Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lost Treasures, Part 2

Here's the other lost treasure. Another instrumental from a mega successful 80s group. Men at Work included  "F-19" with the remaster of their bestselling album, Business as Usual. It really captures their distinctive sound, and manages to be energetic and melancholy at the same time....

Thursday, May 23, 2013

To the Wonder

Waltzing. That's what Neil (Ben Affleck) does through most of Terrence Malick's latest cinematic love poem, TO THE WONDER. He waltzes across Paris and Oklahoma with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and then later with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood crush. And then Marina again. It is probably not overestimating that every 3rd shot in Malick's film is of someone dancing through the landscape: wheat fields, lakes, mowed lawns.

It would be very easy to dismiss TO THE WONDER as simply a 2 hour slide show of beautiful imagery. That it certainly is. As were the director's previous five movies. Malick's detractors cite his fixations on natural beauty: blooming flowers, swaying leaves in treetops, trickling water. The wind bent wheat was seen before, to near transcendental effect in 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN. The upward gaze at palms was so predominant in THE THIN RED LINE. Viewers requiring A-Z narratives and brisk pacing are quick to post damning reviews, calling appreciators of the director "1st year film school fanboys." I did not see Malick's new film in the theater but can imagine that if a sizable audience did attend, many bolted for the exits within 15 minutes. I could say something snarky like, "These are the same people who skipped right to the Cliff's Notes when they got their reading list" but that might be too broad a summary. Though...if I did an exit poll......

That business out of the way, let's discuss TO THE WONDER a bit more. A film I was less than eager to see. Surprising, as I have been a huge fan of Terence Malick for decades, ever since I first saw the rural beauty of his debut, BADLANDS. I read a few synopses of WONDER and it seemed like Malick, out with a film so soon after 2011's TREE OF LIFE, might be phoning it in.  Merely making up for his previous lack of prolificacy (there was a 17 year gap between DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE). In fact, the imdb reports that Malick has no less than 2 new films in production. Is age reminding the artist that his time is short? Is he motivated by fear that he may take his final breath before he expresses all his thoughts on the screen?

By the end of TO THE WONDER, any reservations of mine had long since evaporated, blown off the coast of Mont St. Michel, where Neil and Marina are first glimpsed in their love dance and where the film flashes some of its final images. It's so difficult to describe this film, almost like "dancing about architecture", other than breaking down the technical elements. The staggering cinematography, without (mostly) the benefit of artificial lighting. The deliberate zooms toward the actors, who sometimes come running back toward the lens. They are mostly captured with wide smiles and embraces. A collection of images that might race through the recollection of  the lovelorn as they trace the early stages of courtship, where lovers act silly and  dance "like no one's watching."

The dancing continues as Marina and Tatiana join Neil in the U.S., in a banal community of look-alike homes and flat plains, yet somehow almost as beautiful as the streetlight smeared palate of Paris. Malick's ability to make anything (even a house under construction) patently cinematic is the mark of a true artist. But eventually, reality sours the dream: droning familiarity and cultural differences tear the lovers apart. There are fewer smiles. There is yelling. No shot lasts more than a few seconds. Dialogue is only half heard, as if from another room, or in a daydream. Tatiana is homesick. Marina's visa expires.

Later, Neil runs into Jane. They reminisce. Soon, they're embracing, much the same as what we saw earlier. But their dance is also short-lived as Marina, bored and jobless back in Paris, returns to Oklahoma and Neil. They marry.  The earth lights up again, and then the embers lose their glow.

Every so often, Malick cuts to another figure whose romance has cooled. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) methodically goes through the motions in his church. In voiceover, he laments to his Savior. Frequently quotes Isiah and the Psalms.  He doesn't exactly cry out, but rather sadly acknowledges his fading faith. Watches it slowly drown. Perhaps helplessly.  He's still out in the community, listening to neighbors, mostly destitute and broken in a thousand ways. He visits the prison.  In one of the film's most startling sequences, an emaciated woman is first glimpsed throwing down the Bible given to her, then a scene or 2 later is banging on the Father's door, pleading for entrance, in some of the strongest Christian imagery I can recall in a secular film.

The priest will interact with the main characters. But what does he know of marital strife? Of how to handle a broken heart after infidelity? He does know of a wounded relationship, of betrayal. Of being far from home. This he shares with them. We don't really hear his words of comfort to the lovers. But each moves on. Reaching and perhaps finding a return to the wonder.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Veronica Guerin

Veronica Guerin died a hero. A martyr, perhaps.  She tirelessly chased and reported on the scum who littered Ireland with drugs. She was a real person. She left behind a devoted husband and young child.

Director Joel Schumacher's 2002 biography of Mrs. Guerin, VERONICA GUERIN, attempts to do well by the subject. How can the audience hiss at such a powerful story, of a woman whose single-mindedness brought down a drug lord and many of his staff? At the cost of her life?

As you well know, a noble subject does not necessarily, inherently make a good film. When I saw that Jerry Bruckheimer was the producer, I was far from encouraged. Actually, seeing Schumacher's name did not exactly instill confidence, either. But with Cate Blanchett in the lead and a well selected supporting cast (CiarĂ¡n Hinds and Brenda Flicker among them), this had to be worthwhile?

I am not sorry I spent an hour and a half invested in this telling. Location filming in Dublin adds the right authenticity and the movie mostly avoids bombast. Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue's script adequately summarizes the tragedy of Guerin's eventual murder by the thugs of John Gilligan (Gerard McSorely, appropriately frightening) and the events leading up to it, going back 2 years. But to call VERONICA GUERIN "flat" seems so apt.

I cannot blame the actors. No, I suppose Schumacher, employing his typically workmanlike direction is the culprit. But why? When so many other routine (even made for TV) bios are as presented matter of factly but yet still rivet us? What happens in this film to suck the life out of such a compelling story? Does that lead us to the subject herself?

We watch Veronica, who seems more suited to detective work than journalism (though many would doubtless argue that there is little difference in the professions) conduct research late into the evening and neglect her family. She meets with informants and puts her life in near constant peril (even getting shot and savagely beaten at separate times). We respect her cause, but question her parenting and spousal support. You can make the argument that some of us having higher callings, ones at the expense of family time. For Veronica, it is not being a missionary or agent of God, but a crusader for Good.  A more complex film might've considered if those are mutually exclusive pursuits. The cynical might wonder if Veronica was merely the ultimate employee, out to sell more copies of the Sunday Independent.

VERONICA GUERIN has a short running time for this sort of film, which is admirable and ultimately merciful. It would suggest a minimum of unnecessary or prolonged scenes. Despite this, the movie is often sluggish and dull and badly paced. It at times plays like a thriller but even then, fails to thrill.

Then there's the finale, a funeral procession that in real life would be a sobering, fitting tribute. As framed by Schumacher, et al, it is the sort of pomposity I would expect from Hollywood. I was unfavorably reminded of the last sequence of PAY IT FORWARD.

Friday, May 17, 2013

'Round Town

So what's been happening around West Palm Beach these days? Lots of things.

The first annual "Brew at the Zoo" was held on April 27th at the Palm Beach (formerly Dreher Park) Zoo. It was a surprisingly very well attended event. Local brewers such as Due South set up stations around the park, mainly near the front entrance, and refilled the nifty ~4oz. plastic cup you received at the gate with their mostly excellent brews. Some local restaurants were also present, as were a cover band cranking out classic rock. Fine beer sampling is still fairly new to me but with each taste my appreciation and discernment deepens.

I went with my good friend Stephen and a very nice guy named Jeff who I met for the first time. We had a very mellow evening, sipping amber and dark while chatting about music (Jeff is a drummer) and a myriad of other topics. Not every part of the zoo was open during this event (sorry, no raising of glasses to the Bengals), but some vendors were camped a bit further in, near the Mayan ruins etc.

Each time I visit the Palm Beach Zoo I am amazed at how far it's developed since my childhood, when it was little more than a few trees with exotic birds and fences with select beasts behind. The Zoo and the Science Museum behind it were very popular elementary school field trip destinations. I went to both many times with my dad, too. Some years later, a friend who returned to town after graduating from Palm Beach Atlantic College worked there for awhile, giving me the inside, uh, poop on things. In the last decade or so, the Zoo more resembles a mini Disney World.

The annual music festival SunFest was held a few weeks back.  The first few days the event was soaked by storms, though some brave souls enjoyed Smashing Pumpkins the first night. Saturday evening I joined my childhood bud Chris for a show, just as we did 2 years earlier for Jeff Beck (documented on this blog). This time we saw Cheap Trick, best known for energetic rockers like "Surrender" and "Dream Police." The guys still rock, hard at that. Chris reminded me that I introduced him to the band 30 plus years ago when we listened to Dream Police in my bedroom.

It was a bit disappointing to see that drummer Bun E. Carlos (and his forever cigarette from lips dangling) was absent, though guitarist Rick Nielsen's son Daxx assumed the stool and did just fine. Dad still flings  picks into the crowd and trots out that outrageous 5 necked guitar at the finale. All the hits were played, along with several album cuts many around me didn't know.  Singer/guitarist Robin Zander wore a Sgt. Pepper outfit (the band has played that Beatles album on other tours).

One distinctive note: this year the northernmost stage at SF featured what seemed like a non-stop rave. Trance music played so loudly that when Cheap Trick finished a song, the bass nearly overpowered them. "I guess we need to turn our shit up!" Nielsen quipped. Futuristically dressed men with super soaker water guns instead sprayed paint on the audience. Many kids were walking around covered in it and mud, left over from the monsoons we had earlier in the week.  In some spots, this year's SunFest was akin to a mini Woodstock. Disturbingly, many concertgoers appeared to be 13 year old girls wearing just there outfits. Like mini Lolitas in the making.

To add to the evening's amusement, every fifth person commented on Chris' Chewbacca T-shirt with either a "Cool shirt, man" or an approving nod.  Maybe I should've worn that BLUE VELVET tee someone once gave me, the one with Dennis Hopper and the gas mask. One of his famous lines runs along the bottom. I won't quote it here.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

As entertaining as director/writer Oliver Stone's 1987 WALL STREET was, I never considered it to be a strong treatise on the pitfalls of capitalism or a pointed cinematic essay of any sort. Nor did I ever think it resembled a Swiftian satire on greed. The film announced early on that it was a pop entertainment pure and simple. Still, the movie became emblematic of the Michael Milken era, opening around the time of the infamous 1987 market crash. It seemed prescient. Iconic too. In the 2002 film BOILER ROOM, the main characters watch and chant along with it.

WALL STREET's morality play ended with Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry, young would-be player, being indicted for insider trading. He had spent the film playing sycophant to Wall Street titan Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his efforts proved to be a bit too aggressive. At the opening of WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010), a prison guard is returning Gekko's inventory to him, including one of those gigantic 90s era cell phones. The mighty finally got his own just desserts, some years after the events of the first movie. Gekko would serve almost a decade behind bars. Throughout this new film, he repeatedly describes his sentence as the best thing that ever happened to him. During that time, he pens a memoir.

MONEY NEVER SLEEPS features Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), a successful trader at a top firm managed by Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, excellent in his all too brief appearance), his mentor. Jake is living with Gekko's long estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who has zero interest in reestablishing contact. After a disastrous attempt to secure a fair bailout deal with other firms, Zabel takes his life.

Following Gekko's speech to graduating college seniors (he opens with, appropriately enough, "You're fucked.") Jake introduces himself and initiates a series of secret meetings to gather info on a snake named Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the same man who made that insulting offer to Zabel. But life is short and quid pro quo, and while Gekko seems to have mellowed and repented (and perhaps been  humbled as he is now all but a pariah on Wall Street), he will only help Jake on an exchange - efforts to help a reconciliation with his daughter.

As MONEY NEVER SLEEPS plot progresses, Jake will accept a job with Bretton (what a perfect spot to plot revenge!) and tries to mend fences between father and daughter. Bud Fox even shows up for a cameo, updating us on what happened to Blue Star airlines and uttering a famous line from the earlier film. In a strange way, this moment gets to the heart of the film. Life moved on. Gekko has a few surprises of his own to unveil. The final scene is an unfortunate bit of Hollywood schmaltz.

It seemed a perfect time for a WALL STREET sequel, if there had to be one at all (even Stone wasn't convinced at first). What with the greatest market meltdown since the Great Depression and all. Although, plans for this film began a few years earlier. This film attempts to shoehorn the crisis into the events of the movie,  albeit a bit clumsily. Perhaps the starting point should have been the crash, and then focused on the fallout. Instead, we have tired familial dealings, recollections (son's death, divorce) that come from the Syd Mead playbook. And what's up with Eli Wallach's odd birdcalls?

To me, this movie, like its predecessor, is decidedly middle of the road, with minimal financial illuminations and long on plot. It is entertaining, with decent performances and the occasional enjoyable throwaway bit (the fast cab driver scene). The first film was semi-high brow popcorn, a satisfying tale that avoided deadly long winded explanations ala THE FORMULA and ROLLOVER. MONEY NEVER SLEEPS relies a bit too often on flashy ticker graphics and split screens, but is an agreeable couple of hours.  No inherent philosophy, but for those who remember the first film, there is a certain fascination in seeing the "Later on", how the Mighty have fallen, and how what was once so urgent is now just a chuckle, a punchline ("Blue Star Loves Anacot Steel").

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Good Ol' Dirty NYC

Here's a generous sampling of film clips showcasing the New York City of the 70s and early 80s, when the IRT cars were saturated with graffiti and menace seemed to lurk in every corner...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cassandra's Dream

There are spoilers within.

2007's CASSANDRA'S DREAM is a return for Woody Allen to the sort of story in which the murky waters of justice - or lack of - takes precedence over his usual coverage of a round robin of relationships.  Of whether the bad (or at least those who commit murder) will receive their just desserts. Surely there is some Morality at work (God, maybe) that will reward the just and damn the criminal!?  This newer movie will doubtless remind you of Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS from nearly 20 years earlier. Thematically, at least.

Terry (Colin Ferrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) are ne'er do well brothers living in the South of London. The former is an auto mechanic addicted to gambling; the latter very unhappily assists his father in their restaurant. Ian fancies himself a business venturist but has only a small savings account and borrows the fancy cars left at his brother's garage to use to impress women. After Terry finally scores at the dog track, the brothers decide to purchase a sailboat which they christen as "Cassandra's Dream", named after the winning canine. Those who remember Greek mythology will raise an eyebrow at this choice and just know bad things are in store for these lads.

For awhile, things look up for them: Terry continues his winning streak at poker tables.  Ian meets a very beautiful actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell) with whom he is instantly smitten. Ian, by the way, unceremoniously dumps his current squeeze, Lucy, a waitress at the restaurant. The movie never allows a scene of confrontation between Lucy and Ian; Allen abruptly cuts from a moment where she enters a kitchen as Ian describes how much in love with Angela he is. In fact, many scenes in DREAM end prematurely and seem rushed. I agree with Manola Dargis' assessment that it seems like Allen "directed this movie with a stopwatch".

The tables turn as Terry loses his winnings and much more, soon in the hole for 90 quid. Ian's milking of his nonexistent lifestyle runs thin. Good thing Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, great as always), a successful plastic surgeon to whom the boys' mother always unfavorably compares her husband, arrives for a visit. It seems Uncle has helped out the family many times before. Howard is willing to bail out the lads but this time for something in exchange - a colleague about to deliver a damning testimony needs to be "taken care of." When the boys balk, Howard goes on a melodramatic tear about family, how blood relatives do whatever necessary to protect each other. The brothers reluctantly agree.

They succeed, but not without one botched attempt and much guilt, mainly from Terry, who will be tormented beyond tolerance (including the audiences') until the very end of CASSANDRA'S DREAM. I do have to say that Ferrell gets to flex his acting muscles a bit here.

And CASSANDRA'S DREAM, at the very least, is a break from Woody's once-a-year comedies of neuroses. He's as dependable as Clint Eastwood, cranking them out for content's sake, it seems. Most Woodys are fairly lighthearted romantic talkfests, but every so often he mines more dramatic territory, usually in the form of an ethics essay, with dashes of Greek tragedy. It had been only 2 years since MATCH POINT,  another Allen drama that examined justice, and a far superior movie.

CASSANDRA is by comparison a very tired, humorless, drably presented check-your-watch exercise. Instead of considering other, fresher dramatic possibilities: having a character display something besides predictable emotions and behavior, a late hour twist, a differing point of view, Allen gives us a dour, unpleasant slog to an inevitable (though abrupt) conclusion. Unlike with his past dramas, we're left less with moral weight we're anxious to discuss with fellow filmgoers than exhaustion.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Killing Them Softly

"America is not a country, it's a business."

Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the picture of efficiency. He's the sort of guy in fiction who is often referred to as a "cleaner."  An independent contractor who forever dispenses advice on how to get the job done and when others entrusted can't quite get it together, he'll dirty his own hands without hesitation. He eschews acknowledgment of emotions - his own and those of his colleagues and certainly of his victims. He "kills them softly" from a distance, when possible. He'll nary bat an eye when killing a guy he knows is innocent of a particular crime just to use him as an example. He's the ultimate poster boy for "it's not personal, it's business."

Cogan is brought in to clean a mess.  A guy named Markie Trattman (a bloated Ray Liotta) finds himself marked for death after 2 lowlifes successfully stick up his weekly high stakes poker game. At the tables are mafiosos in the Organization who cock eyebrows as they remember a similar disruption from years ago - one that Trattman had eventually brazenly admitted to masterminding. Somehow, he escaped retribution from his hoodwinked cardsharps. He may not be so lucky this time, and that's what an outside guy known as "Squirrel" (who hires the pair of halfwits) is counting on. Markie, a self-proclaimed liar, will certainly be blamed for it.

Cogan therefore will rectify the situation. Mainly, to reinstill confidence among the players that their game is stable. While there are several potholes along the way, including the hired gun gone to seed named Mickey (James Gandolfini), what Cogan says will come to pass.  End of story.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik's KILLING THEM SOFTLY, based on the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, is an effort to tell a Mob tale without the usual mythos. The kind of larger-than-life grandeur seen in THE GODFATHER trilogy and GOODFELLAS.  Also, in crime films like HEAT. KILLING rather attempts to show the matter of fact, sometimes mundane and often brutal, daily mafia business and politics.

Such an apt metaphor for that other business known as the U.S.A. Cogan spends the final moments of the movie lecturing a Mob liasion known only as "Driver", (appropriate, as we usually see him behind a steering wheel) played by the always reliable Richard Jenkins, about the state of affairs in our relatively young country. How we're not all equal, no matter what Presidential hopeful Barack Obama says in his speeches (heard throughout the movie, along with retorts by Bush and McCain - Dominik really wants you to get his points). There are low level employees and bosses. Predators and the eaten. The whole country. This movie takes place in late 2008, during one of the worst financial meltdowns in U.S. history.  It's an engrossing scene, one that played far more interestingly than what came before in the previous ninety minutes.

The entire film is awfully talky, with precious little violence for the faithful, though what's there is fairly harsh. And that dialogue is only listenable for a brief time. The director lets scenes go on far past where they should, particularly a hotel room monologue about Mickey's fondness for prostitutes that made me long for a shower. Gandolfini is quite good and natural here, as a formerly top notch hit man who's become immersed in booze and sexual conquests; an employee who's lost his edge and usefulness. But the scene becomes blindingly awful the longer it plays. It becomes a seeming improvisation.  As if a weaker Tony Soprano had diarrhea of the mouth.   Enough so that I wished that the camera had rolled out of film, the way it reportedly did when Spielberg was filming Robert Shaw's big speech in JAWS.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is also oddly schizophrenic.  It wants to be reminiscent of 1970s films like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and at times almost even feels like a John Cassavetes picture, but then also turns in those lengthy dialogue scenes that reek of Tarantino or even Michael Mann (mainly in THIEF). Most of the time there is no soundtrack scoring - an effective choice.  Then the occasional ironically used oldie record pops up, ala Tarantino again.

But the really puzzling moment comes when Cogan fires several slugs through a car window at his target, all in a slow motion ballet of bullets and glass that might've been impressive in say, 1993.  It's extremely showy and amateurish, a scene I would've expected in one of PULP FICTION's numerous violent clones, not within a more cerebral exercise like this film. It's a scene completely at odds with the rest of the picture. What was the director going for here?

It's really too bad, this movie. I admire Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Inevitably, there are some similar themes in KILLING THEM SOFTLY but they are buried by dreadfully bad pacing, poor editing, and a lack of focus.  Dominik's direction is at times stylish and the performances are fine, but his hand is heavy and the themes are presented with a regrettable lack of subtlety. This film finally just drove me nuts.