Thursday, October 27, 2011

Terror in the Aisles

Boy, this must've sounded good on paper. Or in pitch meetings. Imagine a non-stop barrage of all the best scare scenes from horror films/thrillers from the past 30 + years! No boring expositions or slow dialogue scenes! 1984's failed collage TERROR IN THE AISLES has this as its promising premise. Unfortunately, a seemingly promising idea is wrapped in a completely misguided one.

Almost immediately, this film is a bust. How could it miss? TERROR IN THE AISLES is narrated by 2 latter day stars of horror cinema: Nancy Allen (DRESSED TO KILL) and Donald Pleasance (HALLOWEEN). You might rightly wonder why the "Queen of scream" of the late 70s/early 80s Jamie Lee Curtis (HALLOWEEN, TERROR TRAIN, PROM NIGHT....)didn't participate. The narration is obvious and silly, and not only in voiceover; we also see Allen and Pleasance sitting in movie theaters amongst terrified patrons, reacting to the clips in TERROR's anthology. If the commentary had been insightful, it might've been interesting. Instead, we get lines like, "why would we subject ourselves to these movies when there's plenty of real horror in the world?" We also see the moviegoers clutching each other, covering their eyes, screaming. To remind us that the films showcased are scary.

It reminded me of a test I put to certain genre films, namely comedy and horror. If a film needs an audience to tell me that it is funny or scary, it is a failure. I don't need a group of strangers to dictate or validate my reactions.

But many would cite the joy of the filmgoing experience, the collective thrill of screaming and laughing along with those strangers. How a good laugh or scare is perhaps the great equalizer. I might've thought that once. I still do enjoy seeing movies in the theater, but for the excitement of the big screen and big sound and the unquantifiable magic that occurs. The other people in the theater have often been the downside to the experience: the obnoxious comments, the cell phone chatter, the fidgeters, the noisy eaters, on and on.

But, rethinking, many of the films featured in TERROR IN THE AISLES perhaps play best with audiences shouting out instructions to those being chased by serial killers in masks. During a clip from HALLOWEEN, when Curtis wearily discards a knife, one of the actors in the fake movie theater yells, "don't drop that, you asshole!"

That is accurate. During my many nights of spending my allowance or fast-food job earned cash on all those 80s slashers, the audience was almost as much spectacle as the films themselves. In writing this review, I recalled all those Friday and Saturday nights at the Cross County 8 and Village Green theaters, listening as people broke wind, threw things, and argued and threatened each other if they didn't shut up. Those crowds were rowdy. I guess Freddy Krueger or Jason inspires such behavior. TERROR IN THE AISLES' audience does not exhibit this sort of action (aside from Ms. Curtis' heckler); it should've, it would've been more precise and entertaining.

But what about the clips themselves? We are shown key moments from:

THE THING (1982)

.....and many others. There are also clips, to no great effect, from films not classified as horror, like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, KLUTE, VICE SQUAD, and the 1981 Sylvester Stallone cop drama NIGHTHAWKS. Then there are comedic scenes from PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and the intriguingly awful ALONE IN THE DARK, featuring a clearly slumming (and hammy) Martin Landau. Archival footage of Alfred Hitchcock describing his cinematic methods is even featured. TERROR IN THE AISLES attempts to link the assembled clips thematically, but it just doesn't really make any sense. Many of these scenes are undeniably effective (the stomach burst in ALIEN, the transformation in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) but thrown together in this hodgepodge, it is almost ineffectual. The movie, as a result, is poorly paced and even boring! Not the wild ride that was intended.

This idea could work. Just edit the scenes to a mix of your favorite disturbing music. Correctly match the intensity of the visual and the aural. Rob Zombie or Ministry for the carnage, Incubus or Morphine for the slow dread, fast, dissonant classical piece of your choice for the chase scenes...TERROR IN THE AISLES might've been a decent trash classic if it were constructed as a music video. In this age of decreasing attention spans, it would be apt.

I'm not advocating for a remake, mind you, because then we'd have to suffer through scenes of the HOSTEL and SAW films and the like. If you really want to have a horror film marathon this Halloween, you'd be better off just getting the original films in their entirety. Good advice: skip any film that has "DON'T" in the title.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Coogan's Bluff

Since my recent move I've rejoined the mainstream of American culture and once again have cable TV. Most of my viewing time consists of 5-10 seconds on each channel as I flip around. You could call it a guy cliche to do such a thing, but it usually doesn't take me long to recognize crap. Despite multitudes of channels, often this sort of surfing reveals only a wasteland. And endless Law & Order re-runs.

However, to my surprise, the Encore movie channels are included in the extended basic cable package (also: IFC, Sundance, and Flix). All films uncut for content and commercial free. One of the great things about these channels is that they run films that are obscure and/or not available on DVD. 1968's COOGAN'S BLUFF is neither, though it is not necessarily one you think of when you survey the career of Clint Eastwood.

Walt Coogan is an Arizona sheriff who says little and gets his man by any means possible. Warrants, probable cause, Miranda rights, not necessary. In an effective opening scene, he apprehends an American Indian hiding in the desert who had killed his wife. En route to jail, Coogan stops at his girlfriend's house for an assignation, bounding his quarry to a column on the front porch while he, um, takes care of other business. Coogan's superiors happen by and find the prisoner singing the blues while tied up. They bust in the house and dress down Coogan (who is in the bathtub) for his blatant disregard for the law and unorthodox behavior. "That's a man out there, not an animal!" This scenario should sound familiar to Eastwood fans, particularly reminiscent of a certain character the iconic actor would go on to portray in the 70s and beyond.

The superiors also inform Coogan that he is to fly to New York City to bring back James Ringerman (Don Stroud), a hippie who killed someone in Arizona and fled. Here begins a classic "fish out of water" story you have seen perhaps many times. No nonsense, "get it done" small town cop outsmarts more sophisticated big city men in blue on their own turf. There will be culture shock for all concerned.

What makes COOGAN'S BLUFF worth a few hours' viewing? Eastwood gets to try out his classic lawman persona, immortalized in the DIRTY HARRY and other later films. His Coogan immediately clashes with NYC cops, especially Lieutenant McElroy (Lee J. Cobb), who wearily explains that Ringerman is currently residing in a mental hospital and getting him released requires a lot of red tape that could take weeks. Cue the patented Eastwood eye squint.

Soon, Coogan uses his own methods to spring the perp, only to be ambushed by Ringerman's girlfriend, Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling) and an accomplice (David Doyle, later of Charlie's Angels ) at the airport. They steal his firearm. After recovering in the hospital, Coogan tracks Linny down at an ultra psychedelic nightclub called the Pigeon Toed Orange Peel (where filmstrips of naked women and tranatulas play on the walls and live naked women sit on a trapeeze), spends the night with her (Eastwood's characters are almost James Bondian in their libido), then again is ambushed after she brings him to a pool hall where several cohorts are waiting. We are then treated to a Clint vs. at least seven creeps wielding cue sticks. There's also a fine motorcycle chase finale.

For a 1968 film, COOGAN'S BLUFF is pretty violent. Director Don Siegel, who worked with Eastwood several times, directs with force and economy. He's almost like Hemingway in his conciseness. It's easy to see how Siegel influenced his star when the latter directed his own films years later.

Along the way, Clint also woos a probabtion officer named Julie (Susan Clark, looking very lovely) who happens to have Linny as one of her parolees. Various things happen through the course of the movie to prevent a consummation of their sexual tension.

COOGAN'S BLUFF benefits from generous amounts of humor, some dated, some very un-PC. There's a running gag as everyone thinks the cowboy hatted Coogan is from Texas instead of AZ. There are roughouse gags (the encounter with "Wonderful Digby" at the club), the socially observational digs (the little old lady at the stationhouse who reports that everyone is trying to rape her), and the regional jokes (a cabbie charges Coogan fifty cents extra for his luggage [he's merely carrying a briefcase], then a hotel clerk charges him extra because he does not have any luggage.)The timing of some of the funnier bits is more deft than many of the so-called comedies of the same period. Clint also gets to utter at least one great line, "You better drop that blade, or you won't believe what happens next, even while it's happening."

Don't think about the plot too hard. Don't arrive at the end of COOGAN'S BLUFF and survey what just happened, how everything could've been avoided if...just enjoy. If you're an Eastwood completist, this a must.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

PBA, Book VI

When I got that 1986 midnight blue Chevy Cavalier in late January 1990, it was some sort of deliverance. I was no longer restricted by who I could receive rides from; it was liberating. My life, in a sense, had begun. I dated like crazy, ran every errand I could, and was chauffeur to my carless PBA friends.

Around that time I also met a unique girl who hailed from Jackson, Mississippi. Yes, she had the accent you're hearing in your head right now. She had fire engine red hair and often wore Laura Ashley dresses. She attended Palm Beach Atlantic and also worked at Eckerd with me. We became fast friends, strictly platonic. A back massage is about as erotic as anything got. She seemed typically conservative in the PBA (and Southern) vein.

As we hung out, I learned otherwise. "Laura" (not her real name, but it'll do) had a bit of a wild streak, eager to stir things up when given the opportunity. How clearly I remember that night on Palm Beach Lakes and Village Blvds., at a stop light next to a car with two young black guys. Laura was in the passenger seat, directing her derogatory remarks and accents at them. I was livid and scared, fearing some serious damage. Sure enough, the guys followed us onto Village and it seemed as if I would have to put the pedal to the metal. But within seconds, they flew into the left lane and sped past, shouting something at us I've blocked out. I gave Laura a few words, but soon we were laughing.

By night Laura was a goth, complete with black fingernails and black robed garments. She loved going to Respectables, a downtown WPB club that played music by The Cure, New Order, Faith No More, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, along with doses of old school ska and punk, and lesser known acts like Alien Sex Fiend and The Swimming Pool Qs, both of whom did shows there. Even before I met Laura, I went to this club semi-regularly, but was usually clad in blue jeans and untucked short or long sleeved polo. I actually slam danced or something there a few times, though mostly hung at tables with my friends and just listened to one cool song after another. A few years later, I was outside in the back bar area, eating something from the late night menu. "Marijuana is the only food you'll ever need," a helpful chap offered.

With Laura I got to meet and hang with many other goths, and it was fascinating. Back at Laura's place at some ungodly hour, many a head spinning night was had - not necessarily because of drugs or an excess of alcohol, but definitely becuase of the conversations (whatever their catalyst). These people came from much different backgrounds than me; their points of view so foreign. They looked at me with curiosity and I imagine in some cases, pity. One of them wore a T-shirt that read: CHRISTIANITY IS STUPID. Despite that, most of my exchanges with them were friendly.

That changed, however, when I met Laura's ex-boyfriend, a somehat psychotic and combustable fellow named "Rick". Rick also frequented Respect's and seemed to always be glaring at me. He thought Laura and I were an item. Laura confided many awful tales to me about her ex, including a time he picked up a hammer left by a construction crew and tried to bonk her in the skull. Lies? Who knows? My observations and overall vibe about this dude suggested otherwise. One night, I felt his hand slap me on the back. He sarcastically said "hi" as we were all swaying to Depeche Mode or something similiar.

The best story about Rick? He went nuts one day and damaged several pianos in the music department with a fire extinguisher. That was being talked about around campus. I'm pretty sure Rick got expelled.

Laura and I had a fun time, and she even played advisor/counselor when the girl I spoke of in the previous entry called me out of the blue to see if I would take her to her senior prom, on a cruise out to sea and back. This was a few months after we had broken up. Laura told me not to accept, but of course I did, and had a miserable night. It all concluded with my date and I being kicked off the ship's dance floor by her teacher/pastor, beacuse we began fighting, loudly. Once we reached the deck, it was cold and raining, but the shouting crescendoed nonetheless. I don't remember it all, but she most certainly did storm off and tell me to go to hell. Laura had warned me.

But Laura and I would have our own falling out after she and her roommate toilet papered my car in my driveway. Normally, I would LOVE that sort of thing. I had a couple of choir mates build a nest on my hood once. I don't know, though, for some reason that night I was not amused, and quite furious that this was happening. After my scene, I went back in the house and they tore off. We did not speak after that. So silly. I don't know what got into me.

A few weeks later, in a postscript straight out of a David Lynch movie, I saw her chatting with some guys near one of the dorms on campus. I drove by, stuck my head out the window and did a bizarre loud cackle at them, eliciting confused stares. It was another strange moment for me, as I never did things like that. Laura must've had some odd influence.

Many years later, Laura is one of my 380+ Facebook friends. She even sent me a case of Peach Nehi! The reason behind that is for another time, invisible audience.

Monday, October 17, 2011


There are few movies more heavily quoted among middle aged American males than 1980's CADDYSHACK. Perhaps a distant second might be 1985's FLETCH, which also features actor/comedian Chevy Chase. Both films' dialogue and wisecracks are very often incorporated to everyday speak for said demographic. Someone not enarmored with such communication might take pity on these guys, believing that it is a form of denial of "real life" of responsibility, of the seriousness of a brutal world. By composing entire conversations of things like "I feel like a hundred dollars," or "Gunga Galunga", perhaps fans of these movies have allowed escapism to at least partially define them. You are what you watch?

I preach about that all the time. I'm always fascinated at how otherwise intelligent people spend their time with the most brainless TV shows, movies, and music. Hours of unchallenging drivel that just numbs the brain. When I take them to task on this, they argue that their jobs and lives have sufficient challenge, and they just want some mental bubblegum. I understand and agree. But, if that is all you consume, I don't believe that new neural pathways will be forged. The brain needs stimulation, new data to foster dendritic branching and learning. If you feed it with complex music and art that requires some effort, I believe you will have better capacities for reasoning and conceptualization and you may well stave off that dreaded placquing that can cause degenerative brain diseases.

I am not a neuro scientist, but I know enough to see the results in my own life. If I go on autopilot and only listen to the 80s "comfort food" with which I grew up, well....I crave classical and jazz and other genres and works which allow for more active listening. I suppose an argument could be made that the familiar things can be healthy for you, for blood pressure and anxiety and the like. But there has to be more.

Hold on. This is a review for CADDYSHACK, fer cryin' out loud! Not a lot of mental taxing occurs while watching it. Should I bother recounting the plot? OK, in a nutshell: Danny is working class kid who caddies at a snooty country club with members like Judge Smails (Ted Knight, red faced almost the entire time) and Ty Webb (Chevy Chase, coolly detached as usual). Ty likes the kid and shares his Zen-like outlook on life as he blatantly shows off on the links (blindfolded at one point). Smails also takes a shine to Danny and offers him the coveted Caddy Scholarship. Meanwhile, an assistant greenskeeper, Carl (Bill Murray) spends the movie trying to flush out a pesky gopher that is digging tunnels under the course. The obnoxious Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) shows up and fires off one liners that viewers familiar with Dangerfield's stand-up act will recognize.

But the plot is just a skeleton on which to hang a series of scenes in which the 4 name actor/comedians get to do their patented shticks. CADDYSHACK is most interesting, to me, as a document of the men's wildly different comedic styles. Chase is all diffidence and nuance, goofily suave and blissfully bored. Knight is pure bombast, spending the movie being outraged at one thing or another. He has that certain timbre in voice when he's angry and impatient. We saw a bit of it on The Mary Tyler Moore Show but here it boils over, especially in his scenes with Dangerfield, who plays a perhaps neuveau riche loudmouth who flings wads of cash and is a complete antithesis to the sort of member the Bushwood Country Club desires. His style is crude and unsubtle, and often hysterically funny.

That leaves Murray, whose Carl has become iconic in its incoherency. He stalks the grounds with water hoses and explosives, on a mission to exterminate the gopher, a character all its own (played by a cute furry puppet). All the while he mumbles things that sound ad-libbed ("I'll fill your bagpipes with Wheatena") and acts like a proto-stoner-hippie-guru-of-some-sort. He's mostly off on his own, though he does have one scene with Chase, sharing a joint. Perhaps the broadest comedic moment involves his retrieval of a Baby Ruth during a swimming pool disinfection. Knight and his wife (thinking the candy bar is, er, something else) recoil in horror as Carl bites down on it, "It's not so bad!".

This may all sound pretty undisciplined. Harold Ramis co-wrote and directed CADDYSHACK in the most casual way possible, and in the film's defense I say it was the correct choice. Script? The plot isn't taken seriously for a second. The supporting cast seem almost as blase as the star players. It's a very loose, harmless movie (although my mother freaked when some female toplessness was visible in a few scenes when I watched it with her when I was 12, oops!) that provides some chuckles and a few golden moments. All of the comics are in a good form, though it would've been better if they all interacted a bit more and the silly storyline were dropped entirely.

It's easy to see why so many people my age quote CADDYSHACK so often, but I wish they would also maybe utter a few lines from SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or LION IN WINTER for balance. Be good for their grey matter.

NOTE: CADDYSHACK was filmed in part at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Davie, FL in 1979. Over 20 years later, I went to Nova Southeastern University, right across the street from it. One of my clasmmates lived in a condo which had a good view of it. Funny. I looked for Carl a few times.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


As you learned from the last entry, I had a glorious trip to the NY/NJ area recently. I took time to enjoy a night at my friend Allen Stafford's restuarant, Elsewhere, located in the Hell's Kitchen District in Manhattan. Allen has quite a bit of experience in the NYC restaurant world, having been the "man about town" in the Grammercy Tavern, Casalulla, and other wonderful spots. Allen helped design the interior and menu of Elsewhere, situated on 43rd street in what used to be a French eatery. Much of the architecture is the same from the previous tenant, including some words in Francais painted on the walls. Allen reports brisk business these days. Additionally , Elsewhere has a special snack menu in the afternoons, which has proven popular with theater goers, pre- and post-matinee.

I went on a Friday with family and friends and was led to the back room, complete with a real tree growing out of the floor among the tables. We were treated to some bacon and lavender flavored popcorn, featured on the sharing menu. A complimentary "Leigh's Biscuit" layered with brown butter and sprinkled with sea salt and crushed black pepper arrived and it was tempting to scarf several more.

My chorizo encrusted lamb chop was sizable and scrumptious (love these restuarant review adjectives!). My wife had the "Bo Bo Chicken", the name of which refers to a respected brand name of poultry from China. The dish came with a cider glaze and served with braised kale over a bed of freekeh. Others in my party had braised rabbit, striped bass over polenta, and diver scallops. I sampled everyone's plates. Not a disappointment to be found. Well, maybe that no one ordered the "Pig's Ass" sandwich.

After the entrees came a cheese plate of cow and goat variety (don't recall the exact names) along with hams and mustards. Elsewhere, like Casalulla, has an impressive selection of regional cheeses from around the U.S.A. and is featuring specialty cheese nights throughout October (New Yorkers, you should go). Dessert was also quite nice: peach marble cake with mascarpone ice cream; the portion was just right. Others had the decadent sweet corn hush puppies with blackberry honey and scoops of cactus pear sorbet. No one tried the "dutch baby" (pancake); it sounded fabulous.

When in The City, take time to go Elsewhere!

403 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part X, or Postscript

I concluded the Steely Dan portion of the WD series a few years back, yes. But on September 17th I had the privilege of attending my first live Dan show. How exciting it was to see Donald Fagen and Walter Becker with their ace backing band in New York City! At the Beacon Theatre, no less. We had great seats, only seven rows back on the right side. That blur above was my attempt at a shot with the flash turned off. It does not accurately reflect my point of view that night, as my sole libation was a Stella Artois. Well, there was a Kirin at the restaurant before. Annnd, a Guinness on the PATH train over from Jersey.....

My show was part of a weeklong stint that included specialized sets featuring entire albums, all requests, and my night, a "rarities"("the unreleased, the mythic, the reborn, the rarely-if-ever-heard; on this numinous Night of Nights, all will be revealed") program. The Beacon is significant as it has long been a favorite of Fagen and Becker's, especially Fagen, who also performed the Rock and Soul Revue concerts there in the early 1990s.

The Beacon was constructed in 1929, with a rich history of musical acts to follow. The auditorium fell into serious disrepair over the years, in the 2000s becoming serious with crumbling ceilings and broken chairs. A remodel in the last year has renewed its viable place in the NYC venue scene.

Despite my being a huge Dan fan, I had never attended a concert. As you may know, the guys have toured yearly since the 90s, and there were many opportunities, though school and plain old bad timing always prohibited my attendance. Often, they played a date while I was away or just returning from a trip. Plus, the live recordings I had heard and watched online were less than enticing. Their Alive in America live album was similiarly uninspiring.

But the wait was well worth it. After a nice warm up by keyboardist Sam Yehel and saxophonist Joe Lavano, the Steely Dan ensemble ("Miles High Big Band") came out: Michael Leonhart, Jim Pugh, Roger Rosenberg, and Walt Weiskopf on horns, Joe Herington on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, Jim Beard on piano and keyboard, and a very youthful looking Keith Carlock on drums. Then Fagen and Becker appeared with their 3 backup singers, Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizell, and Catherine Reussell. "Your Gold Teeth" opened the set, confirming at least part of a bet I had with my 2 companions at a Chinese restaurant prior to showtime. There was something hypnotic and sexy about the rhythm of that song, the combination of it and the gyrating bods of the gorgeous background singers, lately called The Embassy Brats. I knew it would be a good night.

I was consistently amused as I watched Fagen, appearing behind his keyboard as if a puppet, with his arching shoulders and mouth wide open nearly 100% of the time. His voice has really changed since the 70s and even 00s; a much higher, whiny register. He changed up the familiar phrasing of just about every song, which you expect in concert. I was fine with it save some odd echo effect used on the chorus of "Hey 19". Fagen occasionally walked out to play his melodica (strap-on keyboard), revealing a hilariously misbuttoned grey shirt. He appeared as if to have rolled out of bed. I thought the guy wore sharp dark suits for his shows?!

And Becker? Man, has this guy's appearance gone to seed. His gut was awe inspiring, stretching his dark T-shirt to some kind of limits. He stood in one spot and basically noodled through the songs, adding a good bluesy solo once in a while. He stepped up to the mic to do a rambling monologue during "Hey 19", filled with the sort of cheesy and occasionally ribald ranting that you might expect of him.

The set wasn't ALL rarities. The old chestnuts like Aja's "Peg", the title track (with Carlock's exhausting stickwork, proving he is more than worthy to the throne of Steve Gadd), and "Josie" were among the songs, as were Countdown to Ectasy's "My Old School" and Can't Buy a Thrill's "Reelin' in the Years", which despite my years of overexposure to it, sounded pretty good. I had heard they replaced Eliot Randall's famous guitar solo with a horn chart for earlier live versions; I'm happy to report that was not the case this night.

So the questions were many as to what "rarities" would be played. Deep album cuts? One of the many tracks recorded but discarded for the old albums? Demos? Alternate versions of album cuts? Fagen announced after the second or third number that all of the above were in store for us. I was quite pleased that the infamous "The Second Arrangement", a song intended for the Gaucho album and accidentally erased by an engineer, was performed. As Fagen said, it would probably be the only time ever. I looked around and was also pleased to see a few peeps were mouthing the words along with Fagen and the trio of lovelies.

"I Got the Bear" is a Gaucho Outtake that was also performed, a really groovy tune that continues to baffle for its exclusion on that album. Most of the audience were unfamiliar but seemed to really dig it. Of the album cuts rarely performed were "Pearl of the Quarter" from Countdown to Ecstacy and "Dr. Wu" from Katy Lied. The original version of Two Against Nature's "Jack of Speed" was sung by Becker, quite incoherently. The keyboard arrangement was very different with a much faster tempo. At times, it was a bit reminiscent of Bernie Worrell's keyboards during Talking Heads' STOP MAKING SENSE shows! The version on the 2vN album is far better. It was interesting, but as one of my companions also stated, "a mess".

There were two real surprises that night. First was "American Lovers", a song penned by Fagen and Becker for another artist when they were staff writers at ABC Records (before they formed SD) It seemed not a soul in the Beacon was familiar with it. It had a real late 60s sound, and despite some strong vocals from the ladies, Fagen really nailed it when he said, "it was a hippie song written about 5 years too late."

The second came during the encore. "This All Too Mobile Home"(!), the song they used to close their concerts back in the earlier 1970s. I was floored. I could feel the disappointment and disbelief of the audience, clearly expecting "FM" or something. I was thrilled, however, and their version was just as rousing as the mp3s I've heard online of the old concerts. Nice "A Summer Place" type final part, too. In true Steely Dan fashion, Fagen stated, "this is the track WE wanna finish with". God bless those guys. And maybe hire a wardrobe wrangler for 'em, willya?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

True Visionary

"Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply 'make it great.' He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time."

- John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

NOTE: This review is not an interpretation of the film's themes or an attempt to "roll back the meaning", but rather a face value take on a film that despite its many faults, assumes a place in film history for obvious reasons.

1999 was a fine year for the cinema. Several interesting, even groundbreaking bits of mainstream (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE MATRIX, FIGHT CLUB...) graced theater screens. There was also a truckload of white hot anticipation for 2 particular pictures: STAR WARS EPISODE ONE and the latest film directed by Stanley Kubrick, EYES WIDE SHUT. I had learned years before how films with impossible expectations can lead to a hollow filmgoing experience. Crushing disappointment. I often refer to Tim Burton's BATMAN from 1989. I attended a midnight advance screening and by 2 A.M. I was merely underwhelmed and longing for my pillow.

EPISODE ONE came with 16 years of anticipation preceding it. I also attended a late night sneak peek and again was unimpressed. I just never learned, did I? All of the elements seemed to be in place, though. George Lucas was again in the director's chair! It missed, big time. Later that summer, I was in line in Los Angeles to see EYES WIDE SHUT, Mr. Kubrick's first film in 12 years. Sadly, it would also be his final film. To say I was excited about seeing it is pure understatement. My excitement evaporated quickly.

I think I knew something was wrong during the opening Christmas party scene. It did not seem as if I was watching a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. I could not quite say why. Was it what felt like hesitency? A filmmaker unsure of himself? Was the rhythm of the scene by design? Was I misreading, perhaps just so excited to be seeing a film on opening night in L.A. (Universal Ampitheater, no less)? If anything, that should've allowed me to be more forgiving of the film than I was (and am). I remember marveling at how quiet, heck, how downright reverent the audience was that evening. There wasn't a crinkling candy wrapper, popcorn crunch, or cell phone to be heard. It was so quiet I was afraid to even sneeze.

Several reels went by and again I wondered if filmgoers had been hoodwinked. An awkward chase scene on the streets of New York City (actually a fairly meticulous recreation on a London soundstage) felt far too amateurish to be of Kubrickian hands. Awkwardly blocked, oddly paced. This was a film that had specific instructions by Kubrick for the projectionist to turn around and avoid looking at the screen during the first preview showings? Earlier Kubricks may have earned such preemptive hubris; not this one.

And the lead, Tom Cruise, was playing a psychiatrist named Bill Harford, but was acting like his usual familiar persona, with all of the standard brow furrowing and hand gesticulation I'd seen in his other films. What was the difference between his performance here and in THE FIRM? It didn't make sense.

As a segue, THE FIRM's director Sydney Pollack (who occasionally acted) turns up in EYES WIDE SHUT as Victor Ziegler, a pivotal character. His performance also reeked of his usual shtick. Now, I'm well aware Kubrick sometimes looked upon actors as mere tools or props for his pallettes. Possibly with no more regard for them than for a roll of gaffer's tape but possibly less than for those special lenses created by NASA for BARRY LYNDON. Would anyone cite Keir Dullea, Ryan O'Neal, or Shelley Duvall for their stellar performances? Some actors in Kubrick's films did do amazing, thespian defining work (Peter Sellers, Malcolm McDowell, Vincent D'Onofrio), but excellent as they were, they were just raw materials for the hands of a master. In EYES WIDE SHUT, bland performances are merely another homogenous element of a bland film.

Nicole Kidman (then real-life Mrs. Cruise) plays his onscreen wife, Alice. Under the influence of marijuana, she confides to her husband that she has entertained adulterous thoughts and had dreams much the same. This is too much for Dr. Harford and so he goes into the Manhattan night to perhaps heal himself. He meets an assortment of lost girls who proposition and/or warn him of certain danger. Some turn up dead. Harford also meets up with his med school drop-out/pianist friend, Nick (Todd Field), who tips him off as to a curious party/orgy at a huge mansion where everyone is in costume. This scene is the centerpiece of EYES WIDE SHUT, and perhaps the most controversial. U.S. censors insisted that silhouetted figures be placed stratecgically in front of som of the steamier goings-on at this party.

Which, by the way, is, to this viewer, just one reason this sequence is spectacularly silly. It is so self-consciously ominous that I found myself wanting to giggle amongst the reverent filmgoers around me. The nadir comes with a quick B-movie zoom on a masked figure on one of the upper levels of the mansion. I could not contain my laughter, decorum be damned. This is a Kubrick movie? Fidelio? Bah.

Even worse is a terminally long scene late in the film, a pool game between Ziegler and Harford where everything is explained. An ordeal it is to sit and listen to these characters speak as if they take the plot's intracies so seriously. The dialogue is straight out of mid 20th century potboiler. Even Kubrick's KILLER'S KISS isn't as melodramatic. I could not take this film's urgency with any seriousness or involvement. The final scene's abruptness is also entirely unearned and ineffectual. If the director was trying to continue his dehumanization theme with EYES WIDE SHUT, it was only achieved incidentally. Some criticized Jack Nicholson's portrayal in THE SHINING for not being dynamic (i.e., the "before" Jack Torrence was little different than the "after"). The characters in EYES WIDE SHUT are truly just shadows to begin with, devoid of any humanity from which to fall.

But...who was Private Joker in FULL METAL JACKET? What of David Bowman and Frank Poole in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? We don't always get privileged views inside the characters of a Kubrick film. We do not always get complex examinations of specimens like Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or Lolita in LOLITA. In EYES WIDE SHUT, however, not only do we not get a sober read on the characters (who are vapid at best), but the canvas on which they play out is that of a maestro working far below his capabilities. Yearlong principal photography or not, the legendary perfectionism did not pay off in its usual dividends.

We often speak of the painstaking mise-en-scene of a Kubrick picture. Astonishly stylish yet coldly clinical. What of, for example, the harsh uses of lighting? The famous eyes up from a downturned face shot? One could marvel merely at the technique, yet, each of his films reveal layers of thoughtful essays that lay bare man's avarice, of which one might discern a contribution to the protagonist's downfalls (CLOCKWORK, BARRY LYNDON). "Meaning" that takes a few viewings to truly flower, perhaps. EYES WIDE SHUT has yet to reveal itself in such a way to me. It just seems muddled and half-baked, a mere collection of ideas rather than a film. Most Kubrick films had mixed reviews upon their original releases, later to be deservedly lionized. The jury is most certainly still out on EYES WIDE SHUT. I've watched it a few times since 1999. Ask me in another ten years.

Part XII, The Great Overrated

Saturday, October 1, 2011


In the genre of Hilariously Reimagined Cover Songs: