Friday, June 27, 2014

Delicias de España

If you're down Miami way it would be worth your time to stop into one of the three Delicias de España establishments. I've been to the Coral Gables location several times, always ordering breakfast. It's become a tradition on our visits to my father in law's. The restaurant is usually full, and feels as authentic as any establishment I've visited.  Interestingly, it's also a great spot in which to cheer on your favorite football team (hint: not the Dolphins or any other club that throws around a pigskin). Given the diversity of the crowd, it's not hard to figure.

Above you see my most recent meal there: scrambled eggs with chorizo sausage and potatoes. Excellent. I also had a sip of their hot chocolate (despite the sweltering heat outside). It is delightfully thick, like pudding.

The cuisine is in the European Spanish style, with provisions imported from Spain weekly. There are many amazing looking seafood dishes I will eventually sample. I've heard nothing but great things. The menu also includes an array of tapas and hors d'oeuvres available for catering.  I had tapas and many other delicacies during a trip to Spain in 2010 and would love to be reminded yet again.

Additionally, There is a store inside the restaurant, with all kinds of gifts, not just the perishable sort. Though you should visit the guy cutting the ham.

Delicias de Espana

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Lego Movie

This year's THE LEGO MOVIE wants/seems to have it all possible ways. To be a celebration of individuality yet stressing the importance of teamwork. To be family friendly yet filled with gags for  grown ups. To sufficiently distract you from the not debatable fact that the movie is an unabashed feature length commercial for its product yet inspire you to go out and purchase the famous blocks to create your own masterpiece (or at least visit Legoland).

On most counts, it succeeds. I had some notions as to what to expect and was generally in the ballpark. THE LEGO MOVIE finds a comfortable place between cutesy children's fare and the slightly more caustic, pop culture savvy PG movie ala SHREK and WRECK-IT RALPH. It does not betray either style, and the lighthearted among you will be pleased as punch to know that the (drawn out) closing scenes embrace warm fuzzies full on, beyond what I would normally tolerate.

The story features yet another misfit hero, though here our misfit, Emmett, fits in all too well. A construction worker (with the last name Brickowski) who happily glides through his ordinary life, saying hello to the same people every day on the way to the site. Bouncing to the same pop song ("Everything is Awesome") as everyone else. As long as there is an instruction manual, which Emmett clutches at every moment, life is swell.

But Emmett will learn that all those nice folks with whom he interacts barely notice him. Rather, they are acutely aware that they barely notice him. He assimilates like wallpaper.  It is with great anxiety that Emmett finds himself among a group of rebels who explain that he is "the Special", the one who will save the world from the evil Lord Business, who plans to freeze everyone with a weapon called "The Kragle".

The plot should remind you of another Warner Brothers franchise. No accident, of course.  THE LEGO MOVIE also wants to be an homage to THE MATRIX, complete with a wise old sage named Vitruvius, a butt-kicking heroine named Lucy, er, Wlydstyle, and frenetic chase scenes. The philosophy, well, maybe not as Eastern religion like, though I'm certain someone out there is already piecing together a dissertation. LEGO MOVIE favors warm messages of Essential Human Goodness and Being Yourself. The finale I spoke of even dives into live action, framing the entire story in what seems both ingenious and derivative (maybe even a cop-out), and will convert some Scrooges in the audience and leave others cold.

But either way, the animation, very stop motion-like but CG, is sensational. The limitations a Lego character would have - stepping, attaching to other interlocking pieces - are intact, creating an endearing engagement for the viewer.  Even when there is an impossible amount of detail to absorb. Each landscape is busting with minute detail, amusing things often happing in the background and periphery. My favorite: how a Lego ocean would look and move.

There are lots of pop culture cameos, some extended (Batman), others fleeting (Han Solo, Chewbacca, and C3P0), that are not gratuitous but actually serve the plot. Kids may not get every joke but don't discount them - I watched this film with my wife's stepmother's grandkids (ages 3 and 6) and they recognized more than I would've expected.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who also scripted, land several gentle jabs in THE LEGO MOVIE, especially with that earworm of a song, the one that, in the early scenes, is shown to be a sort of mind control among the populace, and later, an empowerment anthem. Those guys, having it both ways while entertaining the pants off of us (there's a pun there if you've seen this movie) and also ensuring that our wallets will open again in the future....

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Red Shoes

Why do you want to dance?
Why do you want to live?
Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
That's my answer too.

For many an obsessed artist, and even those who only may be able to live vicariously through them, to live is to create. Biological necessities, homeostasis - they're merely a means to support the reach for artistic perfection. Most would say love and human connection are as necessary as the very breaths we take, but select impresarios like Boris Lermontov find such things as distractions from greatness. Urges that should be suppressed if one is to reach the pinnacle so desperately sought by someone who must dance, for it is life.

THE RED SHOES from 1948 is well known for being among the favorite films of late 20th century directors such as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. The film's influence is very evident in their (and many of their contemporaries') work, from the gorgeous color palate to the explorations of the real vs. the imagined and even a touch of psychosis. It is the ultimate statement on the calling some receive for a life devoted to the arts. A life with little room for the things humans tend to chase like relationships and families. The "family" in the prodigy's life are comprised of similarly driven individuals who just can't reconcile the white picket fence scene.

Vicky (Moira Shearer) is a natural. Her talent is evident to Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who invites her to join his esteemed company of ballet dancers. He recognizes a likemindedness in her, not shared by his former star ballerina (Ludmilla Tcherina), who has left the troupe to get married. Foolish girl.

Lermontov also employs Julian (Marius Goring), a composer who will go on to create "The Red Shoes", which will prove to be the latest masterpiece from Ballet Lermontov. The ultimate showpiece for Vicky, whose craft flowers exponentially during the film. But unlike Lermontov, Vicky is still a human being, subject to the intervention of human nature. Her heart and soul intact.  Vicky and Julian begin to fancy each other. By the time Julian expresses that when he is old he will always remember her love, fates are sealed.

Based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, THE RED SHOES is so far beyond the standard issue tragic show biz weepie. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, undeniable impresarios themselves, elevate potential clichés to levels that make the time worn fairy tale ideas seem entirely new. As inventive as their screenplay may be, it is their filmic artistry that creates a classic. Their direction emphasizes high style that so suits the material it is as if they created the story from scratch. It is noteworthy that in addition to the Andersen story, THE RED SHOES is also reputed to be based on Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

The gods of cinema were surely smiling down on THE RED SHOES, with Jack Cardiff's astonishing cinematography (note that shimmering sea) and Robert Helpmann's choreography of the title ballet, a truly mesmerizing 15 minutes of film. During the "Red Shoes" performance,  Vicky will suffer conflicting visions, the faces of the two key men in her life, both fighting for her soul. The red shoes may have a life of their own. The ultimate victor is indeed a jealous sort, perhaps leaving a mere spotlight on the stage by final curtain.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reaching for the Stars

I'd be remiss to not devote a post to a man whose voice was so omnipresent in my younger days. You may have heard that Casey Kasem passed away this weekend. He was 82.  The passing followed a long period of the former deejay's illness, and the very public fighting over his care between Kasem's wife of 30+ years, Jean, and his children from a prior marriage. The drama was thick in those final months; he even went missing for several days earlier this year.

Kasem was best known for his American Top 40 radio and T.V. programs.  His distinctive voice will never be duplicated. I spent many hours listening to those Billboard countdowns, even when my musical tastes slowly began to broaden in the 80s. He made them downright suspenseful at times. He was slick and professional, always compelling. Like the best radio voices, he, despite the polish, felt like a friend, taking directly to you.

Yes, he was an easy target for ridicule. I first heard his infamous rant back in the late 80s on Neil Rogers' talk show. Are you familiar? When that beloved voice quite unexpectedly and hilariously drops the professional sheen and heads straight for the locker room. A profanity laced tirade as he attempts to get through another of his "Long Distance Dedications".  The first time I heard it I was shocked and maybe even a little disappointed. But imagine having to repeat station IDs for countless AM and FM stations around the country, over and over and over. I bet you'd get frustrated too. It's tempting, but in honor of the late Kasem (and for good taste's sake) I will not link to any of the several uncensored spews you can find on YouTube and the like.  But they are a riot.

Kasem also lent his voice to many cartoon characters, most famously to Shaggy on Scooby Doo. I learned this well after I watched the program regularly.  It was fun to go back and hear my radio bud talking like a hippie. I also remember Casey's involvement with the Jerry Lewis telethons, also watched regularly throughout my childhood.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Urgh! A Music War

For many fans of New Wave and punk, 1982's concert film collage URGH! A MUSIC WAR has been some sort of cinematic holy grail. Those lucky enough to own the original VHS or Betamaxes have long clamored for a DVD release as the oxide keeps shredding off their old tapes.  URGH! was for years seemingly lost in the vortex of legal wrangling over music rights. This sort of complication has prevented many films and TV shows from being released on DVD, and is damned frustrating. Don't get me started on the current fate of LOOKING FOR MR.GOODBAR.

URGH! has been shown on cable over the years. The USA Network's fondly recalled Night Flight program scattered the movie into segments over several hours and even nights. Some performances were missing from broadcasts. It's actually a bit confusing: the '82 theatrical release was 96 minutes, then the original cable and VHS were just over 2 hours. The VH1 and other more recent network showings removed some of the acts who got a bit raunchy (the film carries an R-rating). Like The Cramps' lead singer Lux Interior's fellation of a microphone as he struts around in pants that look like they will fail at any moment. Or the Surf Punks' simulated sex den at the back of the stage (you don't see anything other than juvenalia).

Warner Archives, the studio's service that produces spartan, no frills on-demand DVD-R discs for interested buyers, released URGH! in 2009. As with the VHS, only one song is missing (Splodgenessabounds'  "Two Little Boys", which, like all of the scenes, can be found on YouTube). There is only the film's trailer as an extra.While the aspect ratio has been preserved, the image and soundtrack have not been remastered. There aren't even proper chapter stops: each is at ten minute intervals, regardless if a song is over or not. It's almost like an 8-track tape version of the movie.

But rabid fans (like myself) are just happy that the thing is available. To again enjoy the frantic buffet of music this film serves. Over 30 acts, each allowed one song (aside from The Police, who open and close the film, and get 3), one after another. The segments were shot in L.A., N.Y., and throughout Europe in 1980, part of a project engineered by I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland III (brother of Stewart). Everything is this film is thrown together, very slapdash. The editing between songs is, at times, jarringly sloppy, like that of your classmate who did an amateurish job on your Certron mix tape.

If you're familiar with early 80s music, you will recognize many of the acts: Echo and the Bunnymen, Devo, Joan Jett, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Gos. Many of URGH!'s lineup went on to great success.  There are also bands like Invisible Sex, Athletico Spizz (who use silly string as a prop) and Klaus Nomi, as well as several others who were and would remain obscure. Most performances are tight, though curiously two of my favorites, X and Gang of Four, are captured during less than inspired moments. X's Billy Zoom looks a bit bewildered. The Go-Gos really surprised with their raw, pre-pop image, their more strident version of their later hit "We Got the Beat." I also liked Jett's slower tempo (than the studio version) for "Bad Reputation."

I could easily critique each and every moment, from Gary Numan's well rendered "Down in the Park" (while riding in what appears to be one of those carts you sit in on amusement park rides) to Skafish's rather desperate fist shake at religion, "Sign of the Cross", complete with the lead singer swinging around a censer. The Police do an interesting version of their beyond overplayed 'Roxanne". You'll also get to see XTC in one of their few live appearances and a  throwaway rant from John Cooper Clarke called "Health Fanatic." The latter reminded me of  Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Loud Prayer", equally silly, from Scorsese's THE LAST WALTZ. Lesser knowns like Au Pairs and 999 burn up the stage and prompted me to seek out their work.

I mentioned THE LAST WALTZ. URGH! doesn't hold a candle to it. Certainly not to STOP MAKING SENSE, or even RUST NEVER SLEEPS.  It is reminiscent of so many scattershot concert docs of the 70s and 80s, with its suspicious audience cutaways, often so obvious that they're not reacting to what is being played at the moment. We also get the expected middle fingers to the camera and the girl who (almost) loses her shirt as she body surfs the crowd. But URGH! A MUSIC WAR, crude and poorly crafted as it is,  is such a blistering good time, a nonstop feast of beautiful noise that no New Wave fan should miss it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Until I Say Goodbye...

Susan Spencer lived in my town (West Palm Beach) and graduated from my high school (Forest Hill, in 1984), but sadly I never got to meet, though I did know of, her. She later became Susan Spencer-Wendel and a reporter for the Palm Beach Post.

In 2011, Susan was diagnosed with ALS, which would prevent her from continuing her tireless efforts for the newspaper.  With only the use of her right thumb, she wrote (on her iPhone!) her memoir, Until I Say Goodbye.  Despite the ravages of degenerative disease, her spirit remained strong until her death last week.

This article summarizes it better.  Read it and (try not to) weep.

Susan Spencer-Wendel, former Palm Beach Post reporter and...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mickey One

He is on stage. Trying to do his act. He's dying up there, as comedians often do. This time, it may well be truly be a matter of life or death. The spotlight is blinding. There is an intimidating voice.  Who is behind that light?

He's been there before, under far less urgent circumstances.  The montage that opens 1965's MICKEY ONE details the charmed life of our anonymous hero (Warren Beatty). He cavorts with a blonde bombshell through Detroit nightlife. But then he sees something in a back room. The Mob follows him as he flees to another desolate, nightmarish urban landscape: Chicago. How ominous that his first vision of the city is in an auto junkyard, where he stumbles upon a police scene: a man was killed in one of those crushers.

He begins to call himself "Mickey One" and meets a woman named Jenny (Alexandra Stewart) who falls for him, represents the promise of a stable life.  But is she working with them? Does Mickey really owe something to the Mafia? There are doormen and bartenders and club owners who may all be in on it, plotting against him. Can he even trust himself?

Director Arthur Penn's rather odd, near one-of-a-kind feature is one of the first Hollywood pics to mimic the disorienting (for the time) style of the French New Wave. Ghislain Cloquet's camera is rarely still, flailing about in sync with an appropriately frantic score by Stan Getz and some moodily impressive use of light. Inventive edits and transitions. The characters speak very quicky; Mickey's tone is always caustic. Everything works together to keep the viewer feeling unsure, uneasy, maybe even a bit lightheaded. Alan Surgal's script is a grab bag of ideas, with a decidedly discordant, Kafkaesque atmosphere of paranoia. I'm not sure I understood it all.

Beatty does some good work in an atypical role. He projects fear, confusion, and hopelessness as well as I've ever seen on screen.

Is Mickey just some puppet, some tragic figure at the whim of supernatural forces? Is he the John Q. who dares have an inquiring mind, to question all the supposeds of Life, rather than keeping his head down and toeing the line? When he takes the stage near the end, it is in fact for an audition. But Is he standing before, God? Has he already left the cruel world and now must give account at the throne or gate? Or is he about to take his last breath before a firing squad?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shaun of the Dead

Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy: Chapter 3

You've got red on you.

By this late date, I feel that zombie stories have just grown tiresome. Their ubiquity in film and on TV (though it must be said that The Walking Dead has been a deserved sensation on the AMC cable network) renders more a yawn than a spine tingle. So popular are the undead that there is even a zombie apocalypse survival guide to be found in the Nonfiction Section of your local brick and morter!  George A. Romero first immortalized the images of an army of slow moving drooling ghouls in 1968's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which later inspired many similar films, including a string of sequels by the director himself.

One of them was 1978's DAWN OF THE DEAD, laced with generous amounts of mordant humor and satire.  What with a shopping mall as its setting, the opportunities to rib consumerism were plentiful. Amidst some truly unsettling attack/gore moments, Romero had us chuckling.  In the 80s and beyond, more zombie epics capitalized on the inherent comedic possibilities of the walking dead. The dichotomy of the poignancy surrounding that sauntering piece of meat, once your beloved family member who now wants to chow down on your brains and the sheer ridiculousness of it made films like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD interesting views.

In 2004, perhaps inspired, director Edgar Wright and lead actor Simon Pegg concocted SHAUN OF THE DEAD, a merger of the horror and slacker genres.. A cross pollination that lands us in familiar territory - the 30 somethings who are still living out their adolescence. As the title dude, Pegg plays an electronics store employee who slowly begins to recognize that a zombie uprising has overtaken London. It's a problem, but even more pressing is that his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has just broken it off because he suggests they go to their same old pub rather than a decent restaurant for their anniversary.

There to console him is best pal/roommate Ed (Nick Frost). The next day, after a whopper of a hangover, the duo discovers a confused young lady in their backyard who turns out to be a zombie. To fend her off, they reluctantly start heaving their record collection, which allows for some funny commentary on the likes of Sade and the Stone Roses. Then more cadavers arrive, doing their agonizing drag across the neighborhood.  Even the boys' angry roommate, Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), tears out of the shower after them (seems he had been bitten the night before). Shaun and Ed race through the multiplying hordes to rescue Liz, Shaun's mum (on whom Ed has long had a crush), and other friends and family. Eventually, the heroes are trapped in the beloved Winchester pub for the inevitable standoff.

Pubs figure quite prominently in the Cornetto trilogy.  They are second homes to these characters, much as they were to the folks on Cheers. The attention given to ale and its appreciation in these films isn't merely local color, a reality of their lifestyles. It's lifeblood. A commonality that erases the many divides among Wright's and Pegg's characters. There are always the underachievers and their more ambitious counterparts, usually at odds.  The films in this trilogy are not serious sociological treatises by any stretch, but so many moments capture this idea, admittedly moreso in the later films.

We've discussed the masses represented in each film: the robots in WORLD'S END, the townspeople in HOT FUZZ, and now the zombies in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Our writers have much to say about majority rule, going with societal flow. Nothing revolutionary, but seen within blood and entrail splattered set pieces (and at least one here is over the top enough to delight gore fans), the points are somehow even more potent. Emphasized with an urgency that might otherwise seem pretentious or didactic. Genre efforts often allow the artist to make commentaries that on their own might come off as preachy and heavy-handed. How ironic that many movies with decaying, walking meatloaves make the case better than those with arch, self-conscious characterizations that seem aware of their own symbolism.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD has plenty of violence, action, and comedy, once again expertly packaged by the guys. But the mayhem pauses long enough to allow a very poignant sequence: one of the characters becomes infected and has to be offed by Shaun's rifle before he or she begins craving their flesh. The agony of such a moment, the horrible inevitability of having to dispatch someone you love is very well played. And there's a lighthearted final scene, a real testament to come hell or high water friendship, though it may cause you to wonder if another zombie apocalypse might occur because of it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Frances Ha

I haven't been as pleasantly surprised with a film as I was with last year's FRANCES HA in some time. I was certainly anticipating writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest, and that Criterion included it so quickly in its mostly stellar library was more than encouraging. But honestly,  I was expecting a moody little bit of narcissism, albeit one with the sort of unblinkingly harsh insight seen in earlier Baumbachs like THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. FRANCES HA is rather a joyful, energetic jaunt seen both through the eyes of its twenty something title character (Greta Gerwig, who had previously co-starred in Baumbach's GREENBURG and co-scripted this film) and some wily omniscient.

Frances will earn some viewers' sympathy. Some will fall in love with her. Others will dismiss her as an aimless, misguided child whose intelligence hasn't quite translated to self-sufficiency. As nurturing an environment New York City is to those who are well read and with artistic bents, it is likewise coldly unforgiving when the rent is due. And Frances spends the movie wandering from one apartment to another, beginning in Brooklyn with her best friend (and possible co-dependent) Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances describes their close relationship akin to "two lesbians who don't have sex." It's like they share the same brain, like soul mates. But Sophie will eventually move in with her boyfriend "Patch" (Patrick Heusinger), a guy Frances mockingly describes as the sort of shallow dude who buys a leather sofa and declares "I luuuve it."

Frances is a dancer, though she mainly oversees classes for children. Opportunities to display her own talents are often stifled. She loses out on an expected/hoped for role in a Christmas program at her studio. The rent is still due.

Gerwig creates such an endearing, yet frustrating character. You've probably met someone like her. I identified with her point of view, recognized some of her behavior as my own when I was younger. Did I make self-serving, cringe worthy comments to complete strangers around the dinner table? I loved Frances, but my paternal instincts wanted to sit her down and tell her to stop already. But someone like Frances needs to make mistakes and find her own way.

Throughout the picture, Baumbach very lovingly and effectively positions the music of Georges Delerue, Jean Constantin, and Antoine Duhamel, whose scores were used in French New Wave pics. Films which FRANCES HA clearly emulates, with its brief vignettes, quick edits, and gorgeous black and white photography (amazingly, 100% digital). Characters are highly articulate and muse philosophically nearly every minute. Like in Woody Allen and Whit Stillman movies. And oh, to be young! To have lives filled with endless get-togethers and quirky experiences. To spontaneously whip up an omelete that earns applause from your roommates.  To experience all that is beautiful and ugly in New York City. Baumbach's movie, stylized as it is, will feel very real if you've ever been young and hungry in the City. Well, not in the poverty stricken parts of it, but.....

That's an interesting point. New York City is the (ultimately) place of freedom, of growth. When Frances makes a last minute, completely ill-advised trip to Paris, she's lonely and miserable. The same streets upon which those in the New Wave films found their joy. The pop songs Baumbauch chooses also work well: While Frances runs with joy underneath David Bowie's bouncy "Modern Love" through Manhattan, she sulks around (nonetheless beautiful) Paris to Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner", with its harsh sounding guitar distortion. It works beautifully. So does the entire film.