Saturday, April 28, 2012

Twice Upon a Time

It's very likely you've never heard of the 1983 animated feature, TWICE UPON A TIME. Quite obscure. I actually remember its very limited release, likely because it played at a multiplex I frequented and also because executive producer George Lucas' name figured prominently on the movie poster. I study film posters very carefully, memorizing artwork and credits. I've always been fascinated by them.

Lucas apparently did not have creative input on this movie. Exec producers often merely use their names to get projects financed. This one must've been a tricky sell. Children's film, yes, but what a complex and sophisticated screenplay! Director/writer John Korty fashioned this true curiosity of a movie as possibly a riff on the seriousness of the usual children's fable, or maybe merely as a diversion for adults who remember such stories.

There is a city called Din that looks quite a bit like Any Big Metropolis, U.S.A., with its scurrying citizens and zooming automobiles. The people of Din never stop; that's why they're called Rushers. Who calls them that? The creatures of 2 distinctively different worlds: Frivoli and Murkworks. Both places are in the business of manufacturing overnight dreams for Rushers. In a sequence I liked quite a bit, we see the Figmens of Imagination, dot-like fairies (under the leadership of Greensleeves) leaping through windows onto the heads of sleeping Rushers, smiles on their faces as another nice dream is successfully delivered.

But working against the Figmens are the vultures of Murkwurks, who instead drop nightmare bombs. It is the desire of their despot, a short, rotund vulgarian called Synonamass Botch to create permament nightmares in the heads of busy Rushers, even while they're awake. But isn't their gritty world already a nightmare?

Enter Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his silent sidekick, Mumford. Both are lackluster workers who get their chance to save the day. They are to find the Cosmic Clock, its internal spring possessing the power to stop time. It is a hazardous journey. Botch pretends to be on their side. There's a damsel in distress, a dopey wannabe superhero, a robot gorilla that shows reruns on its TV screen, a "nightmare" screenwriter, and a fairy godmother, who insists on being called FGM ("I hate excess verbiage") along for the ride. There is an ingenious sequence where our heroes battle office equipment come to life, a sequence which I suspect would've made Buster Keaton and Ernie Kovacs proud.

TWICE UPON A TIME is a dizzying work of invention, easily one of the most unique animated films I've seen. The style itself, called "Lumage" is of cut-out photos and illustrations, jaggedly moved around over illuminated surfaces, like those devices over which medical doctors examine your X-rays and MRIs. Despite the potpourri of different images (some drawn, some actual photographs), everything in this movie seem to appropriately occupy the same space. The film is in 2 dimensions, but there is a sense of depth of field, even with static backgrounds.

Korty paces his 75 minute film breathlessly. It feels like a collage come to life, all fluttering and harried. The dialogue is almost as rapid-fire as the pace, with much mumbling and wit from everyone, especially Botch (voiced by Marshall Efron, whose vocal improv is mildly risque, which got him into hot water with Korty, it's said). There was no way to catch everything said in one viewing. Even the familiar, mellow voice of Lorenzo Music (who plays Ralph and had previously voiced Garfield the Cat and Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda) spouts verbal gems to which you really have to listen closely to catch.

Watching the end credits is almost as much fun as that of the rest of the film. The main cast and crew have their pictures alongside their names, in a style I remember from some of the Peanuts feature films. Among those names: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS' Henry Selick and none other than David Fincher.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your Audiology Tutorial: Exostoses

The above shows an outer ear canal with protrusions known as exostoses at the 8-9 and 11 O'clock positions. The tympanic membrane (ear drum) is visible in the posterior of the canal. Exostoses are benign yet abnormal bony growths which eminate from under the thin layer of skin and can grow to proportions that can block the canal sufficiently to disallow the clinican a proper view of the drum.

This condition is known as "surfer's ear" as these growths often occur in patients who spend much time in cold water. For long time swimmers or surfers, the growths can become multiple and obstructing, sometimes requiring surgery. It is a teacherous procedure, as damage to the external canal, drum, and/or even beyond (inner ear, nerves) is possible.

Usually though, exostoses are asymptomatic, requiring only periodic monitoring via otoscopy (otoscopes are devices that are used to examine the ear canal and drum). In my experience, one potential problem involves the desire of a patient to wear a deep fitting hearing aid (like the implantable Lyric). The prescence of exostoses narrows the canal diameter and makes such fittings uncomfortable or even impossible.

Monday, April 23, 2012

King of New York

There is no one like Christopher Walken. It's quite difficult to explain what makes him so unique, so singular in his choices as an actor. His vocal inflections, certainly. His body language. He has this sullen face, seemingly undead, a face full of character. I think the first time I saw him was in the bleak 1981 musical PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, in which he played a dancing pimp. Around that time I also saw his tough performance in THE DOGS OF WAR. Over the years, he's fashioned himself a distinctive place with turns in PULP FICTION, AT CLOSE RANGE, ILLUMINATA, BILOXI BLUES...I always try to forget his embarrassing performance in the James Bond thriller, A VIEW TO A KILL, though flashes of his off-kilter persona shone through despite his unfortunate miscasting.

1990's KING OF NEW YORK, directed by urban bard Abel Ferrara, seems to be an ideal vehicle for Walken's peculiar talents. His character, Frank White, is a Manhattan narcotics kingpin everyone seems to know, for better or worse. After a 5 year prison stretch, he moves into The Plaza Hotel and dispatches his team of mostly African-American hoods to shake down and otherwise waste every Italian and Asian who dares do illicit business without his knowledge and involvement. "If there's a nickel bag passed in the park, I want IN!" he declares. The early moments of this film nicely build and reveal piece by piece who is this man.

There are at 2 back to back scenes that promise a far better movie than Ferrara finally delivers. First, we see Frank and his lovely, blonde attorney getting amorous on the subway when a trio of black youths attempts to rob them. Frank pulls back his jacket to reveal a glock, then tosses them a wad of bills. "Look me up at the the Plaza. I could use your talents." The youths are blindsighted, unsure of what just happened. It's a great moment, a perfect illustration of Frank's fearlessness and unfailing skill at ingratiating even his opponents.

Next scene: Frank visits an old enemy and his poker cronies. After Frank makes a speech about his entrepreneurial spirit (and realizes he is being left out of some profitable, illicit business), and some trash talk retort, he wastes the goombah. Standard scene, at first. But then Walken continues his speech by again offering employment to anyone who's interested. He pauses a few times and pumps more slugs into the corpse. Before he walks out, he turns around and walks away, walks back, keeps talking. Then pumps a few more shells into the corpse.

But the movie does not go on to satisfactorily develop this most fascinating of characters. We do see Frank, in the grand tradition of movie gangsters, donate millions to charity (here, a Harlem hospital) and preach about doing good, giving back to the community. In his mind, he really seems to believe he's some sort of crusader, maybe even a Robin Hood. Never mind the effects of all the junk he sells on the street. But as Frank's story becomes interesting, KING OF NEW YORK then spends a lot (too much, in my opinion) of time with a group of cops (David Caruso and Wesley Snipes among them) who are tired of creeps like Frank being lauded and treated like, well, kings.

One of the officers even recites how he only makes 36K a year while dirtbags in fancy clothes like Frank get all the moolah and glory. The smell of vigilantism wafts strongly, and the film gets scattered with half-realized ideas and loses its quirks. The script is a real mess. We are treated to a series of shootouts and car chases and some fairly standard plot development thereafter. While some of the mayhem is fairly well staged, I get the feeling that Ferrara was not entirely comfortable with action scenes.

This is only the third Ferrara flick I've seen. MS .45 (1981) was a grimily effective exploitation pic that followed a mute rape vitim as she kills every male she encounters. Then there's the NC-17 rated BAD LIEUTENANT, made a few years after KING OF NEW YORK. I was not a big fan of that often unintentionally hilarious Harvey Keitel picture, but it most certainly scored points for audacity and had atmosphere to spare. Quite similiar to that film is KING's repeated imagery of Catholic artifacts. If I went back and watched KING and BAD again more closely (don't hold your breath), I would probably see some themes emerge and connect. The director, it would seem, has more Catholic hang-ups than Scorsese.

But Frank White is an interesting creation and at least the first half of this movie is worth a look. The cinematography is impressive throughout. If Walken had appeared in every scene, I might have thought this a vanity project but I wouldn't have cared; he is that interesting. And he certainly deserved a better final scene....

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Corporate Retail

Yet another series to add to the Lamplight Drivel archives: my 20 years (off and on) in the pharmacy world. It was an often very stressful period that I believe removed years from my life. I worked in retail, institutional, and palliative care environments. Of those, the latter (my final Rx job during my later days of graduate school) was easily the most enjoyable and certainly the least hypertensive. We'll devote 4 entries to overviews of each distinctive environment between the years of 1987-2007. There are several interesting tales to tell, some that have no chance of being printed here, invisible audience. I will not incriminate myself!

These entries are mainly for documentation purposes, written in simple prose that may be reminiscent of Reader's Digest articles. Not trying for any Pulitzer Prizes here. Hopefully, they will be entertaining. Devotees of LD will also note that some of the tidbits I share have already been mentioned in earlier postings.

Summer, 1987: I had graduated high school and was hitting the pavement to find a job before I started at Palm Beach Atlantic College in the fall. I did not have regular access to a car so my geography was limited to Eastern West Palm Beach. I applied at the Eckerd Drug very near to my house. Not hiring. I went a mile south down Dixie Highway to another Eckerd. Same deal. I eventually took a job at an Arby's, a real nightmare. I was only there for 2 weeks, but it seemed like the staff completely turned over. I learned from that experience what fun manning a drive thru can be. Also, one of my co-worker's nicknames was "pickles". When I got the call from Eckerd (the one a mile away), I violated my usual 2 week notice clause and bolted.

The store was in a shopping center where the Skydrome Drive-In had been for many decades. It closed in, I think, 1978. Entreprenuers learned that strip malls were far more profitable (yet far less romantic) than Burt Reynolds double features. To think what had transpired on the very same ground years earlier! Right where I stood and counted pills, some long ago dude may have been, dropping a few of his own in his Pinto or VW bug while he watched ORCA or DEATH RACE 2000.

By the time I started, school was a month away. I would go on to work at the same store all through college and a month or so beyond. It was generally a good experience. I learned much from a lovely pharmacist named *Beverly, who I would learn was the mother of a guy I grew up with at church. I even did yard work for her occasionally. She was Southern to the core. Very polite and very conservative, as was I at the time. She often spoke of how PBA was becoming "too liberal".

Working with her was a pleasure, but with some of the other pharmacists? Let's just say I acquired new skills. Like how to function and get the job done even if the others were antagonists, working toward seemingly an opposite end. Not bad people, just, challenging. Early on, I worked with one pharmacist in his mid-80s who could barely see (he held pill bottles right up to his face) and got easily flustered. When we got a little too busy, he would have me tell patients we were out of something just to lighten his load. Even if that item was in a 1000 ct. drum in plain view of the customer/patient.

Then there was *Doris, who essentially was nice but could condescend like none I had ever met. To other employees and patients. It caused some ugly scenes. I played referee more than once. I had no such confrontations, mainly because I ignored some of her more agitative remarks - another valuable life skill, and damned hard at times. I attributed some of her behavior to a difficult home life; she had a cognitively deficient son who drained every last ounce from her. She was very loving towards him, in that necessary tough way.

The biggest challenge was the store manager, *Margaret. Iron-fisted mini-despot, she. It drove her a bit mad that her dominion stopped with some of the pharmacy routines (narc inventory, not being able to enter the pharmacy area when the Rph. not present, etc.). Margaret also had wild mood swings that you could never predict. You never knew what you were walking into. She was the first of several such supervisors I would work with over the years.

Interestingly, nearly a decade after I left Eckerd I ran into Margaret at a local community college library. It had always been her dream to be a librarian, and she was much happier. I remember standing in disbelief as she animatedly described her life at that time. It was a nice coda.

I had already experienced the soul sucking customer service rites, the having to remain polite in the face of reptitilian brained behavior. I gagged on the "customer is always right" and Eckerd's own "America Can't Wait" slogans. A vivid memory: a woman had attempted to get a refund on items clearly not purchased at our store at the front register. When they refused, she thought she'd meander to the back of the store and try me. I had gotten a call from a manager seconds later to rebuff her. When I did, she heaved a box of Miracle Grow that hit me squarely in the sternum as she stormed off in a huff. I just froze, in denial of what just happened, and began to laugh.

Towards the end of my time at Eckerd, I worked with a really cool guy named *Jack, who really knew how to handle the SOBs. One jackass gave him the finger when he refused to fill his suspicious prescription for some narcotic. Jack just quietly smiled and returned the guy's obscene gesture not in kind, but with a friendly wave, "We'll see you now." Impressive.

Around that time as well I began an ill-advised relationship with a girl who worked up front. It started with flirtations in the aisles and the frequent rendevous in the storeroom. Then turned to sarcasm and anger, audible to customers. We broke up, and she quit soon after. I was an insecure kid who was jealous of her, ahem, liberal affections with other guys. I also learned the "don't fish off the company pier" or "don't shit where you eat" rules, which, not truly learning my lesson, I would violate again in future pharmacy jobs. For more on this girl and further adventures with her, consult the "PBA" series from last year in this blog. You'll also read about another Eckerd co-worker there, the Mississippi goth!

During the three and a half years at that Eckerd, which had been converted from a Shopper's Drug Mart, I saw many employees come and go. There were tragedies: co-worker's family members passing on, co-workers busted for stealing from the cash register or selling cigarettes to minors. One cashier ran off with her boyfriend and was never again heard from. Some went to lunch on their first day and never returned. When I finally got a car I gave rides to some of them, of all ages. I played counselor to a girl a few years younger and sounding board to an elderly woman who sometimes dreaded going home to her empty house.

The mother of a childhood friend with whom I became estranged in the 8th grade came in one day and apologized for that whole mess (a gross misunderstanding), which had ocurred 8 years earlier. She had been dear friends with my mother and that relationship had soured as well. But there my friend's mother was, making ammends.

But, my father made hostile visits to the store, after I had moved out. My mother had left his verbal abuse a few years prior, but I stuck it out with him until I no longer could. He would come in and try to start fights with me. Very unfortunate and sad. One of the angriest times of my life.

There are so many other memories, many of which that evaporated. Ghosts, all of them, all of my co-workers. Some I was very close to, hung out with. I recall going to see GODFATHER III on Christmas night 1990 with one guy. Others were like anonymous passersby. It would be the first time I would start thinking about things like this, how people drift in and out of your life. Of them, I know that Beverly passed away quite a few years ago, and my ex-girlfriend is married (a few times) with several children and a collection of live chickens in her yard. She's a Facebook friend, my first, matter a fact. What of the others? Do they remember me?

I learned a great deal about medication during my time at Eckerd. I was mostly a clerk and stock guy but began doing some tech work. We were a relatively slow store (usually between 85-100 scripts a day), which allowed me to some time to study and learn about drug mechanisms of action and such. I also learned of how corporate pharmacy hierarchies work, how bigwigs make barely announced ahead of time visits and how "cold fish" handshakes from them feel. I experienced random visits from the Board of Pharmacy as well, though my later jobs have more interesting tales regarding that.

Then, in May 1991, I resigned as I had graduated and was moving to central Florida to be with my fiancee, a story in itself. I went back to visit the store once that year, already feeling so alien to the place. A young girl had taken my job, and I was envious. It didn't make sense.

About 10 years ago, I drove back to the shopping center to find a dollar store where Eckerd once was. It had closed sometime in the 90s. I went in one afternoon, very amused to find the same red and blue stripe and morter and pestle logos for Shopper's Drug Mart on the walls that Eckerd had never bothered to paint over. It was now a dingily lit, dusty mess of a place. It was odd to look at the back area, where the pharmacy had been, the scene of so many warm recollections, now just filled with etageres of cheap crap. Like nothing of my time there had ever happened. Life moved on. Those ghosts I spoke of were almost audible as I walked around. It would not be the last time......


*not the real name

Monday, April 16, 2012

Louie Bluie

Mr. Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong sits in an apartment, rambling on about the old days the way folks up in years often do. There are other men there, including a gent who scarfs down Kentucky Fried Chicken and barely pays attention. Armstrong tells many tales, many of them tall and suspicious. After a while, even the storyteller can't remember what's true and what's hooey. All this talk about his wooing and bedding the ladies, and of all ages, to boot. Colorful anecdotes all. Much of it, probably bullshit. But honestly, does it even matter? Unless you're taking a deposition, you shouldn't be concerned with such things. Not a bit, especially when your subject is as ingratiating and entertaining as Armstrong.

Howard is also an energetic fiddler and mandolonist who'd played a wide variety of styles (including blues, country, and ragtime) since the 1920s. Director Terry Zigoff's 1985 documentary LOUIE BLUIE is a pleasing hour with Armstrong and his sidemen, with no particular goal other than some time well spent with colorful folks. The film breaks away a few times with stills and voiceover, narrators explaining the cultural climates in the 30s, the medicine shows in which they played. There's a hometown visit to Tennessee. We hear lots of recollections.

But Zwigoff wisely does not try to recreate the stories with actors, as simply hearing Howard, rhythm guitarist Ted Bogan, and others reminisce paints far more vivid pictures. A tale of how Armstrong's band once walked into an Italian club and turned around a dangerous scenario is a great example. Peppering the anecdotes are lines like "you could suck the juice offa grape".

Armstrong's speech is quite suggestive, even when he isn't being blatantly ribald. It's who he is. At one point he pulls out his provocative book of artwork called "Pornography", with illustrations curiously similiar to those of underground cartoonist R. Crumb, who was featured in his own doc, CRUMB, by Zwigoff some years later. The book's panels detail a history of intercourse, with a folksy, earthy point of view. Almost Bakshi-like, too (I wonder if Armstrong ever saw COONSKIN). Armstrong's talent is obvious, and that Zwigoff included this in the movie is as much a statement to the director's sensibilities as it is a further elucidation of the gumbo that is this man. And Armstrong's quite outspoken about his art appreciation; one scene shows him deriding the famous Picasso structure in Chicago!

And also, music, naturally. When a fan asks him if he plays any B.B. King, he replies, "if you put some strings on him, I'll play him."

LOUIE BLUIE reminded me of a another little seen documentary, Errol Morris' VERNON, FLORIDA. If you want to see a true piece of Americana, you owe yourself that experience. There's no varnishing the behavior of its residents. We may laugh at their lack of sophistication, but are also in quiet awe of their honesty. That's how I felt with Armstrong and his cronies. Guys talking as if no one's watching or listening. But they wouldn't care anyway. They are who they are. The talk gets mighty salty, especially on the subject of the fairer gender, but it's realistic.

If I have a complaint, it would be that LOUIE BLUIE is too short. Maybe more music should've been included. The Criterion disc has some funny deleted scenes. Love that final long shot of Maxwell Street in Chicago.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Example #22

Laurie Anderson. Pure pain for some, pure pleasure for others.......

Monday, April 9, 2012


A shrewdly edited trailer has, above all of course, economic importance: studios and filmmakers want to entice filmgoers with a teaser that will part them from their precious time and $10 (or upwards). As I began to attend films quite frequently during childhood, I became almost as critical of them as the films they advertised. Some were just vague enough to intrigue for further investigation (the way it should be, IMO). Others, especially the ones produced these days, seem to outline the entire movie. Some are quite awful, but then turn out to be good films and vice versa. There are also those that seem to play all their best scenes, leaving no surprises.

I very clearly recall seeing the trailer for GOODFELLAS and thinking, "another mob movie?" I almost didn't go see it. Of course, I learned it was and is an essential movie, one of my Top 25, for certain.

The trailers produced in the 1970s were a special breed. Particularly the ones for exploitation cheapies. Gravel-voiced narrators uttered hyperbole after hyperbole announcing the latest horror, cheerleader, women in prison, or moonshine chase pic. Some of them played entire scenes! This was before MTV-style editing, of course. You might even get a flash of nudity in one of 'em. Not that you need another time waster, but the curious can find those long-ago gems for BIG BAD MAMA or FIGHTING MAD and their ilk on YouTube.

Back in 2007 Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both cult/trash film connoiseurs, released GRINDHOUSE, comprised of two separate feature length films paying tribute to those sorts of things that mainly played in older, sleazier moviehouses and drive-ins. In between the features were mock trailers, including ones for fake horror films called THANKSGIVING and DON'T. They were dead-on target.

There was also one called MACHETE, a revenge story of an illegal Mexican hired to assassinate a Texas senator who wants to fence the border and deny amnesty. When the mission turns upside down and Machete is betrayed, he exacts bloodthirsty payback, mainly with his namesake weapon. It was brilliantly produced, very much ressembling those old previews. It was appearently a huge hit with GRINDHOUSE audiences (I did not have the pleasure of catching it in the theater).

So in 2010 Rodriguez responded, along with co-director Ethan Maniquis, by exanding this concept to feature length and here we are. Machete was once a Federale whose family was butchered by an ex-Federale who became a powerful, well connected drug dealer (Steven Seagal, in some fun casting). Some time passes and Machete is hanging out on the border, waiting for rich Americans to pick him up for some day labor. One of them, a slicked back stuffed shirt named Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) offers 150K to have an ultra-conservative senator named McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, with an intermittent Texas accent) bumped off. Reason? The senator wants to deport all the illegals and this would upset Booth's profitability of having cheap labor.

But it's all a set-up. At trigger time another shooter on another rooftop fires and wounds both Machete and the senator and Machete finds himself hunted by everyone, including an ICE agent (Jessica Alba, whose acting skills are, well, she does look awfully pretty) who eventually learns the truth and teams up with the now-outlaw. There's also a taco truck vendor named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) who moonlights as "She!" a rebel who organizes an underground network of chambermaids, kitchen staff, lawyers, doctors, etc, who work like everyone else but are always at the ready for the call for revolution. Violent, if necessary. In a movie like MACHETE, you bet your culo.

Lindsay Lohan is also on hand, playing Fahey's Lolita-ish daughter, as is Don Johnson, almost unrecognizable behind sunglasses and sporting considerable heft as a bounty hunter named Von, and Cheech Marin as Machete's brother, a shotgun-toting priest. There is a lot of mayhem. There are also letter perfect parodies of political ads featuring McLaughlin, railing against those "parasite" illegals, complete with didactic narration and "I approved this message". I also laughed out loud during one of the political rallies, a McLaughlin supporter holding a sign of Uncle Sam that reads "I WANT YOU.....TO SPEAK ENGLISH"!

Does the movie live up to the fake trailer? I don't think anything could have, but I got more or less what I expected. Veteran supporting actor Danny Trejo plays the roadmapped faced badass so naturally that I'll have trouble seeing him play any other character. Machete was actually introduced in Rodriguez's first SPY KIDS movie, which was family friendly. MACHETE most certainly is not. The titular weapon meets a lot of flesh and arterial sprays are visible in many scenes. The violence, however, is so grandiose as to be cartoonish. The grossest scene to me was when a woman removed a cell phone from her vagina. I think by now you've decided if this is a movie for you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Yep, spoilers.

Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA from 1974 is the sort of visceral, exhausting experience I would imagine from a director often dubbed "bloody Sam". It's a balls-out, entirely shot in Mexico "renegade production" on which Peckinpah had final cut. It also turns out to be a ragged masterpiece, far more than merely the brutal ride through a dusty hell I was expecting, though it certainly is that.

Sitting down to finally watch this movie, I was ready for just a good 'ol dose of filmic machismo: swift and sudden violence, hard drinking and smoking antiheroes, an air of amorality. That would completely summarize most of what passes for the genre these days. Conversely, Peckinpah, in many of his films, goes much further than the cynical and gory surfaces would suggest and delves headlong into his characters' minds and souls, never flinching when the maggots are revealed.

1971's STRAW DOGS is probably the best example. That film is an unsettling essay on manhood, passivity, proaction, and the primal animal nature and the very thin line that divides it from civility. The most uncomfortable moments come when Susan George's character, Amy, is raped by a local goon, her ex-boyfriend. The act is savage, but her reaction is troubling. Audiences want evil to wholly evil. Was Amy enjoying it? BRING ME..has a scene that somewhat echoes the earlier movie, when a woman who is about the be raped seems to resign herself, ready. When her boyfriend finally kills the would-be rapist, her face suggests confliction, maybe even disappointment. Women may get knocked around in Peckinpah's films, but most of the time they are given complexity. So are the themes of love, loyalty, violation of same.

In BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, the late, great Warren Oates plays Benny, a lowlife American running a bar and playing standards on his piano in a flyspeck Mexican town. By the time we meet him, we know that a million dollar price tag has been placed on (literally) the head of one Alfredo Garcia by a wealthy tycoon/industrialist. Seems that Alfredo, who once worked for the man, impregnated his daughter.

Dispatched are several would-be bounty hunters, including the curious duo of WASPy looking men (Robert Webber and Gig Young, smarmily effective) whose searches are dead-ends. When they turn up at Benny's saloon, the desparate pianist is offered the job for a fraction of the original offer (unbeknownst to Benny). Benny sees a deliverance for himself and his prostitute girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), a former lover of Alfredo. When she tells him that Garcia had died a week earlier in a car accident, the gig seems to have just gotten easier.

But there's a grave to dig up, and a corpse to decapitate. The simplest plans always go awry. There are competitors after the same reward. There are moral objections from Elita and a group of Mexicans who hover around the gravesite and nearby church. Along the way, Benny and Elita's complex relationship gets a hard examination, with entire scenes devoted to their discussions of love and honor. If this film was remade, as other Peckinpahs (THE GETAWAY and STRAW DOGS) have been, those rich moments would be excised because audiences would get bored and scream for the next shootout. I really treasure the golden age of 70s cinema and patient editing.

Oh, there are still plenty of bursts of violence, mainly late in the proceedings. There are double crosses and revelations and Peckinpah's patented slow motion bullet spraying. But by the time the hardware comes out, Peckinpah has fleshed out the scenario so it means something. You can accuse the director of many things, but staging mindless violence is not among them.

The storyline incorporates many statements about the blood bonds among families, but also the membership in larger groups, like perhaps in the family of God, with brothers and sisters you didn't know you had. Is there room at the cross for a maverick, desparate would-be bandido who seeks solace? Benny learns gradually that lives (alive or dead) can't be valued in currency, and the pursuit of it may well lead to even greater poverty. You certainly can't buy penance. I especially liked the scene where Benny, after a scuffle, tries to wash his face in a trough near the church, only to find it filled with algae. He laments but then finally turns on a spigot above it for clean water, as if from above. A sort-of baptism.

The most interesting relationship in BRING ME... has to be between Benny and Alfredo's head, which the former acquires after much trouble and a high body count. As the pianist's soul is eroded bit by bit with the more he learns about the deceased and the reasons why someone wants his head, the more of a kinship Benny feels. Oates does some defining work in his dialogues, er, monologues as he pilots various beat-up autos, shirt soaked with blood, with the head in a bag swarmed with flies in the passenger seat. Benny even feels the need to honor Alfredo by giving him a shower.

There's a fair amount of grim humor in this movie, as you might've guessed. There are also 2 highly amusing sight gags with Richard Nixon (at the time of filming facing impeachment) as the target. It was well known that Peckinpah was not exactly a supporter.

Finally, the journey will lead Benny all the way back to the tycoon who set the whole damned thing in motion. By then, it's no longer about the money. This is a fine film.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Rum Diary

The last time Johnny Depp played Hunter S. Thompson, imaginary bats were pummeling windshields and primates were hanging from rotating hotel bars. There was a fair amount of vomit, too. As a younger version of the famed journalist, here called "Kemp", Depp is first seen gazing out a window into brilliant sunlight with a half closed eye with red sclera and tousled hair. Here begins last year's THE RUM DIARY, a haphazard journey through Puerto Rico in 1960 that is not fueled by mesacline and the like as in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998), but considerable amounts of rum and beer. There is some vomit.

There's also one scene where a mysterious eye drop tincture causes Kemp to see his colleague/friend's tongue elongate to frightening proportions, but it's only one scene. Well, there's also a quite symbolic moment when Kemp (again under the influence) stares at tank full of lobsters that will lead viewers fond of subtext and deep interpretation to draw all manner of social and political conclusions.

But at this stage in his life, Thompson apparently hadn't grown fond of the really hard stuff yet. In fact, his friend and newspaper colleague Bob (Michael Rispoli) would even utter at one point: "You fool! You're high! Drink more rum!" Such a line seems right at home in a film directed by Bruce Robinson, who most famously oversaw the alcoholic mini-epic WITHNAIL & I some 25 years earlier.

Robinson also co-wrote the screenplay, based on Thompson's only fairly recently published novel. The journalist saw something of a narrative in his ether soaked memory, a relevant tale of the evolution of a writer who arrives to report for a small time paper in the sunny paradise of San Juan. He's entirely aimless and adrift, interested in little but the next drink.

After sleeping with the enemy, he begins to find a voice. Perhaps still with intoxicated faculties, but a voice nonetheless, a purpose. Finding a purpose and a voice does not merely come from lying supine and watching imaginary dragons. In THE RUM DIARY, Kemp earns his cigarette choked time behind the typewriter after staring into the maw of human selfishness, perhaps in some ways mirroring his own. How sobering.

The enemy is a clean cut, real estate sharpster named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who offers Kemp an assignment to write whitewashed propaganda detailing the erection of a mega hotel/resort. In Sanderson is an embodiment of the Rich Capitalist, bent on exploiting the land for commerce while the locals remain destitute. A duplicitous crook who may well eventually remind Kemp of Richard Nixon, who is seen on TV in one sequence as he debates JFK. Faithful Thompson followers know that the author had a white hot distaste for the later President.

We get a good read on Sanderson, with his careful speech and similarly slippery friends (other Americans with deep pockets and vested interests). He even has a diamond studded turtle, a perfect symbol of opulence, that crawls across his polished beachfront palace. But THE RUM DIARY also includes what I consider a gratuitous scene, as Sanderson berates and chases a pair of natives off his private beach. We did not need this confirmation of the man's bankrupt soul. His words are enough. He baldly describes Puerto Rico as a land ripe for the exploiting, a place that is reward for the calculating businessman, not those born there.

He also delivers the great line: "Humans are the only creatures on earth that claim a God and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn't got one." Sanderson may be a greedy son of a bitch, but he's not entirely delusional.

In my opinion, we also did not need the subplot of the budding attraction between Kemp and Sanderson's fiancee Chenault (Amber Heard), who intrigues during her "mermaid" scene but then becomes dull as dishwater for the remainder of the film. The sexual tension between them is tepid at best and this story element does nothing to underline Thompson's themes.

THE RUM DIARY often feels as aimless as its protagonist. It pauses many times to drink in the beauty of the landscape, often making this film feel like a Travel Channel promo. Not necessarily a bad thing. The "story" is a gradual character sketch that never raises its intensity, does not have any real dramatic peaks. It just, plays, one scene to the he next. There are some creatively composed shots (rum bottles as bowling pins, a policeman's head on fire) as well as much natural beauty. There are many quotable lines. By the anticlimactic final scene, Kemp is well on his way to heeding his calling as that great (though yes, still inebriated) purveyor of the human condition, calling those who seek to exploit to task. "I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader."

Kemp is surrounded by colorful charcters such as his cynical editor (the always reliable Richard Jenkins) and a strange dude named Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi, sporting a hilariously annoying voice and demeanor) who occasionally contributes articles to the paper when he isn't wasted (or listening to Nazi polkas). Depp again narrates as Thompson with a deep, hurried timbre that's somewhere between Dragnet's Joe Friday and Nixon (ha ha). THE RUM DIARY is, compared to the relentless FEAR AND LOATHING film, quite easy to digest, but also coolly uninspiring and forgettable.But there's food for thought in there.

And it would've made thematic sense if Kemp, who becomes estranged from Sanderson later in the picture, had sought him out one last time to shake his hand and even thank him for igniting some pilot light deep within that would burn for many years to come.