Thursday, October 25, 2018

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN



Here's a nice respite for movie lovers, an elegiac tale of a whimsical old bank robber who stays in the game because there's nothing else quite like it. A fellow should do what he loves, right? The Old Man & The Gun is about Forrest Silva Tucker, the sort of gentleman bandit that Hollywood has always loved. The message has always been that it's fine to take what is not yours, as long as you're polite about it and do it with some style.

The story is set in 1981, when Tucker is well into his 70s, though bank managers describe him to the police as anywhere from 50 to 60. He's not overly jaunty, but he wears a nice suit and hat and does his robbing with a great degree of calm and professionalism. He has a couple of pals who go on jobs with him, but he seems to be the brain of the outfit.

The trio work constantly, cutting a swath through Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. They like small banks, because they don't want to look like they're showing off, or risk going beyond their area of expertise. When Tucker meets a nice woman, a widow roughly his own age, she provides a soft diversion for him in between bank jobs. He tells her he's a robber; she doesn't believe him. As played by Robert Redford, hobbling and looking his age, Tucker is sweet and sly, and casually flirtatious. She doesn't know what to make of him, but suspects he may be more than just a nice old guy.

Redford has always been just short of being a fine actor. He's always a bit stiff, too pretty. Though he did a lot of period pieces, he always looked like a modern guy in an old fashioned costume. As Roy Hobbs, the aging baseball player in The Natural, he tried to affect a Gary Cooperish earthiness, but couldn't hide his intelligence long enough to be a convincing country hunk. Yet, he overcame being wrong for almost every part with nothing but his sheer likeability, or star quality. As Tucker, he somehow shakes off 50 years of glamor and finds himself. Tucker is strong willed, crafty, a thrill seeker, a rascal. Was this Redford all along?

Redford is so watchable here that we wonder how long he has waited for this sort of role.  All of the great actors eventually have  their "old guy" character, where they prove they can still deliver, and this is Redford's. Thinking of him, his age, his long and illustrious career, and a recent admission that he might be done acting, gives the movie a weightiness that it wouldn't have with someone else as Tucker. 

Sissy Spacek, as the widow who befriends Tucker, is nearly as good. Their scenes together are easy and charming; they like each other because they make no demands on each other. She meets him for coffee now and then, and we're nearly as happy as he is when she arrives. Gradually, she fears he might be the crook he claims to be. After all, he keeps an old revolver in his car's glove compartment, and he almost convinces her to steal a bracelet from a shopping mall, just for laughs. Still, she continues to meet him for coffee and some light conversation. "I like that truck of yours," he says. "Me, too," she says. Watching Redford and Spacek work together, hearing their simple dialog, draws attention to the outright silliness of most other movies.

Writer-director David Lowery makes the best of this allegedly true story, moving it along at a leisurely pace, giving us just enough wide open Texas scenery. Though he can't produce a satisfactory ending, there are enough gems along the way that we'll forgive him. 

My favorite scene involved Casey Affleck as John Hunt, the cop on Tucker's trail. Tucker meets him, quite accidentally, in the men's room of a Texas diner. Tucker knows who he is. He taunts him a little, tells him to straighten his tie. Hunt  knows its Tucker. As Tucker teases him, Hunt can't help but smile at the old codger's audacity. It's as good a movie moment as we'll see this year.






Saturday, October 20, 2018

HALLOWEEN (2018)...
















The new Halloween doesn't know whether to pay homage to the original, or to be relevant to today. So it tries to do both. The result is a competent but uninspired movie that never quite finds its own groove.

The story of Michael Myers and his stalking of Laurie Strode was sly and primal back when John Carpenter first gave it to us in 1978. The new version, from David  Gordon Green, is like a big, dumb guy trying to recite poetry.

He may have meant well,  but horror isn't Green's metier. 

True, it can't be easy to handle a classic of the genre and put your own stamp on it, and Green isn't the first to fumble in such a situation. At times, his rendition of Halloween is actually watchable. Green has directed some fine movies and television shows in the past, and though that doesn't mean he's right for the job here, his talent and style occasionally shine through. And when Carpenter's original music kicks in, at once throbbing and sinister, one almost thinks a good movie has been made. It's the screenplay that bombs. 

Jamie Lee Curtis is back as Strode. Now she's haggard, nearing 60; she's never quite recovered from her first encounter with the masked Halloween killer. She drinks a lot and lives alone in a highly barricaded house with enough weapons to fill out a Clint Eastwood movie. She's Strode as imagined by third rate writers.

When Strode isn't fending off nosy podcasters who are obsessed with Myers, she's being belittled by her daughter and son-in-law, played by Judy Greer and Toby Huss. You may recall Greer as Kitty Sanchez in Arrested Development, and Huss from a bit part on Seinfeld. (He played 'The Wiz.') They badger her with dumb lines like, "You have to put it behind you, mom!" Of course, Strode can't forget Myers, especially when she learns that he's being relocated to another mental health facility. In another ho-hum move by the writing team, he's being relocated on Halloween night. Do you think he'll escape?

Curtis, along with Carpenter, served as a producer on the film, so she must have approved of these schlocky ideas. Perhaps she was blindsided by the movie's final image, that of mother, daughter, and granddaughter, exhausted and bloody after their climactic confrontation with Myers. Maybe it seemed like a symbol of women's empowerment, or the #metoo movement. But to modernize the Halloween concept didn't make the movie any more entertaining. It's all too lead-footed and predictable to be scary.

Curtis' performance is standard for a Halloween movie. She's content to let her grizzled appearance do the acting for her.  At one point she delivers a sky-shattering scream, which makes it seem  Laurie Strode has gone totally nuts. Too bad the movie doesn't continue in that vein. The best Gordon and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley can do is turn Strode into an ass-kicking vigilante, an earth mamma with a gun collection.

As for Michael Myers (played by two actors, including Nick Castle, from the original), he's still big and mysterious; we still don't know what drives him. The movie makes no concessions to his age, either. We see that he has some white whiskers,  but this man who would be near 70 is still enormously powerful. Maybe evil keeps him young. He doesn't use his trusty knife as much, either. Now he likes to bash people's heads against walls. He steps on a guy's head, too. The contents shoot out like toothpaste from a tube. He even bashes Strode's head against a door about 20 times. I don't know how the old gal takes it.

Universal and Miramax spent a ton on advertising, and it's nice to have Jamie Lee Curtis back, so the movie will have a big opening weekend, I'm sure. But the audience I was with didn't seem especially moved by any of it. During the closing credits, they rose as one and shambled out of the darkness into the lobby. They will see better movies this season.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

VENOM...



Surprise, surprise: I enjoyed Venom

It's a movie that somehow succeeds just on its energy and its premise, even though it is in many ways a generic Marvel Comics film. 

It exceeds expectations thanks to director Ruben Fleischer's careening delivery. He's done a lot of TV work, but his most well-known feature is Zombieland, which mixed comedy with horror and action. He's been at it since 2001, but this is his best work. 

What prevents Venom from being truly remarkable, however, is what got it made in the first place: the Marvel Comics formula. As good as Venom is, it never transcends the predictable dialog, the ersatz science and social issues that creep into comics so nerds think they're reading something "adult," when the real selling point is basically muscle bound warriors trying to prevent a worldwide calamity,  stopping now and then to argue like sitcom characters.

Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a good-hearted investigative reporter who zooms around San Francisco on a motorcycle. While doing a feature on Carlton Drake (Marvel villains always have names like Carlton Drake), an Elon Musk type who is conducting experiments that are supposed to help us with space travel, Brock comes in contact with a dangerous "parasite." The thing looks like a crawling pile of metal spaghetti.

Of course, I'm simplifying. Or am I? The key to Marvel movies is that they begin with a flurry of activity to make us think there's a lot going on, but it's presented so an eight year old can understand it. Hell, it's a billion dollar format. Who can squawk? (Drake talks a bit about environmental problems, but with the money made by Marvel, the company could actually stop global warming, rather than make movies about it.)

As Brock, Hardy shambles around like he's been kicked in the balls. He mumbles a lot, too, and shrugs, and stammers, and squints. Did Hardy study acting at the feet of Tony Danza? As his ex-girlfriend, Michelle Williams is all smiles and cute boots. As Drake, Riz Ahmed is suitably villainous, though all the performances here are about as subtle as kabuki theater.

Despite the predictable nature of what is basically just another Marvel tale, this movie kicks into an unexpected gear when the parasite merges with Brock and evolves into Venom, a giant blue creature who is as powerful as the Hulk, agile as Spiderman, and capable of a good one liner. He's also hungry. ("Eyes! Lungs! Pancreases! So many snacks! So little time!") Venom would be a monster in any other movie, but he likes Earth, and he likes Brock. When he realizes another monster from space is on the way to make things difficult, he enlists Brock to help him battle the fiend, a big nasty galoot known as "Riot." The showdown, which ultimately involves Brock and Drake, could be seen as symbol of  journalism versus a big corporation, but no one goes to a Marvel movie for such highfalutin concepts.They go for thrills.

There are some impressive high speed chases through the streets of San Francisco, lots of shattered glass and car crashes and special effects, and Venom throws a lot of people around like stuffed animals. In the Marvel Universe, no one bleeds. They just get thrown around. It's a child's fantasy of being able to throw someone over a building. Somehow, this imperfect mess of a movie is strangely satisfying.  

Here's why: Venom communicates with Brock in his mind. At one point, when Brock seems to be plummeting to his doom, Venom growls, "Don't be afraid. You cannot die." A wave of genuine relief seemed to sweep over the theater. Three rows behind me a little boy echoed, "He can't die!"

The Marvel fantasy has always been about skinny outcasts developing super powers. But the deal with Venom is slightly different. It's a buddy flick. "Where I'm from, I was kind of a loser," Venom says to Brock. "But here...with you...it's different."


If Hardy and Williams display little chemistry, that's ok. It's all saved for Hardy and this monster with the long tongue. They belong together. Brock even starts to like Venom. It takes a while to get used to him, but here's a monster who befriends you, offers immortality, and all you have to do is save the planet once in a while. Not a bad deal, really.

As for that kid behind me, he erupted again later. Unable to contain himself, his voice shaking with emotion, he yelled, "I love Venom!"

Indeed. Me, too.

Monday, October 15, 2018

LOVE, GILDA...



Gilda Radner was a veritable bag of funny bones, able to capture the  slapstick genius of Lucille Ball, the hauteur of the seventies Studio 54 crowd, the  jauntiness of a Fellini clown, yet sturdy enough to go toe to toe with any of her Saturday Night co-stars, including such heavyweights as John Belushi and Bill Murray. She was such a comic force that we took her for granted. We just assumed she was naturally funny and having a great time. But thinking this way negates whatever it is that drives someone into comedy; with Gilda there was no shortage of angst, insecurity, and inner turmoil.  Love, Gilda, currently in limited release,  reveals a bit of this woman's chaotic personal life. Like any great artist, she mined her own experiences, exploited her own foibles, and inadvertently provided a generation with a mirror. Albeit a slightly cracked one.

Early on we learn that Gilda, "decided to be funny about what I didn't have." In this thoughtful documentary from CNN Films, directed by Lisa Dapolito from Radner's audio tapes, home movies, and diary entries, we find out that there was a lot she didn't have. A bright, chubby kid from a well-off Detroit family, Radner's life was turned upside down at 14 when her father died of a brain tumor. So shocking was her dad's death that Gilda felt she didn't grow emotionally beyond the age of 14. Yet, she was a contemplative woman, perhaps inspired by the mountains of self-help gaga being sold in her day. More recent SNL cast members (Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph) are shown reading aloud from her diaries; much of it is cryptic, as if Gilda wrote in a shorthand meant only for herself. Still, the snippets reveal an intelligent, observant woman,  at once amused and disappointed by her surroundings. She suffered from a major eating disorder and depression, and like any smart artist she questioned the usefulness of fame even as she craved it. 

In some ways, hers was the traditional showbiz tale, where a gangling girl achieves extraordinary success, but never quite finds happiness. Lonely, perhaps in search of a father figure, she gravitated to the men she worked with, and since most were comic mad men like Murray and Dan Aykroyd, it was one romantic failure after another. That is, until she met  the gentler, more sophisticated Gene Wilder. Though she appeared in a few movies with Wilder, it appeared that Gilda, by then, was less concerned about performing. After five years of SNL, at a time when when the show was a cultural touchstone, anything else would be a letdown. "I could be happy working in a shoe store," she says after her SNL days, "making the customers laugh." She remained funny, though, even in her final years as she dealt with ovarian cancer. She died at 42.

Gilda Radner was mesmerizing on  SNL  because she was a throwback performer. While her co-stars were doing impressions of Nixon and  Kissinger, or making sly drug references, she was hurling herself into walls, wearing crazy wigs, and speaking in funny voices. Loose limbed and rubbery featured, with the elegance of a dancing scarecrow, she was a walking cartoon figure, an Al Hirschfeld caricature come to zany life. Along with this was a likability factor unmatched by any female SNL performer since. Many talented women have been on the show, but none have won our hearts the way Gilda did every week. This may be because she left her politics at the door and went purely for the laugh. She was also a bit raunchy, partial to what she called "gross pig humor." How could we not love her?  Unfortunately, Dapolito handles her subject like a delicate flower. Though well-done, Love, Gilda is no more or less moving than anything else from CNN Films. We watch and think, Yes, Gilda was brilliant. Yes, she died young. And then its over. Dapolito should've taken a tip from Radner and gone for more laughs. She also makes a big mistake by not mentioning Radner's classic song, "Let's Talk Dirty To The Animals." Perhaps it was too crude, or would disrupt Dapolito's mission to show the sad face behind the clown makeup.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

BOOKS: INSIDE THE COMBAT ZONE

LIVE NUDES! DANCING! IN THE FLESH! 
New book chronicles the neighborhood where a dude once flicked a burning cigarette into my face
by Don Stradley
 

If someone were to pay tribute to Boston's old Combat Zone by sculpting certain key faces on a mountainside, the Mount Rushmore of our 1970s "adult playground" would have to include Princess Cheyenne (the thinking man's stripper who danced to the music of Genesis and Cat Stevens); Wilbur Mills, the US Senator whose career was ruined by his untamed affection for stripper Fanne Foxe; Andrew Poupolo, the Harvard football player who was stabbed to death one night after a game; and of course, William Douglas and Robin Benedict, the Tufts professor and the hooker whose skull he crushed. Of course, dozens of others would think they belonged, including every pizza shop owner, prostitute, corrupt cop, pimp, transvestite, and city planner, and anyone else who ever urinated on the sidewalk at 3:00 AM back when the Zone was Boston's throbbing night spot. Inside The Combat Zone, Stephanie Schorow's feisty new book, gets 'em all, some fleetingly, some in detail; if the city never creates a monument for the desperate, colorful characters who populated the Zone, Schorow's book will do.

For a place the Boston Globe once labelled a "Coney Island for the emotionally scarred...the place for the emotionally and sexually deformed," many remember it fondly. Why not? There were rock 'n roll bands, and mobsters, and kids working their way through college as bartenders and strippers. (For students looking for a summer job, the Zone must've seemed like a depraved summer camp.) Still, this stripped down story of Boston's most notorious neighborhood isn't exactly a glowing advertisement. Schorow gives plenty of attention to the eccentric, glitzy atmosphere, and where there are strippers and alcohol there are usually some laughs, but she doesn't ignore the violence and drug abuse and the occasional mysterious death. Schorow's style is brisk but informative; she trims the fat, and though there was some mighty interesting fat in the Zone that might've given her another five chapters, she was probably smart to keep the book lean at 150 or so pages. Her writing, perhaps honed by her years with the Herald and The Associated Press, is tight as a rim shot behind a burlesque dancer.

The recurring theme is that the Zone was fine until you started thinking you could handle it. The Combat Zone didn't set out to destroy people, but when certain folks thought they had things under  control, whether they were smart-ass hookers or Ivy League stars who thought they were untouchable, the Zone had a way of swallowing them up and spitting them out. Then again, little old ladies who worked at nearby department stores often wandered into the Zone for a slice of pizza, unscathed, unbothered, for years. Inflatable love dolls staring out from porn shop windows didn't phase them a bit.(Where do the old ladies go now that the Zone has been replaced by sushi restaurants and high rise apartment complexes?)

Schorow has written many books about Boston history, and Inside The Combat Zone offers enough  interesting background to satisfy the most curious Boston buff. She describes the vanishing of old Scollay Square, where sailors on leave during WW2 liked to stop in for a drink and a brawl; how urban renewal caused changes in the city, and how the always changing pornography laws kept the x-rated movie houses hopping to stay ahead of the game. Other authors might've placed more focus on the Zone's unsavory side, or been more graphic about the murders and dead hookers, and I might've liked to know how AIDS and crack affected the Zone, but Schorow does things her way and keeps the nasty stuff on the fringes. She's at her best writing about the strippers, those strange creatures of fantasy who were, in actuality, just young creative women trying to make a living. And some, indeed, lived fabulously for a while. As one dancer recalls, "Looking back is like watching a movie, so many lives ago." The only thing Schorow didn't quite get was the actual smell of the Zone, that  pungent mix of disinfectant, marijuana smoke, open garbage dumpsters baking in the sun, and buckets of soapy water thrown on the walls of alleys to erase whatever god-awful shit had gone on the night before. There was also the unique scent of dirty bookstores, all rubber and plastic, where magazines were packaged in a kind of thick, odious shrink-wrap; when you walked out you feared the tell-tale scent of porn had gotten onto your clothes and could never be washed out.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

MANDY...



Nicolas Cage has given up. That's how it seems in Mandy, a sluggish piece of artsy drivel that has him avenging the death of his beloved girlfriend  after she's killed by an evil cult leader. Cage, who has become known for his over the top performances, doesn't even seem to be having fun.

There's a scene at the end where Cage, covered in blood so all we can see are the whites of his eyes, grins insanely into the camera. It's as if he's saying, Look what happened to me. I was supposed to be the great actor of my generation, not Sean Penn or Daniel Day-Lewis. But here I am in this piece of crap...

Gushers of blood spewing from mouths, giant phallic symbols used as weapons, a chainsaw fight, and several scenes of cartoonish violence, all contribute to this mindless dreck.

Viewers know they're in trouble early when Cage has a scene with his beloved Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). They're lying together after, we assume, a bit of the old in and out. "What's your favorite planet?" he asks. She tells him Jupiter, and explains that the storms on the planet's surface could swallow up Earth. "That's wild," Cage says. And they gaze into each other's eyes, as if their love connection is unbreakable. Ugh.

The watered down Death Wish plot has the idyllic couple - they live together in a mansion in the woods (Did they build it? Are they squatters?) - being ambushed and taken away by a religious sect. The Charles Mansonish leader, an androgynous rock star wannabe named Jeremiah (Linus Roache), wants Mandy for his own puzzling needs. He even conjures a trio of demons to help with the abduction.

Of course, the idea of a religious cult being able to whip up demons has potential, and the demons are plenty hideous - one of them has a penis that turns into a big sword - but in this movie the demons aren't especially effective. And neither, apparently, is Jeremiah. When he can't get aroused during some weird sex ritual, Mandy crosses a line by laughing at him. The lesson we learn here is to never mock a cult leader. Jeremiah responds by burning her alive in front of Cage.

Tied up in barbed wire - A Christlike image, I suppose - Cage manages to escape and hunt down the cult members. To carry out the mission, he arms himself with a high powered bow and arrow, and forges a giant battle ax that looks like the grill off an old Chevy.

A gun might have been better, and certainly lighter to carry, but writer/director Panos Cosmatos obviously wanted to set Cage loose like a Norse berserker.

The movie is visually daring  - Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb have created something that looks like an old issue of Heavy Metal come to life, with nods to fantasy artists  like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vellejo - but Cosmatos' is clueless about action and narrative; he slows everything down to a crawl. The film's stupor is not helped by the hammering dirges of King Crimson on the soundtrack. Cosmatos may think he's putting viewers into a sort of drug haze, but the effect is more like a long, uncomfortable nap.

Cage, looking burly and grizzled, isn't allowed to act much here. He does a lot of grunting and sneering, though he does have a remarkable scene where he downs a bottle of vodka and wails in sadness at the loss of his love. It looks silly at first - he's in his underwear - but partway through he seems to  tap into something primal; the grief is, for a moment, painfully real. Unfortunately, we never cared much about Mandy, so we're not feeling anything. She was just some dippy woman in a Black Sabbath T-shirt.

On a side note, Mandy is set in 1983. What was Cage doing that year? He was appearing in Valley Girl as an ersatz punk rocker. That was a charming movie. Remember it? Now we get Mandy, a silly thing.


Monday, September 24, 2018

BOOKS: THE OUTSIDER (by Stephen King)


Suffer The Little Children
The Master of Horror Mails Another One In
 By Don Stradley

Stephen King is still at it - his latest horror opus is a 560 pager with references to psychic vampires, Bram Stoker, body snatchers, shape shifters, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mexican superstitions,  not to mention the every day horrors of skin cancer, snake bites, suicide, and the American legal system - but he's lost a bit off his fastball. This isn't a knock on him; like a veteran pitcher, he can still take the mound and get guys out with nothing but junk pitches and guile. In this case, he sets up a plot where a beloved little league coach is arrested for killing and defiling a child, even though there are plenty of witnesses that saw him miles away at the time of the boy's murder. Hell, he's even caught on film at a teacher's conference. Yet, the coach's fingerprints and DNA are all over the murder scene. How could this fellow be in two places at once? That's the premise of The Outsider, a dirge-like police procedural with a few supernatural flourishes. It's not terrible, but King's intriguing set up dissolves into a routine rehash of his favorite tropes; it's old hat. It marches slowly to a dreary, predictable climax. 

Late in The Outsider, we're told: "Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end." In this novel, which seems written with a mini-series in mind, such bromides are dropped by characters with grating  regularity. It's a strange world, we're told over and over again, with all kinds of weird stuff in it. Every character we meet seems to have an eerie story from the past, some unexplained event that still gives them the heebie jeebies. If not, they've seen a weird movie or read a weird story. And of course, there are the skeptics who don't believe such nonsense. Gradually, the non-believers are convinced, and off everyone goes to kill the monster. This is only after a few hundred pages of conversations about DNA samples. King works hard to get his details right, but much of The Outsider reads like a dummy's guide to forensics.

In many ways,  it's the same story King has been writing since The Stand and Salem's Lot and It. There's a creepy villain who does some terrible things, and a bunch of good citizens rally together to track him down. This time, the menace is an otherworldly bogie who can turn itself into anyone, provided it makes some physical contact and draws some blood. He, or it, is a nasty thing, feeding off of pain and sadness, hiding out in caves while it morphs into its next identity. It can project itself into your dreams, or get into your mind, a bit like Freddy Krueger without the lame jokes. He enlists a seedy detective named Jack Hoskins to do his grunt work while he hibernates;  Hoskins is a reasonable version of Renfield doing the bidding of this third rate Dracula wannabe, but it's not enough. The novel is short on chills and long on bum dialog.

King brings back Holly Gibney, a character from his recent novels. She's his Miss Marple, a spinsterish solver of mysteries. Middle-aged, prim, highly medicated, occasionally depressed, Holly appears halfway into the book to assist the band of merry men on the hunt for this evil creature who kills children. She's not King's greatest creation, but her appearance in The Outsider draws attention to the blandness of the other characters. The various Howies and Ralphies who populate the story are interchangeable and forgettable; Holly, at least, has some memorable quirks, whether it's her love of old movies, her loyalty to Walmart, or the way she can make a blackjack out of a sweat sock. From King, one expected more out of these characters and their dark adversary. The good guys sleepily go about their business of finding this demon, and when he's found, he barely puts up a fight. Holly squares off with him at the climax. Yes, scrawny little Holly. It's enough to make you wonder why  King is so smitten with this woman. Is it her underdog quality? Is it her stunted personality? Regardless, not even she can redeem this tired, plodding novel, of which the best writing is reserved for a quick description of one character's sciatic pain, how "it cinched her like a thorny manacle." This bit, which lasts only a few paragraphs, and the poor woman's inability to sleep, was a lot scarier than the stupid spook in the cave.