Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fire Sale

There's a moment late in 1977's understandably obscure FIRE SALE that for some will represent a pinnacle and for others the lowest possible point of comedy. Two men, a father, Benny (Vincent Gardenia) and one of his sons, Russel (Rob Reiner) are overcome with asthma attacks. Wheeze. Wheeze. Wheeeeeze. The scene goes on.  And on. And on. Did director Alan Arkin (who plays the other son) go for a coffee break while shooting this scene?  I think instead he was going for some sort of Pantheon for Neurotic Jewish Humor. To maybe outdo Felix Unger in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

We can also credit/blame Robert Klane, who earlier had penned the uproarious WHERE'S POPPA, a real bad taste classic. He loves to mine life's ills for the sake of a gag.  Dark humor seems to course through the writer's veins, to be as natural for him as breathing, but in FIRE SALE it only works in fits. The film works very hard to make you laugh, but only succeeds occasionally.  I did smile at lot. Like when the high school basketball fans hurl rocks through the windows of Ezra Fikus' (Arkin) apartment in a nonstop torrent because the team he coaches is winless.  Or when we're introduced to the wunderkind Ezra recruits, a very tall boy known as Booker T, but sometimes called "Captain F--K" (we hear a honking sound every time someone says his name).

Benny owns an old department store whose merchandise is, politely stated, out of date. The only solution to a failing business of course must be to burn it down and collect the insurance. But when you hire an arsonist, it's probably wiser to find someone who doesn't live in a mental ward and thinks WW 2 is still being fought. Sherman (Sid Caesar) probably gets the biggest laughs in FIRE SALE, especially in a lengthy scene as he prepares to go off and do the deed (he believes that Benny's store is actually a headquarters for the Nazi party). He readies his gear, then falls asleep, then awakens.  Over and over. It goes beyond absurdity.

That goes for the entire picture.  Reiner's character, by the time of the big asthma scene, has already wheezed through multiple attacks, brought on whenever receives bad news, which is about every 10 minutes. The ne'er do well Russel, unaware of his father's plans, attempts to revitalize the store when his parents take a vacation. Then papa has a heart attack after a huge meal while en route. Everyone thinks Benny's dead, even when he sits up and talks. Klane would later take this idea much further with his WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S films.  This ongoing joke will carry much of FIRE SALE, perhaps at its funniest moment when a rep from a casket company measures the old man's dimensions and informs him that if he dies before Saturday he'll get the Bicentenniel special!

You get the idea.  I was reminded of Seinfeld several times as I watched FIRE SALE,  a movie I had not seen before. Perhaps many later comedies owe a big debt to this movie, which was not a box office draw and has never gotten a home video release. It is an achingly funny movie at times, but just as often just plain painful.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Last Year at Marienbad

I at long last sat down to watch 1961's LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few months back and found myself quite disoriented. This was hardly unexpected as the film is unanimously described as "enigmatic" and a  "puzzler". It was unsurprising to feel bewildered. But something was really not right.  The film's timeline seemed to double back on itself.  A scene, viewed minutes earlier, repeated. You might expect this in some films, when an event is shown from another perspective.  But the scene played exactly the same, as did each cut. I finally realized that my DVD player was on "shuffle" mode, playing each chapter in random order. Some indeed were repeating.  I felt like a moron.

But also unsurprisingly, MARIENBAD may work just as well when viewed this way. Alain Resnais's film can be interpreted in so many differing fashions it almost doesn't matter which scene you watch first, or last. Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbes-Gillet were never in the same space when the screenplay was written and the film was shot, yet both expressed, after seeing the respective results, how similar their visions were. Quite unlike any two viewers who offer their thoughts on this movie. The business of the script does present moments viewed from different perspectives, and although there are also three main characters, two men and one woman, this is not RASHOMON.

We're in a large, mysterious chateau in the Czech Republic.  A man continually approaches a woman, insisting they had met the year before.  She is bothered and denies this. Her eyes and body language betray her words.  There's a third figure, a man we learn is the woman's husband. A man who is deft with a curious mathematical parlor game involving sticks that may remind you of that golf tee pegboard that distracts you while you wait for your food at Cracker Barrel.  Man #1 is beaten by him every time. In fact, every opponent loses to Man #2. We wonder about #2, his alleged mortality.

The film continues.  There are flashbacks. Trysts in the garden, in the bedroom.  A possible rape.  Tricks of memory. The characters cannot trust theirs and we certainly can't trust Resnais. We look for clues. To sort possible red herrings. Maybe it's better not to try to figure it out. If you play detective, you'll only uncover frustration.  Pure art willfully paints outside the lines.
I've watched LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few times.  I will need more viewings, many more. Will absorbing the sights and sounds bring me any closer to clarity? Possibly. Likely, I will discover a subtlety of a movement, how it may relate to another. How the words spoken fit. It does not matter. MARIENBAD is not to be treated like a Rubik's cube. There is no destination, no finality. It is a labyrinth in which you may well be forever lost. In which a familiar path may in fact be something entirely different, and lead you further astray. You may feel as if you've arrived at a logical conclusion by fade out. If that makes you feel better, fine.

Resnais shoots his film as if an apparition was holding the camera, floating through incredibly ornate ballrooms and eerie hallways. I wondered if Kubrick thought on it for THE SHINING. Or the Coen Brothers for BARTON FINK. What is it about hotels? Can there be a better metaphor for transience? A place in which you call home if but for one night, but possibly never to return. Or not, if you believe in reincarnation (to again reference Kubrick's film) . Or, if you've taken MARIENBAD as a ghost story, the entire movie opens up into some different. This is why, perhaps for this more than many other films, you need to revisit. Even if you've memorized every moment of it. You may have seen nothing. Then you watch it again, as if for the first time.

I like to sink in this film and imagine it as if it was intended to be on random play. Chapters out of sequence, forming that new movie every time. Perhaps Resnais would suggest that one not be so mindful if his film plays in the intended order.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Planet Caravan


Black Sabbath's 1970 album Paranoid is as perfect a collection of genre defining, old school metal as you could possibly hope for.  Signature hard driving, bend-the-strings guitar work by Tony Iommi and desperate vocals by Ozzy Osbourne.  I recently reacquainted myself with its darkly powerful tunes after many years.

There is so much more on this album beyond the radio hits "Iron Man" and the title track. "War Pigs" was written about Vietnam but is as timeless as ever. "Hand of Doom" and "Fairies Wear Boots" address addiction. The latter tune has a lyric where a doctor tells the narrator to lay off the intoxicants. If you've read the autobiography " I Am Ozzy", you'll find that such advice wouldn't be heeded for some time.

Among the assaultive tunes is a real curiosity, "Planet Caravan", a mellow, near cosmic four minutes of bliss that doesn't require controlled substances for enjoyment. But check out Ozzy's eerie, filtered vocal and Bill Ward's nice conga thumping. It's my favorite track on this no filler album.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Public Eye

In his commentary for DAZED AND CONFUSED, director Richard Linklater describes that interesting thing that happens when you watch a period movie that was filmed years after the era depicted. Years later, if the film succeeds in that most important of tasks - the atmosphere - it may seem as if it were actually filmed in its time. DAZED, so carefully constructed, does indeed feel like it was shot in the mid 70s, even though it was actually filmed in 1992.

THE PUBLIC EYE, also from '92, is set in the 1940s in that wonderful movie world of neon saturated windows and sidewalks and drifting smoke, and feels very much a part of its time.  Director Richard Franklin and his crew have done a superb job of creating a movie in which you could just get lost and wander around. I have found myself doing that with several "immersive" movies, walking away from the central action when it becomes tedious and absorbing the landscape. AVATAR is a perfect example, even though it was patently artificial, unlike THE PUBLIC EYE, which was shot mainly on Chicago streets (and set in NYC).

If the film feels like a '40s programmer, it has characters and a storyline to match. Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein (Joe Pesci) is a natural figure in this shadowy world: a Big City tabloid photographer who captures the most astonishing photos. Often at crime scenes, usually of the deceased. He's always there at just the right moment: the assailants having made their escape and the Law yet to arrive. Is he psychic? Like the real life figure Bernstein is based upon: Arthur Fellig, or "Weegee" so named as the police thought the guy had a Ouija board to account for his perfect timing? In the movie, the answer is simple: Bernzy has a police scanner in his apartment that he monitors constantly.

No would-be noir is complete without a questionable "skirt". Barbara Hershey plays Kay, a widow and nightclub owner who enlists Bernzy's help to investigate mob types who've been threatening her. Seems Kay's late husband was indebted to them or, something. Bernzy, a lonely shlub, is immediately smitten with the striking woman and agrees against his better instincts. Things quickly get thorny and soon the Feds are interrogating. Bernzy gets a good man killed. There's a restaurant massacre before the credits roll. Familiar James Cagney territory.

The relationship between Bernzy and Kay is well drawn and thoughtful, right through to the film's conclusion. Unlike in GOODFELLAS, Pesci's previous film, his character has a conscience and a heart. In one of his few leading roles, he makes a favorable impression, a minor leap from the character parts he does so well. We're a little sad for him as he watches soldiers kissing their girlfriends in bars and on street corners, clutching and dipping them like in that famous war time picture everyone's seen. Both actors play their caricatures well, even as Hershey's low cut dresses threaten to upstage her in nearly every scene. And thankfully,  unlike in CASINO, we are spared a Pesci love scene.

Franklin paces the film just right. Well modulated are dialogue and action scenes, cut into each other near seamlessly.  There are amusing stylistic jolts: sometimes bloody violence and sometimes repeated shots of flashbulbs literally popping like bullets out of Bernzy's camera.  But the setting is the key element, and if you love to sink into yesteryear urban melodramas, you're almost certain to enjoy this, even though you'll probably forget it all the next day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter

Captain Kronos rides the English countryside with trusted companion Hieronymus Grost, a hunchback, seeking to rid villages of vampires. In the 1974 Hammer production CAPTAIN KRONOS - VAMPIRE HUNTER, the hunted steal their victims' youth, rather than merely the usual pints of blood. The unlucky are usually attractive young women. Ones like Carla, the mysterious lass who joins the team after Kronos rescues her from a stockade, where she was left for dead  for the crime of dancing on a Sunday.

Dr. Marcus, an old friend and military compadre of Kronos', joins the investigation. They talk out theories, like how a youth draining vampire should appear young. When one of the crew is attacked, the usual methods of vampire dispatch (fire, hanging) are debunked, proven ineffective. But, that cross...... 

The Durwood family, the late patriarch an old friend of Marcus', will figure prominently in this tale. The widow is barely seen, bedridden. Her son Paul and daughter Sara act suspiciously. There is the possible hint of incest. Could the lovely young woman be the culprit, feeding her beauty with that siphoned from the fair maidens left as rotting corpses among the brush? Will it take that age old plot - using a heroine as bait - to identify the killer?

CAPTAIN KRONOS' screenplay is a bit different than expected. Vampire lore is tweaked more than just here and there, and swordplay figures prominently. Director Brian Clemens oversees with considerable zip. With a good sense of  old-time serial pacing and atmosphere. A bit of the expected cheese, too.  This picture is an odd man out among the Hammer films, and surprisingly never resorts to gratuitous gore or nude scenes like so many other 70s vampire epics, particularly the ghastly Andy Warhol one.

Horst Janson's take on Kronos is of a stone faced, hilariously aloof perfectionist who repeatedly belittles  Carla before their inevitable union. As his quarry, Caroline Munro projects a beauty that is most often distracting. Her irises exhibit a perpetual lost in the headlights gaze, a cluelessness that seems appropriate.  Miss Munro would become quite well known in the world of low budget cinema, a Queen of the Bs, of sorts.

Vampires go in and out of vogue in pop culture.  They are usually unrelentingly vicious. Or suave and seductive. The current bloodsuckers, like in the TWILIGHT series, tend to be pouting bores. CAPTAIN KRONOS presents one who's somewhat different, more human(istic). Less the drooling ghoul, but still the One Who Must Feed, albeit with less Karo syrup.   All the while, the film repeatedly drops hints that it is trying to make the case for the existence of God.

And the movie is really set apart by some unusual elements: part swashbuckler, part spaghetti Western. While there's atmosphere to spare, the movie is rarely creepy and not really scary. It's choice camp, a guilty pleasure comic strip. There is the occasional curious moment: note the blindfolded woman in the watering hole, the characters' drug use,  to keep you wondering what Clemens is up to.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Still Around

I work in the same general area in which I grew up. This has allowed, on many occasions, for me to see patients with whom I crossed paths years earlier: former classmates, instructors, bosses, parents of friends. It can be awkward, but is usually pleasant and sometimes even funny. Always eye opening. Last week I found myself face to face with the father of a girl who died back in 1984, someone I met in kindergarten.

She was the sweetest. Fact, I remember chasing her (and being chased) around the church playground, ending with her planting a kiss on my cheek, possibly the first given to me by someone who wasn't a relative. She loved Disney and all its characters. She often wore a blue checkered dress with her name stitched in next to Winnie the Pooh. 

We went to different high schools, but I still saw her at church. While most had become insufferable brats during junior high (myself included), she remained a light. Truly Christlike. She was a tremendous influence on her cheerleading squad. But then, on the way back from an out of town game, the van in which she and several others were riding flipped over. The news was chilling and numbing. The funeral was held at my church.  I can still see the parking lot, painted lines ignored as hundreds came out to mourn.

I was confused and ultimately, angry. I lamented the way many before and since have when such a sweet person is taken away. It did not make sense, someone with so much to offer. Why couldn't it have been me, or one of my bitter friends? A bunch of miscreants who only offered the world sarcasm and disrespect?

As I sat her father down for a hearing test, I did my usual case history. Something he said made me realize who he was. I was reluctant to ask, unsure if it would open an old hurt. He was instead very willing to discuss his daughter, how in her only 15 years had brought joy that continues to this day. How many others still around still think about her as I still do. She had a brother who now has children of his own.

Dad never left the area. He relayed more details of the accident, one that may have been avoided if not for poor urban planning. The discussion spring boarded. He told me that he and his wife unofficially adopted a young girl in the late 80s. A girl who married one of my high school buds who now lives in North Carolina. The ol' small world thing. We both smiled now. We talked so long it threw the morning schedule into a tizzy.

My grandfather died the same year as Debbie. I still think about both frequently. I talk to them, explaining to my grandfather (who would've been 107 this year) that his bride is still with us, about to celebrate her century mark. I tell Debbie about this insane vortex of tech in which we live, and wonder what she would've been like had she joined the rest of us as we approach middle age.  Would she be married, with a minivan filled with kids? Or still single, trolling Match.com or ChristianMingle.com? Would she still be a devoted, Scripture-quoting Christian? Or would she have all but turned her back on her childhood faith like so many of our class and church-mates have?

I did not share these inquiries with her dad, but I'll bet he's wondered on all of that. Thoughts that haunt and fascinate. To go along with those unanswerable "why" questions. Perhaps there will be an explanation when our times come. Maybe she'll be the one to explain.....

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Outside Man

If one day Jean Paul Sartre decided to fly to Los Angeles and shoot a crime drama, it would probably look a lot like 1972's THE OUTSIDE MAN. Director Jacques Deray's moody effort earns comparison with the finest U.S. West Coast noirs, right up to Robert Altman's caustic take on Philip Marlowe, THE LONG GOODBYE, released a year later. The locations become as, if not more, important than the players. But what an unusual cast.

Aside from leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing a French hitman named Lucien who comes to L.A. to rub out a mobster, most of the main actors in THE OUTSIDE MAN are Americans.  Consider Ann-Margaret as Nancy, the mobster's mistress. And Roy Scheider as Lenny, a second hitman hired to eliminate Lucien. Or Angie Dickinson, so perfectly cast as the mobster's widow, a really duplicitous dame, as they say in this genre. Georgia Engel, best known for her lovably dopey housewives on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, plays a very similar character here. In fact, I wonder if the MTM team cast her based on her highly entertaining turn, as a loopy woman who is kidnapped by Lucien and then later basks in her new found fame in front of TV cameras.

The story takes a few turns, mostly standard stuff about rival organizations puppeteering their employees and associated gang warfare. Lucien spends most of the film dodging Lenny's firearms and resisting Nancy's feminine wiles as he tries to unravel the puzzle. There is much mileage out of the "fish out of water" genre, with Lucien's stone faced bewilderment in this most peculiar of places, with its motorcycle gangs and prostitutes and proselytizing hippie hitchhikers.

Intrigue is maintained most of the while, but what really distinguishes this film is its local color. L.A. as itself.  Or rather, as it was in a less complicated time.  When ample remnants of old Hollywood were still to be found. A city filled with considerable character, from Bel Air mansions to saloons that wouldn't be out of place in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Deray casts a wide eye, seeing this familiar place as foreigners often do, with more attention to detail and social mores. Also, the time period (did people really use public electric shavers in men's rooms??) He's as observant as Louis Malle (ATLANTIC CITY, for one), and not as dismissive of spy plotting as Altman. Deray is also clearly more interested in highlighting if not creating iconic imagery. Not just the usual landmarks. The sleazy walk up apartments, the rusty seaside haunts, drive-in movie theater parking lots. If this movie were remade today, it might as well be set entirely in Venice Beach, where the grime just continues to ooze.   This is what Deray is fascinated by. How the landscapes are appropriate backdrops and virtually mimic the broken down souls who inhabit them. He's both an excited first time tourist and a jaded local.

Interspersed within THE OUTSIDE MAN are some very curious moments, lots of low key humor, not the least of which is a shootout in a funeral parlor around the deceased mobster, who's embalmed in the sitting position with a cigar in his hand. It's one of the most amusing scenes I've watched lately, though (maybe not so) curiously, the moment is not edited for maximum impact, for action movie thrill seeking. It's just another absurd event in a bleak, existential space. But the final scene - that is straight out of the great tradition of French existentialism.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Cat in Paris

2010's A CAT IN PARIS (UNE VIE DE CHAT) is a delightful animated feature, a highly enjoyable hour spent traipsing around familiar Parisian landmarks.  The promise of a nimble feline as its central character was what sealed the deal, what caught my eye in the public library's DVD section. What made carting an odiferous snapcase worth the trouble (do other borrowers carry these discs home under their armpits?).

Delightful is the right word. Beautifully (hand) drawn. Refreshing to watch, honestly. So pleasing to these tired eyes. The artificiality of computer animation is wearing thinner and thinner. This film is an endlessly vibrant palate of color and some really interesting shading. Shadows are used to great effect.  But I just wish there was more "cat".

Zoe is young girl who has a darling black kitty that sneaks out every night to join a young man named Nico, a jewel thief. Each morning, the cat brings home dead lizards and sometimes even jewelry to his owner. Zoe refuses to speak, perhaps in protest to her mother's (Jeanne) consuming preoccupation with her job as a police detective. Also because her father lost his life in the same line of duty to a gangster named Victor Costa, who seeks to bag an African statue that is about to be shipped out of town, and who Jeanne is determined to nail.

There is a lot of plot in A CAT IN PARIS. Costa's bumbling goons in fact get far more screen time than the titular cat. This is a bit distressing as the gears of the script creak with familiarity; the details of the storyline as Jeanne attempts to stop the criminals and rescue her kidnapped daughter are as old as the Rue Mouffetard itself.  I would've preferred a more contemplative, even melancholy journey with that most enigmatic of domesticated pets. A love poem both to the mystery of cats and the City of Lights.  Having such an involved screenplay almost seems an attempt to engage American audiences (the American dub of this film uses the voice talents of Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston, and Matthew Modine). I enjoyed the original voices more. This is a French film, it should've been more French!

But this quibble is no reason to miss such a charming movie. There is much to appreciate in its short running time. Mainly technical, yes, with its imaginative backdrops and fluid movements. I loved the sequence where the characters find themselves in the dark after a power failure, their figures seen only as dotted lines. There are also funny nods to films like GOODFELLAS and even RESERVOIR DOGS woven in (and yes, this film is a bit intense for the younger set). And any film that uses a Billie Holliday tune gets at least half a point.

But directors Jean Loup-Felicioni and Alain Gagnol (who also scripted) would've made a wonderful film that much moreso if they just hung with our friend, down the alleyways. Pontificating on life.  Maybe that wonderful series of shorts featuring Henri ("Henri, le Chat Noir") could be adapted next?