Friday, March 27, 2015

Middletown Dreams

Rush's "Middletown Dreams", from their 1985 album Power Windows, has always affected me.  Many of their songs do, but this one is especially powerful.  The beloved Canadian power trio have a 40 year catologue of haunting lyrics and majesty in their music.  Teens from any decade could painfully relate to "Subdivisions", for certain.  "Red Sector A", from 1984's Grace Under Pressure,  is a commanding, heartfelt Holocaust remembrance.

"Middletown Dreams" is a straightforward tune, an ode to those good folk, young and old, in small towns who yearn for something bigger.  Each verse draws a portrait of someone you may have known, possibly yourself. Or at least someone who shares your mental flights of fancy as you survey your humdrum existence. With few words drummer/lyricist Neil Peart conjures some vivid Americana (Canadiana?) of those whose dreams are perhaps the only essence or measure of their self worth as they wander modest landscapes and surrender to a far from stimulating lifestyle.

Dreams flow across the heartland and feeding on the fires
Dreams transport desires
Drive you when you're down
Dreams transport the ones who need to get out of town, out of town

You might say these lyrics are somewhat of the flip side to those individuals "caught in ticking traps", those who escaped the suburbs for the excitement of the city in "Subdivisions".

"Middletown" really came to life for me during the summer I lived in Clermont, FL.   Back in 1991, that town off Highway 50 west of Orlando had only a few traffic lights, a Ryan's Steakhouse, and a shopping center.  A very Mayberry kind of place, far different than what I was used to.  The folks went about their business, humble and genuine.  I hate to paint in broad strokes but it really did resemble like a neo-Norman Rockwell  piece of art.  I was living in a big, ancient two story with an elderly woman named Opal who was friends with my fiancee's mother.  She made me breakfast every day, even when I told her I had no time to eat it as I had to make the daily drive at the crack of dawn into the city.   To sell things.  I was miserable.  

I met some of Opal's neighbors.  A few reminded me of this verse:

The middle-aged Madonna
Calls her neighbor on the phone
Day by day the seasons pass
And leave her life alone

But she'll go walking out that door
On some bright afternoon
To go and paint big cities
From the lonely attic room

I thought about their lives.  Did they feel helpless to move on?  Did they even desire that? Was I some sort of elitist?  Listening to Rush's song that summer gave it more weight, gave me something more to ponder than Alex Lifeson's insanely complicated guitar licks and Geddy Lee's synths and bassline.  Though their music itself positively evoked the feelings of loneliness in a quiet town, its stillness.  Quite an interesting feat, a paradox to create busy instrumentation yet also some crystal clear visions of the "flyover" town.  Peart's words tell an unmistakable story, but the entire thing works to stir the heart and mind.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Roger Ebert's infamous review for 1994's NORTH is probably better known than the film itself. It is certainly more enjoyable. The late film critic holds nothing back as he absolutely barbecues Rob Reiner's infamous comedic misfire, finally stating multiple times that he "hated hated....." it.  He devotes an entire paragraph to that end.  But is it so bad as to inspire an erudite writer to throw down such anger?

There are some movies upon which I would unload this sort of vitriol.  I hated MULEFEATHERS, THE BELIEVERS, PAY IT FORWARD, and several others, but even in the worst of them there is at least a tiny sliver of a band of worthiness, something of value, though in my opinion not enough to make them worth watching. Ebert found not one iota of such in NORTH, which I agree is a pretty bad film but far from the worst I've seen.

In a nutshell: North (Elijah Wood) is an overachieving young man who is consistently ignored by his neurotic father and mother (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis Dreyfus) and decides, quite publicly, to divorce himself from them and scour the world to find more suitable guardians. Each new set of parents initially seems just fine, until something unfortunate is revealed about them. The Texans (Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire) are looking to replace their deceased son. The Hawaiians (Keone Young and Lauren Tom) plan to use North's image on billboards to sell land in their state. The Eskimos (Graham Greene and Kathy Bates, along with Abe Vigoda) have unacceptable customs.  Another family (Faith Ford, John Ritter, and a young Scarlett Johansson) is too perfect.  There is even a stop in Amish country (with WITNESS co-stars Alexander Godunov and Kelly McGillis, ha ha).  In each locale Bruce Willis shows up, playing everything from a department store Easter Bunny to a Fed-Ex driver to offer the poor boy some advice.  This is some cast.

NORTH had great potential. Alan Zweibel based the screenplay on his own novel and has some good ideas and the premise is workable.  I don't know about the book, but this movie is almost impressive in how skillful in it is in botching every single scene, every moment which could have been mined for both comedy and pathos.  Reiner at times tries for the throwback Jewish humor of those dark '70s comedies like FIRE SALE (in which he appeared).  The director of that film, Alan Arkin, has a cameo as a judge in an agonizingly unfunny courtroom scene that makes my point.  Castle Rock produced Seinfeld and with NORTH you can see some of the same method, right down to the casting of Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus, who are uncharacteristically dull.  At one point, North has to escape the bullets of a hit man, another questionable choice for humor.

My suggestion is to skip the movie and just read Ebert's review.  Pretend Reiner never made it.  You might want to just pretend the director stopped making movies altogether in the mid-90s while you're at it....

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Avocado Grill

125 Datura Street in West Palm Beach has had a number of eateries over the last few years.  The fine seafood stop Spoto's held court for some time before heading to Palm Beach Gardens.  The Barrel & Grain Gastropub, which shuttered in late 2013, seemed to only be around for a year or so.  I visited once and liked the overall informality of it.  The beer selection was choice and the food really creative and delicious, though their (admittedly, er, tongue in cheek) Halloween menu was downright odd and potentially disgusting with choices like crispy pig ear salad and braised chicken feet.

Avocado Grill has assumed the space on the corner of Datura and Narcissus and been doing some brisk business. The word has been favorable.  A coworker and her husband booked a Valentine's Day date there.  My wife and I recently braved the Irish Fest crowd and got a table (outside) without fuss - our timing was excellent. The place was packed on that Saturday evening.  The waiter apologized for the music wafting over from the Fest - and he was right; it was close to unendurable.  There were also more Valley girls sitting near us than we could tolerate for too long.  Good thing my selections, Japanese eggplant and chorizo and shrimp tacos (a special) were so good.  My wife had a quinoa salad.  We began with corn chips and guacamole, seasoned with ginger.  Wish I'd thought of that. 

The menu is primarily tapas, all of which sounded terrific.  There are also larger entrĂ©e plates.

The beer offerings need expansion and maybe some fine tuning but the seasonal draught was Gingerland U.F.O.,  a nice, aromatic, light brew spiced with cinnamon and clove to complement the ginger.  A refreshing choice for a warm night. 

Check 'em out.  Hopefully the place has legs and sticks around for awhile.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Day of the Jackal

1973's THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is one of the most intricately crafted, precise thrillers I've seen. A real jewel in the suspense genre. A film that respects its audience and trusts them to connect the dots without gratuitous, insulting exposition or garish set pieces. The story is complex but not convoluted. Rather, it is elegantly lean.  A quiet few hours that eschews scoring (take note, filmmakers!) and overly engineered adrenaline yet is nonetheless quite exciting. I'm still mulling how such a deliberated paced few hours nonetheless flew by.

Roger Ebert described the film as a "Swiss watch".  I can't think of a better descriptor, even without the film's multiple close-ups of timepieces.  Every scene is meticulously composed, but never rubs our face in its technique. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, which is based on Frederick Forsyth's bestseller, may sound thus far like a cold film, filled with mere function and no emotional connection.  While character sketches are broad, the excellent cast allows nuances to explain their essentiality, rather than with scenery chewing or any of the ol' ham fat that Olivier used to joke about. There are no unnecessary outbursts or slang filled rants to be found.

The Organization of the Secret Army wants French President Charles de Gaulle dead. They will go as far as to open fire on his motorcade in the light of day. When their failure ultimately results in the apprehension and execution of several OAS members, those remaining retreat to Vienna and plot a new course.  The "Jackal" is an ace British assassin (James Fox) hired to assail de Gaulle.   He's handsome and charming, and exceedingly crafty and cunning, with some impressive disguises.  New identities, sometimes of those who he's befriended and later killed, are frequent.  The Jackal indeed dispatches those who've served their purpose (craftsmen, lovers) without remorse as he inches closer toward his target, made easier by the fact that de Gaulle refuses to alter his scheduled appearances, including his presentation of medals to veterans of the French Resistance on Liberation Day.

Deputy Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) methodically tracks the Jackal, utilizing colleagues across Europe and intel from French cabinet members who may or may not have OAS moles as a bedmates.  There are many pleasures allowed, watching him work.  One feels like a fortunate shadow, privileged to see his mind process each clue, to hear every articulation of thought, every occasional dry bit of wit.

Director Fred Zinneman employs a similar methodical approach to his film: to its plotting and pace, location filming and set design.  All impeccable.  He gives the film a literary feel while likewise engaging us with the thrills of good old fashioned storytelling.  THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a film I return to again and again, not for another round of some highbrow filmic analysis but rather to remind myself how a Bentley of the cinematic realm ticks.  Damned if you can find anything like this made in the 21st century.

Friday, March 13, 2015


You may have read that I'm a big fan of the pairing of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, namely their "Cornetto" trilogy (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD'S END). In 2011 the Brits decided to make an American comedy, tackling another popular genre: science fiction. Pegg and Frost wrote this new film but their countryman Edgar Wright did not direct. This duty was handed to Greg Mottolla, best known for SUPERBAD.  The result, 2011's PAUL, comes with great expectations.

It pains me to report that the effort should've remained across the pond.  In my "Corenetto" reviews I explained how disheartening American comedies have become, and how refreshing U.K romps remain. It's too tiring to go through the explanation again, but PAUL lays it out in such a textbook disappointment that while I'm not recommending this movie, seeing it may be the best way for you to get my points. The blame does not fall solely on Mottolla, but he certainly frames it all in the unfortunate style of any recent assembly line comedy ala THE HEAT, HORRIBLE BOSSES, the HANGOVER trilogy, IDENTITY THIEF, etc. All witless sarcasm and easy destruction gags, let's-outdo-the-last-picture gross out jokes, and smothered in pop culture references. Many of these films star Jason Bateman and/or Kristen Wiig (PAUL does in fact feature both). What strikes me about these films, for all of their technical skill, is how lazy they are. No one seems interested in inventiveness, timing, nuance, or anything else that makes a comedy, you know, funny.

Paul is a miniature CGI alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) who talks like a typical Gen-Xer. He says the occasional funny thing, but mostly I was slapping my forehead. Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two men-children, in the States for a comic book convention, who happen upon the little guy in the desert afterward during a road trip. They also meet two stereotypically loony fundamentalist Christians, Ruth (Wiig) and her father Moses (John Carroll Lynch), who are mocked at every opportunity. In fact, the anti-Christian jokeload is far higher in this movie than most slob comedies, even BUBBLE BOY.  Pegg and Frost have some real issues, it seems.  While I'm not opposed to the ribbing of religions and customs, much of the humor here just seems bitter.

On our heroes' trail is a Secret Service agent Zoil, played by Bateman,  again doing the same wiseass smuggery he can probably do in his sleep by this time. Zoil has been appointed to capture Paul, eventually revealed to have been working for the government.  Now the little guy just wants to go home.

Pegg and Frost shoulder plenty of blame for deliberately writing such a unambitious farce. The crudeness of the screenplay is so obviously tailored to American sensibilities it's downright cynical, but seemingly without self-awareness of its cynicism.  It really thinks it's a funny and smart farce.  Aside from a few mildly amusing running gags, it's just D.O.A.  And Sigourney Weaver, maybe cool it with these wink-wink cameos of late?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Your Audiology Tutorial: Electrocochleography (ECochG)

Electrocochleography (ECochG), discovered in the 1930s, is an electrophysiologic examination of the inner ear, namely its concentration of the sensory fluid endolymph, which fills the membranous labyrinth.  Overproduction of endolymph may cause hydrops, defined as when the endolymphatic sac swells and causes a host of symptoms such as dizziness, tinnitus, aural fullness, and a fluctuating hearing loss.  This syndrome is often referred to as Meniere's Disease. The ECochG has other clinical applications, including intraoperative monitoring of cranial nerve VIII (hearing and balance nerve) during surgical procedures that can be detrimental to the auditory system.

The ECochG requires no participation from the patient - the more relaxed they are the better- as they are laid supine on a table with sticky electrodes placed on the forehead (ground and reference) and recording electrodes that also act as transducers of a sound stimulus (click) are utilized.  Where such electrodes are placed is dependent on which type is selected:

Tip Trodes: Gold (or other metal) foil covered foam inserts set usually between the first and second bend of ear canal. Easiest for patient to tolerate, but amplitude of waveforms' degradation is significant compared to.....

Tymp Trodes:  Long, wick like electrode (silver wire enclosed within Silastic tube), the tip (soft foam sponge filled with conductive gel) of which makes contact with the tympanic membrane (eardrum).  This is a more invasive method, requiring anesthesia.

Transtympanic Electrode:  Needle is inserted through eardrum to rest on the promontory, a rounded hollow prominence near the first turn of the cochlea (organ of hearing), and the round window, an opening into the inner ear.  TT electrodes are used while patient is sedated and anesthetized.  As this needle is closest to the voltage generated by inner ear, the response will yield the cleanest, highest amplitude, and most recognizable waveforms, which consist of.........

1)  Action Potential (AP):  A compound action potential which documents activity of cranial nerve VIII  fibers on their way out of the cochlea (distal end).

2) Summating Potential (SP):  Direct current activity of the hair cells (sensory receptors) in the cochlea.

3) Cochlear Microphonic: Alternating current activity for hair cells.  Clinically, polarity settings are sometimes set to "alternating" to enhance the SP and eliminate presence of CM so in order to have a  Baseline marker.

The ratio between the SP and AP is considered when diagnosing Meniere's Disease. A calculation of 45-50% or higher is considered positive for MD.  However, the ECochG test often has high variability and can result in false positive or false negative findings.  Patients with hearing loss greater than 50 dB HL in the range of 1000-4000 Hz are not good candidates for the ECochG as waveforms may be compromised.

Friday, March 6, 2015


Been workin' in nightclubs so long
Can hardly stand the break of day

Run down rooms and bad pianos
But it's still the only way

- Mose Allison

By the early oughts, Jerry Seinfeld had little left to prove.  Lean years of hitting the stand up circuit and occasional acting gigs paid off enormously in the early '90s when he got his own network show, an oddball comedy about "nothing" that nonetheless became one of the most successful sitcoms ever.  A cultural legacy that continues to show no signs of flagging.  Since Seinfeld ceased production in 1998, the reruns have never gone away.  No one could blame Jerry for resting on his laurels.  But tortured individuals are rarely satisfied to just toil around Central Park or polish their collection of Porsches.

Is it about money? Jay Leno is one of the many celebs who turns up during the 2002 documentary COMEDIAN.  Jerry asks him why he keeps working, when surely his grandchildren's children are set for life.  Both joke about their fears of going broke, of becoming garbage men.  Leno admits he hasn't yet touched his Tonight Show earnings.  How much money does one need to feel secure?  Imagine the residuals Jerry receives.

Or, is it just that driven personality that can never be contented?  Always has to prove something? Maybe even fail awesomely so as to have a comeback? A repeated cycle? Why would Seinfeld decide to start from scratch with all new material and tour the country as if just starting out?  We learn that the comedian is afraid he'll "lose it", maybe what athletes (secretly) fear if they put down the ball and put on those network jackets.  Fear is a driver.

Fear (and maybe a bit of boredom) drives Seinfeld to show up unannounced at 11:00 P.M. at a club near his Manhattan apartment.  To take the stage and just go for it. To see if he can still own the crowd.  You might think that someone as revered as Jerry Seinfeld will always captivate, his very presence enough to inspire the laughter every comedian needs to breathe.  He learns otherwise.  Even someone as famous and iconic as himself can bomb (after the audience's initial excitement) if the material and cadences are off.  Just as he suspected.

Seinfeld feels this is a good thing.  He's not trying to reinvent himself, necessarily, but rather build something new.  Satiate that craving for success, even if it had already been achieved, in spades.  Or maybe he just craves punishment.  Enjoys the pain.

COMEDIAN also follows an up and coming stand-up named Orny Adams, suffering the rites of passage as Seinfeld did back when.  He longs to join the stand-up royalty which has members like Chris Rock, George Wallace, Bill Cosby (all of whom appear in this film). How many years of dues will he be forced to endure?  Orny is also quite good at self-torture. Second guessing his talent and berating his T.V. appearances.  It just never is good enough.  Performers are always their own worst critics, and enemies. Adams hones his act so close to the bone that when the network makes him substitute the word "psoriasis" for "lupus" during a Letterman spot he feels the entire rhythm of the joke is lost.  On the DVD commentary, Seinfeld reacts to a scene in which Orny rides in a N.Y.C. taxi, fretting about what's going on in L.A. - "It's amazing how much suffering we inflict upon ourselves."

Adams is in his late 20s, watching the friends he grew up acquire steady jobs and houses, married with children.  He's on the road, always nauseous, refining his jokes.  He feels like a failure, perhaps ready to join the great mainstream.  Seinfeld poo poos his lament and chastises the younger man's resignation to what he considers a compromised life.  The elder concludes his scolding with a joke about a pair of wandering lawyers who observe a traditional family through their living room window - not with envy, but "how can they live like that?".

COMEDIAN is a fascinating though maybe unnecessary documentary that is primarily a collection of backstage conversations among the seen-it-all vets of the comedy circuit.  It is often difficult to understand what they are saying. This adds to the authentic feeling, but is also frustrating as hell.  What if we're missing some nugget of wisdom from Colin Quinn or Garry Shandling? Or least some bon mot or quip one can steal for later use?  Director Christian Charles should've had a more directional microphone mounted on his shaky camcorder.  Chris Franklin's editing is less than impressive.  Maybe your 10 year old nephew could've made a more professional looking doc. There are, however, appropriate uses of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" and Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage."

For devoted fans of Seinfeld, the movie will be curio, a time capsule.  Especially in this later on, as the comedian has indeed gone on to join the mainstream with a wife and kid. Orny's done some movies and T.V.  No family yet.  He's still trying to find that big break, but meanwhile is doing what he loves.  You know, despite it all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Jodorowsky's Dune

As much as I admire and enjoy listening to film directors, I sometimes recoil in embarrassment when I see them interviewed.  At times, it's as bad as suffering through Lance Armstrong's squirmy justifications during his interrogations.  Even if directors try to keep their often enormous egos at bay, some fugitive brio sneaks out and makes them appear like spoiled toddlers.  Humility is an unusual trait for these (would-be) auteurs and while I have many quibbles with, as an example, the films of Ron Howard, I appreciate his lack of grandeur.  He always seems modest and grateful for his success.

Though maybe the brash quality is a by product of innate talent.  Those with enviable vision.  Likely a generous dollop of madness.   The most legendary directors have reputations of explosive, manipulative, and mercurial personalities on the set and when they're asked to describe their body of work or latest opus, the short fuse gives way, perhaps quite naturally, to immodesty.  I appreciate their enthusiasm, marvel at their creativity. But damned if I don't want to force my hand over their mouths at times.

As in the 2014 documentary JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, French-Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky (cult favorite EL TOPO) proclaims "It's very, it's like Proust, I compare it to great literature."  He's referring to his adaptation of Frank's Herbert's celebrated science fiction novel Dune.  A huge undertaking, the script was reported to be the size of a telephone directory.  A possibly resulting fourteen hour epic. The proposed budget: 9.5 mil.  This was the mid 1970s. 

The studios balked.  Despite his assemblage of a creative dream team that included H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Dan O'Bannon, and even Salvador Dali, Jodorowsky's insanely ambitious project never happened.   The rights would fall to Dino De Laurentiis in the early '80s.  David Lynch would direct the abortive film in 1984.

Onscreen, the director excitedly retells the sad story.  There are many amusing bits. How he promised Orson Welles dinner in his favorite restaurant every night if he agreed to appear in his film.  How Dali consented to interviews in several countries, but with each meeting place as part of a curious game.  Special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull was interviewed but rejected for his corporate attitude, his lack of free spiritedness.

Jodorowsky storyboarded his vision with astounding detail.  Director Frank Pavich brings these illustrations to life in ways that almost feel like lost reels from this doomed project.  You may well become as frustrated as Jodorowsky himself after you are treated to the gigantic artbook he thumbs through.  JODOROWSKY'S DUNE really does in some ways resemble a tragedy, of a lost piece of potential art that might have been a real game changer.

But he's a never-say-die type: "I am 84, but I want to live to 300.  You may fail, but you have to try!".  Colleagues sing his praises, including one who states that Jodorowsky's failed movie was like a comet that missed Earth, but its seedlings are seen in many films.  After watching this documentary, you're apt to agree, especially films like STAR WARS and BLADE RUNNER.

And then the ego comes front and center.  How faithful was the director's script to the source material? "I was raping Herbert, but with love!" He was unwilling to make a film with a running length he felt was too short, "I'll make it twelve, twenty hours if I have to!"  When Jodorowsky got around to seeing Lynch's film, his depression turned to glee: "It was awful!"  I agree, but show a little class, Alejandro.