Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slap Shot

This review is dedicated to the NHL, who've yet to settle the 2012 lockout........

The fictional Charleston Chiefs are a losing minor league hockey team led by Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman). They play in an economically depressed town where thousands of jobs will be lost after the local mill shuts down. This does not bode well for the team's future. Even with Reggie's sleazy promotional gimmicks, the Chiefs are going nowhere. Games are sparsely attended.

Inevitably, Reggie learns the franchise will be shut down at the end of the season. In desperate times comes...playing dirty. All-out brawling. The addition of the Coke-bottle bottomed glasses wearing, childlike Hanson brothers trio really ramps up the spectacle. You've all heard the joke: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." More and more fans come out to the games, but there aren't many more wins. And just who is the $%&* owner, anyway?

I've loved 1977's hockey comedy-drama SLAP SHOT for many years, always enjoying its unapologetically raunchy dialogue and roughhouse humor. Nancy Dowd's script is gleefully profane and wicked. But not just to cater to the knuckledraggers in the audience who crave such things for their own sake. This isn't just a brain dead locker room epic. The language and behavior are organic to the hard pressed setting, the uncertainty. George Roy Hill, overseer of many great films, commandants the action skillfully yet allows a sometimes improvisational air. And he balances the bone crushing and cussing with some sharp observational humor. It's the sort of rowdy sports film that audiences would hoot and holler along with, like the original THE LONGEST YARD (1974). I was too young to attend the theatrical releases of those pics, but I've heard the stories, read recollections. Wish I @$#% coulda been there!

And SLAP SHOT indeed is well remembered for its plethora of foul language. According to an entry on the IMDB, the "F" word is used in it 55 times. For its time, the screenplay was considered shocking. By today's standards, it's pretty tame. But the years have been kind, and this film is just as hilarious as always. A lowbrow (yet astute) classic. And I can see how the original audiences would've treated it like a live event, a participatory night out. Who says cinema is passive?

Now, I realize that folks whistle and cheer for underdogs in more contemporary films like RUDY and THE BLIND SIDE and countless others. These films warm our hearts and confirm suspicions that sometimes the guy or gal with the odds stacked against them can defy all and emerge victorious. Even if, perhaps especially if, our own lives don't follow that pattern. We seem to have this innate desire/need to root for someone. We want heroes. SLAP SHOT and THE LONGEST YARD, conversely, focus on screw-ups who don't give a damn and are entirely self-centered who may or may not find redemption. In many cases, they're somewhat contemptible. In other words, they're like many of us, those whose lives don't quite resemble that of the hard luck saint or square jawed samaritan.

But today's viewers don't want flawed or contemptible heroes in their sports films (or in real life). It seems lately that the most high profile pro athletes are either entirely hissable (Michael Vick) or angelic (Tim Tebow). What about the poor slobs in between? Earnest, essentially good, or reformed protagonists get the box office receipts, for the most part.

But on the other hand, goofy, labored sports comedies like Will Ferrell's SEMI-PRO do well, because they only require a viewer's brain to be in neutral. SLAP SHOT manages to be sly and intelligent as well as raucous. In this era of the deification of athletes like Tebow (and no offense to the man, my targets are his fans), it's refreshing to watch Everymen, just regular joes, muddle through. And don't worry, they do turn out to have consciences. Just don't expect any congratulatory hugs or majestic scores. In fact, while the finale does involve the expected Big Game, its resolution is most definitely unlike what you would see in say, HOOSIERS (a film I love, btw).

@$#%! I wish someone could make a film like SLAP SHOT today.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 4

The clues were there, for many months. I just wasn't astute enough to piece it all together. When that August day came around in 2004, when I was told by the boss that he was selling his store to Big Retail, I was blindsided. I spent the rest of the day being assaulted by a rush of memories. Mostly small moments that seemed mundane at the time, but now all connected. It won't sound so exciting (or "smoking gun") to you, but that day the boss went nuts because I hadn't written up all of the outdated returns for that month's numbers (ordinarily not a big deal) now made sense.

We were told about a week and half before. Following ten years of running a beloved and successful mom and pop pharmacy, he had sold out to one of the national chains.  They would not assume our location, as they had recently built a shiny new store not a mile down the boulevard. This would be bad news for our patients in the retirement community, who depended on the proximity of the store as many did not drive. We also had delivery service, which I do not believe the big chain offered.

So how did our customers feel about this? We were not allowed to tell them until, the final day! Yes! The day when workers from the new store came in and began breaking down shelves and hauling things away.  Imagine the surprise. Zero time to prepare. Having your prescriptions hijacked to a new, perhaps unfamiliar place. It put us in a horrible position that day. Having to explain why we were now just telling them (we had to wing that one).  Also, having the corporate folks watching and listening like hawks, lest we steer them elsewhere, maybe to another mom and pop.  One of the worst workdays I've ever had.

And there were many who wouldn't learn of the buyout until weeks later when they were greeted by a sign. You've experienced that.  But imagine being a senior who relied upon a place that provided life or death meds. Ugh. I helped the owner break down the store for weeks afterward, having to address people at the door every day as they picked their jaws up off the ground. I had to physically restrain one lady who wanted to confront my soon to be ex-boss. Good times!

But soon an entirely different mom and pop pharmacy would open in that same plaza ...........


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunken Condos

The output from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the maestros behind Steely Dan, since 1993 usually take me a few listens before I can really get into the groove. The old Dan albums instantly tickled my ears but after Fagen's glorious debut solo The Nightfly in 1982, it would be 11 years before we heard another full album. 1993's Kamikiriad was immediately pleasant but not as immediately enticing. When the Dan returned with Two Against Nature in 2000, their first effort in 20 years, my initial audition was not enthralling. A few months later, it was indispensable.

Fagen's latest, Sunken Condos, comes six years since his Morph the Cat (not a long gap by his standards), and is a real treat; a wildly entertaining ride through oh-so-familiar territory. The music in fact sounds as if the composer cribbed every instrumental voicing from the last 30 years (even some from the 70s) and concocted 9 mostly wonderful tunes. Almost like a career summary. Detractors might call it a rehash. Some write that Fagen has been recording the same tune over and over for the last 30 odd years, since the dramatic stylistic shift of SD's Aja. As expected, there is nothing on Sunken Condos that breaks new ground, but rather is more "good stuff" (to borrow one of the song titles) for devotees.  Like myself.

Fagen has often written songs from the point of view of the lecherous older man eying nubile young coeds, and right out of the box we are treated to "Slinky Thing", a funky lounge number, and then later with "The New Breed" and "Planet D'Rhonda". But as the composer's mortality and relevance continue to come front and center, the lyrics follow.

We went to a party
Everybody stood around
Thinkin'; Hey what's she doin'
With a burned-out hippie clown
Young dudes were grinnin'
I can't say it didn't sting
Some punk says: Pops you better
Hold on to that slinky thing...

Today we were strollin'
By the reptile cage
I'm thinkin': Does she need somebody 
Who's closer to her own age

From "The New Breed":

You the new breed alright
I guess you're what she wants now
You're young and strong
And you won the night
Good luck to you both
I'll get along somehow  

The first two songs are tinged with pathos. The narrator resigns himself to obsolescence in an increasingly world.  He sees the circumstance through his conquest's eyes: you're so nice, you liked my "flatline humour"...but knows he'll lose them.  Is Fagen also talking to some of his (younger) fans? 

But as reflective as things tend to get, that maybe our inappropriate troller has repented, consider the album's closer, "Planet D'Rhonda":

She's from a small town somewhere upstate
I guess she's somewhere between nineteen and

She's always frantic now
She's never calm
She's not the type of girl 
You wanna bring home to mom
But when you need big lovin'
She never stops
Yes it's Monkey Time - twenty-four seven
The name of the planet:
Planet d'Rhonda 

The personnel behind Condos will be familiar to any Dan buff. Michael Leonhart (who also co-produced) again lends his trumpet, clavinet, and Minimoog to each track. His sister, Carolyn, continues her sultry background vocals. Both siblings have been fixtures in the Dan camp since the 90s, when Fagen and Becker reformed and began touring again. Jon Herington's guitar licks are almost Grant Greenish at times.  Just like Becker's guitar tended to be in his own emulation of the old great. Walt Weiskopf, who provided such a memorable opening to the title track of SD's Everything Must Go in 2003, again provides evocative alto and tenor saxophone.

Fagen's tunes of late have been less and less enigmatic. Morph the Cat even included interpretations in the liner notes! At first listen, Sunken Condos seems pretty straightforward, but as the songs sink into your cortices and stew awhile, you might begin to examine broader contexts. Is "Not the Same without You" a victory song for a  brokenhearted who sings to his old girlfriend, or is he singing to drugs? Walter Becker? Does "Good Stuff" tell a tale of hijacking and drugs, or is it a summary of Fagen and Steely Dan's perfectionism: "there's a special satisfaction, when a job comes off so right"?

The most curious track: "Memorabilia", a rummage through the aftermath of the U.S.'s H-bomb testing on the Bikini Atoll (island in the Pacific Ocean) back in the 1950s. Fagen directly references the Castle Bravo (nuclear device) detonation. The mysteries of the lyrics, not as common for the writer these days, harken back to Royal Scam type offerings, though perhaps this song might've worked on The Nightfly as well.  

My two favorites: the straight out blues of "Weather in My Head", which allows the artist to draw upon his influences like Howlin' Wolf (if not as growly), and "Miss Marleen", a somber reflection on the narrator's recently deceased girlfriend, someone with whom he went bowling every Saturday night. Yes, that sounds like Steely Dan humor, but the song is just the right melancholia, with all the familiar Fender Rhodes and saxes you've heard many times. Some of Fagen's tunes manage to almost make me misty ("Great Pagoda of Funn"), and "Miss Marleen" follows suit.

P.S. "Weather in My Head" was performed on The Late Show with David Letterman last week.....

Sunday, November 18, 2012


With each new James Bond film, I gaze upon MI6's top agent and wonder if he ever, in the midst of the violence and carnality of his typical day, thinks about all of his many previous adventures. Fifty years worth of impossible scrapes, multicultural intercourse, and copious amounts of alcohol. He even got married once. There have been a few moments in these films when a reference to the past is made, but it's usually in passing.  Like Bond, most real life people march along with their tasks, never looking back, tending to some front line urgency. Admittedly, the urgency in Agent 007's life may tend to be a bit more intense that of your uncle Bob's.

Add to this the oft rewritten Bond history, especially when a new actor fills his shoes. Pierce Brosnan's Bond's past did not include the clown suit Roger Moore had worn to infiltrate a circus to diffuse a bomb. Timothy Dalton's Bond didn't seem to acknowledge that he once was trapped under Goldfinger's laser. When Daniel Craig assumed the role of Ian Fleming's master spy, first introduced in a series of books in the 1950s, the entire career of James Bond was at its genesis. CASINO ROYALE (2006) not only started at the beginning of the Bond saga, but was also a fresh start for the film series. It was an auspicious debut for Craig, and the film is considered one of the best of the series.

After the less well received QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, Craig returns, this time with director Sam Mendes (not well known for action vehicles) with SKYFALL, a movie that at the time of this writing continues to garner very enthusiastic reviews, some of which state that not only is it the best Bond in years, but one of the best in the franchise. It's hard not to be enthused and even filled with anticipation at such accolade, when many 007 adventures have proven flat and forgettable.

The movie wastes no time. An energetic chase through the streets of Turkey that culminates in a fistfight atop a moving train fills the opening 15 minutes of SKYFALL. Craig again is in fine form, up to the physical challenges of motorcycle piloting and hard falls. We cut to Bond's superior, M (Judi Dench), monitoring the action from headquarters, spouting her usual ice cold rumination of the superagent's ways. Then, a critical moment. Fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), also involved in the chase for an important hard drive, aims a rifle at the mercenary who stole the drive, accidentally cliping 007's shoulder, sending him headlong into the drink.  It will be presumed that he is dead.

Meanwhile, the MI6 HQ suffers a computer hack and subsequent bombing, leaving survivors to set up shop in one of London's many underground bunkers (which honestly, isn't that where a network of spies should be, anyway?). Bond learns the news from CNN while spending his "retirement" on a scenic isle, where all there is to do is pound tequila and bang local cuties. A few scenes later, M returns home one night to find her top agent sitting in the dark, ready with harsh inquiries as to why she ordered that bullet.

From this point on, SKYFALL examines with some depth the complex relationship between Bond and his boss, called "mom" by seemingly everyone.  Good reason: M is the clenched jawed disciplinarian many remember from their formative years, the tough love matriarch who'll let you suffer just so you learn your lesson and wipe those bloody tears away already. M, played by a male in the Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bonds, is fiercely devoted to the agency, and will not hesitate to allow her finest to perish for Queen and country and all that. Bond is shown to be weary, bored, utterly burned out,  in the process of confidence erosion and aging perhaps finding that he has a soul after all. Does M?

I'm making SKYFALL sound more like a human drama, and with Mendes at the helm I'm sure this emphasis was encouraged. Of course the usual international intrigue is still front and center, this time with embittered former agent Raoul Silva (a creepy and lip smacking Javier Bardem) vowing retribution on his former "mom" for allowing him to lie forgotten in pits of torture years before.  This isn't the first time an agent turned bad and wreaked havoc in this series (ref: GOLDENEYE). With Silva, the screenplay allows some entertaining speechifying, tasty metaphorical storytelling, and homoerotic undertones. But it also allows some high scale mayhem, including Silva's helicopter chewing through a Scottish castle, the one in which James Bond spent his boyhood.

And it is the last third of the film that again reimagines history, allowing 007 to recall his childhood, to return to the very house where tragedies would shape the agent to come. I found this segment initially interesting, but as I thought on this scenario, of Bond bringing M to this remote location, the questions mounted: Why weren't they better armed, relying only on the hopes that his father's old gun rack would be well stocked? Why not use that GPS (utilized earlier) device Q gave Bond to call in for back-up? Why deliberately "throw a trail of breadcrumbs" to Silva when it should be obvious this rival will come with a cavalry?

But then I stopped, because every Bond films spurs such questioning, and should not interfere with one's enjoyment.

And SKYFALL, while to my eyes a bit overpraised, is grand escapism. Beautifully photographed by the great Roger Deakins. Fine score by Thomas Newman. The actors are all in top form, even Bardem, who gets to smirk at M from a glass prison that will remind viewers of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There are several amusing references to the earlier films in the series: some are verbal, some visual (see if you can tell which film is cited when Bond uses a reptile's head as a stepping stone for escape). We'll meet a new, younger Q (Ben Whishaw) and even Miss Moneypenny.......

I can easily summarize my carps with this movie but it is without necessity. The film packages the expected action and innuendo as skillfully as the best Bonds, while taking some time to quietly acknowledge the fear of becoming irrelevant in an age of rapidly advancing tech, and of getting older, and weaker. There are a few moments in SKYFALL with Bond pensively staring off......I wonder if he thought on Blofeld? Or SPECTRE? Or even Pussy Galore? Do these ghosts haunt his dreams? Plague his daytime musings, those rare moments when he's not managing his way out of yet another implausible predicament?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ride the High Country

Some of the finest Westerns examine the inevitability of getting older, of sticking around long enough to outlive your reflexes and also to gain an informed and mature perspective on living. Aging (anti-)heroes shake their heads at youthful cockiness. Maybe because they've been there themselves. Such protagonists have ridden every crag of the countryside, seen their share of corpses and haunted by the fact that those motionless forms were once compadres, family members. A great Western will also often allow the seasoned cowboy to offer guidance to the trigger-happy upstarts before the possible (inevitable?) tragedy.

Sam Peckinpah's 1962 RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY incorporates all of the above, yet feels differently  than other, oft-cited classics of the genre. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is a seen-it-all former lawman who feels the weight of his memories. He takes the occasional job, drifting around California in some unsavory places, fetching less compensation per day than he once did. Hired to guard the delivery of a shipment of gold through the high country of the Sierra Mountains, Judd recruits his former partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Life's been little better for him, as he is reduced to portraying a character called the Oregon Kid, a crack pistol shot who has a young sidekick named Heck (Ron Starr).

Judd and Gil trade stories of their glory days. They seem unfazed by the new assignment, despite that several miners have already perished attempting the haul. The pair has seen far worse, each experience adding another hard layer upon them. But while time and hardship fostered a solid morality into Judd, Gil is consumed with a sense of entitlement. He has a plan (with Heck) to perhaps double cross his friend and abscond with the gold.

Heck is an excitable kid, the kind who's prone to snap judgment and throwing a punch before acknowledging consequence. Judd takes an instant disslike to him. His efforts to impart wisdom are met with dissmisal. Was the old lawman ever this stubborn and impatient?

The journey has detours. A night spent at the farm of deeply pious Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) is filled with dueling Bible verses across the dinner table and Heck's attempts to woo Knudsen's daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley, in her debut). Problem is, Elsa is already engaged to Billy Hammond (James Drury). After an incident with her father, Elsa decides to leave and tag along with the trio, down to the mining camp where Billy works, to get married.

Billy is quickly revealed to be a real waste of a human being. After the wedding, he gets piss drunk and offers his bride to his four brothers, a lecherous gang (Peckinpah regular Warren Oates plays Henry). It is during this sequence that Heck gets some swift lessons in Life and begins to respect Judd. On what is perceived to be a legal technicality, the trio rescue Elsa and continue their ride. A posse follows.

This early Peckinpah effort has its share of violence, though far from the sort of orchestrated squib bursting seen in his later films. The action is not the draw. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY only uses its shoot-outs as reference to its main themes, perhaps a side effect of them. Themes continued in many films by the director: honor among men, "right" and "wrong", longsuffering, an overall moral code. Sometimes that code is singularly held by the main character, amongst a brotherhood of brutishness and greed. Men (not without sin themselves) who struggle with their beliefs in following justice as even those closest to them pay back with betrayal. Even as the entire West is eroded by technological advancement (remember the appearance of the automobile in THE WILD BUNCH?). Also refreshingly, women are given complexity.

McCrea and Scott embody their roles so completely, they become archetypes. Natural acting at its finest. The film itself is deeply moral, while quietly, artfully taking religious piety to task. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is rarely mentioned in the same breath as SHANE, HIGH NOON, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but it does earn a spot in the Pantheon, or least a spot on your media shelf next to the aforementioned..

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cloud Atlas

At times, watching CLOUD ATLAS is like being at the mercy of someone else who has dominion over the remote control. Constant switching among disparate tales set in very different time periods. One second you're watching the travails of a stowaway slave in the mid-nineteenth century, the next you're following the sad fate of a Korean fast-food worker in Seoul, 2144. There's also the shadowy tale of an investigative reporter, who in San Francisco in 1973 uncovers a heinous plot involving a nuclear reactor. A bisexual composer in Scotland in the 1930s. An aging English publisher who attempts to escape a nursing home in the present day. And finally, a tribesman on a Hawaiian island in post-apocalyptic times (a century after "The Fall") who is visited by a woman who seems to be one of the last citizens of a technologically advanced society. The film is episodic from opening to fade out.  But are the stories so dissimiliar?

The connections are there. The "Cloud Atlas Sextet" is composed by Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) as he apprentices with elderly maestro Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in 1936.  Some other connections are overt, like a character (Frobisher's lover, Rufus Sixsmith, played by James D'Arcy) appearing in 2 different segments. Most connections are thematic, metaphoric. The themes of freedom from oppression and individual voice snake through all 6 tales. The entire film is designed to outline how the actions of centuries ago can inspire the rebels of tomorrow. How individuals transform from evil to good and perhaps set in motion a chain of events that may cause a phoenix to rise from the ashes. Several of the actors appear in most, if not all stories.  Sometimes, they're under layers of prosthetics.

 If I watched this film again, I'm sure I would recognize many more threads. The mosaic that is CLOUD ATLAS is so vast and ambitious that you couldn't possibly get it all in one viewing.  Problem is, I have little desire to sit through this movie again.

Initially, I was excited and intrigued to see that the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy,  best known for the MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN) shared directorial duties on this movie (they helmed different episodes). Each director has had his/her share of misfires over the years. This time, the collective imagination should've resulted in something, well, better. The 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell is said to be a challenging and untenable work. I read an interview with the Wachowskis, who've stated more than once that they are bored with traditional filmmaking and storytelling, that Cloud Atlas was a irresistible challenge to adapt. Its very nature is perhaps doomed to failure. Why hasn't anyone adapted Gravity's Rainbow? Someone tried The Bell Jar once, with mixed results.

CLOUD ATLAS does somewhat successfully weave its stories together in the macro sense, the overall message. But the individual episodes, other than the Neo-Seoul segment, are half realized, dramatically incomplete. Any one story could've been its own film. As intriguing and occasional exciting as the 1973 segment (with Halle Berry as the reporter) is, it felt like a puzzle with several missing pieces. Not necessarily complicated, just lacking in explanation. The story was lightly developed at best.  The 2012 segment, with Broadbent as the poor shlub who is trapped in a nursing facility, is clearly intended to lighten the movie with its (mostly) comic tone. Football (soccer) fans may especially enjoy that story's climax, but while this story did fit in with the filmmakers' philosophical m.o.,  it just feels frivolous.

But what I think really does in this movie is the "After the Fall" piece, featuring Tom Hanks as, Zachry, a clan leader of a Neanderthal-like tribe who continuously fights bands of ferocious cannibals and visions of an evil, overgrown lepracaun looking fellow who is apparently meant to represent either Zachry's guilt or dark side. This episode will tie the movie together in ways that I found clumsy and flat, though the ideas behind the "Cloud Atlas" area Zachry and Meronynm (also Berry), a "Prescient" (part of an advanced society elsewhere) search for are fascinating. It's too bad that this entire part of the movie is so campy and dull. Plus, the primitive dialogue spoken by these characters gets annoying quickly, even when it's unintentionally funny ("Tell me true-true"?!). It at least confirmed to me that the English language will finally, entire degenerate after years of the continued infantilization of society.

It's all too bad, because this had the makings of something special, especially with the assembledge of talent. I'm tempted to call it a noble failure: grand, heartfelt intentions and many good (some even borderline great) scenes, adding up to a real mess. The mid-section of the film does have some effective editing and at times becomes quite exciting and even exhilarating. The 2144 segment is easily the most successful, the most grim, and appropriately forboding. CLOUD ATLAS finally just feels like a misguided gasp of miscellany, a project that may well have proven unfilmable. But it is worth at least one look. There's the problem: this movie needs more examination than a single viewing can allow. Check back in 5 years.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

I wish I could've watched Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM in a carpeted, wood paneled room while it unspooled on a Super 8 projector.  Anderson in fact decided to shoot his latest film in 16mm, giving this set in 1965 story a look and feel as if really made then, appearing like a lost reel retrieved from your uncle's attic. And the movie plays like that same (possibly eccentric) uncle reading a story to your 10 year old self, warmly tucked in bed or perhaps around a campfire.

MOONRISE KINGDOM tells the tale of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a 12 year old misfit who has decided he no longer desires to be a Khaki Scout. His exit from camp sets off a search party led by neurotic scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) and a local sad sack policeman named Sharp (Bruce Willis). Meanwhile, when similiarly aged Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from the home of her attorney parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the search parties grow and join forces.

Suzy is an even bigger misanthrope than Sam. She seems a suitable case for treatment even at this early stage of her life. A lovely flashback shows how the youths meet, backstage at a church play where Suzy is dressed like a raven. After much letter correspondence, they agree to meet in the wilds of New Penzance, the island somewhere in New England they both inhabit. Anderson never shows anyone living there besides the Bishops and the Khaki Scouts. Well, there is the Narrator, played by Bob Balaban, who warns of a dangerous hurricane that  will occur during the film's climax. He goes into great meteorologic detail. Late in the film, he even interacts with some of the characters.

This is a colorful movie, in any sense of the word you can figure. The art direction alone could merit a Pinterest page or a display at Anthropologie. I'll bet you can freeze the stills as the camera spins 360s around the Bishops' home and never see every single item.. I've read accounts of Anderson's obsessive attention to detail, right down to the pitch tents - apparently the director found material that would've been used to create them in 1965. Most viewers would not know or care, but I recall Richard Linklater's commentary for DAZED AND CONFUSED as he recounts how one fan recognized that a beer keg spigot was about 3 years anachronistic.

MOONRISE KINGDOM is a warm movie, but not in any immediate, traditional sense. There is always a certain chilliness in Anderson's characters, an inquisitive aloofness that makes them come of as glib. I was reminded of the family in Anderson's ROYAL TENENBAUMS several times, and MOONRISE also has much in common with all of the director's other pics, particularly the family dynamics of FABULOUS MR. FOX and LIFE AQUATIC. These characters are not prone to lenghy literary speeches, but rather staccato witticisms. Everyday mundanities are seen so clearly as to be hilarious.

The initial  viewing of an Anderson film is almost blindsiding in quirk, but later you recall the nuance. MOONRISE KINGDOM is like a fairy tale for older children, or more like a fairy tale in which the characters step out and comment on themselves, are self-aware enough, but don't necessarily verbally comment on their actions. It always feels like Anderson is speaking through them, and that is not a criticism. These are lovely fabrications of character - real behavioral patterns fashioned with the absurd. The eccentricity is virtually unchecked this time (note the continued use of Benjamin Britten compositions on the soundtrack), as if Anderson was allowed to realize the most fanciful of his musings.  You could enjoy MOONRISE on that alone, but I was also quite taken with the emotions of this film, such as they were.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Pharmacy Years: Mom and Pop Retail, Part 3

I was not happy. I had just zipped my pants when I heard the bathroom door fly open. For a second, as I turned my head, I was ready to unload on the co-worker who brazenly dared invade the one place I could find a bit of solace. But there to greet me was the barrel of a gun, a Magnum, I would later learn. "Stay your ass in here," was all the gunman said. I remember the words clearly, if not his appearance. The incident lasted all of ten seconds. He slinked backwards and joined his accomplice as they fled the drugstore. I peeked through the crack, just in time to see the figures push through the front door. My co-worker screamed after them, calling them things that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I remember thinking how ill advised that was, as these guys had weapons. But they had just hit a pharmacy in a busy shopping center at 5 in the afternoon. There was no looking back. Er, almost.

One month later, one of the two criminals returned, again at 5:00, again waving a large gun. This time, we were all (including the boss who had been away for the last hold-up) standing behind the counter. The gunman again asked for a specific narcotic. If there's any bright spot to this story, it was that we were able to get rid of some expired meds when we filled the guy's duffel bag. In the month since the first hold-up, we had installed a security camera (after significant encouragement from the PD), its lens inconspicuously positioned between two glucometer boxes on a shelf behind the cash register. This time, I got a good look at him. And it all went down on tape. By that evening, his mug was on the evening news. A month later, they finally caught up with the guy. That's an interesting story - the guy's car broke down and a few minutes after the police began to help him, he was recognized.

My recount leaves out many details. But it fits my recollections. It all happened so quickly. Particularly that first incident. Having a gun pointed at me. An image I'd seen in countless films and TV programs. A very different experience in real life. You've heard how an intense moment, however brief, can see like an eternity, like time had slowed. It wasn't exactly like that, but rather I had long enough to perceive a flash threat, a potentially fatal anticlimax to my existence. My life did not flash before my eyes, yet in a second the immediacy of the situation sobered.

We sat and gave depositions and later testified in court. I won't soon forget the cold eyes that stared off into space but occasionally met mine as I gave my recount. He received a sentence of several decades. He had multiple counts against him, including the armed robbery of another pharmacy not a mile away from us. That was 2001. A bad year for many reasons. Another mom-and-pop pharmacy east of us (and one of the pharmacists there filled in for us frequently) was robbed early one Sunday morning. That's not news, as our place had also been hit overnight several times during my tenure, but this one turned into a really ugly scene. A teen found himself face to face with a police dog and both met their ends when some of the equipment in the store (oxygen tanks?) ignited after gunfire was exchanged. The commonality: narcotics.

Many addicts out there. I saw so many walk in, zombified. I made many verification calls and reluctantly filled a lot of oxycodone scripts. It became demoralizing. Some customers/patients would request specific generic manufacturers, right down to the markings on the pills. We witnessed a few illicit sales in the parking lot. Saw several of our patients die. No wonder I was so burnt out.


Thursday, November 1, 2012


Ben Affleck's third effort as director, ARGO,  is one of those stories that just has to be true, because it is so unlikely. As with other "based on true events" bits of fiction, the historical accuracy verifiers will be all over this movie, explaining in all caps on forum boards how many things the movie got wrong. You could read the history and pick your own holes in Chris Terrio's screenplay, which depicts a secret mission to rescue a group of United States diplomats from Tehran during the tumultuous events leading to the lengthy hostage crisis in 1979. Do liberties taken with the facts hurt this film?

I gauge a film's success on how well the filmmaker delivers on the initial premise. The tone, the point of view, the intentions are usually established in the early scenes. ARGO opens effectively with a rapidly edited (though not the hyper cutting we see in other current movies) montage and narration of the siege on the American Embassy in Iran. Militants would hold most of the staff hostage for over 400 days. Six workers manage to flee and hole up in the residence of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The State Department brainstorms methods of extracting the diplomats, each scenario summarily shot down by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) who has seen enough (and uses a fair amount of logic) to predict dire outcomes.

An insane notion occurs to Mendez one night while watching a movie on television: concoct a fake sci-fi film, "Argo", complete with ads in Hollywood trade papers to make it seem legitimate, and convince the Iranians that the diplomats are actually a film crew there to scope out the landscape for their low rent STAR WARS-like opus.  The plan: Mendez, posing as a producer, will fly to Tehran, bring the escapees to a busy plaza to scout locations to make everything seem authentic, then fly with them home. There will be fake passports and much bluffing to the arts consulate and airport security.. This is a true story; "the least bad idea we have," states Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to superiors.

ARGO does not consider, in its many observant Hollywood scenes, if this movie were real, what tax benefits there would be for shooting in such an "exotic" locale. Maybe ask William Friedkin, who perhaps recklessly shot part of THE EXORCIST in Iraq.

Makeup guy John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are hired to build the ruse, to set up a fake studio and even hold a public line reading with the actors (including Adrienne Barbeau, in some era appropriate casting) in full costume. The Hollywood scenes are at times uproariously funny and on target. Much credit must go to the actors - Goodman and Arkin have perfect chemistry as weary industry vets. Arkin gets a laugh in nearly every one of his scenes, often quite ribald.

ARGO very deftly balances the absurdity of L.A. politics with that of D.C. and the Middle East, never allowing the seriousness of the hostage situation to be comprised to produce just another glib Tinseltown satire. Affleck may be guilty of using some time honored filimic tools such emotive scoring and a tender sub-plot involving Mendez's estranged wife and young son, but he is easily forgiven as he impresses with tight, no frills direction and solid storytelling throughout. He milks the tension and suspense of the climax for every bit of its worth: real, old-fashioned, white knuckle, crowd pleasing filmmaking. Some of that suspense, it must be mentioned, comes at the expense of historical accuracy. The Canadian government apparently drove the Argo mission and the film ignores this, as an example. Several scenes were added "for dramatic effect" and perhaps you might say it wasn't necessary.

I'm not a stickler for to the letter detail of real life events with cinema unless the director aggressively tries to establish that. But honestly, a fictional film's merit should never be measured as to how close to real life the events depicted are.  The only time I join in the fact check malcontent chorus is when an author recounts an event for his or her book and plays fast and loose. As meticulously detailed as ARGO is, it is nothing close to being a documentary. Even if it was, it should('ve) be approached carefully. Many impressionable viewers who don't read anything beyond a headline or a Twitter post may be apt to believe every event presented here as truth, just like many bought into every point in Oliver Stone's JFK, but don't blame the filmmakers.

This story in fact is quite interesting at showing that how sometimes the make-believe can even save your life. In some tangential way, I was reminded of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.