Saturday, November 18, 2017
Late in Battle of the Sexes, we see real photos of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, black and white shots from their 1970s period. King looks pugnacious, energetic, vibrant. Riggs, posing as he did for a mock Playgirl centerfold, looks gross. In fact, an older lady in the audience seated near me let out a shriek when she saw the image of Riggs, as if his obnoxious presence still has the power to perturb women 40 years after the ultimate "male chauvinist pig," challenged King, the top player in women's tennis, to a match. The event became a pop cultural totem and aired on ABC, probably preempting a summer rerun of Happy Days, even though Riggs was a 55 year-old man and King was in her athletic prime. In 2001, ABC presented When Billie Beat Bobby, an entertaining piece starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver. I kept thinking of that one, even as Emma Stone and Steve Carrell did their best to present the story again. Stone and Carrell are major talents, but too cute, like Barbie and Ken dolls cast as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet.
Carrell, for the most part, is a reasonable choice to play Riggs. He may seem a little too burly for an over-the-hill tennis legend who was spending his retirement years hustling his pals at the local gentleman's club, but Carrell's got the devil-may-care silliness and the "Why should I give a fuck what you think?" attitude (his speech at a gambler's anonymous meeting, where he tells people their real problem is that they're just shitty gamblers, is the highlight of the movie). Stone, though, is too far from the sort of cloth from which King was cut. (Hunter played King as a muscled up warrior, worn down by outside pressure, not battle.) Stone is too delicate boned to play King, and when she speaks with confidence that she'll whip some opponent, we don't believe her. Even when she decides to embrace her lesbian feelings and have a fling with her hair stylist, it's as if she's a nervous schoolgirl going on a first date with her best friend's father.
It's nice to see a few familiar faces from the past, including Elisabeth Shue as Rigg's long suffering wife, and Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, the arrogant tennis promoter who doesn't want to pay the women as much as the men. Neither gets a chance to do much in the movie, but they show how not to overact, which Sarah Silverman can't avoid doing as the agent of the women's team, holding her cig like Bette Davis, complete with Bride of Frankenstein lightning stripes in her hair. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris show none of the finesse or ingenuity they showed in their debut feature, Little Miss Sunshine (2006). It's as if they were baffled by the sheer scope of the King-Riggs match, and with "women's lib" sounding like a fad from the seventies, they decided to be more fashionable and make a heartfelt coming of age story for lesbians.
I'm not sure what to say about Simon Beaufoy's screenplay. Beaufoy, an Oscar winner, has written some highly regarded films, including The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Battle of the Sexes has elements of those movies in that it's about people having to perform on a grand stage while putting their personal lives on the line, but he's not up to the task of jamming a year's worth of history into a comfy 2-hour format. Some of it feels too coincidental, too pat. With the ladies' flamboyant wardrobe designer (Alan Cummings) popping up every few minutes like a one man Greek chorus, offering glib one-liners, giving Billie Jean a comforting hug at the right moment, it's as if Beaufoy felt tennis wasn't so interesting, so he frontloaded the story with more gays, more lesbians, more camp humor. And because the focus is mostly on King accepting her sexual orientation while Riggs is just a comic foil, the message is skewed.
So Battle of The Sexes, intending itself as an inspirational pageant for the LGTBQ community, bends itself to accommodate everyone in its target audience. For fans of King and her considerable achievements, she's portrayed as a serious but vulnerable athlete trying to change things for women's tennis. For fans of Emma Stone, her love scenes with Andrea Riseborough are downright cuddly, though "Crimson and Clover" on the soundtrack was used to better effect when Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron fell for each other in Monster (2004). For those who dislike heterosexual men, they are all portrayed here as flabby, cigar-sucking creeps. That is, except for King's husband, who gently applies ice to his wife's knees even as he realizes her heart belongs to another woman. As played by Austin Stowell, he's the dream man for sexually confused females everywhere: the handsome, non-judgemental doormat.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Movies taking place around a dinner table generally bog down into long monologues where the characters argue about one thing and then another. You know that every character seated at the table will get a chance to blab, and before the movie is over each will get a moment where they stand up, show some anger, reveal their secrets. It's a genre, usually indulged in by young playwrights who are trying their own version of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, without having the life experiences or emotional facility to draw from. Oren Moverman's The Dinner, based on a novel by Herman Koch, isn't exempt from the worst of the dinner drama cliches but, because of a few good performances and the gorgeous camera work of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, rises above the predictable mess it could've been. I can't quite recommend the movie. I can't say it's bad, either. Like all of Moverman's movies, it's not necessarily there for your enjoyment. His characters aren't meant to reflect your own phony image of yourself.
In The Dinner, Richard Gere plays Stan Lohman, a budding congressman whose son and nephew have committed a horrible crime: they set fire to a sleeping homeless woman, recording her death throes on their smart phones as they laughed. Stan's brother Paul (Steve Coogan) is the father of the more vicious of the boys. Stan arranges a dinner date at an exclusive restaurant so he and Paul, plus their wives, can discuss what to do about their sons, who haven't been caught. The story rolls out gradually with many subplots, the main one being Paul's deteriorating mental health, and his grudge against Stan, the more glamorous politician brother. Stan wants the boys to pay for their crime. Paul's wife (Laura Linney) fears what might happen to them in jail. Meanwhile, Stan's wife (Rebecca Hall) doesn't want anything to interfere with her husband's run for congress. She put a lot of time into this guy, after all. Around and 'round they go.
Meanwhile, as the family argues and hisses, a series of entrees are brought out to their table and described in detail by the maître d'. It's not clear whether this is meant to be a satire on the eating habits of the affluent, but the courses look ridiculous. One looks like asparagus tips served on a bonsai tree. The Lohamns fight, eat, and fight some more. Meanwhile, in flashback scenes, we see the boys killing the homeless woman. The kids in the movie are pure shits, heartless and arrogant, though Paul's wife insists they are "good boys" who simply made a mistake. Paul, who hasn't been taking his medication, can't focus on the situation. He amuses himself by insulting the waiters. Stan, in turn, is distracted because his assistant keeps interrupting the dinner with phone calls, the important ones that politicians always get at dinnertime.
The Dinner isn't Moverman's best, though it's tempting to say it's worth watching becaue of Coogan's portrayal of Paul, the edgy loon of the Lohman family. To say this, however, isn't quite true. The Dinner has too many storylines, too many flashbacks, and eventually falls into the same routine as all dinner movies, where each character gets a turn to be dramatic. Moverman wants all of the characters to state their cases, but their arguments are frail. One can imagine a movie being made that focuses solely on Paul, and how this damaged character navigates a family tragedy. Coogan, who gets better as he matures, could've carried it. He's very fine here, all sharp edges and frayed wires, and even though Gere is watchable as always, it's Coogan who steals every scene, playing the kind of unpredictable character John Cassavettes used to play. Moverman tends to draw good performances from actors, or maybe he simply gives them a chance to do things they don't ordinarily do, as he did in Time Out Of Mind (2014) where Gere played a homeless man, and Rampart (2011), where Woody Harrelson played an unhinged L.A. cop. Moverman's movies may be hard to like, but I haven't disliked any of them.
Friday, October 27, 2017
Stephen King still qualifies as a brand name -- he's like McDonald's, or the WWE, the sort of company where you know what you're getting, and you have only yourself to blame if you aren't happy with the product. This is, after all the guy who writes about haunted cars and vampires for fuck's sake -- and carries enough clout that Netflix has invested in two original features this month based on his writing. The movies are based on two of his shorter works, which is where his best stuff is usually found. King's writing went all bloated and wobbly when his love of cocaine dovetailed with the advent of the word processor, because when you give a guy with his galloping imagination and love of words a machine that makes writing easier, coupled with a coke habit, you get novels that are twice as long as they need to be. Fortunately, he could still stick the landing when he wasn't all hell bent on writing an epic. Unfortunately, whether he was writing long or short, King's storytelling can be baffling for filmmakers.
This is evident in Gerald's Game, which is about a middle-aged couple who try to spice up the old love life by engaging in some bedroom role playing. Hubby's idea is to handcuff his wife to the bed so he can act out his rape fantasies. Ironically, he has a heart attack and dies in the middle of playing bad boy, which leaves his angry wife cuffed and helpless. The novel, written by King in the early 90s, was a quick and dirty metaphor for rotten marriages everywhere, especially when a starving dog sneaks into the house and starts snacking on the dead husband's arm. It was nasty stuff, and King exhibited strong insight into the way our adult relationships allow us to rehash templates set in our past. We're shackled to our spouses, we're shackled to beds, we're shackled to our childhood. He nailed it. King is often at his best when writing about, not the horrors of the undead, but the horrors of something far more sinister and mysterious: marriage.
The movie, though, is too slick, too pristine. I remember the couple in the novel being rather average, perhaps unattractive; the movie features a pair of performers who have obviously spent months getting into shape because they knew they were going to be shown in bed, semi-nude. The husband (Bruce Greenwood) looks like one of those fellows in a Viagra commercial, grey at the temples but buff. The wife (Carla Gugino) has biceps like a pole vaulter, all the more noticeable when she's cuffed to the bedposts. The result is that they seem less like a real couple, and more like generic Hollywood types. The script, co-adapted by director Mike Flanagan, can't improve on the worst of King's instincts; in King's world, successful men attend board meetings and tell dirty jokes at Christmas parties. Their wives suffer silently, harboring dreadful secrets. At his best, King creates wonders. At his worst, he's as hokey as Danielle Steel. At least Carel Struycken has a good turn as a gigantic serial killer known as "The Moonlight Man." He's the best thing in the movie.
I'd had higher hopes for 1922, which stars Thomas Jane as a farmer who murders his wife. And while it is better than Gerald's Game, it stumbles a bit. Jane looks appropriately rugged and sunburned, but every time he opens his mouth we see a set of perfect Hollywood choppers, circa 2017. Worse, Jane's acting consists of speaking like he has lockjaw, and spitting a lot. I'm not sure what he was spitting; it wasn't chewing tobacco, not with teeth that white. He's also not very convincing as a man who has committed a heinous crime. This, perhaps, is the fault of director Zak Hilditch, who should've gone for an Edgar Allan Poe type of paranoia, but opts for a tone that is like watered down Tales From the Crypt. Still, even if Jane never seems sufficiently spooked, 1922 manages to be more compelling than Gerald's Game. For King's stories to work best, the viewer must be put in the position of a child with an unpredictable parent. In both of these Netflix originals, the tone is sleepy, not nightmarish. Each movie has an unsettling moment or two, and there are plenty of rats, and knives and disfigured faces, but neither Hilditch nor Flanagan understands what scares us, or what makes marriage such a minefield, or why poor farmers of a century ago didn't have teeth like Tom Cruise.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Wolf Larsen was not yet 30-years-old when he made the long walk down Woodhull Street in Brooklyn on his way to the Bethesda Mission. With his busted up features and cauliflowered ears - unfortunate reminders of his career as a prizefighter - made worse by the bloating effects of liquor, Larsen didn't look like a young man. Most thought he was well into his 40s. Maybe a few people recognized him. Maybe they'd seen him brawling with cops, or singing in the street in a loud, drunken voice. Maybe he just looked like another local mug who had come to the mission for help. The kind people there took him in and let him rest on a cot.
He would be dead inside of 18 months, worn down by a decade of heavy drinking and reckless living. But as he did in many of his fights, he managed a rally. There was almost always a moment in Larsen's fights, usually when he was hopelessly behind, when he'd start throwing haymakers, gambling on his heavy right hand, just to keep the bout interesting. Those desperate moments were exciting, but ultimately, he'd just tire himself out and barely make it to the final gong. That is, if he didn't get knocked cold. The way he rallied at the mission was by making himself useful as a cook, handyman, and night watchman, fixing things and sweeping up and being respectful. But as usually happened when Larsen tried one of his late round bursts, it wasn't enough. Yet, the people at the mission spoke well of him when he died; they said he was a good guy who had been helpful in his final months.
It was as if Wolf Larsen knew his days were numbered and he wanted to change the way people saw him.
He was born Magnes Andreas Larsen Ros on May 14, 1901 in Ostre Moland, Norway. According to legend, or the imaginings of a slick press agent, he was the grandson of the sea captain Wolf Larsen, a character fictionalized by Jack London for his novel The Sea Wolf. Like most of the men in his family, he became a seaman at a young age. For amusement he would often box his fellow seafarers. At age 18 he found himself face to face with none other than Battling Siki, the great Senegalese fighter who would soon be the light heavyweight champion.
The Siki story was told in many ways, sometimes set on a ship, or at a circus - the most fantastic was that Siki was scheduled to fight but his opponent didn't show, and Larsen came out of the crowd to fill in - but it always ended with Larsen and Siki in an impromptu 10-rounder, with Larsen getting the best of it.
When Siki went on to win the title from Georges Carpentier of France, it was Larsen himself who told the tale to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, explaining that he and Siki had been sparring partners at the Amsterdam Club gymnasium in Holland.
"He was striving to pick up the fine points of the game," Larsen said, "and was anxious to have me box with him. He knew little about boxing, but possessed some hitting ability. I was very much his master at that time, and still think I am, granting that he has improved much since then."
But even this version of the story is suspect. From what we know of Larsen - a New York writer once described his style being as "wide open as a Havana cafe" - we can't imagine him at 18 being remotely familiar with the "fine points of the game." Also, by 1919, Siki had been a professional for years, and had earned medals for bravery during the war. It's doubtful he would be schooled by Larsen, a novice.
Regardless, after the alleged encounter with Siki, Larsen left Holland for Australia, did a bit of boxing down there, and then shipped off for the states. Once in New York, some buddies coaxed him into entering an amateur tournament. Larsen was a thrill seeker, and brawling for an audience seemed more exciting than being an anonymous figure on a schooner. At the time, Jack Dempsey was the biggest thing in the country, and boxing was enjoying unprecedented coverage. It's no wonder Larsen wanted in.
By dominating the local amateurs in New York, and winning the AAU title at 175 pounds, Larsen became a hero to the Norwegian Turn Society, a collection of immigrants that had started their own athletic organization. Though boxing wasn't as popular among Norwegians as gymnastics and wrestling, Larsen won his countrymen over with his free-swinging style. Besides, he was a winner. Everybody likes a winner.
Larsen entered the professional ranks on the winds of blowhard manager Tom O'Rourke, whom we can probably thank for the of hype that accompanied Larsen during the early months of his career. This included everything from Harry Greb wanting to fight him, to Dempsey wanting to hire him as a sparring partner. This was probably all nonsense, but it was good stuff. It could almost distract you from the fact that Larsen lost his first two professional bouts.
The downhill skid was on.
With only five fights on his resume, Larsen found himself matched against Gene Tunney. O'Rourke should've been strung up by his ears for putting a rookie in with a sharpshooter like Tunney, who at the time was undefeated in 42 bouts. Still, Larsen was probably all for it. On October 25, 1921, at New York's Pioneer Sporting Club, Tunney stopped Larsen in seven rounds. The New York Tribune called it "a slaughter, pure and simple," and reported that Larsen "absorbed enough punishment to put the average boxer in the hospital for several months." Other reports describe Larsen as "clearly outclassed," and "cut to ribbons." Tunney would recall Larsen a few years later as a "powerful and rushing slugger," but "an easy one, a 'wolf' in name only."
Larsen's next handful of opponents were unknowns - soldiers returning from the war, a local fireman who had taken up boxing to cash in on the Dempsey craze, young Irish and Jewish men trying to make a buck with their fists - perhaps fed to him to rebuild his confidence; he knocked most of them kicking. Charles Mathison of The New York Herald pegged Larsen as "a stocky, phlegmatic chap, guiltless of boxing skill but with a battering ram punch in his right mitt." There was more talk, obviously planted by O'Rourke, that Larsen was being groomed to meet Dempsey. In reality, Larsen had all he could handle from such characters as Tarzan Larkin, the "Minnesota Cave Man," who decked Larsen six times before finding himself on the wrong end of Larsen's right hand.
More often than not, Larsen simply got his head beat in, like when he faced "Sailor" Maxted in what the Eagle called "a one sided contest." One report had Larsen hitting the canvas a dozen times during the first two rounds, though he managed, in one of his familiar but futile comebacks, to put the much larger Maxted down once in the third. Larsen simply ran out of energy by the sixth, which prompted his manager to throw in the towel, saving Larsen from what one reporter termed, "utter annihilation."
Larsen would often do well enough in his losing battles that he'd keep his status as an entertaining opponent, a lovable loser. His October 1922 loss to California's Billy Shade earned raves from The New York World, particularly in the late rounds when,"to the astonishment of the spectators," Larsen "suddenly braced and stuck his stout jaw out inviting Shade to hit (him) at will."
By 1923, New Yorkers had seen enough of Larsen. Under the guidance of new manager Jim Buckley, Larsen began a two year stint in the Boston area with a few stops in Maine and Canada. He lost most of those fights, too. He was often matched against bigger men, on a schedule that saw him fighting (and losing) sometimes three times per month. In one of his Boston bouts, Larsen grew angry when he thought the referee had tried to trip him; he let his frustration out by knocking the ref down with a single crack on the chin. Not waiting to hear that he'd been disqualified, Larsen fled the ring and went home.
Still, Larsen kept fighting. Boston newspapers called him the "Swinging Swede," and he even scored a third round knockout win on the undercard of an event at Braves' Field, "hitting all together too hard and often" for Dan Lucas, a soldier from nearby Camp Devens. But after a TKO loss to Hambone Kelly at Mechanics Hall in Boston, Larsen collapsed and had to be taken to a local hospital. It turned out he was fighting too soon after an appendix operation and shouldn't have been in the ring, anyway.
Larsen never got near Dempsey, but he did fight and lose to some pretty good men, including Kid Norfolk, Ad Stone, and Lou Bogash. A valiant losing effort against heavyweight prospect Jim Maloney earned him praise from The Portsmouth Herald's Norman Brown. Larsen, Brown wrote, "gave Maloney one of his toughest battles," and nearly "knocked him cuckoo."
Boston dried up, and then it was back to New York where the losses continued. Al Roberts, a plodding, unimaginative heavyweight from Staten Island who had lost to the likes of Tunney, Greb, Jack Sharkey, Billy Miske, and others, scored two decisions over Larsen, which meant Larsen was now a punching bag for other punching bags. By the summer of 1926, after a 'no contest' in Brooklyn with a character named Johnny Urban, Larsen disappeared from the scene. According to one columnist, an altercation with the police had left him with such injuries that he had to stop boxing for a while.
Why didn't Larsen live up to the promise he'd shown as an amateur? True, he didn't exactly look after himself, he preferred drinking to training, and his management treated him like a piece of meat. But the real reason may go back to the Tunney fight. When Larsen saw how a seasoned professional, as the Tribune put it, "battered him all over the ring," he may have realized that he was simply an awkward second rater. So, in the words of one journalist, he decided to "live a life of enjoyment." By the time Larsen heard the news that his old sparring partner Siki had died in the gutter, he was well aware that being a top fighter didn't guarantee a good life.
When he couldn't get fights, Larsen worked as a seaman on the Great Lakes, or bounced around Red Hook. Though he tried to present himself as a sort of roguish playboy, he was just a local lunatic, a rock-bottom alcoholic known for crazy street brawls that sound like the stuff of silent movies. He once knocked a man through a wooden wall at the Columbia Street subway station.
"He won plenty of decisions," Buckley said. "But more of them were against cops than prizefighters."
Larsen became a kind of walking urban legend. Among the slew of farfetched tales he inspired was one that involved his attempt to steal a pony from a neighborhood fish peddler. As legend has it, Larsen simply picked the animal up and started walking in the direction of the nearest pawnshop. When the police asked him where he was going with the pony, Larsen said, "Pony? I thought it was a calf."
But not all the stories were fun. On one of his aimless strolls along the waterfront, Larsen saw a couple of men breaking into a speakeasy. Thinking this might be a nice way to score some liquor, he tried to assist the robbers. They responded by cutting Larsen's face and leaving him for dead. He survived, though. In January 1929 he was stabbed again in a restaurant brawl in Red Hook.
Larsen's final ring appearance took place in April 1929 against journeyman Joe Lill at the New Broadway AC in Philadelphia. John Webster of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Larsen, "gamely stood up under a hail of leather until the referee halted the bout in the third." Fittingly, Larsen went out with an "L." His record was approximately 28-40-2, but anyone who says they know Larsen's exact record is a liar.
By 1930, Larsen was homeless, sleeping in a stable, and seen regularly in New York breadlines and Salvation Army kitchens.
"Broadway is a funny place," Larsen said. "Everybody'll give you a drink, and nobody'll give you anything to eat."
Ironically, a successful film version of Jack London's The Sea Wolf began playing in New York around that same time. There was a "Wolf Larsen" on the big screen, played by Milton Sills. There would also be, in the ensuing years, a number of "Wolf Larsens" in football, baseball, and wrestling. But the Wolf Larsen of boxing was now on the streets of New York, drinking as if he had a personal vendetta against the Volstead Act.
At the Bethesda Mission, Larsen behaved himself. He never mentioned having a home or a family; it was as if he'd been born simply to drink and fight. For several months, he was a model citizen. Then, during the first week of July, 1931, he wandered out into the evening and returned drunker than he'd been in a long time. He died a few days later at King's County Hospital of pneumonia.
But, if one may use this soggy old cliche, he was a fighter to the end, literally, as a mission volunteer named John Olsen recounted. Upon hearing Larsen had died, Olsen told the press, "I saw a fellow he hit the night before he went to the hospital, and the fellow was still bent over, a cripple."
Why write about Wolf Larsen? Well, fighters like him provide the grease and fuel on which the boxing machine runs. Sometimes they're named Wolf Larsen. Sometimes they're named Augustus Burton, or Garing Lane. Without them, how would the young, well-connected contenders fatten their records? Dismiss Larsen as cannon fodder if you like, and maybe you wouldn't want to be around him when he was drunk, but he deserves a tip of the cap. Besides, he spent the last months of his life cooking for other lost souls at the Bethesda Mission, and that deserves a tip of the cap, too.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
High School Caesar - now streaming on The Film Detective's classic movie app as part of our "Juvie Jungle" collection - came at the tail end of Hollywood's fascination with juvenile delinquents. The JD trend was strong from 1955-1960; one could hardly enter a theater or drive-in without seeing a bunch of young hoods slouching around on the screen like cut rate James Deans. Though very few of the titles could be regarded as classic cinema, they certainly had a recognizable style and charm. But before we go into High School Caesar, a bit of retro movie history might be in order.
Within weeks of the release of Rebel Without A Cause (1955), schlockmeister "Jungle Sam" Katzman charged into the teen market with an energetic little flick called Teenage Crime Wave. Katzman always had an uncanny sense for picking trends, and other low budget movie producers usually followed his lead. Thus, with an encouraging nod from Katzman, a floodgate was opened for teen gangs, teen werewolves, teen cavemen, teen psychopaths, and teenage gun girls.
Many of the JD films were released by American International Pictures, the veritable chop shop of moviedom founded by lawyer Samuel Z. Arkoff and theater manager James H. Nicholson, but Allied Artists and Howco International were in the game, too. The titles were often better than the actual films. A few samples: Juvenile Jungle (1958); The Cool and the Crazy (1958); Reform School Girl (1957); Teenage Wolf-Pack (1957); The Cry-Baby Killer (1958); Teenage Thunder (1957); and the wonderfully named Lost, Lonely, and Vicious (1958). Who could resist?
The formula was simple. There would be plenty of dancing, a few fist fights, a drag race or two, and some ersatz rock 'n roll. No big stars were needed, because the trend was the star.
Still, the most obvious influence on the JD genre was the old Warner Bros. crime movie, as our tough delinquents usually came to a bad end and learned, as their gangster predecessors had learned, that crime doesn't pay. High School Caesar (1960) was an obvious callback to the Edward G. Robinson 1931 crime classic, Little Caesar. You can almost imagine the filmmaker's thought process: Let's remake Little Caesar but cast it with teenagers!
John Ashley stars as Matt Stevens, a rich brat who takes over his high school by employing some goons to intimidate his classmates. Matt doesn't throw many punches; he likes to be the brain behind the muscle. As the adverts shouted, he had "more rackets than Al Capone," everything from shaking kids down for protection money, to supplying test answers for a fee.
All goes well for Matt as he bullies his way to becoming class president. But when the other kids realize he ran a rival off the road and didn't take the blame for the boy's death, his little kingdom begins to crumble.
Ashley is fascinating as Matt. His hair is greased back and immaculate, a brilliantined cross between James Dean and Dracula. His speaking voice is just short of an Elvis Presley drawl, but he has the cocksure self-awareness of a Ford salesman. He wears clothes and jewelry like a fashion plate, and can dance at the local hangout like he's auditioning for American Bandstand. He's the whole package, the teen embodiment of Eisenhower-era swank served up for the drive-in crowd.
The unique twist is that Matt comes from a wealthy family. He's not some street hood; he has a maid and a butler, and a hot new car. He's a sensitive soul, too. When he fears his parents have forgotten him while they vacation in Europe, he falls on his bed and weeps. Even the coin he's constantly flipping, like a gangster, was a special coin that belonged to his dad, another symbol of the poor little rich boy who is alienated from his parents.
Compared to a lot of JD film villains, Matt gets off easy; instead of being shot by cops or dying in a highway crash, he's simply abandoned by his once loyal followers. Of course, when he's face to face with one of the good kids, he can't do much to defend himself. He takes a few punches to the mouth, and ends up crying alone in an empty parking lot. For a while, though, Matt seemed cunning enough to get away with murder.
Ashley (1934 -1997) went on to have a steady career in beach party movies and on television, and even served as an executive producer on such cult titles as The Big Doll House (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973). As he matured he grew less interested in acting and began working behind the scenes, most notably as a producer of The A-Team, where his voice was often heard as the show's narrator.
In real life, Ashley was an Oklahoma boy who found his way into the movie business while vacationing in California. A buddy from Oklahoma State University brought him onto the set of a John Wayne movie, and it was Wayne who steered Ashley to a job in television. From his earliest days as an actor, Ashley leaned towards schlock. He once said, "This is a terrible thing to admit but maybe the key to my success with exploitation films is that I always LIKED those movies, and I never had any real reason to turn them down. I just enjoyed doing them."
His acting ledger wasn't entirely lowbrow; he gave a commendable performance in Martin Ritt's highly acclaimed Hud (1963), holding his own in a cast that included Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, and Patricia Neal.
High School Caesar was the second of three features by O. Dale Ireland, an independent filmmaker who also gave us Date Bait (1958) and Drag Strip Riot (1960). Ireland filmed it in his old home town of Chillicothe, Missouri during the spring of '59. It was quite an event when it premiered at Chillicothe's Bent Bolt Theater that September, setting a one day attendance record for that venue. The cast included a mixture of beginners and semi-professionals - many were local Chillicothe kids - but the real standout aside from Ashley is Daria Massey as Lita, Matt's long suffering female accomplice.
With her dark hair and eyes, plus a figure that seemed designed by rocket engineers, Massey could steal any scene she was in. Though the credits say "introducing Daria Massey", she'd been working as an actress and model for a decade, including a featured role in Sabu and the Magic Ring (1957) and was nearly at the end of her career by the time of High School Caesar. She'd pack it in after playing a sexy island babe on an episode of McHale's Navy in 1963.
High School Caesar also benefits from a rockin' soundtrack. The title song is performed by Reggie Perkins in a hiccuping rockabilly style, while Reggie Olson and Johnny Faire offer up tunes that are surprisingly cool, considering these were simply songs dreamed up for a quickie soundtrack.
By the way, the High School Caesar music score by Nicholas Carras, a boppin' hybrid of rock and jazz, can be heard on a fabulous 2-CD set called Juvenile Jive, put out by the Monstrous Music CD label in 2010. Carras' score for Date Bait is also included, as is Gerald Fried's jazzy score for High School Big Shot. Carras was a sort of low budget movie maestro, scoring dozens of drive-in gems, including Frankenstein's Daughter (1958) and The Astro Zombies (1968). Carras was given a producer's credit for High School Caesar, and had a much longer career than most of the cast; he worked up until 1991 when, at age 76, he scored Mission: Killfast for cult director Ted V. Mikels.
As for the J.D. movie genre, the trend was doomed to die of overexposure. Jerry Lewis was quick to parody the style in The Delicate Delinquent (1957), and by 1961, when delinquents were singing and dancing in West Side Story, it was evident to all that teen punks had lost their edge. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
Get a glimpse of the JD jungle by watching High School Caesar on thefilmdetective.tv. Our classic movie app is available on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, and Apple TV. We're also showing such teen gems as Girl Gang, Anatomy of a Psycho, and Teenage Strangler.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
AL GREEN DON'T NEED NOBODY
New bio explores the strange life of '70s soul stirrer, grits and all.
by Don Stradley
Al Green's career defies the usual pop star trajectory familiar to baby boomers. There was no defining moment, no appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, no star turn at Woodstock, nothing where fans can say they remember where they were when they first saw him. Granted, there may be some out there who recall the first time he appeared on Soul Train, and apparently every child born in 1972 was conceived while "Lets Stay Together" was playing on the car radio, or on the Sansui 8-track, but Green's life story seems so unlikely, so damned peculiar, that a long biography of him never quite gains traction, and not just because he dumped his career as a soul singer to become a preacher and record gospel tunes.
Jimmy McDonough's Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green is bursting with details, as well as an insightful reappraisal of Green's recorded output, but Green is a troublesome subject. Reader beware: Green is neither likeable, nor especially interesting. At the most, he's slightly eccentric, but no more so than the average overpaid celebrity. He talks about himself in third person, is dumb about money, is mean to people, and has had a string of bad marriages. We could say the same about almost anyone in the NBA or the NFL.
Al Green (as he calls himself, as in "Al Green has got to please Al Green,") was slightly weird from the start, a strangely effeminate boy who was once kicked off his high school football team for being too rough. The Green family landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan by way of an Arkansas backwater; they were unsophisticated and prone to believe in voodoo spells, but the brood was musical, specializing in religious hymns and gospel harmonies. Like a young Michael Jackson did in his own family, little Al Green absorbed what his older brothers were doing and was soon blowing them away with his silky, soaring vocal style.
The family gospel group performed in such such faraway locations as New York and Canada. Al was electric, belting out gospel songs and stealing the spotlight every night, though he remained, in his own words, "the kid under a tree by himself." Al's father, Robert Green, was capable of extreme cruelty - he once shot Al's pet goat and served it for dinner as a joke - and Al's brothers never knew what to make of their "different" younger sibling. He was the meal ticket, though, and he knew that he was the most gifted member of his mediocre family. He also started to dig the sound of secular singers, namely Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Elvis Presley.
He left home at 16 and slept in the guest rooms of various musicians, older cats who knew Al had some talent but needed protection. He was soon fronting a group called The Fabulous Creations, honing his stagecraft in one city after another. He heard Otis Redding sing at Chicago's Regal Theater and it was a revelation. "It was like God or something," Green said, "slipping out of heaven." There were also prostitutes, transvestite nightclubs, and rumors that Al tried his hand at pimping, a trade his brother Walter had mastered. Al recorded a modestly successful single, "Back Up Train," but when it failed to turn him into a star, he grew desperate. Broke, with little to show for his first few years on the road, he jump-started his career by teaming with music producer Willie Mitchell, the production guru behind a little known Memphis outfit called HI Records. Together, they recorded the string of mesmerizing soul hits that made Green a phenomenon of the 1970s. You might say Mitchell made Green, or vice versa. Neither would ever be as good without the other.
McDonough, author of first rate biographies of Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, and Russ Meyer, has plenty of mysteries to unravel with Green. Here was a man given to violent mood swings, yet capable of singing in a high, romantic falsetto designed to make women crazy. Here was a man who carried weapons, and physically attacked people, yet was thought by many in his circle to be not just gay, but downright feminine. He was capable of great generosity, but those who worked for him recall Green as a stingy jerk, the sort who stifled most confrontations by saying, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Al Green!"
And, of course, there was the tragic death of Mary Woodson, a mentally fragile woman who had left her husband to be with Green, only to commit suicide in Green's home. One night she purportedly threw a pan of scalding hot grits at the singer's bare back, and then shot herself in the head with his .38. At least that's what we're supposed to believe. McDonough raises enough questions about the incident that one doesn't know what to think. It was shortly thereafter that Green began preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, though he'll always remind you that he'd found God a year earlier, at Disneyland.
In the ensuing years he became a ghostly presence in the world of pop and R & B. His music has been sampled endlessly by hip hop artists, he has appeared on award shows to sing alongside Justin Timberlake and others, and a recent Green album was produced by Questlove. Green has won numerous Grammy awards for his gospel work, and even appeared on Broadway, disastrously, opposite Patti LaBelle in a show called Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he stumbled through a duet with Aretha Franklin.
McDonough tells us all of this, plus stuff about drugs and guns and domestic violence, but he's too much of a music buff to go full-blown Albert Goldman. He treats Green as a kind of distressed genius, fawning over his talents with something close to blind adoration, describing Green's falsetto at the end of "Aint No Fun For Me" as feeling "like a little balloon escaping into the night sky." Then, seeking gravitas where there isn't any, compares another Green recording to "an ancient screed chiseled on tablets excavated deep within some pyramid."
Somehow, the reverence starts to sound like plain old ass kissing.
McDonough, as if trying to dilute his hero worship, occasionally declares that not all of Green's music appeals to him. Love is Reality, he writes, "gets my vote for the worst Al Green album of all time," adding, "I drove around in my car blasting this thing trying to like it." McDonough is a middle-aged man, but within him beats the heart of a truculent fanboy. A little of this is amusing, but sometimes his puckish asides are like finding a hair in your soup. When he writes that an album sounds "like 1979 on a bad day," you know he can do better.
He's more successful when writing about obscure songs and session players. I like how he describes Bulldog Grimes, a drummer who could "lay down a beat that sounds like King Kong doing a two-step in a metal grass skirt." McDonough's affection for Green's band members is palpable, as is the sense that the world of soul music was a world where men, not women, were the sex symbols. Women listened to Green, and other singers like him, and turned utterly irrational. They'd break into Green's home or church, storm the stage to give him their panties, anything to get close to "the black Elvis." One woman, completely undone by her favorite soul man's sweet vocals, dropped to her knees and begged Green to let her sniff his crotch.
If the book has a shortcoming, it's Green. Despite McDonough's depiction of the singer as a haunted loner, Green is too murky to be compelling. Plus, McDonough bales out of the Mary Woodson chapter too quickly. The book could've used 10 more pages of the Woodson scandal, and maybe 10 fewer pages about the history of Hi Records.
My aunts were all music lovers back in the day, and though their tastes ran towards the Bee Gees and Chicago, each of them had a copy of Al Green's Greatest Hits. I once asked my uncle what the deal was with this Al Green character, who to me looked like a skinny James Brown. My uncle, who never said three words when two would do, simply grunted: "He's for the broads." That was good enough for me. Yet, I've never forgotten the way my aunts talked about Al Green, the way they'd break into exaggerated giggles at the mention of his name. Al Green meant parties and good times and things I probably couldn't fathom in those days.
I fathom those things a little better now, thanks partly to McDonough. He gets in his own way sometimes, but this exhaustive biography works pretty well.
Monday, September 18, 2017
He was not a crook!
The story of Tricky Dick is still the most intriguing political saga of our time
By Don Stradley
Richard Nixon shouldn't appeal to me - rotten things happened under his watch, the war in Vietnam dragged out for at least four years while he fiddled and diddled, and by most accounts he was a neurotic, petty politician with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Las Vegas casino - but he does. It's partly because of the image he had in old newspaper cartoons; the five o'clock shadow, the slope of his posture, the sneaky reputation, and the legend that he spent his final days in the White House on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger. He'd started out as a commie basher and spy smasher, but he ended up as Washington's prince of darkness, as if so many years playing on the country's paranoia had turned him more paranoid than anybody. In John A. Farrell's Richard Nixon, The Life, we get a thoughtful, realistic rendering of a complex character. It's a weighty book, 558 pages of reading, but it's a fine, full-blooded account of a man who, like Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Alan Poe, wore the anguish of his calling. Nixon wore it on his face and in his bones.
Late in the book, we're given a quote by Kissinger: "It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crises, also craved disasters." A recurring theme in this insightful biography is that Nixon courted controversy, and gambled on himself to overcome his own self laid booby traps. As one insider put it, Nixon was like any gambler, and "the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air." The observations, plucked from decades of Nixon-based literature, add up to Nixon being diabolically smart, surprisingly progressive in many ways, but always digging holes for himself, partly because he firmly believed he was too intelligent, too tough, to fail. He swung hard, for the fences every time. "A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed out on one of life's mountaintop experiences," Nixon said. "Only in losing himself does he find himself."
What exactly did he find? And did he like what he saw? "It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," he once said of a political career. Then, in words that may as well be describing a man with a gambling addiction, Nixon added, "you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance." He was the wiliest of political animals, a diabolical thinker who was always two or three moves ahead of everyone, yet what should have been a great presidency was derailed by a quick series of stupid mistakes and bad choices.
The key scenes and characters play out like parts of a crazy, kitschy, American opera: there's Pat Nixon, the long suffering wife; Alger Hiss; Joe McCarthy; Checkers the dog; Eisenhower, the mentor and ball buster; John Kennedy, a friend, then a foe; the '68 comeback; thousands of burned and butchered bodies strewn across the jungles of Vietnam; Nixon in China; Nixon in Russia; the hiring of Hunt and Liddy, the "sycophants and klutzes" brought into the White House to run Nixon's black ops; and the disastrous coverup of the Watergate break in, a stunt no worse than what we've seen since from other presidents, but because Nixon had broken so many backs on the way up, he was too unlikable to get away with it. Nixon wanted to be a giant, and he very nearly was one. And he did it during one of the most turbulent eras in our history, navigating some incredibly bumpy terrain, while secretly despising the political life, the smiling and the handshakes and the phony dinners and soirees, and people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, panned succinctly by Farrell as "a Kennedy coat holder."
Farrell doesn't gloss over Nixon's cold-blooded style, for if Nixon was a brilliant politician who could survey any scene and understand what was needed to get votes, he was also a ruthless mauler of any perceived enemy. There's a jaw dropping opening scene where a 33-year-old Nixon, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, is asked by a Whittier California group to run for Congress. He immediately suggests that spies be sent to his opponent's camp. With his first political breaths, he'd revealed himself to be a willingly dirty player, and set the course for one of the most controversial political legacies in history, one that Farrell has set down with fairness, compassion, and style.
Still, it's Nixon who has the best lines, like when he tells H.R. Haldeman, "If I'm assassinated, I want you to have them play 'Dante's Inferno,' and have Lawrence Welk produce it."
That's my Nixon; hellfire and waltzes.