Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New York Stories, Part VII

I got my first VCR while I was a senior in high school. I recall going to "Pick A Flick" a mom-and-pop in nearby Lake Worth, FL to catch up on all the movies I'd always wanted to see. I was fortunate enough to find ERASERHEAD there. One weekend, I asked one of the staff for a recommendation. Unfortunately, they suggested the Richard Gere/Kim Basinger vehicle NO MERCY, a tedious action drama. I realized that my tastes were different than that of many others. Still, I thought it was cool to have a job where you suggested movies to people.

Unless you own the store, a job as a video clerk is not financially lucrative. In this culture, having such a job also carries a stigma, a branding that you are some kind of geek. Worse, a failure. Quentin Tarantino is America's most celebrated former video clerk. He's certainly still a geek, but he did go on to Big Things. He's the exception.

I resisted taking such a job, even though I knew I would enjoy it. Plus, I was a college graduate with a B.S. in Bus. Adm. In my twenty-something mind I felt it was demeaning to go that route. Movies were my hobby, not my vocation.

After the pharmacy debacle in New York, I spent a few days wandering Manhattan. I was on Broadway on the Upper West Side when I was greeted by a bright window belonging to a video store. Within a day, I was behind its counter. My pride took a hit but I needed money. It did not pay well. It was frustrating, being in a neighborhood filled with cool eateries and having to go to Subway for lunch. I DID frequent Grey's Papaya: 2 hot dogs for a dollar. That was cool. You should try it.

I rang a register and walked the aisles, offering my picks to perplexed or particular Manhattanites. Many of them appreciated my recs for Truffaut and Rohmer films. My co-workers, not so much. They were mass consumers, only interested in the Hollywood factory. I was in disbelief when this older man I worked shrugged when I told him how great I thought THE CONVERSATION was.

I felt like a loser. I was enjoying having discussions about film with many nice folks, but it wasn't enough. I observed their affluence and coveted, too. My career ladder may have afforded my, at best, becoming store manager some day. The owner was a decent guy but I got strong mafia vibes. I knew this gig would not have a long shelf life. I felt trapped, but it was fun for the most part.

Memorable Moments:

-Mel Gibson was filming CONSPIRACY THEORY in the 'hood and we created a display of several of the Aussie's films in the window, in case he may have strolled Broadway after a tough night.

-One memorable neurotic said I made her nervous when I provided change, stapled receipts, you know, typical clerk doings.

-One gent looked at my shirt and stated that the material of which it was made was insufficient for the chilly weather.

-Frank Oz, former collaborator of Muppeteer Jim Henson, came in and rented several films. He had his kids with him. I got to wait on him part of the time. He was polite but not very talkative. He would be the biggest star I recognized in the store.

-I fought with the manager, a very fiery Italian woman, over just about everything. She also hated the Gere flick PRIMAL FEAR because she felt it was anti-Catholic.

-I fought with a co-worker, a student at Agnes Scott, who seemed to have a perpetual sneer and gave me crap for playing the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 movie on the TV that faced the aisles. "That doesn't play well for the customers", she snorted. I discovered that she really hated Eddie Murphy's NUTTY PROFESSOR; I played it as often as possible when she worked.

-The Yankees beat the Braves in the World Series in Game 6 on October 26, and the street was wild with excitement. I walked outside and hollered along with them, even though I hadn't rooted for the Yankees since the late 70s. The electricity in the air was just too strong to deny.

-The best thing? A guy came back, quite miffed, that his selection of DONKEY DICK, an adult title of course, did not live up to his expectations. He stated this matter of factly, saying the film's title several times and with what sounded like a Danish accent. This would be a supreme test of my mettle. Keeping a straight face had never been more difficult.

There were more episodes, I'm sure, but I've largely put all of that out of my mind. It was a career and personal low point, and just one more confirmation that my move to NYC was a mistake. It was hellish, being broke in a city that had so much to offer. Yes, there were/are lots of low cost and even free things to do-I loved toiling along Riverside Park, for one. But it became clearer and clearer that I had been hasty. My big romantacized ideas about living in the City were being replaced by cold reality. And so, I ended up at a telephone booth, bashing a receiver over and over. I had completely lost it. I had to go home.

My first weeks back in West Palm were filled with regret and bitterness. And defeat. Relief, too, I must admit. But I was quite bummed. I did not want to see the Big Apple ever again at that point. That feeling only lasted for a month or so. I went back for a visit the following year! There would be no long term estrangement.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The World According to Garp

For better or worse, 1982's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP forever changed my moviegoing point of view. It was the first genuinely adult movie I would see on the big screen. "Adult" in terms of the story's themes and the bluntness in which they were presented. It would prove to be one of several unsettling film experiences I had that year. Then and now, I consider director George Roy Hill's adaptation of John Irving's celebrated novel a uniquely disturbing drama, one that would leave a messy imprint on my 13 year old psyche, possibly damaging me for life.

Many would consider that a negative thing. From the point of view of art appreciation, it may well be one of the highest compliments I can offer. This damned movie invaded my dreams and consciousness alike for months after my first viewing. Even THE SHINING, seen on cable the year before, hadn't affected me for such a sustained amount of time. That might be because GARP's horrors were more literal, real-seeming, even if there was an absurdist, surrealistic bent to this fractured story. We see Garp from boyhood onward, experiencing many of the same rites of passage we may have gone through ourselves. What separates Irving's writings from others' are the distinctive voices, the attitudes. The detached yet intensely personal point of view. Sometimes it comes off as smug and cruel. Accurate. But fascinating......

T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) is born to one Jenny Fields, a nurse, (a remarkable Glenn Close in her screen debut) in a scandalous way; she climbed atop a brain damaged, yet fully potent, soldier on his deathbed. This ensured Garp's status as "bastard" for life, and perhaps set a most bizarre course. His lack of a father will shape his sensibilities, allowing him to embrace feminimity, yet not prompt him to deny his masculinity-he becomes a wrestler, for example.

Early on, he discovers an interest and talent for writing. Even as a child he conjures vivid worlds, seemingly happy but always tinged with darkness and filled with despair (note his crayon sketches come to life as he dreams of his dead father, a fighter pilot fighting Hitler's airmen). Perhaps Garp is only reacting to the odd events around him, such as the neighbor's dog that bites off his ear, or that renegade truck driver who scarily races down Garp's suburban streets where the neighborhood kids play. There's also Pooh, his neighbor, a strange girl who will be a catalyst in this story quite significantly.

As I've watched this film over the years, it seemed to me that Garp is achieving some degree of salvation through art, his writing. Or at least exorcising his demons that way. Life is a slaughterhouse; the pen provides a coping mechanism, again and again. A reconciliation of the seeming randomness of it all. The novel will elucidate this point even further. The movie, in my opinion, quite successfully presents the traffic jam that is Garp's stream of consciousness in his attempts to deal with the undealable. One unforgettable sequence, a visualization of one of Garp's short stories, involves a suicidal man playing a piano outside a high story window. Both he and the instrument are supported by ropes. It is coldly funny and (like Garp himself, by admission) Terribly Sad.

"Life is a slaughterhouse"? Forgetting the atrocities that occur by the second throughout the world, in seemingly lawless faraway less developed places, we have seen a rise in violence within our own borders over the decades. As in GARP, sometimes that violence occurs behind picket fences and on manicured lawns. Or in collegiate ivory towers. Garp's life will be marked by tragedies that take away family members and friends. Some are accidents, others are perhaps the results of bad choices or consequences for being yourself. Jenny Fields, always an individualist, has a most interesting dynamic through this story. She observes how women continue to be degraded, humiliated and oppressed in a so-called civilized land. She'll wonder aloud why it is wrong for a prostitute to make a living with her own body (but meanwhile condemn it all as lust, something she sees as a weakness). She'll provide a shelter in her own home for those women who've suffered indignations. Eventually, she'll become a famous author and activist; roles that will seal her fate.

Garp watches, always dwarfed by his mother's audaciousness. He spends his life composing serious writings with little fanfare. His mother writes one incindiary tome and she's an instant celebrity. His literary agent says as much. Garp's journey will largely influenced by his mother's behavior.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP is just so unique. The unconventional plotline owes to Irving (and a fine adaptation by Steve Tesich). The direction by Hill is matter of fact, and should be. The events themselves are colorful enough. The story flows nicely, with nuance, even. Never slammed ahead crudely. This film easily could have been a collection of odd scenes rather than a movie. Here and there, a scene does feel out of place: one of the ladies in the halfway house has a hasty exit when her boyfriend comes to retrieve her, for example. Feels like a scene that should have been deleted. Mostly though, the portentious narrative makes the most of every moment.

And then there's the acting. Superb. Williams is restrained and never tries to destroy the character with his patented ad-libs and manic humor. Close is simply great, conveying a confidence not often seen in a debut. She really gets Jenny Fields; forthright but still vulnerable under layers of stone. Watch her during the multiple scenes around her house of refuge, reacting to various tragedies. John Lithgow plays Bertha, a former Philadelphia Eagle who had a sex-change operation, and one of Fields' charges. The part is never played for cheap laughs (except maybe when he gets to tackle someone), but rather a funny/sad amalgamation of hesitation and fear. Lithgow plays it beautifully. Mary Beth Hurt, a veteran of Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph ensembles, undergoes her own changes as Garp's wife. She's studious and mature and also a person capable of crippling heartbreak. Her performance grows richer which each scene, as life gets harsher.

As much as I admire this movie, I don't rank GARP with the all-time classics, with films like ALL ABOUT EVE or SUNSET BOULEVARD, but I feel it is an unjustly neglected and highly underrated work. Hill, of course, directed great films like THE STING and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and GARP is a worthy addition to his resume. I recognize the sentimental value it has for me, how it will always shock me the way it did during its original release. So new and different, so grown-up seeming. Impossible to separate my feelings from some of the more sharpened criticism I tend to wield. Even so, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP will always be the thorny, frustrating, exhilarating, trippy, and flat out excellent film that haunted my adolescent days (and nights).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New York Stories, Part VI

As you learned from Part V, I moved back to WPB in November of 1996 after a very unfruitful few months. Coming back was difficult: no job, no car, no apartment. I moved in with my grandmother. Listless days. I often walked to the movies. Funny, I can remember what I saw during that time: THE CHAMBER, ROMEO & JULIET, THE MIRROR HAS 2 FACES, SET IT OFF, and RANSOM. I had nothing but time. I bought a car a month later and started a new job a few weeks after.

But, backing up, I must explain the dire job situation during my field trip to NYC. Before I moved there (which had been planned quite a bit in advance), I had lined up a job with a nursing home pharmacy way out in Hollis, Queens. Yes, the place where Run D.M.C. came from. A co-worker in FL had previously worked there, and she was my reference. I would also have one unremarkable date with her 3 years later back in FL, but that's another tale.

I had worked in nursing home/institutional pharmacies for years. I wore several hats: marketing to Directors of Nursing and administrators, inputting and filling Rxs as a tech, delivering meds at night. My experience and refs. got me this new position. Also, the Director in Queens was impressed that I could perfectly mimic a rather interesting cackle that this other pharamacist I had worked with did. Said pharmacist once also worked with the director.

I was living in the hovel I spoke of in Manhattan. Getting to Hollis was time consuming. I had to take the F train all the way to the end of the line: Jamaica/179th Street. THEN I had to walk another mile or so. Only to be greeted by...a dingy retail store and even dingier area behind it, where the scripts for our accounts (rehabs, other facilities) were filled. This set up was similiar to the one in which I had toiled in Lantana, FL years earlier. The counter area where the medications were filled was a disgrace. The trash recepticles seemed to always be overflowing. Co-workers? Abrupt. None could understand why someone from South Florida would want to come to Queens. I got the same baffled look from tech and pharmacist alike. Within hours, I wondered much the same.

There was no room to work. There were too many bodies. The pharmacist to tech ratio surely would've interested the State Board of Pharmacy. This was not new to me; back in the FL office several of us frequently had to run out the back door when inspectors came a calling. The pharmacist out front would hit a hidden buzzer, alerting us when one of these guys or gals arrived. Ridiculous. But, too many techs and too few phramacists meant fines and citations. The Queens hellhole also had swarms of pharmacy students interning from nearby Long Island University. It was a struggle to breathe in there. Accuracy of orders seemed almost left to chance.

Then there was this one pharmacist. He at first glance seemed like a decent guy. He looked about 20 (he wasn't), what with his torn jeans, sport jersey and baseball cap. No one dressed up in this place, but he looked like he should be on a sofa watching football, face down in a bowl of Fritos rather than checking med orders. I mean, I used to carp about having to wear ties all the time, but geez! He also quickly revealed himself to be a bit psychotic. On my third and final day, he was screaming that we weren't filling orders fast enough. Screaming. A pill bottle or 2 went flying. I recall him even counting,1-2-3, like people in movies do before they threaten to shoot you if you don't answer their questions. I had seen some embarrassing behavior from pharmacists before (telephones and books hurling across rooms, fists through doors, lewd commentary) but this was especially alarming for some reason. I would see even worse behavior the following year, from an even more psychotic pharmacist, but, you know....

That third day I watched the clock obsessively. Every painful minute. The longest afternoon I've ever had. I had never had the desire to bolt from anywhere like I had that day. I stuck it out, at 5 O'clock feeling like a millstone had been removed. As I rode the train back, I thought how reckless an act it was to quit a gig without having something else lined up, especially in New York. It didn't matter. I had to get outta that place. I took the chickenshit route and left a phone message announcing my resignation for them that night. I never set foot in the place again. I only felt guilty about it for a few minutes.

A few days later, I traded one ten cent job for another one.......

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tourista, Book Two

I had seen the Château d'Etchaux in pictures: in a brochure, online, but that had not prepared me for its majesty in person. The four corner turrets remind one of a castle seen in fairy tales. A real piece of history, too. For some reason, I thought it was only 100-200 years old. It in fact dates back much further, to the 12 or 13th century! My misunderstanding probably stemmed from a quick reading I had somewhere that in 1850, the chateau had changed ownership, and I misread. The structure has undergone various restorations, most recently in the mid 2000s. Historical accounts state that various bishops and chaplains and governesses have resided there, and none other than Charlie Chaplin once took a room (which has since been specifically designated as "the Chaplin room", complete with some photos of the auteur).

Each of the 7 guests rooms has a theme. In addition to the Chaplin are:

-The Monsignor Suite: named after Betrand d'Etchauz, whose family were members of the Court of Navarra and of the Court of France. The suite has a smaller room (within a tower) in the rear that sports a 500 year old bed!

-The Chavelier: This is the room in which my wife and I stayed. Adorned with armory pieces and a solid canopy bed. Very airy and bright. As with most of the rooms, spectacular views of the town of St. Etienne de Baigorry down in the valley. Nice vantage points of fields with grazing sheep, as well. Farms are all round. On a side note: the basement of the Château also has a full armory, complete with several suits of armor, swords, and other primitive weaponry.
-The Romantique: Edwardian themed. Fine view of the Nive river. More splendid antique furniture.

-The Chasse or Suite Desvicomtes: The hunting room. There is some disturbing taxidermy within glass cases in an adjoining room: a beast (fox or wolf, can't recall) has a bloody bit of prey in its jowls, for one. My FIL stated that some young ones were spooked by it. My wife also informed me that the much missed "comfy couch" which was once in her apartment years before, is in this suite. I fell on it and my body remembered every luxurious inch.

-The Marechaux Room: Empire style, with photos of Napoleon III about the walls. The room is named after the groom (Marshall Jean-Isadore Harispe) of Marguerite d'Etchauz Caupenne.

-Suite Navarraise: 1000 squre feet of impeccable taste and decor. A salon and bedroom comprise this area, which is often used for receptions.
The common areas of the Château are also marvels of interior design. I especially liked the formal dining room, with its huge open fireplace and enormous hutch on the opposite side. The kitchen is very bright and modern, yet feels old world enough to maintain the overall motif. The first night we stayed we were treated to an amazing meal courtesy of a chef who is friends with my FIL and his girlfriend. He arrives often to prepare meals for guests. He is in sufficient demand also to warrant periodic jobs in Miami and San Francisco gourmet spots.

Our first night he had a cooking class, and a family from Connecticuit were helping him prepare the foie gras (served over country apples) and fruit filled crepes (which were allowed to harden into shells). It was great fun to observe the creation of and even better to savor the cuisine outdoors on the grounds later. Views of the Pyrenees greeted us from our tables.
I also learned something especially interesting about the Château's history: Nazis had taken up residence for some 13 months during WWII. One day last year a young man knocked on the huge doors of the Château, identifying himself as the son or grandson of a certain German affiliated with said group. He had photographs of the Germans clutching wine glasses within the salon, the very one in which we spent a few nights chatting and watching television. As I stared harder at this particular photo, I noticed that some of the current wall tile and the fireplace looked identical. So eerie, looking at a picture of soliders and accordian players standing right where we stood now, over 60 + years ago. What conversations must've taken place there! I felt equal parts fascination and disgust. Weird.

Even odder was the German grafitti defacing the walls in the large attic. Amongst the unfamiliar words were drawings of individuals with what appeared to be syringes. We took a few pictures of these scrawlings, but because I don't read German I will not post any of them, for fear that they may be anti-Semitic. The room itself contained impressive wooden rafters and a small stage that had been recently used for community theater productions!

My FIL has managed various hotels over the years, most recently the dearly departed Plaza Inn in Palm Beach. I really miss that place and as I often say, I will compose a separate entry for it later. The Plaza Inn had a nice wooden bar dubbed "The Stray Fox Pub" which was later shipped to the Chateau before the wrecking ball hit the former. It was (mostly) seamlessly split in two to fit in the current corner. One traverses the library before setting foot there for a nice Glenlivet or such.

The Château d'Etchuaz is a jewel tucked in the Basque country that is a must if you are ever in that lovely part of the world.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The American

He's supposed to fade into the woodwork, be anonymous, a shadow at best. He goes by Jack, or Edward. It depends. He travels from snowbound Sweden to sunny Italy after he kills 2 people, one of whom was his lover. Something went very wrong. Perhaps because he took a lover. Assassins are not supposed to form unions that compromise their missions. When emotions are involved, it ends badly for everyone.

Jack has a superior, a barren, crater faced man who seems to have ice water flowing through his veins. That's what is necessary to get the job done, he would argue. What Jack has been lacking of late. He chides his employee for his mistakes, then sends him off with a map and cell to a remote Italian village to await instructions for the next gig. Jack will not be required to pull the trigger this time. Rather, he will rendevous with a mysterious female who requests, with extreme specificity, what sort of firearms and ammunition she requires for an apparent hit. En route to this new assignment, Jack flings the map and phone over a bridge. He calls the shots.

His destination, when reached, seems to be filled with nosy types. Instinctually, Jack drives some more, settling on another small town. He tries to go unnoticed. His days are regimented with exercise and the assembledge of guns, piece by piece. But anonymity is difficult for an American in a strange place. He'll return a greeting from a passerby, corrected for his imperfect Italian. An inquisitive elderly priest, Father Benedetto, will take an interest in him. Jack will again drop his guard and decide to join the father for food and drink. Perhaps ill-advised. He'll tell the old man that he is a photographer. Benedetto will size him up, correctly assuming that Jack's an "in the moment" kinda guy. Like many Americans, Jack has no appreciation or regard for history. Their connection will have its professional advantages for Jack, as the priest's son (yes) owns a garage that has plenty of metal. Raw materials necessary to create an expemplary weapon silencer.

Jack will also surrender to the flesh and repeatedly patronize a prostitute. It seems harmless; what could be less personal than paying for intercourse? We'll watch them make love (quite explicitedly at times). But they will have increasingly deeper conversations, each edging into some soul seraching and baring. She'll see him out in a cafe and ask him on a real date. Does history repeat itself?

Additionally, mysterious, armed individuals lurk in cars and around the corners of ancient villas. How did they know where he was? Are they Swedes, out for revenge?

Director Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN surely stands alone in the mainstream cinema of summer 2010. It belies its carefully cut trailer, advertising itself as a nail biting actioner. It's nominally a spy film, with a plot that recalls countless films before it. Some good (THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR) and many forgettable. If I were to continue to list all of the plot points, you may think this film to be another disposable thriller to which you might doze off on AMC one late night.

As with other such genre pics, the plot is far from airtight. You'll question why a character didn't just put a bullet into another earlier on, why a mission was created with convolution where simplicity would've been better. It's somewhat similiar to the times you watch a James Bond film; do you ever wonder why the villian doesn't just kill the agent when he has the upper hand? Instead, the bad guy talks and talks long enough for 007 to formulate an escape plan. If Goldfinger or Blofeld had just shut up already and pumped a shell into Bond, life would've been be much easier for them. But then the movie would be over. We wouldn't have the continuing dramatic arc, hair raising chases, a denouement, not to mention a series of quotable wisecracks and innuendoes. It's pointless to try to apply what we call "logic" to such films (any film, arguably).

This is not a Bond film. It is also not an adaptation of a John Le Carre or Martin Cruz Smith novel. It's more like those films from the 1960s that filled the frame with Jean-Paul Belmondo or other stoic existential antiheroes. Or Rene Clement's RIDER ON THE RAIN. There is very little dialogue. Deliberately paced is understating things, here. Some like to call it "glacially paced." I felt it was entirely appropriate. It is clear immediately that THE AMERICAN is about textures, landscapes, sounds. Nature is as important a character as George Clooney, who plays the eponymous lead. It's almost as if Terrence Malick had decided to make a hit man flick.

Corbijn (who previously directed several music videos and the solid 2007 film CONTROL) never lets his hand become too heavy. He keeps the camera still and the frame wide. Very stylized, but never flashy or pretentious. Carefully and lovingly crafted. Possibly like that woodworker who takes his time to carve out something ornate and beautiful. It is more than a relief to watch a film that isn't so breathless, feeling the need for an edit every millisecond. It allows you to drink it all in, to listen and observe carefully. This, of course, will mean that many viewers will complain that it is "too slow". You'll hear the sighs of your fellow moviegoers, feel their restlessness. I completely surrendered to its groove. It was downright relaxing for me. I had just been to Europe and THE AMERICAN's Italian countrysides looked very similiar to the Basque regions in France and Spain. An apt setting for such a quiet movie.

Is THE AMERICAN filled with Meaning? One could draw an interpretation or two, but that really isn't the point. This is pure cinema, an appeal to your senses. Almost like when Andy Warhol created the world's first 24 hr. film, EMPIRE, a continuous, unmoving shot of the Empire State Building. A bit more happens here, of course. And the film is not devoid of meaning; the butterfly symbolism, for example is elegant in its simplicity. Interestingly, the finale is strangely sort of reminiscent of BLADE RUNNER.

Even as, throughout the movie, we gaze upon a very private man's everyday doings quite closely, this is not meant to be cinéma vérité. This is skillfully designed filmmaking, not storytelling. Even though the plot twists and coils towards the climax, the message here is the medium. The cinematic pallate. The choices of camera zooms versus not, the decisions of what to show and from what vantage point. A filmed poem rather than that of a taut novel. Unlike Jack, this film has not downed multiple cups of expresso.

There is true beauty in the landscape and in the actors (especially Violante Palcido as Clara, the prostitute, who does actually wear clothes in a scene or two). Everything is artfully photgraphed. Clooney, for his part, is a bona-fide star; he just eminates high wattage charisma no matter what he does. He stares at rivers, struggles with nightmares, painstakingly assembles rifles. In fact, this film is almost hardware porn-few films have so lovingly presented the creation of weaponry, even the sounds of Jack's work are fascinating. Much credit must also go to Andrew Hulme's precise editing. It's lyrical from start to finish. Walter Murch would be proud. That is not a light statement.

If you're seeking a tightly plotted or lightning paced caper, look elsewhere. I must reiterate this. If you enjoy gazing at how the centuries old towns and fields and rivers unblinkingly watch the folly (could it be, love?) of man once again, you'll appreciate the vibe. Your blood pressure may even drop a few digits.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vegan Shuffle

A few Friday nights back I called my wife to see what was on the docket for supper. I decided I wanted to get a "pizza" from this lovely new vegan place downtown known as the Soma Cafe. It had opened in May and been patronized by us at least 5 times. Their menu featured several types of hummus and really creative entrees. It was exciting to have another local spot in West Palm Beach with raw choices. Darbster, to the south, has been around for a year and they continue to do well and have a diverse menu. We love that place. Soma had the advantage of being closer and just another option. Note the past tense, there.

I went online to retrieve Soma's phone number and instead found headlines announcing their abrupt demise. After a mere 2 months. There went that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach again. Another eatery, gone! 2 months?! Maybe the signs were there: the place was usually slow when I went, and they were often out of several ingredients/dishes. But places usually stick it out longer, yes? It is summer time, slow season for S. Florida. Confusing. However, Soma was a second location-the original has been in Lake Worth for quite some time. I also read that the friendly couple who ran WPB Soma have relocated to the original one. So all is not lost, but dang....

There is another bright spot. After one gapes at the big FOR RENT sign in the window of where Soma once was, one can walk west on Clematis Street and happen upon the new Raw Kitchen, on the north side just past the railroad tracks. We went a few weeks ago and were pleased. The menu is limited, with only 5 entrees or so, but the zucchini based pad thai and spiral pasta type dish my wife had were very good. Our dessert, a hazelnut and fig crumble with fresh plums and cream atop, was a nice finish. Beverages included special ale and juice (separate) creations that we did not sample, but looked worthwhile. The interior has an upscale decor and a bar, but dressing down is not frowned upon. A sizable group was there that night. I hope this place survives.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tourista, Book One

It's only taken four decades, but I finally trekked off to Europe. The only previous opportunities came during childhood, with a trip to England with my 10th grade English class (didn't get to go, parents, argggh!) and the multiple visits my father made to his homeland of Norway (mother would never let me go; she was worried my father would keep me there. True story). Since then, funds have not exactly allowed. Even now, it was still an iffy proposition.

Through the generosity of my father-in-law, my wife and I were able to spend 6 glorious days in a chateau the countryside of SW France. Basque country. The town: St. Etienne De Bagorry. The chateau: Le Chateau D'Etchauz. The second entry is this new series will be focusing specifically on the centuries old castle, a marvel for various reasons.

Our trip took us through 4 airports: WPB to Philadelphia to Charles Degaulle in Paris to Biarritz. The trip from Philly to Paris took about 6.5 hours, good time as we had a favorable tail wind. As usual, I could not sleep on the plane. They DID serve a full dinner and later a warm pastry for breakfast. It had also been some time since I'd flown on a jet that had 2 aisles: roomy and quite pleasant.

Landing in Paris, we breezily went through customs and began a long layover before catching the next flight to Biarritz. We got there via Air France after about an hour flight. My father-in-law picked us up and I was on my first drive in a non-North American terrain. I was tired but very excited. The landscape was quite scenic, too. We were soon in the countryside and rolling pastures filled with cows and goats. This was Basque country, a land delineated by a culture that has existed for many centuries. I was and am currently reading through the fascinating The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky, and details from the book were unfolding in front of me as we raced along, bound for the Chateau. Scarlet red shutters adorning white houses. Each house designated by a name, many painted right above the front door. Bakeries selling cheese and cherry filled pastries made with ingredients all locally derived. We stopped for some goodies on the way. It would be my first taste of many gastronomic delights on this trip.

Kurlansky's book, I suspect, will merit its own review on this very blog whenever I finish it. Not sure when that will be, as my reading allotment still consists of mainly professional journals in order to keep pace with this dynamic profession of mine...

The Pyrenees mountains became visible. Rivers to our right. White water rafting opportunities. Soon, our town. St. Etienne de Baigorry. As we got closer the streets narrowed and the buildings added stories. This was Europe as I had imagined; all of it was. Cobble stoned roads, people carrying bundles of produce. Scores of tiny automobiles, not an SUV to be found. Lots of motorcycles. Bicyles, too. We approached a gate. We drove several meters of driveway which revealed our accomodations. Wow.....

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quantum of Solace

It has been said several times during the 49 years since Ian Fleming's character James Bond first appeared to moviegoers: "we are entering a new era of Bond!". This for a timeless-seeming character. The secret agent been played by several actors, some Brits, some Scots. With each personnel change, critics and fans note a change in the tone of the series. When Roger Moore packed the Walther PPK for the first time, fans were already denouncing the more cheeky attitude espoused. Nonetheless, the films themselves have retained a formula that, despite technology and the international political climate, stick to a tried and true mission. "Bondian" is a genre unto itself. The films never got all arty or pretentious or tried to make important statements about anything. Thank God. We have enough autuers who try to splash grim reality upon the screen. Sometimes we just need some old fashioned escapism. If James Bond was ever molded to be some sort of crusader, the series would truly go south. Sure, he's a "good guy", fighting for queen and (several) country, dispatching the meglomaniacs who dare to covet gems or nothing short of world domination. But, he's primarily a carnal, mostly unrepentent cad who does everything to excess. he acts out the way many men wish they could.

The films since 1961's DR. NO have varied quite wildly in quality. I plan to do an entry solely devoted to this most enduring of film charcters and franchises later on. With 2008's QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the press was again stating that, yes, a new era was dawning. That Daniel Craig's second go-round as 007 was a seismic shift toward Jason Bourne territory. Super charged action! Intense fisticuffs! Survival of impossible scrapes! All presented with ADD editing. "James Bond is not an action hero!" saith Roger Ebert. Um, well, actually, have you watched the films all these years, Rog? Even the Sean Connery entries had their share of wild chases. I agree that ressemblances to Fleming's original writings are often harder to discern with each film, but Bond, for all his fondness for dry wit and sophistication, fancies mayhem almost as much as women and martinis. Perhaps more? However, this film takes that idea to a perhaps unfortunate apex.

Note the opening scene. A frantic car chase along mountain roads. We recognize Bond, but have nary a clue who the other blokes chasing and at shooting at him are. We will learn that 007 is transporting a representative of the Quantum agency, which will figure largely into the plot. But you might ask, not knowing this ahead of time, does it matter? Several Bonds open with a teaser that is unrelated to the main storyline. The problem with QUANTUM's is that it is indeed edited with extreme distraction, so much so it is hard to follow what the hell is happening. The ruckus continues after the opening credits: a museum fight is almost laughable in its physicality and the hyperactive camera capturing it. These early scenes do seem tailored for the Bourne audience (2nd unit director Dan Bradley worked on those films, in fact). I was concerned that the entire 106 minutes (shorter than the usual running time) would be just wall to wall action. I crave such cinematic red meat as much as the next guy, but in order for it to be effective, there needs to be some investment in the characters and (maybe) the story. It helps to actually care about or at least feel something towards the principals, but that's just me.

The Quantum organization is a conglomerate we learned of in the previous CASINO ROYALE. They're interested in commodities that can bring third and free worlds alike to their knees: oil and water. Both will play heavily into this story. We learn that Bond's former lover was offed by Quantum, and he's hot for vengeance. A personal vendetta can muddy one's directive. Also thirsty for revenge is Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who tracks a Bolivian general named Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) who slaghtered her family years before. Medrano is looking to overthrow the current government in Bolivia with the help of Dominic Greene (Matthieu Amalric)a slimy bad guy who masquerades as an environmentalist. He even heads an organization called Greene Planet as part of the ruse. But he's on Quantum's dole (as well as in cahoots with some CIA guys) and has an agenda. He's also Camille's former lover. Just your typical Bondian calculus.

Every one of these films have convoluted plots that are too exhausting to recount detail for detail. Items are pulled from headlines, characters are composites of current figureheads (Sarkozy figures largely in this one). Back during the Cold War, Bond films had mirror images of Kruschevs and Gorbechevs, etc. etc. So, QUANTUM OF SOLACE is old hat. "New era"? Not at its core. There are some differences: Bond does not bed the main female (but does snog an MI6 sent to retrieve him. Her name? Strawberry Fields of course!) and the editing, as mentioned, is caffeinated. Very Bournian. Perfect for viewers who can't stand shots that last longer than a second. I would love to see them squirm during WERCMEISTER HARMONIES! But these films always had spectacular stuntwork. I saw nothing in this film I hadn't seen in earlier Bonds. Just a bit more sped up, is all.

Craig continues to carve out a definitive interpretation. After a friend dies in his arms, Bond cavalierly throws the body into a dumpster. "Is that the way you treat your friends?" asks Camille incredulously. Bond just shrugs as replies, "He wouldn't care." THAT's Ian Fleming's Bond from the lit. If other elements aren't, well, producers Barbara Broccolli and Michael G. Wilson are just catering to the zeitgeist. The ante for action and effects always rises. I would love to see a truly old school Bond movie, though, with less CGI and more humour. Too bad director Marc Foster, who does deliver some good scenes (I liked the opera shootout, sans dialogue), rather just mounts things like a technician.

The casting of Dame Judy Dench as M, though, was a masterstroke. She delivers another solid performance. Less caustic than before, maybe less icy, but no less steel reinforced. If you can ignore all the noise of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, she and Craig are the real reasons this adventure is worth taking.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Purple Daze

Lots of resumes floating about....

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Up in the Air

We're always somewhere, but what about when we're at 45,000 feet, barreling toward some destination like Wichita or San Francisco? What is that space up there called? You are above some geographical locale but you're also nowhere simultaneously. I fly a fair amount and think about this often. We eat and drink, use the facilities, read, watch movies while we're a mile up in the sky, just like we do at home. Ryan Bingham feels very comfortable in a 757; it is his home.

Bingham (George Clooney) also feels at home as he casually slinks through airports, having the whole post-911 protocols of shoe removal and carry-on particulars down to a science. He skips the unfortunates in long check-in lines because he's a valued member of probably every airline's Gold Club. He's trying to reach a certain frequent flier goal ("I have a number in mind"). His occupation? Flying all over the U.S. to carry out the hatchet work corporate bosses are too yellow-bellied to do themselves. Letting employees go. Some after many years of service. Many with families and mortgages. All with astonishment and sadness. In this economy of late, Bingham is quite busy.

UP IN THE AIR tells his story. It documents and plays often like a documentary. We see Bingham march from city to city, delivering the terrible news to face after face, some of them real folks, non-actors who really did recently get the axe, recruited by co-screenwriter/director Jason Reitman. No acting can convey the lines and defeat like having been there. I was able to discern quite easily who the real folks and who the actors were. It is a nice touch.

We also meet a young recent college grad named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who joins Bingham's firm with fresh ideas. Why spend all this money on airfare and accomodations when the dirty work can be done over a computer monitor? Companies have meetings this way, the economy sucks, it makes sense. Bingham is skeptical, citing immediately the importance of face to face, noting examples of when being in the same space is necessary for crisis control. Mainly though, this new idea is a threat to his way of life. Natalie will accompany him to train, city by city learning more of this most curious of paradigms, baffled and appalled at how unemotional someone like Bingham can be. After all, she's a valedictorian who took this job in friggin' Omaha because, well, she was following a guy. He dumps her (by text, how current!) and she's distraught. She may be driven and smart and all, but she does have a heart, the same yearnings most of us espouse. She does not understand Bingham. We see this through a variety of emotional cues, sometimes outbursts. We'll see her progression throughout the story.

But as stated, this is Bingham's tale. There's nothing duplicitous about him; he will unapologetically lay down his mantra for you. UP IN THE AIR is a study of a man who is either the most comfortable, well-adjusted human being in history, or the biggest case of self-denial. As people, we are supposed to desire friendships, families, love, connection. We are expected to accumulate things and people, take photographs, buy houses. It makes our backpacks heavy, as Bingham describes. In between firing people, he gives talks on how to lighten that backback, how to free yourself of the burdens of relationships and acquisitions. As he states, we're all going to end up in the same place at the end of our lives, dying alone, so why spend so many years coveting things that will just pass away?

Bingham does have a home base, in Omaha, in one of those extended stay hotels. A spartan room with nothing extraneous. This also includes no spouse, no real friendships. He has family in Wisconsin, but his communication with them is spoaradic. Things change when he is called upon to attend his sister's wedding. He will begrudgingly attend, accompanied by Alex (Vera Farmiga), a no-strings-attached "road warrior" much like himself; "think of me as you, but with a vagina," she states as they embark on their relationship. The couple spend time with the family, and Ryan even settles into an apartment for a short time, though viewers would not know that unless they watch the deleted scenes on the DVD. These scenes establish Bingham's attempts to go legit, let some moss grow like humans do. Will he able to make this transition?

This movie was marketed as a potentially heartwarming story. It had "crowd pleaser" written all over it. Reitman's previous, JUNO, was indeed a crowd pleaser and the young director seems to be trying to create mainstream entertainments that have some modicum of thought, rather than just pandering to happy ending hungry audiences. Surely UP IN THE AIR will end happily, as audiences filled with scores of unemployed (and growing) are going to the movies to escape?! Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner refreshingly doen't follow the paths we might expect, at least not all of the time. The film seems to lead somewhere, but cold reality states otherwise. You might think this happens because, c'mon, an almost 50 guy with his own playbook can't change his spots this late in the race. Maybe. Maybe it is also because life has a few curveballs, things that don't fit neatly into a suitcase, or make it any lighter. If, say, Bingham begins to grow fonder and fonder of Vera, a woman who indeed seems to have the same philosphy on life as he, will he allow himself to become vulnerable? Ah, this makes the film sound like it really does have a heart? A ray of hope?

I will let you discover that on your own. I was pleasantly surprised with UP IN THE AIR, how it didn't play into the expected sentiment or whimsy. It just shows us one man's choices, and all the consequences of it. Some viewers may find him a suitable case for treatment, others may envy him, think he has it all together. Clooney is the perfect choice for this role. His suave detachment informs this character with ease. Farmiga is terrific as his companion of convenience, a nice match/foil for Clooney's own smugness. Her performance is multi-faceted, always surprising. She's as confident as he is, and perhaps even stronger in her resolve (ah, women tend to be). How rare for a film to allow a woman to be complex without being a double crossing femme fatale.

However, the film is not perfect. Kendrick's performance was disappointing to me. Often, she seemed more like a type than a real person. I know there are lots of ambitious, anal retentives like her out there, but she still just played more like an idea, a conscience for Bingham. And, her big crying jag is probably the least convincing in recent movie history.

Additionally, as much as I admired the screenplay, there are contrivances which perhaps keep UP IN THE AIR from being a modern classic. Like how Mr. Carefree is called upon to motivate a groom with cold feet, or how one of the fired employees threatens to commit suicide and the outcome informs climatic events. But all things considered, this film quite successfully examines a specimen who has learned how to keep the messiness of life and love at bay. He's like a more lighthearted version of Robert DeNiro's character from HEAT, the man who never let himself get attached to anything he was not willing to walk away from in 30 seconds flat. For Ryan Bingham, there may not be cops coming around the corner, but perhaps Life always threatens to. There's always another plane to catch...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

I was on a quest to see this movie. For years. My awareness of it began around the time I was 13, when I read the review in Leonard Maltin's annual film almanac:

Complex, unique mystery with (Jodie) Foster as young girl whose father never seems to be home-and she gets very nervous when anyone goes near the basement. Think you've figured it out? Forget it, Charlie; you haven't even scratched the surface. Engrossing, one-of-a-kind film written by Laird Koenig.

Intriguing, right? I thought so. Even if the plot sounded more than a bit as if someone watched PSYCHO one too many times. Or any later Hitchcock, for that matter. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE was not screening on cable back in the day and I could not locate a videocassette of it. The legend (in my mind) grew. I would occasionally read reviews in some of the more obscure (usually European) film magazines I perused at a local newspaper shop. Most were favorable, but the plotline....the possibilities were ripe. The synopsis should fire one's imagination. That alone drove my interest, even if the film would eventually, perhaps unavoidably, be a disappointment.

Last year, I finally saw this 1976 cult film on DVD. I was not disappointed. Truth be told, I became further intrigued, and remain so. The movie answers the central enigma, but also tantalizes viewers with many more questions. More sociological ones. We do indeed learn why Rynn Jacobs, a 13 year old recluse, is nervous when townspeople dare to go near that trap door and the basement below in her large home. We learn what's down there, and how it got there. Yes, you can, at this point, try to guess all of that, but you'll probably be incorrect, as Maltin stated.

But director Nicolas Gessner and writer Koenig invite us to wonder what lead to these circumstances. Psychologically. A dimestore detective may be able to piece the procedural, deductive puzzle together, but he still may not know what lurks in the perp's head. That's where this film's true complexity lies. Foster plays it with the right amount of cunning and sass, as well as fear, keeping at bay the busbody of a landlady (Alexis Smith) and her creepy, pedophile son (Martin Sheen). There are (tasteful) sexual elements interwoven. There are moments of introspection not always seen in a horror film. There is an enormity of subtext that whispers in between scenes, and it hangs over the proceedings like the sword of Damocles. It is what elevates this picture from forgettable 'B' to worthy remembrance, something to chat about with fellow buffs. Though not over tea that has an almond aftertaste, but I digress...

LITTLE GIRL WHO... was filmed in an age where ambiguity and delicious mystery were still prized in a screenplay for a somewhat mainstream film. Not long after, American cinema became increasingly literal minded. All of the questions of Kubrick's 2001 were answered in the entertaining but distressingly matter-of-fact sequel 2010, as an example. Many audience members want everything spelled out, every event to have a logical explanation. 2 + 2 cannot equal 5, dammit! That said, this film does give us "all" the answers. We learn what became of Rynn's father, and her mother. We learn why Rynn is always alone, observe the fates of some of this film's other characters.

All the while, I still felt as I was being toyed with, even in the seeming certainty of the deliberate finale, a slow, perhaps agonizing closing sequence as we stare into Rynn's tell-nothing expression. We stare into it for quite awhile. Does the face reveal anything? Is there a sadness, a cocksureness, anything to betray what's really there? That is what we are left with, and still remains with me now. That's something.