager. Solid gig. But, Jupiter quickly became too limiting.

He moved to the Big Apple in 1995 and has since been a "man about town", toiling in a variety of theatrical and culinary pursuits. His main passion is film directing, and I believe he has the stuff to be a working director. As we sat at the restaurant and chowed on pizza and ale, he disagreed. It was a bit of a lament, as he matter-of-factly stated that he doesn't feel he has that skill or magic that the good auteurs display. It seems he's not trying to pursue that path now, but happily is still interested in the arts, making a living in it somehow. He is a terrific writer and should do more. Who knows what the second and third acts have in store?

As he had done during a visit to West Palm several years back, he explained that Florida seemed to be suffering from a lack of ambitiousness. Too pleased with the abundant sunlight and casual pace. He needs action, drive, hunger in the air. "I want challenge" he more or less expressed into the wee hours. NYC is perfect for him. He tried L.A. years ago and it did have a lot of the same energy, but it was not the same. New York is a one-of-a-kind place. A dreamworld, yet still as stark and real as that rat scurrying on the subway platform. That is what appealed to me as a twenty-something, before I fell out of love with it the first time. I have a very complex relationship with that town. MY New York story? Will be another part of this series.

We took a taxi back to Park Slope, only a $20.00 or so ride. A television monitor mounted on the seat behind the driver entertained/annoyed us with local news and a segment on the latest SEX AND THE CITY flick. We were spent. It was good to see my friend in person again. Seeing him in his element, completely at home. He reminded me of Lou Reed, playing the "man with strange glasses" in Wayne Wang's BLUE IN THE FACE. When asked when he will move away from New York, he replies, "I don't know anyone in New York who doesn't say 'I'm leaving'. I've been thinking of leaving New York for... uh... thirty-five years now."

Monday, June 21, 2010


From a friend of a friend's blog. Took (mostly) the words right out of my mouth.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer of Sam

New York City in the 70s was often a very threatening place. Crime was seemingly contaminating every corner, graffiti defaced every subway car, the economy was in the toilet, and the city literally smelled like one. In the summer of 1977, a tortured soul known as the "Son of Sam" (ne David Berkowitz) added to the dread, shooting and killing several people with a .44 as he made his way among the boroughs. The city was paralyzed in fear. Eight million residents scared, one guy doin' the scarin.' The patented and famously stereotypical NYC attitude and posturing may have been humbled a bit, but it was also summertime, and with the mercury hitting upwards of 104 degrees Farenheit, something was bound to give.

Without a doubt, many things did. As Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin narrates in co-writer/director Spike Lee's 1999 SUMMER OF SAM, there were/are "eight million stories in the Naked City." How in that brutal summer serial killer David Berkowitz affected some of those stories may well never have traveled beyond the walls of so many walk-ups and brownstones. Lee's dramatization focuses on the lives of a group of Italian-Americans in the Bronx. The neighborhood stereotypes are on full display, alpha males like Vinny (John Leguizamo) cheat on their wives, gamble, vice their lives away, and, most importantly to this story, distrust outsiders. The women, however, are not blameless; they also cheat and gossip and remain insular. How Lee portrays these characters is quite accurate. I have relatives who might watch this film and feel it is a documentary.

The behavioral patterns observed in SAM continue Lee's keen eye on that landscape demonstrated so vividly in his JUNGLE FEVER, DO THE RIGHT THING, etc. For the latter film, the action was set in the predominently African-American community in Brooklyn known as Bedford-Stuyvesent. An Italian pizzeria operated by an Italian family forms much of the story arc and catalyst. Lee knows Bed-Stuy, but as an outsider to the Italian turf (such as the Bensonhusrt we see in FEVER), he may see what might as well be another country with perhaps even sharper eyes. Think of all the films about America made by foreigners, how they observed things with uncomfortable familiarity. Wim Wenders has done it several times. Right now I'm thinking of the fine French director Louis Malle, how pointed his ATLANTIC CITY and ALAMO BAY were.

SUMMER OF SAM is unique amongst Lee's films in several ways, most obviously as there are no major African-American characters in this piece. We remain mostly in the Italian community, watching Vinny self-destruct with intoxicants and joyless sex. We also meet Richie (Adrien Brody) a confused kid trying on a gallery of alter egos: punk rocker, cabaret dancer. It proves to be very dangerous, sticking out like that. The neighborhood peeps notice when someone doesn't toe the norm. If you don't get married and punch a clock and watch baseball and knock back a few with the others, there must be something wrong with you. With the unknown identity of the serial killer a summertime obsession, being different labels you a suspect. Like that priest down the block, or even Richie. It will prove to be tragic. The mob will gradually form, small minds growing more reptilian as the fear and thermostat rise. Then, there will also be a citywide blackout to tip things over.

This is a powerful movie. Lee lets the gritty, sweaty atmosphere swirl and build around everyone. We hear Phil Rizzuto call the Yankees games on the soundtrack throughout SUMMER OF SAM, adding authenticity, allowing us to feel and even taste the summer, the stale air in the backseat of a car, the chemicals in a beauty parlor. This is truly an immersive film.

The desparation would be culpable as more citizens were slaughtered. Things get so bad that the NYPD even enlist a popular mob kingpin (Ben Gazzara) to put his forces into the investigation. Everyone was tainted, wrecked as the summer wore on. The Son of Sam himself is seen in a few scenes, disintegrating mentally along with everyone else. One perhaps ill-advised (but still frightening) scene shows the killer being instructed verbally by a dog to continue his crime spree.

The sense of time and place, absolutely vital in film, is nailed here by Lee. The actors are appropriately jangled and the soundtrack pulses with all sorts of music: R & B, disco, and even The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" is used very effectively during the concluding passages. Roger Daltrey's howl in that tune might as well have represented the sentiments all of NYC in the summer of 1977, one of the darkest periods in that city's history.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Saintly Cinema?


Vatican endorses "The Blues Brothers"
Eric J. Lyman
Thu Jun 17, 2010 2:57am EDTTAORMINA, Sicily (Hollywood Reporter) - When Jake and Elwood Blues, the protagonists in John Landis' cult classic "The Blues Brothers," claimed they were on a mission from God, the Catholic Church apparently took them at their word.

Entertainment | Film | People

On the 30th anniversary of the film's release, "L'Osservatore Romano," the Vatican's official newspaper, called the film a "Catholic classic" and said it should be recommended viewing for Catholics everywhere.

The film is based on a skit from "Saturday Night Live." In the story, Jake and Elwood -- played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, respectively -- embark on an unlikely road trip featuring concerts, car chases, clashes with the police and neo-Nazi groups, and attempts at revenge from a spurned lover, all, ostensibly, to raise money for the church-run orphanage where they grew up.

But aside from a brief appearance from Kathleen Freeman as a wrist-slapping nun referred to as "The Penguin" and the brothers' periodic claim that they were on a mission from God, spirituality does not play a significant role in the film.

In addition to Belushi and Aykroyd, the film featured an all-star cast including musicians James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, and Chaka Khan, in addition to noted actors John Candy, Carrie Fisher, Charles Napier, and Henry Gibson, and cameo roles for Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Landis, Mr. T, and Paul Reubens.

With the recommendation, "The Blues Brothers" joins the list of dozens of films recommended by Catholic authorities that includes Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," "Jesus of Nazareth" from Franco Zeffirelli," Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," Victor Flemming's "Joan of Arc," and "It's a Wonderful Life" from Frank Capra.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New York Stories, Part One

Over the Memorial Day weekend I had the pleasure of traveling back to my original hometown, New York City. I had not been back since the Summer of 2001. For shame! This past decade has been quite active, but still, no excuse. The purpose for this trip is something I will reveal later. It's significant with a capital "S". But, later..I will spend several entries decribing all the small things that happened on this amazing trip. Historic, even.

Our inaugural entry will document another of those small mircales that happen in life, the kind I usually have to experience myself to believe. On Saturday, I traveled with some family to Northport, Long Island. As we exited the car I realized that my beloved iPhone had gone missing. Take this as you will, but I felt like I had lost an appendage. The little bugger, for all the swipes I can take against it and the idea of it, really helps me in my daily doings. Reminders, Internet, apps for almost anything you can think of, that smartphone was worth the $$ (and the monthly fee). My stomach went sour when I realized it was gone.

We had ridden the F train from Brooklyn, rendevousing with our companions in lower Manhattan. As I had texted right after coming up from the stairwell (no signal underground, natch), I knew it had to have been dropped/lost somewhere on the street afterward. Shit.

So one of us called my number. No audible ring, but someone answered! A nice fellow who found it somewhere on the not-so-mean streets. Someone who was willing to hang onto it until we returned to the city that evening! I was relieved, but suspicious. I went on to have a lovely time in various parks and at a beach on the Island but was still curious/nervous about that little device, you know, the one that in its little shell contains more tech capability than that of any of the old Apollo spacecrafts.

As we drove closer to Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway, we called the guy back. Yes, he would meet us in front of the McDonald's on Broadway. And there he was. We double parked and after about 5 minutes, a smiling young man produced the phone, still in the handy vinyl case my wife got me as an anniversary gift. It was a funny scene while we waited. Like we were on some sort of covert retrieval mission. Or a stakeout. Or an illegal drop. Anyhow, as a thank you, I gave the man a Barnes & Noble giftcard I'd been carrying around since Christmastime (my acquisition during our office gift exchange). I knew there had been a reason why I hadn't used it.

So there you go, another example of undiluted human decency. It does still exist. Even in mean old New York. Though it wasn't so mean this time......

Friday, June 11, 2010

River's Edge

The image has never left me: a partially clad female corpse, sloppily obscured with dirt and leaves in a suburban California forest. I first saw it on the poster for writer Neal Jimenez's and director Tim Hunter's 1986 film RIVER'S EDGE. Eeerily, it appeared to call out if you stared at it long enough. Like it wanted to tell the story, of what really happened, what brought her to this cold, windswept final resting place.

It really did happen. In 1981 in the central California town of Milpitas, a 14 year old girl named Marcy Renee Conrad was raped and murdered by Anthony Jacques Broussard, another teenager who ran in her circle. Broussard told the other members of his posse and even showed them the evidence. It would take a few days before the crime was reported. It was a chilling example of human indifference. Perhaps not maleovolence, but certainly a resigned, more passive evil. Perhaps it wasn't that simple.

Jimenez and Hunter fictionalize this story and examine the mess. They follow the blueprint of the true-life drama: Samson (Daniel Roebuck) kills Jamie (Danyi Deats) after she makes fun of him. He leaves her in the brush and then boasts of the deed to his friends. Their reactions are very mixed. Matt,(Keanu Reeves) is instantly troubled. It is primarily through his eyes that we examine this story. Layne (Crispin Glover, ideally cast),the wired, egotistical "leader" of the teens will become increasingly bent on covering up the crime, spouting continuously of terms like "loyalty" and code of honor. Ideas that are a bit bigger than his stalled adolescence can reconcile. The others in the group, such as Alissa (Ione Skye) are seen less clearly and their lack of reaction to this horror is certainly one of the core themes of the movie's sociology play.

But RIVER'S EDGE is not just a dour exercise. The raw materials here (true crime) might well have been mishandled and molded into yet another tawdry made-for-cable potboiler. Hunter was the correct person to realize this tale for the screen. In 1979, he co-wrote the trenchant, searing suburban teen drama OVER THE EDGE, a film that demands your attention. It wasn't the first film to soberly examine adolescent ennui, but it was and is one of the few non-documentaries about teenagers to dispense with stylistics and just cut to the marrow. RIVER'S EDGE is another such bit of cinema.

We meander around town with the main characters, observe how allegiances shift and the beginnings of a twitch of a conscience and responsibility emerge. Layne is unrepentent as he defends Samson to the end, but he would loudly and in your face argue that he is also being responsible, responsible to his friend, not ratting him out. Being a true friend, no matter what. Loyalty is a dynamic ideal to some, an unchanging constant to others. That theme is analyzed in virtually every scene. Matt is questioned by the police, his friends, his mother, his mother's deadbeat boyfriend. They all are amazed that someone could be so callous in the face of tragedy. Perhaps Matt is just adrift. Role models? None apparent, especially authority figures. The environment is far from nurturing. All the same, none of Matt's accusers are blameless or one dimensional, a credit to Jimenez's screenplay. It's a moral and literal mess, just like the case that inspired it.

Then there's Feck, played with gusto by the late Dennis Hopper. Feck is a local bohemian, a stuck-in-the-60s burnout (yes, ideal casting here too) who deals pot etc. to the group. Periodically, we see him interact with the main characters in ways that seem random, excuses for philosophical blathering and sometimes low humor. Feck has an inflatable sex doll for a companion, for example. Hunter never deliberately goes for a gag, but at times it is hard not to giggle. After seeing this a few times, the laughs subside and it all becomes very sad. Feck will also ultimately be quite vital as this story unfolds and concludes.

The tragedy in RIVER'S EDGE isn't presented with blunt force, but rather an ineffectual paralysis. Like watching a loved one drown, and perhaps not throwing out a life preserver, even as you clutch one in your hands. How and if you identify with these characters will vary, but as you watch you will wonder what you might've done, and how that decaying remnant of a young life might respond to your actions. This film remains disquieting after nearly 25 years.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Eagle Vs. Shark

Sometimes quirkiness can get the better of even the most well-meaning screenplay. Quirk for quirk's sake? Happens in lots of films, especially low-budget indies that sport eccentric characters doing comparatively odd things. Quirkiness, like any filmic attribute, should be an ingredient, not the main course. Still, well defined characterizations and screenplays can use quirkiness to distinguish themselves. Merely watching an unconventional man or woman act out isn't necessarily interesting. Conversely, when you see depictions of recognizable people being themselves, warts and all, without seeming to be a filmmaker's (or actor's) contrivance, you have something worth telling your friends about.

The 2007 film EAGLE VS. SHARK features 2 such characters, though some viewers may disagree. Jarrod (Jermain Clement, probably best known for the wonderful TV program, Flight of the Conchords) is yet another overgrown adolescent who hasn't exactly grabbed adulthood by the reigns. A 30ish, video game jockeying clerk in a video store, he's a poster child for for Peter Pan Syndrome. His lack of maturity involving relationship navigation is painfully observed in director Taika Waititi's comedy/drama. Painfully.

He likes fast-food cashier Lilly (Loren Horsley), but instead of a healthy expression of like, he acts out all of the textbook insecurities. He stands her up on a date, then apologizes, stating that he "needed to be alone" that night. He brings her back to his flat after a party, very offhandedly asking if she wants to have sex (or, "sakes", as the New Zealand brogue goes), and the 2 engage in the quickest, most selfish (talking about Jarrod here) motions of self-fulfillment you're likely to see. This adds insult as, prior to that, he spent the evening talking solely about himself, barely allowing her a word. When he does ask a question, she replies that her parents are dead. He relays that his brother and mother are also dead. It's all very understatedly played. Quirky.

The movie follows their quirky relationship in a dreary Wellington hamlet before they make a trek to Jarrod's father's home. The melancholia continues as we observe the possible wellspring of Jarrod's insecurities; his father still pines for Jarrod's dead brother, the sort of kid who won all the awards. Jarrod's frustrations mount as he repeatedly tries and fails to win over paternal favor. But there's another motive for this trip. While he was in school, Jarrod was terrorized by a local bully, and now it's payback time. Armed with non-existent martial arts "skills", he spends more time obsessing over revenge than relating to Lilly. She finally breaks free, refusing to share a tent with him in the backyard (Jarrod's father had no room in the house for them), and even begins to win over Jarrod's father and sister, actually cracking a joke. This is a big moment for Lilly, an awesomely shy young lady.

To me, EAGLE VS. SHARK is really her story. Waitiki's screenplay is filled with funny moments, some dry, some a bit broader, some mildly risque, but essentially it is a tale of quiet empowerment. Amid Jarrod's antics is a flowering of a tender soul. The film builds from scene to scene to develop Lilly's confidence. It is a very slow process, as life has not been kind. She'll tolerate creeps like Jarrod because perhaps she feels to be a martyr. Maybe her own mother was treated similiarly. But Lilly also sees, underneath Jarrod's childish veneer, a kindred spirit, someone just as wounded. But she has to heal herself first.

This film seemed to be marketed like the next NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, the 2004 sleeper that very amusingly portrayed a very distinctive misanthrope and his small town world. DYNAMITE is a contemporary favorite of mine, as its oddball sense of humor immediately tickled me, but more viewings showed the soul. EAGLE VS. SHARK, aside from having a quirky protagonist, is a much different film: more willing to look at the darker impulses of relationship dynamics, pysche. It is often quite depressing, with its depictions of sour people in dank locations. It frequently reminded me of MURIEL'S WEDDING, a gloomy little pic that was marketed quite differently, as a happy romantic sapfest with Abba tunes.

In terms of comparisions with DYNAMITE (which are often made), EAGLE VS. SHARK is harder edged, the humor more collegiate, though never gross like so many American films. There are some great bits of comic inspiration and bad taste, especially what happens when Jarrod finally faces his old nemesis. It's so unexpected, so wrong, I was doubled over. There are also Claymation interludes throughout the film, meant to illustrate Jarrod's emotional states.

But this is clearly one woman's victory dance, albeit a mellow one. She's not holding up a union sign in a factory like Norma Rae, but she finds her own skin is a comfortable and worthy place. Whether she and Jarrod get or remain together isn't what drives this movie. By the end, I was smiling for Lilly.