Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Night Paranoia

Watching the 1978 Phillip Kaufmann remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At one point Brooke Adams says to Donald Sutherland, "'I've lived in this city all my life, but somehow today I felt everything had changed."  And then that actually happened on 11/9/16 (maybe sooner).  So are the pod people are winning????  The issue lingers and we are in it for the long haul, the slow burn, moving through history's cunning passages and feeling ghosts breathing down our neck . . .

Sunday, April 16, 2017

TV Review: Wiseguy (1987-1990)

Wiseguy may be the Rosetta Stone of the modern TV landscape.  It aired on CBS from 1987-1990 to mediocre ratings and was mostly forgotten after going off the air.  The show followed undercover FBI agent Vinnie Terranova, ably played by Ken Wahl , whose job was to infiltrate and disrupt various criminal enterprises.  Also starring was Jonathan Banks as John McPike, Vinny's key contact with the FBI.  "Lifeguard" played by Jim Byrnes stood on call if Vinny got into a serious fix.

What makes Wiseguy historically important was that it went against conventional episodic television: stories played out over several episodes.  Neither did each arc exist in isolation, they were of part an even larger arc as the events in each story brought consequences for the next one. Unfortunately the realities of 1980s television prevented Wiseguy from developing even more complex stories.

Season One packed a wallop with two engrossing narratives featuring larger than life villains. Terranova's first assignment was to infiltrate the Atlantic City mob.  Sonny Steelgrave, played with gusto by character actor Ray Sharkey, wanted to take over the city. His persona combined Donald Trump and Tony Soprano.  Sonny took Vinnie under his wing and they form a close bond, causing serious loyalty conflicts for Terranova.

The second arc showed even more ambition with Vinnie fronting as a bodyguard for international arms dealer siblings Mel and Laura Profitt.  Kevin Spacey got his first big break and its fascinating to see him use acting rhythms he would bring to his future roles.  Mel's a drug attic who's prone to bouts of megalomania and paranoia.  Another major character Roger Loccocco (William Russ), a hired gun for the Profitt siblings, also became a recurring character.

The second season continued to emphasize character. Vinnie, dejected after the chaotic conclusion to the Mel Profitt case, sulks at home until he discovers white nationalists are starting trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood.  Don't miss Fred Thompson as their titular leader, eventually revealed to be a huckster.

Next came the "Garment Trade Storyline" which featured Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role as garment trade business owner who gets in trouble with a mobster, a menacing Stanley Tucci. During filming Wahl was injured and briefly replaced by a veteran undercover agent John Henry Raglin, played by Anthony Denison from Crime Story.

Unfortunately the last part of season two remains unavailable on DVD and syndication, due to copyright  issues.  The story featured Vinnie taking on corruption in the record industry.

By season three the stories grew more erratic. The first arc returned to another mob themed story line involving Vinnie's stepfather.  Next came a brilliant four episode story on power plays in Washington D.C., centering on a scheme to launch a trade war with Japan that came straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, starring Norman Lloyd as a duplicitous general.

Then the setting moved to rural Washington, foreshadowing Twin Peaks which would air the following season on ABC. Vinnie discovers shady behavior and bizarre locals while investigating a serial killer case in what began as a simple investigation into small town corruption. The case caused Vinnie to experience a nervous breakdown and he went AWOL. The season ended with Terranova stumbling upon a toxic waste conspiracy in Seattle as his mental state continued to worsen.  Unfortunately the character never got a proper exit from the show's mythology.

Wahl did not return for season 4 over creative differences and the show quickly faded.  Wiseguy continued on for a short season with Steven Bauer taking over as the lead.  An inferior made for TV movie with Wahl aired in 1996.

So many of the most heralded shows of the 21st Century including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Homeland, all owe something to Wiseguy. Jonathan Banks went on to star in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul brought a welcomed renewed interest in the show.  Wiseguy's pulpy writing style and retro film noir look are well worth revisiting.

Book Review: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman's history of 1970s horror is a welcome companion piece to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only Zinoman has genuine affection toward his subjects. There are no heroes or villains in the book, just some creative people who burnt out a little too fast.  Published in 2011, Shock Value focuses primarily on John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.  Others known for their work outside the genre also appear, namely, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma.

The story begins in the 1960s, a period when few took horror movies seriously.  Mainstream society considered them a bad influence on the youth.  But for a generation the Vincent Price movies and William Castle extravaganzas were unforgettable experiences. Then came Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho which opened new possibilities for horror, proof the pubic had an appetite for dark and lurid subject matter and that such films could be taken seriously as art.

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby raised the bar even higher, using film techniques to keep audiences unsettled. Polanski intentionally obscured what happened in his compositions and the location shooting in Manhattan brought a sense of realism, making the audience paranoid along with Mia Farrow.

Meanwhile a new generation of filmmakers brought a DIY attitude to the genre.  George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was shot in low budget black and white like a cinema verite documentary. Romero broke taboos and tapped into the social anxieties of the 1960s.

Wes Craven, the most prolific of the group, was raised by devout Christians and was not allowed to watch movies as a child.  In rebellion against his family's values, Craven made The Last House on the Left, a shockingly violent film with scenes of graphic torture and rape, forcing audiences to confront the violence within themselves.  Critics dismissed the film as crude exploitation, but Craven's anti-violent message was lost on most.

Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was designed as an assault on the audience.  A group of college students run out of gas in the Texas backcountry and are terrorized by a family of unemployed cannibals.  In a savage twist Hooper invites the audience to sympathize with the psycho-killer Leatherface, just another lost child no one understands.

Horror went mainstream and became cultural phenomenon with the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel, the film galvanized audiences. Detractors saw it tasteless exploitation, a misogynist film less about demonic possession and more about male fear of female sexuality.  Others saw it as sobering exploration evil and faith. The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a horror film.

The central relationship in Shock Value is between John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon.  Classmates at UCLA in the early 1970s they collaborated on the 1975 cult film Dark Star, a slight parody of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  O'Bannon resented Carpenter getting director's credit and the two feuded (O'Bannon wrote the script, acted, and designed the special effects for Dark Star).  Zinoman presents a Mozart/Salieri dynamic between them: Carpenter went on become an auteur in horror and sci-fi, while O'Bannon struggled to get studios to read his screenplays. He wrote the original Alien, only to be upstaged by the director yet again.

Zinoman argues the 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre - setting a high bar yet to be crossed. While the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other social upheavals had a tangential influence, the lowering of the production code allowed directors to push the envelope further than ever before. All outsiders in their own way, their movies reflected the dark side of American life. Proof of their enduring legacy exists in the flood of reboots and remakes their movies inspired - most of which failed to measure up to the originals.

Horror went mainstream in the 1980s, but the genre lost its edge. People want a fun roller coaster ride, the Paranormal Activity franchise being an example. Straight up gore fests attracted audiences, social commentary not so much.  Purists believe true horror should leave the audience confused and disturbed.  Zinoman wrote:

The most unpleasant thing possible is what Wes Craven and Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter were trying to put on screen.  That was the point.

As a work of film history, Shock Value is great way to revisit a pivotal decade in American cinema. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

White House, Monday Morning, 7am

Another Monday morning meeting in the Trump White House. In attendance are Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus. All top advisers to the commander and chief.  The three of them are waiting for their man to arrive; he insists on being the last to enter the room. Bannon and Priebus are engaged in an arm wrestling match (Bannon is winning).  Around 7:09am Trump walks in looking a little haggard with bags under his eyes.

The Donald:  So I just watched this segment on Fox and Friends, they like my tweets about Barack.  This will gain traction, take some of the heat off me.  I had to do something . . . this Sessions thing is driving me crazy. I'm tired of these disasters every week, let's make it a good week.

Jared: I thought you and Barack got along.

The Donald: He double crossed me Jared, he had the FBI bug my office.  And we still beat those bastards - 306 in the electoral college BABY!.  (He guffaws)  Did you see the media get into a hot mess about my tweets.  I attack their hero and they freak out. 

Bannon: It was a good one boss - kick em in the ass! This whole Sessions thing will die on the vine now!

The Donald:  I read about Barack's plot to destroy me in Breitbart, Steve your publication is a beacon of light in a world of fake news.

Jared: (underneath his breath) Anti-Semites.

Bannon: What was that Jared?

Jared: Nothing Steve.

The Donald: What else is on the agenda Reince?

Reince: We have the new travel ban to sign.  I think we should do it at noon and invite TV cameras in.  It went so well the last time. People love to watch you sign things. It looks so presidential.

The Donald: So the travel ban, what else?

Reince: Health Care sir.  We need to get congress moving on it.

The Donald: What the hell is taking Ryan so long?

Reince: It's complicated sir. If we take away people's coverage without a new plan it will be a PR disaster.  It will hit our base hard. 

The Donald:  We'll do it, and it will be great. What else?

Reince:  We got this threat from North Korea, we're gonna need you to make a decision on.

The Donald:  What decision?

Reince:  You know, The whole missile thing. They have big ones now.  We need a strategy, we'll present you with options.

The Donald:  Dammit, I don't want options. (He points to Bannon)  It's your job to present me with the best option Bannon.  I'm sure Putin has some good ideas.   Call him Steve.  What time is it in Moscow?

Bannon: I think's that's a great idea Mr. President. I have his private number, I'll do it right after the meeting. It is night time in Moscow.  

The Donald: Sounds good, Steve. Be sure not to wake Putin though, he might get annoyed  (he pauses, as if thinking)  You know what Reince?

Reince: What Mr. President?

The Donald:  Why don't we just take out North Korea? Just order our troops to cross the 49th parallel,   I mean, they don't even have electricity there right? We'll steamroll over them.

Reince: Sir, A war with North Korea would be a disaster, they have the military might to turn South Korea into a raging inferno during the first hour of hostilities. 

The Donald:  Oh, I guess we'll have to think about that.  Call Putin - We need him! He'll know what to do. Tell the Kremlin it's an emergency!!

Jared: Back to the Obama thing.  Are you seriously going to pursue this investigation?

The Donald:  I don't know . . . Maybe. . . . .   You see my ratings for the State of the Union. They obliterated Arnold.  Always knew I was better than that guy.  He's always been jealous of me. 

Bannon:  His Movies Suck!

Jared: Are you sure?  Predator was pretty good.  The Terminator?

Bannon: He's an overrated immigrant!  Gimme John Wayne any day.  Well, to be honest I checked out on Arnold after Jingle All the Way.  Everything before that was awesome! I tried to get him to read my script for a sequel to Commando.  He called me a diseased ewok looking man. In my script, he goes over to Iran and kicks so much ass.  So Much Carnage!  So Much Carnage! Economic Nationalism Baby! It would've been awesome. I love carnage!!

The Donald: Steve, I like you, but please settle down.  You are brilliant, smarter than all the generals combined. I mean, you've actually read books. In fact, I saw The Terminator and that gives me an idea. Could we build an army of cyborgs?  Reince, include that in the budget.  Forget about going back to the moon; I WANT AN ARMY OF CYBORGS!  They can build the wall too. And not those old fashioned ones like Arnold played, I want the ones like that liquid metal guy in Terminator 2.  They will defeat ISIS too!    

The unexpected turn in the meeting's discussion leads to an awkward silence.

The Donald:  Ok, I'm going to order a steak doused with Heinz Ketchup from the kitchen. Anyone else up for steak and ketchup?

Jared: Isn't it early for steak Dad?

The Donald: It's my favorite part of living in this dump.  I now eat steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  At 3 I get a Big Mac and a Shamrock Shake. It's great. The Kitchen staff, they are fantastic! Steve, after you call Putin, I want you to get every Terminator movie on DVD and have it on my desk - ASAP.  I got research to do (He gets up).  

Ok everyone, I'm going to go count my twitter likes, send a shout out to Fox News, sign the Muslim . . . I mean travel ban, then watch Spongebob Squarepants, I'll skip the intelligence briefing, I don't think those geeks from Langley like me for some reason.  Very Rude.  Steve - report to me on Putin - and I want those DVD's on cue and ready to play just as my Big Mac arrives.  How long will it take me to watch these movies Steve?

Bannon: Not sure Mr. President.  All day, I suppose.

The Donald: Great - Tell Spicer to tell the press that I'm "making phone calls to world leaders to discuss global security issues."  Don't tell anyone about my cyborg army - It's like . . . my classified top secret now. . . . I'll tweet about it . . . And Reince, write up an executive order that will force McDonalds to make the Shamrock Shakes year round- that's legal.  Right? I'm the Boss.

Reince: You're the boss, Mr. President.

The Donald leaves the room. The three of them glance at their watches, it was 7:57 am.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: Quentin Tarantino: Interviews (Edited by Gerald Peary)

The University Press of Mississippi has provided an invaluable service over the years by publishing reprints of interviews from the most influential film directors.  These books serve as excellent primary sources on the creative process of these directors. The volume on Quentin Tarantino is a highlight of the series.

The best interviews are the early ones with Tarantino shaking up world cinema with Reservoir Dogs and the even more ambitious Pulp Fiction.  They defined 90s cool and pop culture, in the same way the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut revolutionized movies in the 1960s.  Tarantino was one of many movie geeks working at video stores during the mid 1980s, in his case the now legendary (and closed) Video Archives in Los Angeles.

Reading the interviews on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are like a film school in themselves.  What separated Tarantino from other directors of his generation was his interest in every type of film and his ability to create a unique genre out of them, while taking in large amounts of film criticism, mostly from his favorite critic Pauline Kael who wrote for the New Yorker.

After the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino become a pop culture phenomenon: frequenting the chat show circuit, cameo appearances, hosting Saturday Night Live, and attempted to launch his own acting career.  His 1997 film Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, seemed an answer to his critics: a conventional, well plotted narrative with nuanced performances.

In the years since Tarantino's continued to explore genre: martial arts in the Kill Bill films, the war movie in Inglorious Basterds, and the Western/Blaxploitation in Django Unchained. In late 2015 he released the vicious Western The Hateful Eight.

A few general conclusions can be made about Tarantino from the book: his encyclopedic movie knowledge is unparalleled and that he's always been career conscious.  When he turns 60, Tarantino plans to retire and devote his life to writing criticism and fiction. After completing Pulp Fiction he stated his intention to make Westerns, war movies, and American History- all of which he's done.  

For a primer of the Tarantino aesthetic, look no further than this valuable book. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

President Barack Obama: A Few Kind Words

Today will be Barack Obama's last full day as the 44th President of the United States of America.  I believe it is safe to say we'll never see the likes of him for some time. Perhaps he wasn't meant for an age like ours, one where language is diminished. Arguments must be rapid fire insult ridden shouting matches carried out over social media where the only the loudest, crudest one in the room commands respect.  

Above all President Obama is a man of the written word and I hope he will continue to write after leaving office.  Like Winston Churchill, his command of the English language will serve him well for posterity. After writing the obligatory memoirs I hope he writes some history books like Churchill. Books, not tweets, will stand the test of time. Whatever President Obama decides to do, I wish his family well and hope he doesn't stay away too long.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Inauguration Day (For Night) Blues Playlist

As the Trump administration creeps ever closer to taking the reins of our ever fragile republic, I compiled a list of songs about many things that speak to the moment (for me anyway).  Many were songs I listened to over the past year so they are closely linked with the events of 2016. There's an ongoing tension between fear, hope, and defiance to the list. Let's begin with Badfinger's 1969 hit single, "Come and Get It" written by Paul McCartney for the counter-culture film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr about a privileged billionaire obsessed with what people will do for money.  Based on the Terry Southern novel, the sharpest hipster of his day, he would've had a field day with the Trump era, but reality is satire these days.  "When the Circus Comes" from Los Lobos prepares us for the craziness.  "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" cahnnels the mood of mid November '16. Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" reads like prophecy for 2017 with Jack the Ripper heading the Chamber of Commerce and the delusional Commander of Chief in a barrage of psychedelic stream of consciousness verse. "People Get Ready", an anthem of the civil rights era written by Curtis Mayfield, got covered by hundreds of recording artists. I like The Chamber Brothers cover, a steady rocking version that gets to the gospel origins of the song- appropriate for any day of the year. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins offer a slanted whimsy to political theory on "The Charging Sky." Next Harry Nilsson's version of the Randy Newman standard "Sail Away" about a charming slave trader reminds us hucksters are often too suave to refuse.  Fred Neil's "The Dolphins" will take you to some other place far away. And then Neko Case with "Night Still Comes," a heartbreaking dirge about anything and everything sung beautifully. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds share some "More News From Nowhere." New York City band Parquet Courts search for the Southern Soul on "Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth" and Elmore James moves us back to the center of the circle with "Dust My Blues."  The Rolling Stones go further into the abyss on "Dancin' with Mr D,"  a boozy reflection on excess and temptation, a Stones song more appropriate to conclude a Trump rally than his ominous preference for "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Frank Zappa's "I'm the Slime," memorably performed on 1970s SNL follows a megalomaniac who gleefully manipulates the masses (thru TV, not twitter). Tom Petty comments on widespread culture dissonance on "Shadow People." As Petty ponders the mania for Conceal and Carry as the last refuge of a dangling man he sings with resignation, "Well I ain't on the left, I ain't on the right/Ain't even sure if I got a dog in this fight."  P.J. Harvey resets the tone on "Community of Hope"; a new-old sort of protest music.  "Sittin on Top of the World"  by Howlin Wolf throws an existential curve ball into the ether.  Judee Sill's splendid "There's a Rugged Road" serves up more resilience; Pink Floyd's "Fearless" brings the resistance up another notch - we gonna need it! Finally Ohia's "Farewell Transmission," fronted by the fallen Ohio cult hero Jason Molina (1973-2013) closes the list out with a swinging prose poem rocker of viscous defiance.  As a coda, after emerging from the other end of the rabbit hole, I hope to hear The Doors "Hyacinth House" playing on a shiny neon jukebox, hinting that things will somewhere, somehow be OK.