Friday, January 28, 2011

Tourista, Book VI

We flew back to Orly airport in Paris from Biarritz to begin the final leg of the European tour, my first. Paris! Containing my excitement was difficult. We rode the Metro several stops before hitting the streets. What an efficient subway, perhaps even better than NYC? More on that later.

The city's Old World charm and architecture was a pleasant eyeful as we struggled with our luggage. After several blocks, I moaned enough to merit the hailing of a taxi. Hilariously, it turned out that our hotel was only 2 blocks further! Merde! The Hotel France Louvre sits unassumingly amongst a cluster of structures on the Rue de Rivoli in the fourth arrondisement (administrative division, or district). It was a modest but just fine place for us to crash each night after a whirlwind day in the city. The main reason my wife selected it was for its centrality. We were close to many of our destinations to be discussed. I recommend it especially for that reason, and if you only have a short stay in which to hit the main sites.

Our room was tiny and the shower stall was the narrowest I've yet seen. Turning in it was a near impossibility. The breakfast room, seen above and below, was my favorite feature. A stony cave in the basement. The fare we had on our second day was "Continental", and most acceptable.
For our first day, we wandered around nearby Notre Dame and strolled the Seine River. We followed it for a few miles as we noted the amazing number of motorcycles and roadside vendors. Even in some of the grimier spots, the walk is just so romantic. The remainder of that day we hopped on and off the Paris Metro. I have ridden several rails throughout the U.S. and most are adaquate, sometimes confusing. The Metro is a model of convenience and functionality. Even for me, a non-native speaker. I do understand quite a bit of French, however, but I believe that even if I did not the designations and overall access of this system would still be exemplary.We spent a fair portion of the day wandering the Montmartre area, the centerpiece of which was the Sacre Coeur Basilica (or The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Paris, as it's known) church on a hill which happens to be the highest point in the city. The building was completed in 1914 after a groundbreaking 39 years earlier. We climbed to the upper reaches and were treated to prime vantage points of the city, including this famous POV:The walls in the outdoor stairwells were unfortunately covered in amateur graffiti ("Jules loves Jim", "Rick '78", etc.), but somehow such blasphemy was also interesting to me. It made me think of all the previous tourists who ambled this amazing place of worship, even if their more questionable actions got the better of them. BTW, the indoor strairwells were quite dark and narrow. The U.S. is quite wide in many comparative respects.

Another POV from the top:Down below was the expected circus of tourists. There were also a number of performance artists: one guy was breakdancing to the Knight Rider theme on his old school boom box; another was a mime, skin painted white as he pantomimed atop a stone column. The most memorable was the lady below, playing a standard saw with a horsehair bow usually reserved for stringed instruments.The disturbing, yet eerily soothing sounds of this were audible as we made our way down the stairs. We stood and watched and listened for a good while. As you can see, we kept our distance! She appeared as if a refugee from a David Lynch film. I'd bet he'd be mesmerized, too.

Next time: The Most Famous Tower

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Drive, He Said

Part I, America Lost & Found: The BBS Story

Few canvases are as cinematic as that of a chaotic American college campus in the late 1960s/early 1970s. What with all the brouhaha over Vietnam, civil rights, blossoming feminism; the Establishment was getting a loud raspberry from coast to coast as students waged their own wars on the ills of the day. Some events were peaceful, others were immortalized with a chilling photo (Kent State). In my conversations with Baby Boomers who were in such places, I notice the lights in their eyes as they recall their perhaps not-so-halcyon days. Maybe their words downplayed things, but their expressions revealed much more. What a rush it must have been. But I also wonder, did anyone actually study? I think of that as I watch films like first-time director Jack Nicholson's obscure 1971 DRIVE, HE SAID.

Seen today, the spate of movies from the years in question that told stories of sit-ins and other collegiate hippie doings are almost quaint. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT and others were well intentioned but static and dramatically weak. Surely real life was more interesting? Hollywood tends to favor cliches and easily resolved plotlines. The films thus work best as time capsules, documents of a weird era, especially weird to Generation X and beyond as they watch folks like DRIVE's Gabriel (Michael Margotta) run around a campus in the buff, freeing all of the laboratory test animals in his bid for liberation. He's also doing his damnest to avoid getting drafted and sent to war. He makes quite a scene at the draft office. He abruptly smashes furniture and even flings toilets through windows. Maybe if people think he's insane, they won't send him into the insanity of war.

Gabe's roommate is also the film's lead: Hector (William Tepper), a basketball wunderkind who has fears of a different sort of draft: the NBA. He's a sharp, intuitive player but as it goes, he's unfocused. He begins to question why he's always "staying after school in his underwear." His coach, Bullion, (Bruce Dern, entirely excellent) pounds him hard like coaches do, lecturing and punishing him on and off court relentlessly. Bullion is all business in his speech, constantly spouting stats and platitudes about teamwork. He's so lasered on his team and the game you never hear him muttering about say, the weather. In other words, a real square, brah.

Hector is also having a fling with his professor's (future CHINATOWN scribe Robert Towne) wife, Olive (Karen Black). It seems to be as joyless and empty as everything else in his confused existence. DRIVE, HE SAID makes some salient points about so-called freedom, and it is through Hector's promsicuity that this point is most clear: the more choices and opportunities he has, the more miserable he is. Does that mean that Nicholson's and Jeremy Larner's screenplay is a bit "pink" in the middle, as some like to say? Yet another left-wing manifesto against the American Dream? The theme of the loss of freedom looms large here, though. Any number of reads on this strange little pic could be substantiated. I suspect someone who lived through the era would have a deeper understanding.

As the film progresses, the contrast between Gabe and Hector's paradigms becomes less delineated; both are scared shitless; they just have different ways of expressing it and for different reasons. Hector's apathy is like that of the privileged "fortunate son" who has everything (here: athletic talent and a way with the ladies) and yet is overcome with disillusion. Gabe is a likely anarchist who nonetheless fears the Man's war and whose actions are entirely driven by fear. No one is really free in this movie. Certainly not Olive, who, with each tryst with Hector loses a bit more of her soul. It is interesting how a film that at first glance seems amoral would actually elucidate that point. There will be at least the beginnings of a path to realization for Olive, however (cue feminist mantras).

Nicholson's directorial style is best described as disorganized. The pace is off-kilter, a jangly sort that keeps the viewer at arm's length and anxious at almost all times. This also (along with an undercooked script, with alleged participation also by Towne and no less than Terrence Malick) keeps us from getting any depth from the characterizations. The actors are not to blame for this, and all are quite good, but the script sees them as ghosts, maybe just ideas (see also: TWO LANE BLACKTOP). Symbolism is sometimes ambiguously woven in the script, other times blatant (witness the scene where Gabe stands at the fork of two departing sidewalks, one which shows Olive departing, the other, a more age appropriate choice for him).

The basketball sequences are dazzling and exciting. The camera whirls around the court like what you would expect from an overseer who has been a ticket-holding courtside Lakers fan for many years. The actors are all experienced players, as we learn from a 10 minute doc on this Criterion disc. This caused quite a challenge for casting. The other scenes are a mishmash of lighter and darker tones. The shifts are not smooth and the film feels episodic. It is like an old jigsaw puzzle that you suspect has more than a few pieces missing. The pieces we do get don't always seem to belong. Like blackout skits performed by say, a college drama troupe. An eyebrow raising clash of the theatrical and cinematic (remember that atmospheric college campus). If Nicholson was trying to shoot something that mimicked a film student's pretentious thesis, he more than succeeded.

The more you watch and ponder DRIVE, HE SAID, the more it indeed feels like a student film: the thrill of the riot scenes (some are real, shot on the University of Oregon campus), the rampant male and female nudity (in the doc, we learn how Nicholson really wanted to shoot the male post-game shower scene, a both hilarious and concerning notion), the expected moments of LSD fueled philosophical blather, the overall attention deficit. It makes watching this film a real mixed bag of reaction. Overall, it fails, but it is a fascinating failure. It is probably one of the best time capsules of the era I have seen, however.

The disc has the aforementioned short making-of documentary, with current interviews with Nicholson, Dern, and others. We also get the trailer, but that's it for extras. Spare to be sure, but satisfying. I'm not sure how much more I'd want to learn of this project; I like the enigmas, the mystique. Nicholson shows some flair in his direction (mainly the basketball scenes), but would only go on to direct two more films (GOIN' SOUTH and the CHINATOWN sequel, THE TWO JAKES). His wide (and wild) -eyed perspective makes DRIVE, HE SAID worth seeing at least once, and taken as part of the BBS whole, it is an important stop on the journey.

Monday, January 24, 2011

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

In the late 1960s, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, creators of the pop group The Monkees, surveyed the Hollywood scene and decided the time was right to form a company. BBS Productions took advantage of the raging counterculture to create several idiosyncratic films that were not only produced by major studios, but also popular ones that actually made money.

It seems almost impossible that American cinemas were once dominated by thoughtful movies like FIVE EASY PIECES rather than TRANSFORMERS. The time period would arguably be the last golden era of Tinseltown, before JAWS and STAR WARS forever changed the game. Rafelson directed PIECES, HEAD, and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, three of the seven films featured in Criterion's recent box set: "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story". I used my Christmas gift cards to purchase this collection; not since the deluxe BLADE RUNNER set have I been so excited for a DVD package.

I'd previously seen 3 of the featured films: PIECES, EASY RIDER, and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. The remaining: HEAD; THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS; DRIVE, HE SAID; and A SAFE PLACE had long been on my to-see list, but some of them are only now getting their first homevideo releases. The only BBS film missing from "Lost and Found" is the final one, the controversial 1974 Vietnam doc HEARTS AND MINDS, a previously released Criterion disc. I greatly anticipate exploring what promises to be another masterful package by Criterion. I will be posting reviews for each movie (and its extras) in the coming weeks. First up, director Jack Nicholson's DRIVE, HE SAID....

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Green Hornet

The only reason I went to see THE GREEN HORNET is because a friend wanted to go. I kept reminding myself of that as I sat through this loud, utterly inane excuse for a movie. As this nonsense unfolded, I was also reminded of the countless times I've watched movies which I would've never given the time of day had it not been for friends and/or loved ones. In fact, the day before I watched THE GREEN HORNET, I sat through, yes it's true, LITTLE FOCKERS (!), as my wife's cousins were interested in it. Whether or not you'll get a full review for that one remains to be seen, invisible audience.

The Green Hornet originated as a radio program in the 1930s, with later incarnations through the years, most notably as a popular 60s TV program starring Van Williams as the titular hero and Bruce Lee as his assistant, Kato. The 2011 version stars slacker poster boy Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in the respective roles. It is not a step forward. Primarily, the screenplay by Rogen and Evan Goldberg is to blame. I'm not opposed to injecting humor into the often deadly serious superhero genre, by the way. As much as I appreciate the dark comics of Batman and the Marvel characters, I often find that a little lightness of tone can leaven the narrative. In this movie, the tone isn't just light, it's transparent. To borrow a line from another critic describing another movie, THE GREEN HORNET is "so laid back it's almost non-existent".

Rogen plays this character like a greatest hits version of the other shlubs he's played for Judd Apatow and others. His take on millionaire playboy (aren't all superheroes millionaire playboys when they're not out fighting crime and wearing tights?) and son of a newspaper tycoon, Britt Reid, is so lazy and disaffected that you almost feel like you're merely watching a guy ambling around his apartment. The stakes are high in this story, with no less than the entire city of Los Angeles hanging in the balance as bad guy Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, embarrassing himself) seeks to unify all the street gangs and keep District Attorneys in his pocket, but the way Rogen reacts, he may as well be in a bathrobe and nursing a Chivas. I don't know what he was thinking here, maybe trying to go with that detached sardonia that Chevy Chase did in FLETCH (which has obviously been an influence on Rogen and his co-conspirators)? It does not fit in this movie.

Aside from an amusing gag at the end of the film, the rest of it isn't much better. Unimaginative use of some otherwise good songs. We're served up loads of admittedly cool gadgetry but also over-the-top action sequences (mainly CGI) that are repetitive and downright dull. There's a lot of wholesale destruction in this movie, be it car chases with blazing guns fired through windshields or Britt and Kato having a bit of a huff and beating the tar out of each other in a way overdone (and -long)sequence after they barely survive an encounter with Chudnofsky.

Kato, the martial artist/inventor genius is played by Chou efficiently and likably, but ultimately he's just not that interesting. Bruce Lee did it much better 40 something years ago (there are some references to the kung fu star here and there in this movie). The chemistry between Rogen and Chou runs hot and cold, with some amusing bits, but like that of the film itself, there's no momentum. Never once did I care what happened, especially to Britt/Green Hornet, as Rogen plays him as an annoying twit. He garners neither sympathy nor interest. This is not helpful when the entire movie is about such a character.

Cameron Diaz is around for eye candy, playing Britt's secretary/researcher. She and Edward James Olmos, who plays one of Britt's late father's newspaper editors, are given very little to do. Waltz, though, is really wasted with his silly part, a twitchy villain who asks everyone's opinion on how scary he is. None of the ingenuity we saw with him in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is on display here.

Director Michel Gondry, the visionary behind ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, really squanders his skills with this mess, which is basically one frantic scene after another, yet despite all the explosions and noise the whole thing is still strangely low energy, even passive. I guess it does take some skill to pull that off....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


How did you spend this past Monday, designated Martin Luther King Day? Was it merely a day off of work, or did you take a moment to ponder what the man (not a saint, flawed) was fighting for? How far we've come, or not? A Facebook friend posted this:

A few months ago I finally gave into the truth (with the help of a brilliant friend) that racism will never be overcome. It is the human's predisposition to be tribal and hang around those similar to ourselves. So we must continue to work for equality and use our resources to prevent violence.

It's hard to disagree with that, though how it grieves me to do so. I see it in myself, in family, in friends. But is it really predisposed? Aren't we blank slates out of the womb? We immediately join our first tribe (parents, siblings), then we're taught that folks of differing color, persuasion, and beliefs are not to be trusted, or "lost", or whatever. The molding is powerful in those early years of maximal brain plasticity. If someone is attacked early on by someone of a specific race, guess how that person will view such people from there on out?

I am increasingly adament against only surrounding myself with clones who share my origins and beliefs. We need to be out among the diversity known as the human race. As long as we barricade ourselves behind literal and figurative barriers, racism will be fed like gasoline to a fire.

That said, we should also just live our lives, reach out, be productive, put ideals into action, and not give so much breath to the topic. I like what Morgan Freeman replied when asked how racism can be stopped.

"Stop talking about it."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Swan

Possible Spoilers..

I was about to throw out last Monday's calendar page, torn from the desktop one that has tidbits of wisdom for each day. Here's what it read:

The need for perfection and the desire for inner tranquility conflict with each other. Whenever we are attached to having something a certain way, better than it already is, we are, almost by definition, engaged in a losing battle.

Noticing this was funny because I had just watched BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky's latest forage into darkness. The above could nicely encapsule a pop psychoanalysis of this film's heroine, Nina Sayers (a seemingly fearless Natalie Portman). We learn quickly of her blinding drive to be the lead, the swan queen, in a NYC ballet company's production of Swan Lake. As we see in the opening sequence (a dream), she covets this role as an opportunity to display gracefulness and power both as the white swan (innocence) and the black swan (recklessness, darkly sensual).

Nina has the innocence part down; real life informs that strongly. Well into her 20s, she still lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself once a promising dancer, in a claustrophobic apartment that will alternate as a safe haven and prison, depending on the day. Nina's bedroom is still filled with childhood toys and a music box dancer that her mother likes to spin as she tucks her daughter in for the night.

Nina also has her overall technique honed to an intuitive level. She's almost flawless in her moves, but her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), sees inhibition and rigidity that does not convince him that Nina can pull off the abandon needed for the black swan persona. Rather, understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), fresh from the West Coast, is loose and seductive; nothing seems to be holding her down. She exudes the sort of spontaneity that convinces you to join her for drinks and possible debauchery the night before an important dress rehearsal.

Beth (Winona Ryder) is Nina's predecessor, the former lead and protege of the lecherous Thomas. Imagine the whispers from the rest of the company. We hear some of the younger dancers in the dressing rooms dismiss Beth as a has-been "heading toward menopause". Soon, Nina will witness Beth's violent breakdown as the latter "retires" from the lead. There are uncomfortable confrontations among the women and Thomas, and finally an act of (possible) self-mutilation by Beth. How crushing to see a former bright light reduced to a psychological and physical wreck. Maybe it was unavoidable.

Nina gets the lead and almost immediately suffers from wild paranoia (what was the look between Lily and Thomas?) and bizarre visions (her mother's gallery of artwork seems to scream at her). Aronofsky allows the line to blur between what's really happening and what Nina's internal hell displays. Nina's insecurities and stunted maturity leave her filled with nausea and despair with every rehearsal, every exchange with her colleagues. At one point, she'll give in and ingest recreational chemicals, leading to an encounter with Lily that may reveal things about her own sexuality, something to which she has either repressed or not paid much attention. Thomas recognizes this, and gives her a homework assignment earlier in the film: "go home and touch yourself; live a little."

BLACK SWAN seems to be about a young woman's awakening to her darkest impulses. That's really it in one sentence. It isn't clear if Nina deliberately tried to squash her emotional and sexual development, or if that was a by-product of her fierce devotion to her craft during her formative years. What is clear is how her eventual awakening will lead to her stunning bow on opening night, a commanding, take-no-prisoners performance that redefines everything. The last scenes of this film are so amazing and powerful I wanted to hand Ms. Portman the Oscar right then and there.

Leading up to that is what might be called a "psychological horror film", but many of the scenes Aronofsky orchestrates are straight out of more traditional horror. Shards of glass as weapons, Clint Mansell's appropriately dissonant music (actually Tchaikovsky's ballet performed backwards), twisted faces. I was reminded of Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, an unsettling terror film/drama also set against the world of ballet. Also, the works of Bunuel and David Lynch. The director shoots in his patented graininess, evoking the spirits of the demons of other filmmakers yet creating his own unique stomach churner. Many scenes are beset with frightening imagery and a surprising amount of bloodletting. There are murders, but are they real? While many critics advise the viewer not to try to figure it out, the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLoughlin, to me, was pretty clear: this is a peak inside the black soul of a perfectionist, with all of the associated dysfunction real life suffers in its wake.

The blueprint for the film suggests yet another backstage drama filled with bitchy, competitive young women who spout slangy insults and have affairs with their coaches. That is not an entirely inaccurate description of BLACK SWAN, but if you're going expecting just a ballet drama, you're in for it, as you may have surmised by now.

The final scene will remind some viewers of Aronofsky's previous, THE WRESTLER, a dark film in its own right but nothing like BLACK SWAN. Both movies examine profesionals who perfect their crafts but cannot quite reconcile offstage life. There is no balance. This film is strong meat, regardless of whether you think it is an absurd melodrama, a pretentious bit of surrealism, or an effective case study of a specific illness, the need for perfection. All three would be correct, in my opinion. There is no contentment in Nina's world, that is, until her final moments, when her acceptance of her darkest impulses leads to unbridled freedom, a complete surrender of uncertainly, and a cold, starkly evil satisfaction. Just watch her eyes.

"I was perfect".

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The notion of "utopia" eludes us daily as we gaze upon a far from perfect, fractured world. Pundits tell us this world is likely to split apart at any moment. As if we needed them to tell us that. We see evidence from our level, as relationships may sour and our attempts to make a living sometimes breed discontent and a feeling of being "caught in a ticking trap." So what is a utopia? That definition would vary from person to person. Most would say something about harmony, peace, the absence of strife. The divisions among those questioned would be revealed by those who cite the sorts of freedoms we should have. How can there be a utopia if no one can agree upon what it should be?

PLEASANTVILLE is a 1998 film that addresses this idea. It is also the name of a fictional 1950s TV show that David (Tobey Maguire), a lonely high schooler in 1990s America, spends most of his time watching. Pleasantville is a "perfect" place, a lily white suburb where it's always sunny and 72 and none of the home team ever misses a basket. The women toil in the kitchen all day long as they await their husbands. A scenario that is meant to exemplify what someone considers the ideal lifestyle. Someone's utopia. David loves the program because it's so different from his real life, where things aren't so neat and orderly.

His sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), happily goes about chasing teenage things like popularity and cheerleading. She's also sexually active, how 90s?! Were there girls like her in the real 1950s? Of course, but shows like Leave it to Beaver would have us born laters believe that any such person was mentally unstable or at best, just troubled souls who needed counseling. "Good" people played collegiate sports, obeyed their parents, and went to church. Anyone else was a juvenile deliquent.

One night, David and Jennifer fight over the television remote control and through a series of rather preposterous developments (not the least of which involves a celestial Don Knotts) find themselves literally transported into their TV set and into Pleasantville. They assume the roles of the program's lead son and daughter, Bud and Mary Sue Parker. And, OMG, they're now in black and white!

Pleasantville will soon undergo some drastic changes. Characters will begin to be seen in color. This is meant to symbolize some sort of awakening. Visually, it's pretty nifty. Thematically, it seems like a gimmick. David and Jennifer's influence is played by director and writer Gary Ross as catalysts for what many would consider positive things: acceptance of change, free thinking, free will. An antidote for the "recipe for insanity" that clean cut 50s life espoused.

Their TV mom Betty Parker (Joan Allen) will, for the first time, question her role in Life. Maybe she wasn't supposed to marry George (William H. Macy), he of the crisp broadcloth shirts and bowling nights. She discovers (in an awkward and curious scene) the assets of pleasing one's self in the bathtub. She'll later wander over to the malt shop run by Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), an artistic type who's a cool cat cause after all, he's playing Miles and Brubeck on the juke. But he also not only convinces Betty to pose nude for a painting, but dares to hang it in the window of his shop! This act will incite the first act of violence in Pleasantville. An act of defiance of change. Some folks just won't embrace progression.

What bothered me during PLEASANTVILLE was that very notion. The filmmakers preach for 2 hours, very heavy-handedly telling us that this black and white scenario should be subverted, turned upside-down, overthrown. There seems to be this consensus that moving forward involves some sort of metamorphasis, a violent one. A social and political coup d'├ętat. Sure, there need to be revolutions. But for enduring change? That's a more gradual thing. Posing nude may be one person's idea of cutting loose and being free, but Ross doesn't seem to even being open to disagreeing with that point. It's iike that guy who who never dances and then one day, in a fit of something or other, flings off his jacket and jumps on tables. Look! He's free! He's released himself from the shackles of inhibition! Well, maybe so, or, he could just be lost in a moment of intoxication or bald narcissism. Like Richard Gere's character in MR. JONES, randomly kissing people on the street.

True freedom is the right to choose, not being told that you need to do something radical. Sometimes, a radical shift is freedom, is what is needed. Sometimes, the freeing act is finding your purpose, quietly. Not very cinematic, though? I wanted to appreciate PLEASANTVILLE, but ironically it is as one note as the characters and way of life it criticizes. There are some good moments, such as when a character experiences sex for the first time, we see a flower opening. It sounds cheesy, but it is an elegant picture of discovery, artfully presented, if a bit too obvious. And what about viewers who may be offended by this scene? Is it their problem? That's what I got from the solemn tone of this movie. The film plays like a scolding funeral dirge.

PLEASANTVILLE does not fail as a visual wonder, or even with its metaphors. I was just irked by the one-sidedness, the refusal to acknowledge that just because someone lives a certain way, they're somehow wrong or needing liberation. I will never forget the elderly lady sitting in front of me in the theater, how she reacted when characters in this movie wondered "can you really be happy in a poodle skirt?""Yes!" she cried. It was nice to hear a dissenting voice to the movie that was advocating dissention.

Part IV, The Great Overrated Series

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remembering Trinidad

Brandy was one of my grad school classmmates who decided to do her 4th year audiology externship/fellowship in Trinidad. During this adventure, she kept a blog that contains mostly bite-sized entries of life on the island. Brief, but quite revealing. Much happened during her year and all is told with her trademarked wit. That journey did not have a favorable ending, btw, but don't read the last page first!

Friday, January 7, 2011

True Grit


Faithful readers of Lamplight Drivel will note that I posted a trailer for the latest Joel and Ethan Coen offering, TRUE GRIT, a few months back. Paramount saw to it that this preview/teaser was cut to showcase the flashy sort of insert shots and editing for which the Coen Brothers can be indentified: the lovingly angled capture of a cocked revolver, the moodily lit long shot, and so on. The trailer also prominently announced that this, like the original 1969 John Wayne pic of the same name, was about revenge. "RETRIBUTION" it stated ominously. It looked like a good fit: the Coens' wry and rugged sensibilities with Charles Portis' earthy 1968 novel. Turns out it was, yessir. But is the audience in for merely a rousing tale of comeuppance, a giving the sons a bitches that best of dishes served cold?

I was asked if I had seen the old Wayne film, and I know I probably did see it on TV as a kid, but I have no strong memory of it or its sequel ROOSTER COGBURN. It's been stated that this 2010 remake is much more faithful to the novel. Either way, the Coens have achieved something significant: an engrossing, oft-told story, but flavored with their unique sensibilities. A happy pairing of traditional storytelling and narrative quirk. Also, a bit of spiritual weight you may not discern until you've had time to digest it all.

That may not please everyone. The Coens have fans who prefer their more ambiguous flights of fancy, things like BARTON FINK. Their resume is a real mixed bag, but the commonality is a singular view of whatever happens to work its way in front of their cameras. A detached, entirely unsentimental and surreal eye is cast with each of their films. And yes, a certain morality, even justice. It was no accident that a tornado was headed towards Larry Gopnik, an Everyman who compromised his ethics, at the conclusion of A SERIOUS MAN.

Point of view and stylistics are essentially what make film viewing a worthwhile pursuit for me (it will never replace a good book, ever). I don't really give a whit as to what a film is about. In fact, less and less so as time goes on. I also care less and less who the actors may be, though I appreciate the fine work of Jeff Bridges (Rooster), Matt Damon (La Boeuf) and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross) in this film. A good director realizes the story through, if he or she is an artist and not just a for-hire hack, a portal that perhaps only they could have designed. See how differently Otto Preminger would've framed a detective film, one with the same script, than say John Huston or Howard Hawks. There's little mistaking the Coens' portal, whether we're watching luckless used car salesmen or dim witted gym rats or cold blooded assassins.

The story: young Mattie Ross is on a mission to hire someone, preferably merciless, to avenge the death of her daddy. Like the tagline says...retribution. She meets grizzled U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn after his entertaining performance on a courtroom witness stand. He gets a pretty good grilling from counsel for his less than gentle tactics in apprehending criminals. His testimony perhaps cements Mattie's choice. After she chats with and helps him roll a cigarette, she's convinced he has the "true grit" needed to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who stole her father's horses and gold pieces after killing him.

Rooster ain't so sure. Aw hell, he knows full well he can nail the bastard and all, but he's not certain if the kid has the hundred bucks she says to pay him. Plus, he's happy just sleeping and drinking the day away in the back of a market. Once he changes his mind, he sets out earlier than discussed, requiring Mattie to show her tenacity by purchasing a horse (her deal-making scene may well make your head spin) and following. We'll also meet a guy named La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who also wants Chaney's hide for a separate murder in his home state. Once Mattie catches up to the men, the trio will press on, separate, break promises, and eventually meet not only Chaney but also "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), leader of a group of outlaws into which Chaney has fallen.

On this journey, we'll enjoy a strong narrative drive fueled by our interest in seeing these characters interact as well as for the thrills provided by some tasty shootouts. Standard stuff. Like you might see in other Westerns. Here, cinematographer Roger Deakins again paints a beautiful canvas for the Coens. Many shots are so stark I would happily hang them as stills in my office. Carter Burwell, another Coens veteran, provides a spare and appropriate score. But what makes TRUE GRIT more than just a fun 2 hours is the wit and wicked point of view of our filmmakers. Their trademarked bursts of violence, for example, are both horrifying and hilarious. In particular, a sequence where Rooster and Mattie visit 2 outlaws in a remote shack just blindsides you with its sudden brutality (and makes you wonder how in the heck this movie got a PG-13 rating).

That character interaction I talked about is also pure Coens. Mattie speaks rapidly and with an impressive vocabulary. She's not an assembly line cutie. She holds her own with any adult. Perhaps some shades of Jennifer Jason Leigh in HUDSUCKER PROXY? Rooster, as interpreted by Bridges, is a crusty old coot who talks quite a bit though I was unsure of about 30% of his dialogue; I WILL put on the close-captioning for future viewings. His unintelligibility with his speech is not necessarily a quirky choice unique to this movie; just try to understand even 1/3 of what Heath Ledger growls in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, another rather unconventional Western. Damon is fine as the defensive La Boeuf, his insecurities and pious pride make him an easy target for Rooster's constant digs. Another moment that distinguishes this pic from most Westerns occurs in the final scenes, as a grown up Mattie (who narrates this movie) dresses down a man who refuses to stand up to talk to a lady. That verbal violence is as surprising as some of the more physical kind we've seen throughout TRUE GRIT. It's an entirely unexpected moment.

As far as the close of this film goes, we go back to that refusal for Joel and Ethan to succumb to easy sentiment. This film is a spinster's recollection, 25 years later, of how a boozy cuss helped her arrive at the moment she blasts her father's killer to kingdom come. We see the adult Maddie, missing an arm, her face a frozen scowl, as she pays her respects to Rooster's grave. She misses seeing him and his Wild West Show by merely 3 days. She narrates free of any wistfulness, the kind you hear in the voices of other narrators in other films (e.g., Morgan Freeman in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION).

Thus, the abruptness of the finale of this film makes it clear that the Coens are not interested in making you misty. That will annoy some viewers, who may feel that they've just been subjected to someone's dark joke, a cinematic tease. They may well have been. Think about the ending of BURN BEFORE READING, for example. One person's idea of "dramatic payoff" may be very different than that of the next popcorn muncher. A climax truncated of emotion is an effective device in itself, IMO. One of my favorites is how Altman ends M.A.S.H. Big, significant send-offs aren't always the way to conclude.

But there's more going on with TRUE GRIT, especially as you think it over. It is not a straight revenge piece. The events of Mattie's justice are not without cost. Her fatal gun blast to Chaney causes enough recoil to send her flying backwards into a pit of snakes, one which bites her and causes her to lose that arm. It may be her badge of courage, that phantom limb. Maybe it's pure Hammurabi's Code. Whatever your interpretation, this story as told wants more than to just give vicarious thrills and cinematic appreciation. As with the Coens' NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, an astounding film, viewers are prodded to consider more than just the central business. The catalyst of a protagonist's action has consequence for all.

A writer and the director(s) are god, or at least omniscient, in their work. They engineer the details. Justice according to them. This film opens with Scripture (from Proverbs) and Mattie is portrayed as a devout Presbyterian in all respects. The Coens are working with someone else's story. We always bring our belief systems into our interpretations. In the end, mine would say that TRUE GRIT is a good old-fashioned entertainment with a good dose of irony, and even morality, whatever the Coens may have intended.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Your Audiology Tutorial: Demonstration

Here is a quick tutorial that utilizes a clip from The Flintstones to demonstrate how folks with different degrees of hearing loss perceive speech. You'll see an audiogram on the right side of the screen, with a curve that will dip lower with each degradation of hearing, from "normal" to "severe". As you watch, keep in mind that the audiogram measures frequency (pitch) on the horizontal axis and intensity (loudness) on the vertical one. Going left to right, pitch is low to high. Going up to down, loudness is very soft to very loud. With each example, the patient's hearing gets worse, requiring sounds to be presented louder for them to respond during a hearing test.

Monday, January 3, 2011

TRON: Legacy

Even before hearing all of the feedback from cranky film critics and excited fans on TRON: LEGACY, I had an idea that once I finally saw it, I would word the post mortem this way: "Really cool visuals, weak screenplay." If I were to merely do a 5 word review, that would sum it up. Turns out I was right on target with that.

That would make one wonder why then should I spend time composing a review of this 28 year delayed sequel to Disney's sci-fi item, TRON. The first film was somewhat of a cinematic revolution, a visual candy store of artificial computer landscapes. It was something not seen before: actors occupying space in a binary world. It would bring about all sorts of quantum questions if you thought too hard, but you just went with it. Despite the neat effects and overall innovation, the film was only a modest success at the box office in 1982. The video game inspired by it, however, was a runaway smash. The film went on to become yet another cable and VHS discovery, future cult status assured. I had a lukewarm response to the original film, and have not revisited it since sometime in the 1990s. I felt with that one much as I do this new one.

In the original TRON, we met Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software genius/hacker who learns that this hissable executive at his firm, ENCOM, has stolen his code and taken credit for it. Through a series of events, Flynn is digitized and finds himself lost in his own creation. He eventually emerges victorious (see the original youself, willya?). At the opening of TRON:LEGACY, 7 years have passed. We see him promising his young son, Sam, a peek into that world before he takes off on his motorcycle for the night. It would be the last anyone sees of Kevin. No one knows if he's dead or "kicking it in Costa Rica". Flash forward to present day, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now 27, a recluse who has detached himself from ENCOM aside from the occasional sabotague of the company's latest software release.

Flynn's old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) is still at ENCOM. He was also Tron himself, you may recall. He receives a page (yes, he proudly still carries a pager) originating from an old phone number belonging to Flynn's long-closed arcade. He finds Sam and before long, the younger Flynn opens the musty doors and discovers a hidden computer room in the basement. He finds a dormant program running featuring "The Grid". A few keystokes later, he's been sucked into the Grid and is immediately apprehended and forced to engage in the same sorts of games his father did in the first movie. Only this time, things look a whole lot cooler.

The flying discs are back, for one. Not exactly a game of Frisbee. Sam squares off against neon suited opponents, or programs, who mean to win, to the death. When you get hit with one of these discs in just the right spot, you disintegrate (a tres cool effect). As Sam is an expert at this (his dad designed everything in this grid, after all, and Sam spent untold hours playing "Tron" in the arcade) he proves to be adept. His identity as a user and the son of the creator of the whole universe lands him in front of somone who looks just like his father, but the way he looked 20 years before when he disappeared.

TRON: LEGACY utilizes the same tech that THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON did: a process involving the de-aging of an actor's face digitally and seemlessly placing it on a body double. In this movie, it's kinda creepy and off-putting. Maybe it's the eyes. This "someone" I spoke of is actually a clone of Kevin's, called "Clu", created by Kevin way back when to help him build some sort of binary utopia. Two geniuses are better than one. They were destined for greatness. Of course, as the age old story goes, what was created for good turns sour. So sour, in fact, that Clu is determined to do no less than conquer the world! Not just the digital one. Clu is not human, yet apparently also not free from the contamination of greed. His blueprint does, however, come from a flawed human. Think about that next time you curse at your software.

But anyway, Clu's just a bunch of zeroes and ones, right? How does he plan to get out into the real world? After Sam enters the Grid, a portal that leads back to Earth remains open. But only for a few hours (what isn't clear in this screenplay is whether Earth hours are the same as grid hours, but never mind). When Sam finally finds his father, who has aged but still sports the same hippie outlook and language as before, he learns it was because of Clu that the portal had closed years before, preventing Kevin's return. Dad therefore spent the last 20 years "off-grid" in a very stylish abode with sleek architecture and cold but gleaming furniture.

The design of Kevin's home is one of the many technical triumphs of TRON: LEGACY. I found my mind wandering (much as it did during AVATAR) while dialogue, important plot points mind you, was spoken, just imagining what it would be like to occupy these spaces. They are some of the most visually astounding I've seen in a movie. The dining room table, the lighted floor under it, and even the sounds of silverware meeting plate reminded me of the climax of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as an aside. This is a film where CGI not only makes sense, but creates something so otherworldly it will almost make me take back all the negative things I've said about it for other films. It makes sense because this movie takes place largely in a manufactured locale. CGI was not at filmmakers' disposal for the original film, and it makes quite a difference here. The effects and how they're implemented in TRON: LEGACY are reason enough to shlep out to a theater (see it in IMAX and 3-D, if you can).

What about the other actors? There's also Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a very cute young woman who seems to be Kevin's protege. We first meet her when she rescues Sam as he's about to eat it during the light cycle challenge (another spectacular sequence). She's also a program, a creation, and we will learn how special indeed she is. Actually, every bit of conflict in this movie can be traced back to why she's so unique, but you can discover that on your own. What I will say is that she represents something that the screenplay briefly addresses: a constitution of science and possibly spirituality. Kevin made her, after all, but he also utters a curious bit about how the bulk of her design may be of different origin. What did screenwriters Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis intend here? Was it a throwaway line? It may well have been, as the movie never hints at it again, preferring instead to recycle the plot of dozens, hundreds of campy sci-fi serials of yesteryear. The very weak script is what does in this movie.

Bridges is always watchable, and here he gets to be good and bad. I was amused but also scratching my head at his multiple scenes where he seems to be channeling that infamous character of his from THE BIG LEBOWSKI. I'm speaking of The Dude, of course. The character Bridges once described as a person in whom casualness runs deep. Kevin may be a computer guru, but he's awfully passive. Is that redundant in this case? He almost seems resigned to failure, even in the face of having his son remain trapped in the grid. "You're messin' with my Zen, man," he states to Sam during a scuffle with some baddies. The best laugh-out-loud moment for me was when Kevin attempts to recode Quorra's DNA to rebuild her arm after it is severely damaged. As he's working, a flurry of light flies out of her appendage, "Look at that, maaaan," he giggles with that patented stoner laugh. He may also be a genius, but I bet he'd still be down with burning a fattie with you at the end of the day.

Speaking of trippy, there's also Zuse, a flamboyant fellow who runs a club on the Grid called The End of the Line. As played by Michael Sheen, he's a vibrant latter day version of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, with a dash of CABARET's Master of Ceremonies and THE FIFTH ELEMENT's Ruby Rhodd. His and Bridges' character eccentricities seem to be an attempt to loosen up this semi-serious sci-fi. Zuse is a key to our heroic trio's hope for escape through the portal, but not before some script contrivances.

But it's all about the visuals. Aurals, too: Daft Punk contributes an energetic orchestral/electronic score that positively pulses with the onscreen action. Shades of Tangerine Dream can be heard in it at times. Surely there was some inspiration there. I knew from the trailers that I would be taking this trip, and I'm not sorry I did. Yes, many other sci-fi flicks were just rehashes of old plots (STAR WARS? Think 1940s serials and Kurosawa films), but it just burns me that the team of screenwiters couldn't match 21st century tech with as much imagination in screenwriting. For me, that's why the original MATRIX was so worthy. That was 1999. We're due for another.