Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: THE BONE MAN OF BENARES (A LUNATIC TRIP THROUGH LOVE & THE WORLD) by Terry Tarnoff

bone_man

“The world loves a lover, so the saying goes, but really it’s a lover who loves the world. I felt guilty that not everyone could share my joy, because that’s what I wanted, I wanted the whole world to feel that tingling sensation, I wanted the whole world to blush slightly, I wanted the whole world to wake up a little late one morning and not care if it was late for work, I wanted the tides to ebb a little later, for the sun to sleep in, for the fields to lie patiently in wait, for the rivers to stretch out and dangle lazily like toes hanging over the edge of a bed.”

One of the prototypical draft-dodgers of the Vietnam War era, American student Terry Tarnoff left the States in the early 1970s and embarked on a worldwide journey of self-discovery. Lest you think this book is filled with platitudes and Buddhas, however, allow me to set you straight: this is a fiery, drug-fueled voyage from The Netherlands to Scandinavia to Greece to Africa to India and beyond, with Tarnoff romancing women and blowing blues harmonica the whole way.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, his very grounded addictions to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll contrasting with the inner peace he seeks and the spiritual locales in which he finds himself. The book is filled with apocryphal encounters and conversations he couldn’t possibly remember decades later, so in one sense this is partially autobiographical and partially fictional. But one still gets the sense that Tarnoff has covered the essentials and really put himself out there, warts and all, for the reader to judge.

As for me, I was also once a young American who left the States and ended up lonely and confused in Asia, so I guess you could say I’m the ideal audience for the book. But it may have hit too close to home because I found myself frustrated by his initial carelessness with his lovers’ hearts, and his self-centered posturing. Was I rooting for him or for my younger self to find their way? That confusion added an emotional element and the book has stuck with me since I finished it two months ago.

This book isn’t necessarily for everyone. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of a flawed main character and a boatload of serious drug use, this tome will turn you off very quickly. But those readers with a modicum of wanderlust and a habit of introspection will surely find themselves in good company. After reading the book I was glad to discover that Terry is still very much alive and well, has written more books and even shared some of his vintage music recordings online. Now parked in California, he’s still expressing and discovering himself through art. For some, it seems the journey never ends.

Book Review: THE PRODIGY by Amy Wallace

prodigy

Perhaps I expected something more from this book than I got and if that is the case, it mirrors the expectations America had for William James Sidis. Born in 1898 to educated immigrant parents, young William’s mental acrobatics quickly surpassed their wildest expectations. He supposedly spoke 8 languages by age 8 and even invented his own, Vendergood. He entered Harvard at age 11 and famously lectured to adult scholars on the subject of 4-dimensional bodies. Eventually he would swear off mathematics entirely and he spent his adulthood obsessed with radical politics, ticket transfers for public transport, and New England (particularly Boston) history, even going so far as to write books about Native American tribes of the area.

As with many child prodigies, he was in a pressure cooker from an early age, hounded by reporters and paraded by his parents to their dinner guests. Questions abound regarding what is fact and what is fiction in William’s life. Certainly he was incredibly gifted and no doubt achieved much of what was said, but despite Ms. Wallace’s best efforts, it never feels like she gets to the truth behind it all. She is hampered by decades having passed and much of the original paperwork missing when she wrote the book.

What is apparent from her surprisingly tender, protective portrait of the man is that he suffered that most horrible of fates which befall the vast number of young prodigies: the struggle to live up to expectations as they mature. The natural human inclination is to expect a superior intellect to produce superior work, and we think these young men and women will push forward the human experience in some way. But this is not only an unreasonable expectation, it often includes an invasion of privacy and deprives them of living a “normal” life out of the public eye.

The book makes it quite clear that William suffered much of this in his all-too-brief life of 46 years. Indeed, he was so damaged by the tribulations of his youth that he shunned the public eye in adulthood and did his best to make people think he had no extraordinary mental gifts. It’s difficult to tell how unhappy or lonely he may have been. At times the book makes it seem like his brain was above that type of emotion, then brief passages make him seem very sad indeed.

We will likely never know the entire truth about what was in his head or if he really was the smartest American child prodigy who ever lived. It certainly doesn’t answer the big question looming over the proceedings: was he always destined to be a uniquely intelligent young man or (as his parents claimed) was their upbringing responsible? I recommend this book for the curious, just don’t expect it to bring the man fully into focus when there simply isn’t enough extant information to achieve that aim.

Forgotten Film: OXFORD BLUES (1984)

In the great pantheon of 1980s youth cinema, there are classics like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, then sleepers and guilty pleasures like Real Genius and Three O’Clock High, and finally…there’s stuff like Oxford Blues.

00 title

The basic storyline here is that American Nick De Angelo (Rob Lowe), first seen rowing with his dad on Lake Mead in Nevada, is a Las Vegas kid with a year of college under his belt.  He falls for British bombshell Lady Victoria in a magazine and when he discovers she’s headed to Oxford to study, he makes it his mission to enroll himself and win her affections. He accomplishes this by 1) getting a hacker friend to move his grades up the list a bit on the computer, and 2) meeting a conveniently wealthy, cougar-ish divorcee who beds him, helps him win $14,000 in a casino, and gives him her 1955 Thunderbird to take with him overseas.

Lowe was at the height of his youthful powers here, full of charisma and pretty much physically flawless to the point of being a bit disgusting.

See? I told you.
See? I told you.
Are you serious with this? It's not fair to the rest of us.
Are you serious with this? It’s not fair to the rest of us.
OH COME ON.
OH COME ON.

Once Nick gets to Oxford, he meets another young American named Rona (Ally Sheedy), gets an advisor and a friendly roommate, and starts his classes. When the other students at school discover he has rowing experience, he’s quickly recruited to a team and the plot kicks into high gear.  And Rob’s not the only good-looking actor in this thing, it’s overloaded with attractive young people.

Amanda Pays as Victoria is lovely in her screen debut.
Julian Sands plays dashing rowing and romantic rival Colin.
Anthony Calf (whom I'm embarrassed to admit I got confused with Anthony Head from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Colin's sycophantic toady Gareth.
Anthony Calf (whom I’m embarrassed to admit I got confused with Anthony Head from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Colin’s sycophantic toady Gareth.
Cary Elwes (and his hair) as Lionel
Cary Elwes (and his hair) as Lionel
Ally Sheedy
Ally Sheedy as Rona is cute as a button.

Not only are the stars attractive, the English landscape and architecture shines as well in Oxford Blues. Check it out:

Oxford Blues 01
John Stanier’s cinematography takes full advantage of morning sunlight, frost-covered trees, and misty rivers.
Stanier worked on camera and lighting crews all through the 1970s but this was his first film as the credited cinematographer and he really delivered.
Stanier worked on camera and lighting crews all through the 1970s but this was his first film as the credited cinematographer and he really delivered.
A really lovely, moody scene.
A nice moody scene.

Sadly, John Stanier only went on to six more cinematography gigs before disappearing in 1996, only to return a decade later. Death Wish 3 and Rambo III seem to be his highest profile films and based solely on his work here, I think he deserved a better career.

So far so good, right?  I mean the film is completely improbable in the way that only ’80s movies can be, but in the right hands it’s just different enough to separate itself from the pack and win over audiences with some breezy charm, impish college pranks and a dash of romance.  It had star power, a novel premise, and looked gorgeous. Yet aside from a few die-hard fans, this movie seems all but forgotten.  So what went wrong?

With all due respect to writer/director Robert Boris, the fault here rests entirely on the screenplay.  Oxford Blues is a movie that fights itself every step of the way.  For every light-hearted prank like having Nick get a fake invite to a fancy British dinner party and arrive wearing a kilt, there’s another scene where Nick is facing a disciplinary committee for fighting another student. It never fully commits to being a romantic comedy or a coming-of-age drama, and when you’re in that grey area, you really need to walk that line perfectly.  Boris is no John Hughes, and the script just never gels.

Nick, getting as lost in the movie as I felt.
Nick, getting as lost in the movie as I felt.

In addition to the tonal problem, the other disaster is Nick himself.  I mentioned that Lowe has charisma spilling out of his tailored jeans pockets, but even he can’t rescue a character with no redeeming qualities.  From the moment he sets foot in England, Nick is a petulant, entitled brat who won’t listen to anyone and expects everyone to bend over backwards to give him what he wants. It’s clear from the start that he’s a guy who only puts forth the minimum effort and needs to learn the value of hard work.  But there are ways of writing a character like that and having them come off as a likeable rogue.  Val Kilmer in the aforementioned Real Genius is one example.  Here, Nick is simply unlikeable and I found myself siding with the villain of the piece instead of the protagonist.

About an hour in, Nick is in the audience for a debate about American vs. British cultural values.  The movie seems to want us to take his side as he stands up and argues the American side of the issue in a brash manner.

NICK

We deal with things differently than you all do.

COLIN

I should say you deal with nothing at all.

You merely expect things.

NICK

Well we feel that there’s nothing that’s

beyond our grasp, if that’s what you mean.

(blatantly eyeing Colin’s fiance Victoria in front of a large crowd, disrespecting both her and Colin)

COLIN

No matter what the cost to others?

Americans have a particular talent for

taking what they want, in spite of

the cost to the others it affects.

NICK

Don’t turn this into a personal thing, Colin.

(blatantly ignoring that HE just made it personal)

COLIN

But it IS personal. They say Oxford is what you

make of it. Well I’m afraid since you’ve been

here, you’ve made it rather less than it was.

Sorry Rob, you just got SERVED by Julian Sands.
Sorry Rob, you just got SERVED by Julian Sands.

It was at that moment that I jumped into Colin’s camp. He may be arrogant but he’s absolutely right about Nick’s lack of character. Nick proceeds to pursue and sleep with Victoria, continuing to ignore the obvious fact that Ally Sheedy’s Rona is madly in love with his dumb ass, then he gets chucked out of school for fighting Gareth again. Sure, Gareth may be more of a scumbag than Nick but that’s only one guy and it’s way too late in the film for Nick to be acting like a prat.

I’ve never seen the 1938 movie A Yank at Oxford, upon which this movie is based. But everything I’m seeing in the movie trailer looks like Robert Taylor’s American character is way more comedic and endearing than Nick.  I’m all for having a character work their way through an arc from scoundrel to saint, but if you spend 85 minutes making me hate somebody, don’t expect the final 10 minutes to undo all of that. Besides, after finally doing something remotely altruistic — agreeing to row with Colin to beat Harvard’s team — Nick doesn’t even get why people are back on his side:

DOCTOR AMBROSE

You know of course why I let you back?

NICK

Because Oxford avenged a 25-year old loss.

DOCTOR AMBROSE

Because you did something rather selfless today.

Because you have EARNED another chance.

(smiles)

And because Oxford has avenged a 25-year old loss.

Oxford Blues was a miss with critics and audiences alike when it came out, hitting #8 in its opening weekend and ending up with about $8.8 million total box office. Lowe and Sheedy would go on to strike box office gold together the next year in St. Elmo’s Fire. Robert Boris had a number of scripts to his name before this but it was his directorial debut. The standouts in his resume tend to be more dramatic fare like Electra Glide In Blue (1973) and it’s a shame MGM trusted this remake to him when it could have turned out to be rather charming in the hands of a skilled comedy writer.

I leave you now with some images from the ending credits of Oxford Blues. After the exceedingly serious tone most of the picture had, the credits sequence featuring Nick dressed in various British costumes like Sherlock Holmes seems tonally wrong and completely out of character. One has to wonder if perhaps the studio mandated it so the audience would leave the theater thinking they’d actually seen a comedy.

Oxford Blues credits 01
The name’s Bond…Nick Bond.
Oxford Blues credits 02
Somewhat appropriate, if only because I spent the whole movie wishing Nick would get a clue.
Oxford Blues credits 03
Nice wellies, mate.

Movie Review: The Wizard Of Speed and Time (1989)

wizard

SYNOPSIS: A Hollywood filmmaker (Mike Jittlov) desperate for work is hired by a shifty producer to film a segment for an upcoming TV special about Hollywood special effects. Unbeknownst to him, the producer has placed a $25,000 bet with a colleague that Jittlov won’t come up with anything by the deadline. But our creative hero has a few tricks up his wizard sleeves. With the help of his friends and his own indomitable spirit, could he somehow pull this off after all?

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In some respects, it’s a miracle this movie exists at all. I think Jittlov is a fascinating filmmaker with a unique voice, ripe for someone to revive his fortunes with a good documentary a la Rodriguez after the movie Sugar Man came out. Here’s a guy with all the talent in the world who taught himself to do things on film that few other independents could have done, who banged his head against the Hollywood gates for years, and ultimately faded into obscurity for a variety of reasons.

I’m not quite the Jittlovian expert that my friend Stefan is but from what he tells me, this movie was actually filmed in Los Angeles around 1983 with the backing of a small studio. It’s hard to review TWOSAT without digging into Jittlov’s own backstory, so bear with me. Throughout the 1970s, he produced various inventive short films set to music, seeking work for his own production company.

Around 1977 he came to the attention of Disney, who hired him to do a piece for their TV program The Wonderful World Of Disney. This is really the reason that this film says it takes place in 1977. Over the years he did a few things for that company including the inaugural ‘Mickey Mouse satellite’ short film played on the Disney Channel when it launched in 1983. Rumors persist that he was stiffed on at least part of his payments at that time.

Jittlov plays a stylized version of himself here, as his “character” gets hired to produce a TV segment and he goes around Hollywood showing the absurdities of how the system works (and how it had worked against him). We go from the outrageous fees charged for use of a backlot, to the insanity of waiting for a union crew to load a truck when you could do it yourself, to the lunacy of trying to sign up for an expensive director’s guild membership when you already need to be a member of another guild.

The whole thing would be depressing if it weren’t for the irrepressible spirit with which Jittlov imbues the proceedings. Every obstacle, no matter how mountainous, is met with a smile and a clever solution or simply an intense period of hard work in his mom’s garage. Jittlov’s own amazing talents for in-camera special effects like stop-motion as well as painstakingly hand-painting the finished film are all on display here and the results are stunning if you have the slightest knowledge of how these things were done in the age before computers.

Jittlov’s own Herculean efforts in real life mirror those on screen to such a degree that reality and film become blurred. The truly unbelievable part is that not only did he manage to tell a “magical realism” account of his battles with the system up to that point, he also telegraphs his own future to a degree. The evil producer of the film is played by Richard Kaye, the actual producer of the Wizard Of Speed and Time. The true story of this film’s post-production has yet to be told in a definite way, but as the years passed, Kaye grew impatient with Jittlov’s perfectionism. Jittlov was doing every effect himself, by hand, and Kaye’s production studio was in financial trouble.

Some fans posit the idea that this is why Kaye wrestled control of the film away from Jittlov and released it in 1989 to as many video stores as possible. If you were in a video store in the early 1990s, there’s a good chance chance you saw this on the shelves and perhaps even saw a cardboard standee heralding its arrival. The theory goes that Kaye hoped the success of TWOSAT would help get his company back on its feet. Unfortunately for him — and Mike Jittlov — that’s not what happened. Lacking any big name stars, the film found a cult of fans on home video but not the mass audience it needed.

wizard2

Jittlov seems to have been slightly embittered by the experience (not that it’s hard to see why) and rarely stepped into the spotlight afterwards. He’s not a hard man to find by any means and he’s done some other work but nothing with this kind of personal vision or on this grand a scale. Watching the movie, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness at that thought. The film crackles with life, from the fast-paced editing and clever script to the little additions he gave it like a person’s eyes flashing with light when they really mean business. And what can I say about the climactic sequence when we finally see the fruits of his character’s labors on the TV special? Magical is a corny word but it’s the only way to properly describe those five minutes.

The film works on multiple levels if you pay close attention to it. On the surface we’re watching a boy-done-good film about an underdog that works his way to the top (well, the top of the middle). Beneath the surface is a man coming to grips with the way Hollywood works and skewering it as best he can. Sometimes when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, the unstoppable force makes a sarcastic movie about the experience. If the movie has a flaw, I guess it might be the necessary use of a homemade synth score that betrays its low budget origins. But I think that’s a small quibble in a viewing experience that leaves you feeling as if the world has untapped potential just waiting for you to discover it.

The sheer joy of Jittlov’s creativity and outlook on life is evident in every single goddamned frame of this thing, including giving parts to his own mother, brother, and friends. Knowing other little tidbits about the production, like the fact that he was 35 when he filmed this and has his first kiss ON-SCREEN, simply adds to the overall vibe of a man who was born to do this work, devoted his life to it, and had a supreme talent and vision that never fully bore fruit thanks to a lack of backing. Jittlov’s use of fast-motion and his creative approaches to low-budget problem-solving bring to mind the early career of Sam Raimi. In another reality, Jittlov might have been a family-friendly Raimi making beloved films we cherish to this day. But Hollywood doesn’t work that way, even for a wizard.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

wizard3

Movie Review: The Wall (Die Wand), 2012

The Wall movie poster

“A woman inexplicably finds herself cut off from all human contact when an invisible, unyielding wall suddenly surrounds the countryside. Accompanied by her loyal dog Lynx, she becomes immersed in a world untouched by civilization and ruled by the laws of nature.” —Music Box Films

I like a good “What If” tale, and as far as those things go, this one — based on a 1963 novel by Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer — is a doozy. The titular wall appears pretty early in the film and from that moment on, actor Martina Gedeck is on her own aside from a cat named Lynx and a friendly cow. Her performance is a true tour de force, anchoring this fantastical tale firmly in reality. Her character’s isolation, despair, happiness, and wonder at nature all became palpable things in her talented hands and it’s no wonder she won Best Actress at the Austrian Film Awards, amongst other ceremonies.

No less than six cinematographers are credited on IMDB, which is surprising, but they did an amazing job. From the shining, untrampled crust of an Austrian snowfall to the glowing alpine sunsets of summer, this movie is absolutely gorgeous.  Depressing at times, but gorgeous.

Don’t waste your time waiting the whole movie for her to escape her magical confinement; the film isn’t about that. The wall and many other aspects of the story are symbolic. It’s about how a person survives when everything is taken from them including companionship. When we sometimes crave being alone, where is the limit of that craving? As the years go on, how does she cope with her own thoughts? How does she cope with hunting to survive when the act of killing is repugnant to her? [warning to viewers: there’s a very graphic scene of a deer dying and rolling down a hill in an agonizingly long series of shots]

The film has a running voiceover by the character rather than dialogue and it worked well for me. Gedeck delivers her thoughts in a rather matter-of-fact way as she writes down a chronicle of her time within Die Wand (The Wall), bringing surprising beauty out of the German language. Like the change of seasons, the film goes from calm contemplation to despair and back again. It’s harrowing at times, and I’m not sure I’ll find myself going back to it often, but the beauty and thought-provoking aspects of the film impressed the hell out of me. Every so often I need cinema like this to cleanse my palate after the 15th movie where Hollywood superheroes knock down a city block.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

What’s Rocking Tim’s Online World Lately?

Gold, Frankenstein and Myrrh (2015)
Gold, Frankenstein & Myrrh (2015, Photoshop collage, Me)

April 2015

“I thought, maybe I should go with the whole idea of it being boring. What’s the most boring thing I could do just to annoy everybody? And the most boring thing that I could think of to do, which would really go against the grain for the MTV generation … was a talking head: a middle-class white male in a suit, talking to them in a really boring way about music videos.

And I thought, “Oh yeah, I’m on to something here. This is really dull and uninteresting.” “

I grew up in the 1980s and the Max Headroom character was one of my favorite things on TV. Whether it was his stint as a guest VJ on MTV or the futuristic TV drama they made around the character, I was in love with the look they created and his goofy, irreverent manner.  I was too young to know what social satire or political commentary meant but this looked and sounded like a future I could get behind.

Speaking of things I was too young to understand, I really shouldn’t have been reading this series as young as I did.  Covenant is one of the most difficult-to-like antiheroes ever written. Centering 9 epic fantasy books around a rapist is a move so bold it borders on the insane but that’s what Donaldson did.  As the writers of these reviews mention, sometimes the series is more admirable for what it attempts than what it actually accomplishes, but I have to say this: I have forgotten many, many books I’ve read over the years but the Thomas Covenant Chronicles stuck with me. Take that for whatever it’s worth to you.

I’ve never been much of a Buzzfeed fan (please don’t throw oranges at me) but this is the craziest, most amazing human interest story I’ve read in ages. When I first met the internet in 1993, I flipped out. I couldn’t believe I was chatting to people at other colleges and OTHER COUNTRIES, instantly, for free. Us net fanatics were very much the minority back then but I didn’t care. I’ve never seen the internet as a source of revenue, I still to this day see it the same way I did then: a beautiful, free and open source of information and communication with other human beings. Stories like this are vindication and a reaffirmation that us idealistic internet dorks were right all along. Yeah, you can invest in tech stocks, and the net has made shopping instant and easy, but the truth is that it is so much more than that. I hope young people growing up in an online world won’t take it for granted.

Movie Review: Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now 1973 movie poster

Over the years The Criterion Collection has restored and presented many of cinema’s greatest treasures. Thanks to their meticulous care, thousands of the film world’s greatest achievements have gotten the care and attention they so richly deserve. On the other hand, they’ve also reissued stuff like Don’t Look Now.

This movie is almost universally beloved by critics and Serious Film Viewers. When I was a film student, if they’d showed this to us I’m sure I would have gone right along with the party line and proclaimed this to be a masterpiece. But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now. I don’t have to call something profound because it’s slow. I can call it yawn-inducing and poorly paced.

The basic plot here is that John and Laura lost their little girl Christine to a drowning and now they’re in Venice while John helps with a church restoration. One day Laura meets two sisters, one of whom — a blind woman with second sight — says she can see Christine sitting with John and Laura, and that the daughter is happy. She also says Christine bears a warning for her parents: leave Venice at once. John doesn’t believe it and he stays, much to his detriment.

Now, I could attempt to expand on that synopsis but there would be no point because there is no further plot, unless you count John’s endless meandering through foggy alleyways. Does cinematographer Anthony Richmond make empty Venice look great in the film? Absolutely. Does the occasional splash of the color red on Christine’s raincoat and blood on a photographic slide have a striking effect when it appears? Sure it does. Is there a famous sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie? Apparently, but unless you’re into watching two bony skeletons clack together, it’s not going to do much for you.

Roger Ebert once said, “It is the film’s visual style, acting, and mood that evoke its uncanny power” and his sentiment is echoed by a lot of other reviews I’ve read about this movie. But without a decent script, it’s simply style over substance. This film has a reputation for being terrifying, or at the very least chilling. I adore films with those descriptors but this never even came close. As always, I can only speak for my own personal experience and would never discount anyone else’s opinions on art. Aside from the decent cinematography and a tremendous performance by Donald Sutherland’s mustache, this film really failed for me on every other level.