Friday, February 26, 2016


Updating the noir genre to the 1970s must've seemed to Hollywood fairly logical, a perfect fit.  Audience sensibilities, already weathered by real life, would easily respond to similar cinematic dirges of duplicity and despair of years past. And with censorship now relaxed, auteurs could create the sort of hard edged, rough content masterpieces only dreamed of before.   A few filmmakers tried and fewer really succeeded.  1975's FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, complete with contemporary does of sexuality, was a game attempt, even bringing in heyday antihero Robert Mitchum to play Philip Marlowe once again.

That same year, director Robert Aldrich re-teamed with his LONGEST YARD star Burt Reynolds to create his own neo-noir that would surely be a hit, HUSTLE.  Burt's star was burning brighter and brighter as the 70s wore on, and the macho, virile sensibility he would bring to the role of Los Angeles Lieutenant Phil Gaines had to be right on, man.  And his weary performance would prove to be quite suitable for this sour tale of the investigation of a dead girl on a beach, although Steve Shagan's verbose screenplay is not really a mystery story, rather an attempt at a character study.  An existential mood piece of defeated souls desperate to escape the sun drenched but thoroughly diseased City of Angels.  Perhaps seeking the charms of Paris.  To wit, Aldrich believed he could successfully pull off a European style crime drama that would be short on action and long on self-analysis but would resonate as some sort of bitter classic.

As with some of his characters, he doesn't make it.  Points do have to be given for effort, but there are numerous problems with HUSTLE:

1). Shagan's script.  It's an unruly mess.  It tries to have Meaning, but sinks under its own self-importance.  And the dialogue rambles, desperately in need of paring down.  Some scenes are out of place.  One subplot - Gaines and his partner, Sergeant Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield) are dispatched to LAX to tail a suspected terrorist- is forgotten about minutes after it is introduced.  In fact, the scene degenerates into drunken, sexist, xenophobic jokes! Was any of this ad-libbed? Let's not even mention Ernest Borgnine's (who plays the police chief) at times indefensible speeches, which offer little more than a perfect example of how un-P.C. the seventies were.

2) The pairing of Reynolds and French beauty Catherine Deneuve, who in a rare American appearance plays his girlfriend Nicole, a lady of the evening.  Aside from a few enjoyable moments of playful banter, they are hardly believable as a romantic couple, registering little chemistry.  Their big emotional dramatic scenes somehow don't ignite.  They are both attractive.

3) Ben Johnson's performance.  The otherwise great actor plays Marty Hollinger, the dead girl's father who doesn't buy the police's quick assessment that the death was a suicide.  In HUSTLE,  Johnson's one-note ranting is just this side of ham fat, a real surprise.  Clearly Aldrich should've pulled the reigns on him.

4) And yes, Aldrich's direction.  A few scenes do work, but otherwise the director just can't find the right tone for this picture. Some times relentlessly dark, other times almost goofy.   Much of it feels like an undistinguished T.V. crime drama of the era.  It would be an unfortunate stylistic choice that Aldrich would continue with 1977's awful THE CHOIRBOYS.

5) The editing.  Michael Luciano's chainsaw smooth work creates confusion and frustration, echoing the screenplay.  The transitions are non-existent.  One minute Burt is ruminating on his sad lot, the next he's playing all rough and tough, and no, not because his character is complex.  If the editing had been better, it might've saved the movie.

Despite all this, I was fascinated by HUSTLE.  Mainly due to its vivid evocation of '70s L.A., but also what was being attempted.  Burt is appealing here and holds attention through most of the movie even as he mouths some questionable lines. I bought his angst, his slow burn anger,  his jealousy, his defeatist outlook.  I'm always impressed when he does something a little more ambitious, movies like this and THE END. But HUSTLE is just too disorganized and unfocused to really be effective.  It's a noir that won't make you forget the chestnuts of earlier decades.  But it does have a entirely downbeat conclusion worthy of the genre, and in the great tradition of '70s nihilism.  The sound of wind rustling over the final seconds, a freeze frame, does work in some unexplainable way....

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part I

Aaaand, we're back to continue this absurdly drawn out series.  For our third and final examination we'll focus on two men who truly embody all that would be a wiseacre musical duo....

I didn't really begin listening to They Might Be Giants (name taken from an old George C. Scott movie) until about 1996, about a decade after their self-titled debut album.  Their cover of "Instanbul (Not Constantinople)" played on the radio one night while I was at work and though I'd heard it before, this time I took notice. Funny and clever and breathless.  It was enough for me to go out and purchase 1990's Flood, their first album for Elektra and also featuring another of their still signature tunes, the anthemic "Birdhouse in Your Soul".   These songs became big hits on alternative radio, something that did not exist in my part of the world during Flood's original release.  But when South Florida's WSHE went alternative in the mid-90s, a new obsession was born.

After thoroughly absorbing Flood, I obtained all the other albums.  TMBG's self titled debut came after John Flansburgh and John Linnell's years of busking in NYC.  Around that time they also created Dial-a-Song, songs you could hear playing from their answering machine in Brooklyn. "Toll free when you call from work!" they advertised.  The DAS was around for many years, more recently replaced by an Internet version.  It illustrated how unbelievably prolific these guys were and are. It often seems impossible to claim you've heard every Giants song. 

For this entry we'll cover the first three official releases:

They Might Be Giants: Two men and a drum machine.  A delirious debut. Every song is memorable, from the spirited "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" to the country flavored "Alienation's for the Rich" and polka-esque " I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die".  A take on the James Bond theme opens "Youth Culture Killed My Dog", a remarkably timeless song that addresses musical tastes of middle agers versus younger folk.  "Don't Let's Start" would be TMBG's first well known track and has the line of lines, "Everyone dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful".  "She's an Angel" is still a concert fave.  "Absolutely Bill's Mood" and "Boat of Car" (which includes a Johnny Cash sample) would introduce us to the more bizarre, certainly darker side of the duo's genius.  The busy album cover looks as if a kid of the '80s doodled everything he could think of on his Mead notebook. 

Lincoln:  Named after the town in Massachusetts in which Linnell and Flansburgh grew up (NOTE: the guys met at the local high school and began writing together at that time, but did not form a band until later, when they met again in their beloved Brooklyn), their sophomore effort for the Bar None label and filled with short, hit and run style ditties that really begin to reveal their erudite oddness.  The musicianship begins to broaden.  Even as a mere duo, long before they would expand their line up, these guys encompass an impressive array of genres.  "Ana Ng", with its memorable guitar riff, was an alt. radio hit and had an amusing video. Much fun with grammar in this tune.  It also has an audio sample of someone saying, "I don't want the world.  I just want your half." "Lie Still, Little Bottle" could work for a jazz musician.  "Pencil Rain" still cracks me up. As does "Shoehorn with Teeth".  All of the songs do, really.

Flood: The breakout.  The aforementioned "Instanbul" and "Birdhouse" are instantly accessible and hummable, tunes with solid hooks that most ears can appreciate.  The latter song even inspired someone to create an actual blue bird nightlight that you can purchase!!

Much of the rest of the album continues to build the collection of under three minute indescribables.  The Johns collide samples with liberal doses of accordion to create such one-of-a-kind pieces like "Hearing Aid" and "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love".  "Letter Box" is downright danceable. 'Particle Man" is delirious in its lyricism and hypnotic in its arrangement.  The guys even wrote a song named after themselves, with curious lyrics such as "tabloid footprints in your hair".  "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" is like a spoof of '80s pop. "Whistling in the Dark" is a good vocal workout for the guys, with one of Linnel's best basso renditions.  Lest you think TMBGs are all cryptic silliness, check out the more serious "Your Racist Friend".  Normally, when musicians best known for their humor try to tackle more sober topics, it's pretty deadly and embarrassing.  Not this time.

Flood began a era of far greater awareness for J y J.  I'm sure many of the longtime cultists were already chanting "sell out!", as the brand new album for 1990 had far slicker production values than its predecessors.  But to me, the manic artistry remains.  I feel this album is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in They Might Be Giants.

Next time out - The sound continues to get bigger.  We also get a collection of pre-Elektra gems, an educational EP, and some good and bad direction changes.

Friday, February 19, 2016


Inductive spoilers
There are some motion pictures that grab you from the first viewing.  All genres.  BREAKING THE WAVES is one, an almost indescribably powerful gut punch that haunts me to this day.  But some popcorn movies likewise strike a nerve and stir emotions, if in a less dissonant and urgent manner. 1986's F/X has always had this intriguing interplay with my psyche.  It's a well produced, slick thriller that never fails to draw me in. Once it does, I'm highly entertained but also unusually involved.

Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown) is a special effects/makeup whiz for the movies.   His oeuvre: mostly horror and action.  His NYC loft is filled with his masterpieces, including a six-foot high ogre that growls when you enter the front door.  Tyler's mind is always on his work, even when leisurely hanging with his girlfriend while preparing dinner: "Bok choy would make good alien flesh", he informs her.   One day he gets an invitation from the Justice Department to stage the phony assassination of Mob stooge Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach), who is about to testify against his former peeps.  Rollie is promised a solid payday and assured that he will be protected after the job is carried out.

If you've ever seen a movie, you know that things don't exactly work out that way.  There are double crosses.  Rollie's girlfriend is murdered.  Soon on the run, Tyler discovers some serious corruption among those quoting the law, even the seemingly kindly old J.D. supervisor Mason (Mason Adams). Concurrently, homicide detective Leo (Brian Dennehy at his rumpled best) - who's long been on the trail of DeFranco - slowly begins to solve the mystery with the help of his slightly less sloppy partner Mickey (Joe Grifasi) and a flirtatious computer expert named Velez (Josie de Guzman).

F/X naturally provides its lead character with plenty of opportunities to flash the goods.  There are all sorts of tricks with make-up, mannequins, mirrors, and squibs, props that help Tyler stay ahead of his foes. Sure they're gimmicky, but they also service the storyline in ingenious ways. The standard chase sequence gets a nice punchline, for example. But I don't want to give too much away.  The movie works as a satisfying bread and butter police procedural, too.

Director Robert Mandel does some solid work, and uses Manhattan and outlying locations very well.  I especially enjoyed the sequence in Central Park.  Mandel uses reactions of passersby to great effect more than once.  The entire film is so well crafted that it feels immersive.  I'm in there, rooting for Tyler and Leo, almost like I know them. Ordinarily, characters in films or television programs are kept at arm's length.  Credit must also go to screenwriters Gregory Fleeman and Robert T. Megginson.  Good show, gentlemen.  I've seen F/X many times and always get lost in it, truly forgetting where I am.  As it should be.  Pure entertainment, one of my go-to movie pleasures.  Bill Conti's score is mostly appropriately low key and evocative, suggesting a certain sadness about Rollie and his plight.

The one debit: Martha Gehman's performance as Andy, Tyler's assistant.   Note especially the scene after Rollie speeds away, leaving her stranded in the middle of a street.  Her tantrum should be studied carefully by would be actors.  It is one of the most unintentionally funny scenes I can recall in any film.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


It really would be too easy to summarize DEADPOOL as essentially an eighth (maybe fifth) grade boy's fantasy buffet of action/violence, profanity, juvenile humor, and occasional nudity, but it would be right on target. And invisible audience, that's precisely what they were going for.  This review will possibly best be absorbed by those unfamiliar with the titular Marvel Comics character, previously seen in a WOLVERINE movie.  But not as the wisecracking fellow he is here.

Like many superheroes, Deadpool has a tragic backstory.  Before he donned the tight suit, Wade Winston Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) was a sarcastic, low rent hitman (prone to wearing T-shirts with Bea Arthur on them), brutally effective but with a heart for the little guy, the underdog.  That heart burns megawatts when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), an escort in whom he finds a similar sense of humor and general irreverent outlook on life.  Then Wade is diagnosed with cancer.  Should he take that mysterious guy's offer for unorthodox treatment?

He does, and while the cancer is eradicated, he is disfigured from head to toe in the process.  It is during this ordeal that Wade will meet his new nemesis, Francis (Ed Skrein), the Brit villain the clever opening credits of DEADPOOL foretell. The movie jumps around in sequence as Wade (as Deadpool) recounts what lead him to a freeway massacre in which he apprehends, and loses, Francis.  Meanwhile, X-Men Colossus - an earnest, platitude spouting Russian mutant who (at least in this movie) maintains a metallic body, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a "moody teen" who can turn into a ball of flame (after she finishes tweeting on her smartphone), repeatedly try to recruit Deadpool for their team.

DEADPOOL's plot is strictly by-the-numbers, a plug 'n play that is as familiar as any revenge drama.  The movie knows this.  Director Tim Miller has not fashioned a post modern anti-narrative, quite the opposite.  By employing a typically straight ahead drama, the movie gets to riff on the religiously clutched mythos and structure of the comic book adaptation by creating the cinematic equivalent of a sacred cow being blasted by graffiti.  Holding that can is Reynolds, in a wildly entertaining and hilarious performance. He may take his cues from Jim Carrey and even Don Rickles but has created something entirely his.  His ownership of this role is as dedicated as anything I've seen lately.

With Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay, Reynolds takes snark to higher heights and lower depths than we're used to seeing in a comic book re-imagining. And what you've heard is true:  this is one raunchy flick. The gags range from light innuendo to um, balls-out gross.  There are sexual jokes, pop culture jokes, physical pain jokes.  While adolescent boys will be clamoring to see this film, it is wholly inappropriate for them.  Which of course makes it some sort of holy grail.  In my day, it was much harder to see such content.  Now, some jackass is listing torrent links on Facebook.

Inevitably, those who hold Marvel and D.C. legends dearly will decry DEADPOOL.  They'll count the swear words and lament how the culture continues to head southward.  But no matter what your taste and convictions, you have to find some objectivity and acknowledge that they really got this one right.  Set out to strip the superhero saga of its insufferable piety and self-seriousness and laugh at itself.  Hopefully those who hold their noses can do the same. As Mel Brooks used to say, sometimes you have to "rise below vulgarity."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Young Doctors in Love

Some time ago in my ramblings I referred to the ABC soap opera General Hospital.  I guess I can admit all these years later that in 1982 I briefly got hooked on the show because of a junior high sort-of girlfriend.  This was long after the show's celebrated Luke and Laura storyline, but the events were still your typically glossy intrigue.  I got a lot of ribbing from friends over this. I would even pause from my daily Atari obsession to watch. How I remember having a particular fondness for actress Robin Mattson, who played a "bad" girl.  I was unaware at the time that she already had some history of playing such parts in a few '70s exploitation cheapies, including one of Roger Corman's NURSE flicks.

So when I saw YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE later that year, I yielded more enjoyment from it than I perhaps would've had I not followed salacious intrigue in Port Charles.  The film is a spoof of such shows, complete with cameos by soap stars like Kin Shriner, Stuart Damon, and a pre-Brat Pack Demi Moore and pre-Northern Exposure Janine Turner, to add to the festivities. Unfortunately, Ms. Mattson is nowhere to be found.

Director Garry Marshall, in his theatrical debut, certainly had the experience and pedigree in television to oversee this silliness, but somehow it just doesn't play. Everything is off.  I remember watching his interview on either the Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas show, explaining how he wasn't sure how to pull off technical tricks like showing a calendar flip pages to represent passage of time. So accordingly one of the few jokes that works in YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE is when everything is set up for a car chase and then a guy says, "Door's locked.  No car chase". Otherwise, Marshall tries and tries to milk laughs, but the mojo he would find later hadn't quite arrived yet.  Though the director's success was never with slapstick, rather serio-comedies like PRETTY WOMAN and THE FLAMINGO KID.

There's no plot worth recounting in YOUNG DOCTORS.  Michael McKean, "Lenny" from Laverne & Shirley  is one of several of those described in the title, and often the butt of the others' insults.  Sean Young plays a colleague and love interest.  The ubiquitous (for the time) Dabney Coleman reliably plays another jackass, this time a chief surgeon.  Michael Richards is a hit man who has one mishap after another. Marshall regular Hector Elizondo is seen in drag and swears a lot. Harry Dean Stanton is on hand for an unfortunate urinalysis. Most of the jokes involve inuendoes, destruction, and overreactions.  There are entertaining overhead announcements, though none as funny as one from another lame comedy of the time, JEKYLL AND HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN: "Will the proctologist please report to the lobby? There's an asshole waiting."

Scene after scene plays to a silent audience. The rhythm isn't just off, it's practically non-existent.  Each joke thuds harder than the previous. The many soap inside gags only go so far.  Marshall throws in a little nudity to show us he's no longer indentured to network censors. In some ways, the worst kind of movie failure is one that can't make us laugh, heck, even smile, when it tries so hard.  Those ZAZ guys knew how to engineer a silly farce/spoof, but  YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE is one of too many imitators that proves just how difficult comedy really is.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Being Hal Ashby

The concluding chapter of Nick Dawson's 2011 biography of film director Hal Ashby, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel was especially poignant for me as its details of its subject in the last stages of pancreatic cancer were all too vivid.  As you may have read,  my step father in law was taken from us last April by this terrible disease.  The final week of his life was a collage of Hospice nurses and valiant attempts at ambulation.  Much wheezing. David had passed five weeks after being diagnosed.  I recall one afternoon alone with him in the house as he napped.  Terrible sounds.  When he awoke he had to be propped to stand.  This was not the man I knew for fifteen years, so sprightly and quick witted.  Always sharp, but gentle.

By many accounts, Hal Ashby was like that.  Dawson interviewed many friends and colleagues who described him as a calm, peaceful spirit who made his actors and crew feel at ease and brought out their best work.  Many Hollywood directors have very different reputations, reported to use intimidation and ferocity in their repertoire.  But when the studio people interfered with his art, Ashby showed his fangs.  This was particularly true in the 1980s, when the director clashed with big egos like Ray Stark.  When production company Lorimar, new to theatrical films, threatened (and succeeded) to take his films away and recut them.  This would be unthinkable for a man who was an Oscar-winning editor before he ever lifted a bullhorn.

But it happened.  Ill advised contracts and attempts to create his own production company were not the  fruitful enterprise intended. Ashby envisioned a house to foster productions of young visionaries.  Those who would create idiosyncratic films much like he had over the previous decade.  Ashby's golden period, the 1970s.  Each from that era are given fairly developed back- and on-set stories by Dawson, culled from interviews with the casts and crews. All considered collaborators by their leader.

Ashby's debut, THE LANDLORD was originally to be directed by his mentor, Norman Jewison, for whom Ashby edited THE CINCINNATI KID, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, et al.  It would prove to be a worthy maiden voyage, a highly insightful social drama.  HAROLD AND MAUDE was somewhat ignored by audiences during its initial release but would become a cult favorite. THE LAST DETAIL may have (understandably) been denounced by the U.S. Military but has great performances by Jack Nicholson and company. SHAMPOO was a prestige pic, a box office draw with big stars but apparently writer/producer/star Warren Beatty was the one really calling the shots.  BOUND FOR GLORY would prove to be a tough shoot but worth it for its meticulous authenticity.  COMING HOME was another success - one of many new films to examine the emotional casualties of Vietnam.  BEING THERE was a quietly lacerating study of America, political and otherwise, with Peter Sellers' last great (greatest?) role.  

But by the '80s, Ashby's films would suffer greatly in quality. SECOND HAND HEARTS (actually shot prior to BEING THERE).  LOOKIN' TO GET OUT.  LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER (the Stones concert film and easily the best of this lot).  THE SLUGGER'S WIFE.  EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE.  Whether or not the behind camera tsuris was to blame for each film's artistic and box office failures may be up to the reader (Dawson makes the case), but it's hard to ignore all that was working against the ever stubborn maverick as he fought studio execs and creative types alike.  Other headstrong figures like Robert Blake, Oliver Stone, Neil Simon, and a parade of Hollywood suits.  Sadly, even some of Ashby's former colleagues became adversaries.

Being Hal Ashby also offers a detailed account of the man's early years, a troublesome childhood in Ogden, Utah. A time irrevocably shaped by the death of his father.  This and Ashby's long string of failed relationships (many girlfriends and wives) would figure deeply into his films.  Dawson makes some parallels, though frustratingly not enough of them (deeper analyses of the films themselves would've also been appreciated but that's for another volume, I suppose).  Ashby's true love was for his work; everything (and -one) would suffer for it in various degrees.  Most poignantly, a daughter from a very early marriage he never met.  In an early chapter, someone remarks that Ashby, for all of his talent, gentleness, and generosity was adept at also "editing people out of his life".

Dawson's book is compulsively readable.  Not brilliantly written by any stretch - the style is often choppy - but the writer's affection for his subject is there, and he's not afraid to show Ashby's darker side (including drug and alcohol abuse).  Anyone even marginally interested in the Hollywood scene of the 50s through 80s will enjoy this bio. By the end, you will feel a true light had been snuffed out of the world.  Why do so many with so much to offer exit so early?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Paris Blues

We all have this innate desire to love and be loved, right? For much of the human race, finding a mate is a priority that will dictate life decisions, perhaps at the cost of fully exploring their talents and interests.  It's possible that more than a few geniuses forewent a chance at greatness via their gifts to settle down with a significant other and maybe produce some offspring.   And some of those may well be forever nagged by what could've been, ultimately deciding if they made the right decision.

Whether someone chooses to devote full attention to their vocation/hobby or courtship can make for some workable drama.  Occasionally, great drama.  1961's PARIS BLUES, however, leans more toward the former and features two American expatriates who have a gift for music - jazz, a free form very popular in Paris in the middle twentieth century.  Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) play in an ensemble at Club 33 to the near orgasmic delight of fans (note the hilarious opening credits). Ram has aspirations of writing and has been working on a piece that he hopes will be published and played by trumpeter Wild Man Moore (played by the great Louis Armstrong).   He worries that its melody is "too heavy".

The men similarly enjoy their free form lifestyles, with no strings attached lovers and crazy work hours.  No one to nag them when they come home at dawn.   But when attractive American tourists Lillian (Joanne Woodward, the real life Mrs. Newman) and Connie (Diahann Carroll) steal their hearts, what will become of their careers? Their freedom?  For a hopelessly smitten Eddie, there are valid concerns of a life back in the States, a place filled with the racism he had escaped five years before.  Who could blame him for retreating to a place where he can live and work without fear of exclusion (not to mention physical harm) due to his skin color?  But did he run from his responsibilities, as Connie repeatedly chides?  Responsibilities to take up a fight to make his homeland a place of equality?

Ram is less quick to give up his charmed existence, less obvious in his moody demeanor to admit he has fallen in love.  Lillian proves to be a solid match - a worldly, strong figure, someone who's been around far more than her friendly and loving manner would suggest.  Not shy either, as she's someone who will, you know, on the first date.  She's also a divorcee with two children back home.  Will Ram trade his carefree ways for a life of stability?  Will he be willing to leave the creative atmosphere of Paris, one that would be more nuturing of his gifts than the certain sterility of domestic life? Of a place where little ragamuffins will constantly interrupt his composing?

PARIS BLUES was a disappointment for me, a routine film with progressive ideas.  I applaud director Martin Ritt's film for its willingness to suggest that in its earlier scenes that Ram,  a white man, might entertain a relationship with Connie, a black woman.  And that a gay couple is seen in the jazz club. And the frankness with which a drug subplot is handled.   The central dilemmas of love vs. career are nothing new, but the discussions between the couples (especially Eddie and Connie) are generally intelligent and realistic.  But I did cringe at a few of Lillian's lines. 

Ram: (Speaking on the taking of chances): You get kicked in the teeth that way.

Lillian: My brother's a dentist.

Or this one, a bit too contrived, too written.  Like something out of an inferior Neil Simon script:

Ram: You just picked the wrong guy for what you wanted.

Lillian: Yeah?

Ram:  Yeah.  I'm not on the market.

Lillian: I wasn't shopping.
Perhaps there were too many screenwriters (five are credited).  It may explain why the film feels so stop/start, with a lack of flow.  Ritt (HUD, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, NORMA RAE) supplies ample atmosphere in the City of Light's many outdoor vistas and cramped apartments and backstages.  The music is great, naturally, with the "Battle Royal" sequence a classic for jazz aficienados.  Armstrong is luminous no matter what's he's doing in this picture, acting or blowing sweet sounds. Those seeking the sounds alone will be satisfied, I think.

But our timeless storyline occupies the most screen time,  How successful it is will depend largely on your age, how many movies/T.V. shows you've seen, and if you've ever made big compromises in the name of love, or something else.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Paris, Texas


It had been some time since a film left me speechless and stunned.  Rarely happens.  Something so deep and beautiful.  IQIRU, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW,  HOTEL ROWANDA, MAGNOLIA: these are a few that have really taken my breath away.  Films with unexplainable power.   I had never seen Wim Wenders' PARIS, TEXAS, other than a moment or two back when it was featured on HBO in the '80s.  In those days, it would've been too slow and introspective for me.  I hadn't lived enough life back then, anyway, even if I could've related to some of the familial issues and feelings of solitude expressed in Wenders' film.

Seen now, PARIS, TEXAS is a crusher.  A masterpiece of mood and emotion.  Striking Ry Cooder score. Astonishing use of color.  The bright reds and greens almost make the Texas and California landscapes appear Expressionistic, though the hard outline reality of dusty roads and parking lots is always apparent.  The story begins in the big empty of the desert. A drifting man wanders into a bar and passes out after shoving a handful of ice in his mouth.  After a doctor identifies him and calls his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) - a billboard designer who lives in Los Angeles - we begin to slowly learn about this man.  A beaten soul named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who remains mute even after his brother comes to retrieve him.  After an attempted escape, and much prodding by Walt,  Travis eventually begins to speak, desiring to visit Paris.  The one in Texas.

Travis doesn't remember much of what happened during the four years he was missing. A wife and child were left behind.  Hunter, now eight years old, lives with Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) in L.A.  Travis' wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) is still in Texas, whereabouts unknown.  Paris, Texas is where he thought he would settle with his family someday.

Travis returns to California with his brother. Things are awkward.   Father and son are strangers, curiosities to each other.  When home movies are shown, Travis' memory reignites, his heart suddenly burdened.  Hunter does not respond to Travis warmly at first.  A relationship is not rebuilt overnight, especially one that may never have existed with any depth.   As time goes on, Anne reveals that every month Jane deposits money into an account for her son.  A bank in Houston.

I can tell you more, of the eventual reunions.  The heartbreak of those left behind.  At one point or another in PARIS, TEXAS each character will know that particular sting.  The unimaginable weight of abandonment. The feelings as hollow and lost as the American West on display so vividly through Robby Mueller's lens.  The story arrives at a conclusion seen in countless dramas, but this one is so perfect in its understatement, yet so emotionally devastating.

Every moment of Wenders' film is mesmerizing.  From the opening shots of a man in the desert to the final moments of a man in a different, though perhaps similar place.  PARIS, TEXAS may play more effectively for viewers who understand the sort of defeat and loneliness Travis experiences.  Others will hiss at his final decision, fail to understand it.  For me, it was all right there in the lengthy scene between estranged husband and wife through the glass.  A perfectly thought out and realized conceit that does not feel contrived or pretentious.  I don't want to ruin it for you, invisible audience.  But see the film and tell me it is not a perfect method through which a man who feels like a ghost, a wraith might decide to communicate his feelings. It is one of my favorite scenes in cinema history, and absolutely one of the most heartbreaking.