Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Bruce Brown (1937-2017)

Bruce Brown, whose documentaries helped spark America's love of surfing, passed away Sunday at the age of 80.

For my money, his 1966 documentary The Endless Summer is the best film about surfing ever made — and one of the greatest documentaries on any subject. Here are some words I wrote a while back about that great film:

Adrenaline is the drug of choice for most Americans these days (that, and self-righteous bile). And of the over-the-counter mood-altering agents, it's also the most overrated, a jangling noise that drowns out any quiet thought of our own mortality.

But Monkey, you may well ask, who wants to contemplate their own mortality? Nobody, admittedly. The end of everything — knowing death is coming — is our unique curse as a species.

But it's also our blessing. Do you think an animal is ever aware of a perfect moment, the fleeting in-between when the doing is done and we exist in harmony with the elements, and when, if you listen quietly enough, you can even hear the music of the spheres.

The world keeps turning, of course, and the perfect moment ends almost as we become aware of it, but because we're aware the moment will end, we know just how special, how precious, how fleeting those moments are.

In this time of constant distractions, there's something quaintly charming about the notion that a four-foot curl off the coast of South Africa was once thought of as the perfect wave. These days surfers ride fifty-foot monsters in the middle of the ocean, waves they can only reach at the end of a towline, and riding them is more akin to falling off a mountain than anything your father ever did on a surfboard.

I imagine The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown's 1966 documentary about an around-the-world search for the perfect wave, has as much in common with today's surfing scene as flying a kite does to space travel.

Maybe that's why I like it.

With Brown's passing, we speed a little bit faster into a future that has no time for perfect waves or perfect moments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Newsroom (2012-2014): A Short, Belated Review

In between binge-eating and binge-napping, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I spent our Thanksgiving holidays binge-watching Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, a short-lived cable series now streaming as part of our Amazon Prime subscription.

Made for HBO, The Newsroom followed the ups-and-downs of a band of idealistic cable news reporters trying to put on a worthwhile show in an era characterized by insipid junk-news pandering. Jeff Daniels won an Emmy playing the face of the franchise, the grumpily affable Will McAvoy; Emily Mortimer played his ex-girlfriend-turned-producer; Sam Waterston was their boss.

The series also featured fine supporting performances from Oscar winners Jane Fonda and Marcia Gay Harden.

By and large, the critics hated the show — finding it preachy and pretentious — and in the 25 episodes that made up its three seasons, it never attracted a large enough audience to make anybody forget The Sopranos.

Katie and I, on the other hand, liked it — a lot.

It's not that we're devoted fans of Aaron Sorkin. Back in the day, we occasionally dipped into The West Wing without ever really carving out time for it, and what little we saw of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, we frankly despised.

This, though, we fell in love with.

Katie thought The Newsroom was a warm, witty drama that didn't overstay its welcome. She liked spending time with the characters, especially Olivia Munn's intellectually-brilliant, socially-clueless, hilariously-deadpan Sloan Sabbith.

Me, I saw it as a screwball comedy in the tradition of His Girl Friday and The Front Page — tales of bumbling reporters, puffed up with self-importance and seriously lacking in self-awareness, who somehow manage to get a quality newscast out on a daily basis. The comedy is punctuated by moments of dramatic relief — war, death, national crisis — but the show never strays far from its classical Hollywood roots when fast-talking actors like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell wisecracked their way from scoop to scoop.

Absolutely nobody else read The Newsroom that way, but who are you going to believe, me or nobody's lying eyes?

Anyway, it's a freebie included with a subscription to Amazon Prime. If that's your streaming service of choice, check it out.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Baby Driver (2017): Mini-Review

An empty exercise in style, Baby Driver is a compilation of every heist movie cliche — the big boss, the last job, the loose cannon, the dream girl — set to a 4-star soundtrack.

Skip the movie, buy the record.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

My good friend Mister Muleboy and I met at the AFI-Silver last night to see the classic 1974 heist flick, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, part of film historian Eddie Muller's annual Noir City DC film series. By the Czar of Noir's own admission, Pelham isn't really noir, but this year's focus is on heist films and Pelham is one of that genre's finest examples — it'd be a crime to leave it out.

If you're not familiar with the story, four heavily-armed men hijack a New York City subway train and hold its passengers hostage; their demands: the city must deliver $1 million in cash within the hour or they start shooting the hostages.

Nobody can quite believe someone would hijack a subway train —

"You know me, I'll believe anything."
"A train has been hijacked."
"I don't believe it."

— but the machine-gun wielding hijackers, led by Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue, are serious. Deadly serious.

We pick up the caper already in progress with four men perfectly timing their boarding of a subway train at four different stops with nothing but David Shire's propulsive industrial-jazz score to clue us into the unfolding drama. And then Robert Shaw quietly shoves a pistol in the motorman's face and announces he's taking his train.

Negotiations ensue. On the other end of the tense back-and-forth is Walter Matthau as the deceptively sluggish and slovenly transit police lieutenant Zachary Garber. He's sleepy-eyed, fashion-challenged, politically incorrect and bored stiff with the public relations aspects of his job.

But as the drama unfolds and the stakes are raised higher and higher, he reveals himself to be a precise, pacing, fidgeting coiled spring — a true professional, a perfect New York match for Shaw's dapper English mercenary.

I won't spoil the ending for you other than to say that the last scene is completely surprising, utterly perfect and absolutely fearless in its quiet simplicity. I can't imagine a Hollywood studio now having the guts and audacity to pull it off.

In some recent reviews (here and here), I've been struck by how little backstory and context you can get away with and still have a coherent movie with three-dimensional characters — Hemingway's iceberg principle played out not on the page but on the screen.

The screenplay by Peter Stone (Charade) is based on a novel by John Godey, but while the novel is larded with typical backstories for the villians and their hostages, and cliched interior monologues all around, Stone wisely trusts good casting to flesh out the novel's characterizations.

Pelham reminded me again how a great actor wears his backstory on his face and tells it in his voice, his walk, his gestures or even in his silences.

With a minimum of exposition, Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam (as the sneezy, wheezy Mr. Green) and Hector Elizondo (as the psychotic Mr. Grey) fully inhabit their characters, leaving no doubt about who what and why they are, and giving you a pretty good guess how they got there and where they're going.

Likewise, with the same lack of fuss, director Joseph Sargent tells the story of the city itself. Filmed in Manhattan, Pelham is down there in the gutters with the garbage at a time when a great city had lost faith in itself.

A scene with Tony Roberts as the deputy mayor and Lee Wallace as an Ed Koch-style mayor (four years before Koch actually held that office) tells you everything you need to know about the dire state of the local government. The comic tensions between the terrifically cartoonishly Tom Pedi as the brash loudmouth "Fat Caz" Dolowicz and Beatrice Winde as the new African-American female hire covers changing social mores. And the subway car full of characters identified in the credits only as The Salesman, The Hooker, The Spanish Woman, etc. speaks to the city's changing demographics.

You can practically taste the grime.

But a movie that's nothing more than a slice of the current reality isn't much of a movie. Pelham is also one of the all-time great heist films, intricate in its planning, taut in its execution. There's a lot of humor and a lot of talk but there's never a slack moment, never a word or gesture wasted. You're wonderfully on edge from beginning to end.

A classic.

Four stars (out of four).

End Notes:

1) The four hijackers have code names based on colors: Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey. Quentin Tarantino recycled the idea for 1992's classic Reservoir Dogs.

2) Peter Stone's most important contribution to the film's adaptation was to consolidate multiple police detectives into the single character of Matthau's Lt. Garber, creating the perfect counterweight to Shaw's Mr. Blue.

3) Before the movie, I got to meet film historian Eddie Muller, author and host of TCM's Noir Alley, and whom the great James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) has dubbed "The Czar of Noir." I had just bought his book Gun Crazy about the making of the classic 1950 movie when I turned around and there he was sitting alone at a café table. I asked him if he'd be signing books after the show and he said, heck, he'd sign it right now! borrowed my blood red ink pen and whipped off an amusing little note along with his signature — one of the few times I've met a fellow writer and walked away feeling like anything other than a witless hillbilly dilettante. Thanks, Mr. Muller!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Abridged Audiobook)

We here at the Monkey recently stumbled across this long-out-of-print audiobook version of Hunter S. Thompson's classic exercise in Gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's heavily-abridged and plays more like a radio drama from some parallel universe where Bob Hope dropped acid and Jack Benny was an axe murderer, but it's highly entertaining in its own right. Much better, in my opinion, than the Johnny Depp movie that followed it.

The late great Harry Dean Stanton reads Thompson's interior monologues and Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin provide the dialogue.

If you've never read Fear and Loathing, it's Thompson's (ostensibly) non-fiction account of a long weekend he and his attorney spent in Las Vegas with a side trip to search for the American Dream.

They went well provisioned:

"We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls."

I say "ostensibly non-fiction" because as Thompson himself later admitted, nobody could have done all the things they allegedly did and lived to talk about it.

As twisted and irresponsible and depraved as their behavior was, though, it was nothing compared to what passed as normal in Nixon's America. "The Circus-Circus," he wrote, "is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war" — the implication being that the Nazis had won the war, just in 1968 instead of 1945.

That's a point of view that seems hilariously quaint in retrospect and I can only imagine what Thompson would have made of our current state of affairs. Oh, well.

Enjoy. Or not.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: I Want More Life, F#cker

Director Denis Villeneuve takes a ninety-minute butterfly and pins its wings to a nearly three-hour running time. All the flaws of the original — minimalist storytelling, elegiac tempo — with none of the magic that made the original a classic.

I suspect even the people most closely involved with 1982's Blade Runner don't know why it worked so well.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Shaken, Not Stirred

I'm giving Alabama the benefit of the doubt and assuming that when they saw the name "Moore" on the ballot, they thought they were voting for this guy:

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Walter Becker (1950-2017)

It occurs to me that if I could write 200 words about the passing of a comedian I could barely tolerate, I can certainly write one sentence about Walter Becker, a songwriter whose music gave me great pleasure for forty-five years. Here's my favorite Steely Dan song, the title track to their 1977 masterpiece, Aja.