Thursday, April 19, 2018

Chappaquiddick



Two summers ago I was startled by a blinding light shining into my bedroom window. For a moment I thought the mother ship had landed to reunite me with my alien ancestors. Unfortunately, it was merely a film crew taking over the beach behind my apartment. The crew was there to recreate a scene for Chappaquiddick, the story of Senator Edward Kennedy's tragic drive off a bridge that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a Kennedy aid who learned the hard way that there wasn't always an upside to  being close to a Kennedy. Growing up in Massachusetts, I've heard horrible things about the Kennedy clan. The men, in particular, have been described to me as a bunch of privileged bullies. (Keep in mind, I also meet people who swear they knew someone who knocked out Rocky Marciano in an alley behind the Park Plaza, so I never know what to believe.) Whether or not the Kennedys are a bunch of villains, they've always seemed a bit unreal to me. Even J.F.K., whose picture was on the wall of my grandparents' living room, always looked like a figure created for an ad campaign, something like the Morton Salt girl or Alfred E. Newman. But after a lot of Kennedy documentaries, Larry Tye's excellent biography of Bobby, and the recent CNN series narrated by Martin Sheen, I felt ready for Chappaquiddick. The movie cost me a night of sleep, so I was curious.

Aussie actor Jason Clarke plays Ted as a bumbling sourpuss living in the long shadows of his three older brothers, all of whom died young. It's no wonder he's unhappy. The wheelchair bound family patriarch Joe (Bruce Dern) can't stand him. Unable to speak or move, old Joe is still able to slap Ted in the face and hiss, "You'll never be great!" Senator Ted, of course, may not be presidential material, but he occasionally blurts something about wanting to be a great man. In a way, he reminded me of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, another clumsy oaf from a wealthy family who only wanted to impress his father. The movie ambles along at a funereal pace, with actors struggling to mimic the oddball Kennedy accent (they all sound like Katherine Hepburn trying to imitate Elmer Fudd) while director John Curran and cinematographer Maryse Alberti linger on the scenery of windswept Martha's Vineyard (played in the movie by towns farther up the map).

Chappaquiddick purports to be "the true story" of what happened on that disastrous July night in 1969, which is odd since no one really knows what happened, not even Ted. He claimed not to remember how he escaped the submerged car, or why he waited nine hours to call the police. But rather than explain how a drunk with a bad back was able to power his way through a car window and swim to safety, the movie focuses on Ted's neediness. With his brothers gone and his father hating him, Ted leans heavily on family fixer Joseph Gargan (well-played by Ed Helms), himself worn out by Kennedy scandals. Ultimately, Ted accepts the Chappaquiddick episode as his personal crown of thorns. "Peter betrayed Jesus," he says late in the movie, "and I have Chappaquiddick." He says this almost proudly, as if at long last he has acquired a character, albeit a shitty one.

Clarke is fine as a self-pitying Ted Kennedy, a man who could amuse himself by flying a kite or watching cartoons, yet was despicable enough to wear a neck brace to Kopechne's funeral in order to get sympathy. Still,  Clarke's performance can't galvanize Chappaquiddick. If we're supposed to buy into Ted Kennedy as a tragically flawed Shakespearean character, which I think is Curran's ambition, we need some King Lear moments, not just Ted staring off into the clouds while his staff hustles to  get his driver's license renewed. This, ultimately, is why Curran's movie never takes flight. It's watchable, but too restrained. Even the car accident is played tastefully, rather than for full out melodrama, as if Curran feared going too far. There's no hint of a cover up, and no suggestion that there was more to the story. There's also no attempt to explain the phenomenon that has always mystified me, which has to do with the Kennedys only marrying people who already looked like Kennedys.




Monday, March 19, 2018

BOOKS: HELL'S PRINCESS


Hell's Belle
A master of true crime writes about one savage lady
by Don Stradley


When people ask why a cheerful, clear-eyed fellow such as myself is so interested in ghastly crimes of the past, I refer them to Harold Schechter. What Bert Sugar was to boxing, what Charles Bukowski was to drinking alone, what Laura Hillenbrand was to Seabiscuit,  so is Schechter to murderers, especially the American brand. His latest, Hell's Princess, is another  master class in combining history with ghoulishness. In it, Schechter goes deep into the colorful saga of Belle Gunness, the La Porte, Indiana woman whose crimes shocked America more than a century ago. At the peak of her depravity, husbands and farmhands tended to die around her, either from poison or a crushed skull. Or both. By the time investigators dug up her "murder farm," the body count set a record that wouldn't be broken until John Wayne Gacy's vile exploits 70 years later. Belle Gunness was the Babe Ruth of serial murder, right down to her massive gut and the way she captured the country's imagination.

The Belle Gunness style was as sly as it was blunt. Posing as a helpless woman, she'd post ads in local newspapers looking for a partner to help run her farm. Men, usually Norwegians like Gunness, answered these ads by the dozen. At Belle's insistence, they'd empty out their savings and cash in their insurance policies. Belle was waiting, with her arsenic and her axe. She knew how to extract money from dumb men, but Schechter insists that, "greed alone could not account for the sheer savagery of her crimes, the evident gusto with which she slaughtered her victims like farm animals." When the public learned of her murders, the frenzy of interest lead to the Gunness house, which had mysteriously burned down, to became something like a carnival attraction, with vendors selling ice cream as digging crews uncovered mutilated corpses. "Many visitors brought Kodaks and took their own photos," Schechter writes, "posing their families before the ruins of Belle's farmhouse or at the edges of the pits on the excavated hog lot."

What makes the story different from most, and what no doubt provided a challenge for Schechter, is that Gunness vanishes halfway into the narrative. The focus then turns to Ray Lamphere, a scrawny halfwit who may have assisted her in disposing of bodies, may have been her lover, and may have set her place on fire. The second half of the book is a flurry of false confessions and deathbed delirium; fat women around America were in danger of being pulled aside by cops and accused of being Belle Gunness. No one knows what happened. Did she die in the fire? Did she stage the inferno and escape? Did Lamphere kill her? Ultimately, Gunness becomes a figure of evil, as one historian put it, "whose malevolence seemed to match that of the unseen beings peopling Norwegian folk tradition."
 
Schechter has been producing books like this one since the late '80s true crime boom. I remember his early efforts, garish little paperbacks about Ed Gein and Albert Fish. He even wrote an intriguing book about the history of violent entertainment called Savage Pastimes, which had him exploring everything from cap pistols to public whippings. Though Hell's Princess ends with a  shrug - Schechter is mystified as to what may have happened to Gunness  - it's still a strong read, full of strange old characters from the 19o0s, a time of mustachioed sheriffs in polka dot bow-ties, exploitative newspaper publishers who blended fact with fiction, a time when the old world was still encroaching on the new,  when psychologists of the day, or alienists as they were called, made observations based on the shape of a person's head, and came to the generally accepted conclusion that Belle Gunness was an  "evolutionary throwback...born by some hereditary glitch into the modern world," a woman with dead emotions, yet one with undeniable allure for lonely men of the Midwest and the cold prairie states, pushovers for a farm woman who simply wrote in her letters,  Come to me and be my best friend forever.  




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)


How to describe what The Night Stalker (1972) meant to us in the 1970s? By us, I mean scrappy little kids who couldn't believe a vampire had made it onto prime time television. We went to school the next day after it had aired - and it seemed to play throughout the decade -  as giddy as kids of today would  after a Marvel comics movie. More so, perhaps, because we hadn't been saturated and weren't jaded about monsters and such.  I remember reading a quote from Barry Atwater, the actor who played the fiendish Janos Scorzeny, and how it made the movie seem so adult. He said, "I played the vampire as if he were a drug addict, and wouldn't let anything stand between him and a fix."

Now The Night Stalker is seen as a cheesy old thing. Made-for-TV films of the '70s are an unappreciated genre. Only true TV buffs react to the name of producer Dan Curtis, for his projects had none of the '70s camp or funky soundtracks that  keep other movies of the period in a kind of nostalgic memory cloud.  Yet, the news that Kino Lorber will be releasing a newly remastered Blu-ray edition later this year has fired me up.

Actually, even a shitty old VHS tape of The Night Stalker can do it for me, or the regular DVD that came out years ago, or even a poorly transferred post on YouTube. Starting with Darren McGavin's opening narrative, explaining that he's about to tell a story that we won't believe, to the first shot of the dark Las Vegas streets, to that first scene of a woman in a short skirt being grabbed in an alley, and I'm a kid again. I remain a kid until it's over.  I'm not surprised that it received a 33.2 rating and a 54 share of viewers when it originally aired on ABC. It was one of those nights where people called their friends and told them something unique was on the idiot box - a vampire was eating hookers in Las Vegas.

The plot is deceptively, beautifully simple. Women are being killed in Las Vegas, the bodies found with bite marks on their necks. Carl Kolchak (McGavin), a rumpled reporter, is sent to cover the story. He's reluctant at first, until he begins to suspect there may be a vampire, or someone acting like one, on the loose. After the usual exchanges of "Surely, you don't expect me to believe in vampires," Kolchack takes it upon himself to find the devil. What does he have to lose? He's been fired from various jobs, and his editor (Simon Oakland) hates him. He has a girlfriend who works as a call-girl (Carol Lynley), and his only dream is to get out of Las Vegas and return to New York where he once worked. The vampire murders might be the big story that gets him out of his rut.

Director John Llewellyn Moxey got his start in British television before landing in America to direct shows like The Mod Squad and Mission Impossible. In that mood, he takes this vampire story and makes it feel like a cop drama. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what gives The Night Stalker its unique feel. It's not cobwebs and organ music we're getting, it's squad cars and fist fights. There's a Gothic menace, sure, but in the land of Starsky and Hutch.

The scene that bagged us all was when Scorzeny simply strolls into a hospital to raid a blood bank. Granted, a vampire in a blood bank sounds like a joke from MAD magazine, but what else should a vampire do? Tall, pale, with what looks like a cheap toupee on his head, the vampire looks right, his eyes glowing like Christopher Lee's in an old Hammer horror. The difference is in the way he handles himself. When hospital orderlies try to prevent him from stealing bottles of blood, he starts throwing these guys around, bashing them against walls. The vampires I'd seen in other movies were stately, hypnotic. This one was a flat-out brawler.

Kolchack, though, is a formidable foe. The  TV series that this movie would spawn gave us a Kolchack who was constantly running in fear from various creatures, his arms overloaded with tape recorders and cameras. But the Kolchack of the movie was a tough bastard. McGavin was already 50, but he was an athletic, broad shouldered man. We believe that he could slam a wooden stake into the heart of a vampire. He also delivers the dialogue by screenwriter Richard Matheson with a kind of weary sarcasm, like he's channeling William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. "A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth," Kolchack says early on. "Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round. Not that it matters much, when his editor knows its flat."

The movie gradually eases into a traditional horror format, with Kolchack tracing the monster to his lair. He finds a woman chained to a bed, still alive but being used by the vampire as a kind of long lasting treat. (The image of a chained woman, incidentally, seemed quite seedy to  those of us brought up on Happy Days and The Waltons). There's a showdown of sorts, and so different was Scorzeny from other vampires that he actually held Kolchack down as if to bite him. That went against the legends, too. Bela Lugosi only bit young women. Scorzeny didn't care. Get in his way, you became his lunch. Kolchack manages to wriggle free and kill the vampire, but the story has a downbeat, almost noirish ending. The press, the cops, just about everyone in Las Vegas, had been against Kolchack from the start.

The movie owes a lot to McGavin's performance. A veteran of TV and films - he began his career as an extra in A Song to Remember (1945) - he'd already played a variety of soldiers, cops, and detectives. He even played Mickey Spillane's hardboiled hero, Mike Hammer, for 79 episodes in 1958-59. Some of Kolchak's weariness may have been McGavin's.

Even Kolchack's suit, as definitive as Columbo's raincoat or Archie Bunker's chair, was McGavin's idea. Matheson's script, based on a novel by Jeffrey Rice, had described Kolchack as a kind of beach bum, wearing  a Hawaiian shirt. McGavin figured Kolchack had been hired as a reporter back in the 1950s, so he'd probably still be wearing the suit he first bought for the job. Hence, Kolchack's look was born.

The movie is lean,  having been shot in only 12 days. There's no fluff in it. The supporting cast includes some great character types from the past - Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr. -  plus Claude Akins, whose career went back nearly as far as McGavin's. Unfortunately, the filmed spawned a dull sequel, The Night Strangler, and a weekly series that lasted one season. The formula could be stretched only so far. McGavin, unhappy with the program, bowed out after a mere 20 episodes. That's just as well. The show had grown increasingly cheap and shrill. Had it gone on much longer, we might have seen Kolchack wrestling a giant squid.

What made the original movie work so well was the idea that a vampire could lurk around Las Vegas. Not Transylvania, not London, but Las Vegas. Dan Curtis once said that no one on location took a second glance at Atwater when he was in vampire garb. For a laugh, Curtis sent the fully made up Atwater into the Sahara casino to see if he'd create a stir. For 40 minutes a pale, red-eyed vampire strolled among the gamblers and tourists. No one noticed. There may be no such thing as vampires, but one could certainly slip around Las Vegas, claim a victim, and stalk the night.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

BOOKS: LOU REED, A LIFE



If it's true that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album went on to start a band, then it may also be true that they've all written biographies of Lou Reed. There have been at least a dozen in recent years, each as unsatisfying as the last, with authors not sure if they should focus more on Reed's  weird sex life, or how smart it was for him to combine Hubert Selby with rock and roll. They're torn between condemning his rotten behavior, or worshiping him. This is always a problem when an artist is deserving of praise and appreciation, but also happens to be a jerk.

Anthony De Curtis is the latest to take up the task, but there's a problem with Lou Reed: A Life. DeCurtis smartly avoids the usual mistake made by Reed's biographers, in that he doesn't try to match Reed's verbal daring. The downside is that he's too tasteful, too careful. It's not totally his fault, because no writer has ever successfully captured Reed. Still, DeCurtis' measured style feels anemic when discussing a songwriter who, in his late 60s was still writing lyrics like, "The two whores sucked his nipples 'til he came on their feet."

As a teenager, Reed seemed like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, a naughty Long Island boy in a crew neck sweater who played on the school's tennis team, read voraciously, and sneaked off to gay bars. His parents feared he was not only gay, but possibly schizophrenic, so in what was a reasonably acceptable thing to do at the time, attempted to curb Lou's queer ways by subjecting him to electroshock therapy. He came home from these treatments, his sister described, "unable to walk, stupor like."

During these strange years, Reed discovered rock and roll, enrolled in Syracuse University where he fell under the sway of poet Delmore Schwartz, and later worked as a staff songwriter for Pickwick records, a company that distributed made-to-order records by cashing in on whatever was hot at the time (ie surfing, bikers, etc). Learning that ostrich feathers were to become a craze, Reed wrote a song called "The Ostrich." When the company hired musicians to play the thing, in walked John Cale, who would soon be Reed's partner in the Velvet Underground. By now, Reed was already writing songs like "Heroin," which he obviously kept from the bosses at Pickwick. He and Cale would play it on street corners, which must've been a hoot for the tourists.

The music Reed recorded with the Velvet Underground, plus his remarkable, if not always commercially successful, solo career, was alarming, frightening, beautiful, darkly comical, and violent. The interest in mixing hard-edged rock with literary storylines never left him, and the fact that he bounced from one record label to another didn't stop him from pushing the limits of what was acceptable in a rock song. He sometimes resented that his only big radio hit, "Walk On The Wild Side," overshadowed just about everything else he did, and at times it appeared he was purposely sabotaging his career, not only by recording incomprehensible albums like Metal Machine Music, but also with his barbed personality, and his massive intake of drugs and alcohol. Any amateur shrink would say this is a guy who doesn't want to be liked.

DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone, gives us the Lou Reed that he wants to give us, a sort of wounded genius who was actually quite nice underneath the angst. It's not the air-brushed version of Reed that was done by PBS' American Masters back in the 1990s - DeCurtis includes some of Reed's lower moments, like the time he had a homeless fellow physically removed from a bank kiosk, and his immature treatment of guitarist Robert Quine  - but DeCurtis' version of Reed feels somewhat pampered. Yes, Reed was horrible at times, but, as DeCurtis suggests, his past shaped the man he became. Besides, he ended up with a nice home in the Hamptons with Laurie Anderson. If a few women got beat up along the way, well, we still have Rock and Roll Animal.

Then there's Reed's two-year relationship with the enigmatic Rachel, the towering transsexual who remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Reed saga. DeCurtis gives Rachel more coverage than most biographers, but there's still room for speculation. Was she a hooker? During the '70s, Reed had a penchant for interviewing the transvestite whores in Times Square, and one wonders if Rachel had been one of his subjects. Reed's feelings for  Rachel were never in doubt, though once he met second wife Sylvia Morales, Rachel was dismissed quicker than a drummer who had missed a cue. There must be an enterprising author out there who can write Lou & Rachel: The Glass Coffee Table Years. (Read the book and you'll get the reference...)

Reed's ability to constantly rise from defeat, first from the ashes of the Velvets as a strange glam rocker, later as a prickly elder statesman who could still compose  challenging music well into his 40s and 50s, made him a rarity in the rock business. Even the albums that didn't sell well at first were eventually hailed as classics. The Velvets were given the dubious honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though Reed wasn't enshrined for his solo work until after his death, which was an astonishing oversight.

DeCurtis gives us a lot to consider, but he also leaves out some things. Reed's movie work, for instance, gets no coverage at all, not his contribution to Ralph Bakshi's Rock & Rule (1983), or his role in Paul Simon's One Trick Pony (1980), or his portrayal of a loopy folk singer in Get Crazy (1983), or his funny cameo in Blue in the Face (1995). There's no mention that Reed's music appears on 258 soundtracks, or that "Perfect Day" became a huge UK hit in 1997. Perhaps DeCurtis felt these items weren't worth mentioning, though he found space for every one of Reed's stinking Tai Chi instructors, and Reed's love of a nice prosciutto.

Maybe, like all Reed biographers, DeCurtis simply couldn't figure out how to cram it all in.

DeCurtis also seems too pleased with his own relationship with Reed,  noting a bunch of meaningless encounters at restaurants and concerts, and assuring readers that "my having a PhD in American literature, writing for Rolling Stone, and teaching at a prestigious college all meant a great deal to him, though that's the sort of thing he would never admit." There's no explanation of how DeCurtis knew what Reed was thinking, unless another of his achievements is the ability to read minds.

The book is not totally without merit, though. The best parts are when DeCurtis examines Reed's odd relationship with his father, who seemed to have been abusive enough to leave Reed permanently in search of daddy figures, from Schwartz, to Andy Warhol, to Doc Pomus. "The horror he had always felt about his father's imagined vengefulness was there," he writes about "Junior Dad," written by Reed as he neared 70, "along with an unnerving empathy." Oddly, some of DeCurtis' liveliest writing is when he chronicles Lulu, Reed's 2011 collaboration with Metallica, especially the "sonic impact" of their live performances that left the father of punk and the kings of metal "sweaty and beaming."

Still, DeCurtis is guilty of bending the Reed story to fit his theme, which has something to do with Reed's redemption, how he learned to love wholly, and then, when his body failed after years of abuse, faced death bravely. He paints Reed as a flawed man, a kind of martyr. "If Reed occasionally went too far," he writes, "personally or artistically, that was just the price that had to be paid for everyone else not going far enough." He even excuses Reed's violent streak as "cathartic, a necessary purging of the inessential, rather than offensive." 

Right. Tell that to Reed's first wife. 

DeCurtis gives a lot of thought to "Street Hassle," deservedly so because it is one of Reed's masterpieces. He observes that the song is likely an ode to Rachel, and notes how Reed's final, heartbreaking verse includes the line, "How I miss him, baby." As DeCurtis says, it is probably the only rock song in history where a male expresses his love for another male, which was quite daring of Reed. But DeCurtis misses something key. I've listened to dozens of Reed bootlegs and have noticed that starting around 1980 or so, Reed left that final bit out. He could still sing the parts about prostitutes and overdoses and the hopelessness of life and love, but not that last, haunting line. 

Ultimately, DeCurtis offers some good insights, but a lot of mush, too. The secret to writing about Reed has yet to be solved. Should it be two parts music, one part personal life? Should it be all music? No one knows. Reed always kept us guessing when he lived. It's no different now that he's dead.




Tuesday, February 27, 2018

THREE BILLBOARDS....



 















Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri... is so full of wild emotion and bravura acting that it's not difficult to see why it has has earned so much acclaim. In an era where most movies are aimed at 12-year old boys, this one was bound to stand out.

Yet, for all of its tough acting and artful direction, it wears its own unpleasantness like a costumed hero wears a cape. Look at how sincere we all are, the characters seem to say, gritting their teeth like untamed dogs, daring us not to approve. What kills Three Billboards...is that underneath the blood and anger is a rather cheap and obvious story. The director has moments of inspiration, but then we're whisked off into another plotline, rushed along so we can get to the movie's fatalistic shrug of an ending.

The movie certainly starts out with promise. Frances McDormand plays the mother of a murdered girl. Feeling the Ebbing police haven't done enough to find the killer, she rents three billboards outside the town limits and puts up posters asking the police why it's taken so long. She aims most of her rage at good-natured Chief Willoughby, (Woody Harrelson). The good ol' boys in the department don't appreciate her accusations, and it looks like we're up for a battle between a strong, half-crazed woman and some dumb cops.

The cops, of course, are all a bunch of beer-bellied, fag-hating bigots. From the moment we see Willoughby's gut straining against his belt, we know writer/director Martin McDonagh isn't one for subtlety. Yet, he's good at playing a sort of shell game with his characters; we find ourselves rooting for people we didn't like at first, and uncertain about others, which keeps us interested.

The story begins with McDormand seeing a trio of abandoned billboards, not used since the 1980s for a diaper advertisement. Perhaps the baby in the old, torn ad reminds her of her daughter. Then she walks,  in slow motion so we know she's serious, to Ebbing's town hall where she asks about renting the billboard space. She stands at the window, which overlooks the police station. A cockroach is stuck on the pane, trying to turn itself over. She gives it a nudge, an easy metaphor for the filth she's about to get into.

In quick order we learn a lot - she feels horrible guilt about letting her daughter out of the house on that damned, fateful night; her ex-husband was an abusive jerk, and her son is embarrassed by his mom's behavior around town. The local priest, and even the town dentist, has a gripe with her, because they all adore the popular Chief Willoughby. Worse, the chief is ill, and doesn't have long to live. The chief also inspires great loyalty from his psychotic deputy (Sam Rockwell), a creep right out of a Jim Thompson novel.

Deputy Dixon is everything that is right and wrong with the movie. He's explosive, but also touchingly stupid. Rockwell plays him perfectly, though McDonagh  gives him a number of quirks that feel forced: he lives with his mother, owns a pet turtle, reads comic books, and listens to Abba. These bits, added to "flesh him out," feel like useless embroidery.

Still, the scenes involving Dixon are among the best in the movie. He makes most cinema cops look dull by comparison, because his temper seems genuinely to erupt from the deepest, most brutal pits of human nature. If Three Billboards... had focused on him from the beginning,  the abrupt change in his character that happens late in the film might've been more satisfying. Or believable. Instead, it's just another of the director's quick turns.

McDonagh, an Irishman, also wants  to say something about the American south. In an early scene we see someone reading a book by that great southern author, Flannery O'Connor; there are constant references to how the south is changing; the store where McDormand works is called "Southern Charms," and in a scene where Dixon is getting beat up, we hear Joan Baez on the jukebox, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Worst of all is  Dixon's name (Jason Dixon), a heavy-handed play on the Mason-Dixon line. In actuality, Missouri was split during the Civil War, but McDonagh is too clumsy to make his point clear, if he has a point.

Ultimately, the film is propelled by rage  - we get a lot of scenes of burning buildings and explosions and knives against throats. In between these high spots, characters clench their jaws and simmer, just waiting for the next outburst. What are we being sold here?  That violence and revenge gets us nowhere? Wow, there's an original thought.

The violent material in Three Billboards... is so well done, and the performances by the cast so compelling, and the cinematography by Ben Davis so rich, that I wish a better movie had been made. With so much cartoonish violence dominating American movies in recent years, a story like this was needed to remind us that violence is horrible and often kicks back on the perpetrators. McDonagh's method of following a scene of violence with an act of kindness is only partly successful, though, and the relationships I wanted to see develop, between the mother and the chief, and later, between the mother and the deputy, are only hinted at.

Three Billboards...is like an ambitious art project by a beginning painter who has some great ambitions, but hasn't quite learned his craft. Also, for a movie that is purportedly about showing us the downside of violence, McDonagh is clearly having the most fun when he's directing Rockwell to throw a guy out a window. This is a movie where we hear bones breaking and skin peeling, all quite realistically, yet the dialog feels fake, loaded with vulgarities. Children call their mother "cunt," and get away with it, unpunished. The movie has received so much praise for its realism, but in its own way, Three Billboards...is just as mannered and contrived as any comic book movie.

McDonagh started out as a playwright, and like many Irish playwrights, he has often been treated in America as an exotic personage, with a love of language and dark imagery and bleak humor. Some of the praise was justified; a few of his plays were quite fine. As a filmmaker, though, he's so bold with the violence and dark comedy that people overlook his sophomoric messages. 

He's like a big kid in a toy store, smashing the dolls until their heads fly off, and then asking us to feel bad about the evils of capitalism.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

STREET SMART (1987)




What did audiences think of Jerry Schatzberg's  Street Smart (1987), a portrayal of rotten people in the world of New York publishing as well as the New York streets?  In the era of musclebound action movies, MTV videos, and teen comedies, its depiction of crooked journalists, pimps, snooty magazine editors, and  hookers, wasn't an easy sell. The women in the movie grovel and cry; the men are nasty, or phony, or brutal. Still, it was the kind of gem that could sneak into theaters during the late 1980s, a movie described by Roger Ebert as "far from perfect and yet it contains things that are so good they take your breath away."

The movie stars Christopher Reeve, best known for starring in four Superman movies, as a magazine writer struggling to get the attention of his editor. From upper class stock with sculpted, patrician features, Reeve liked to play amoral characters now and then - he was Michael Caine's partner in crime in Deathtrap - and as Jonathan Fisher he's very good as a smartass who thinks his intelligence gives him a pass to bend the rules of journalism. With "fake news" a new buzzword, it's not a movie that was ahead of its time, so much as timeless.

The rule Fisher breaks involves a story about a New York pimp. Unable to meet a real pimp in time to make his deadline, he simply wings it and turns in a fake story. His editor (Andre Gregory, horse laughing through the role) loves it and determines that Fisher will be his new star reporter. Meanwhile, local authorities begin to think Fisher's article is about a real pimp named Leo Smalls, known as "Fast Black," (Morgan Freeman) who is on trial for manslaughter. Faster than you can say Meet John Doe,  Fisher and Smalls are soon an unlikely team. Fisher needs to produce a real pimp to make his story valid, and Smalls can claim he was with Fisher at the time he supposedly killed a man. All Fisher has to do is produce his notes at Smalls' trial. But he has no notes.

As he goes deeper into his involvement with Smalls, Fisher learns that pimps have their own rules. When Fisher tries to stop Smalls from hurting one of the girls in his stable, the pimp thinks nothing of sticking a broken bottle into Fisher's face.  The pimp and the reporter may need each other, but it's not long before they resent each other.

Things get even more complex when Fisher develops feelings for Punchy (Kathy Baker), a good- natured prostitute who is tired of the street life. When Punchy tells Smalls that she'd like to try something else for a change, he's soon asking which eye she'd like have removed. The film has an unmistakable 1980s veneer - the hair is big, the shoulders on the dresses wide, and Gregory, as the publisher, looks like he borrowed his wardrobe from Bonfire of the Vanities era Tom Wolfe - but the explosive violence of Smalls gives Street Smart a nasty aftertaste that defies the decade.

Shatzberg, born in 1927, was a director who liked characters in compromised positions. In The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) he'd delved into the world of crooked politics,  after having launched his career with a trio of dynamic, edgy films about drifters, thieves, and losers - The Panic in Needle Park (1971),  Scarecrow (1973) and Sweet Revenge (1976) - but with Street Smart he seemed to be wallowing at the deepest end of the gutter. The Canon Group, mostly known for horror movies and action features, skimped on distribution; Street Smart died unnoticed at the box office.

The movie depicts the degenerating New York of the 1980s, a time of garbage strikes, rampant crack addiction, and racial tension. Budgetary issues caused much of Street Smart to be shot in Montreal, but one can't tell. The success of this masquerade is a tribute to cinematographer Adam Holendar, who had made his debut with Midnight Cowboy (1969), and to the set design team that turned a section of Montreal into 42nd Street.

The film may be 31 years old, but I watched it again recently and was still intrigued by its sly power. It is a film of the 1980s, but it's not stuck in the '80s. This is partly because the acting ensemble is so good, and partly because David Freeman, who had previously written a highly underrated Jack Nicholson feature called The Border (1982), turned in a script that dips and dives with the unpredictability of a good game of pinball.

We want to like "Fast Black," because he's flashy and dangerous, but he reveals himself to be an utter animal of the streets. We want to like Jonathan Fisher, and we hope he gets away with the little ruse pulled on his publisher, but in his own way he's as unscrupulous as the pimp. He sends his own girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) into a bar full of pimps just to see how they'd act around her, which is a sign that he's certainly not husband material.

Ultimately, Smalls thinks Fisher is a spoiled, over-educated wimp. Fisher  thinks Smalls  is a reprehensible lowlife. They're both correct, and they sense that each knows the truth about the other. But of the two, the pimp has been in his game too long to change, and he knows how to survive. The journalist, who thinks he can play tough, is less sure of himself. He knows the pimp could tear his face off, but he hates to back down.

Morgan Freeman was 50 at the time of Street Smart. His performance earned accolades from various critic's circles, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That's quite a feat for a film that was barely released, and for an actor who had spent a big chunk of the previous decade on The Electric Company, a PBS children's show. He once said of roles like the one in Street Smart, "With bad guys you get to let it all out. All those dark places in your psyche? You can let 'em go. When you play good guys, it's kind of boring. It's one note."

Leo "Fast Black" Smalls is a tapestry of bad psychological wiring, and if there are times when he seems charming and likeable, it's only because that's how pimps get along. Where the cracks show in this character is when he lashes out, as he does in an impromptu game of  basketball with younger men. Unsure that he can keep up, Smalls suddenly interrupts the game to choke and humiliate some poor kid on the court. Losing a ball game wouldn't be so bad, but to lose his standing on the street would be unbearable. To hell with being respected. Smalls wants to be feared.

Reeve never quite outran his Superman character. He tried in movies like Street Smart, but the public didn't buy it. Critics were harsh, too. Pauline Kael raved about Freeman, but called Reeve, "a big nothing." This was unfortunate, because Reeve took his work seriously and tried to show versatility. Perhaps he was too tall, too cartoonishly handsome, to play a seedy reporter. Perhaps audiences simply couldn't accept that this clean-cut character could outsmart his urban rivals in Street Smart, though if Glenn Ford or Kirk Douglas had done it in their day, the film would be hailed as a classic noir. 

For Reeve, who died at 52 after a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed, Street Smart was a pet project. He had been turning down roles that would eventually go to Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Michael Douglas, hanging on to this script until he could get it made. In fact, Reeve only agreed to do Superman IV when producers agreed to finance Street Smart. He was already a rich actor, so he wasn't doing Street Smart for the money. There was something about Jonathan Fisher, a well-bred man with a dark side, that Reeve wanted to show us. It was a story he thought should be told. Whether or not you believe he was a great actor is up to you, but you can't deny Reeve's conviction. 




Friday, February 16, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER





Guillermo del Toro is fearless when it comes to showing us new and delightful things. In a Hollywood content to recycle the same comic book titles over and over, del Toro is among the most visionary of moviemakers, up there with Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. The bad news is, just like Burton and Gilliam, del Toro is better with visuals than he is with plots.

I felt this way even after del Toro's masterful Pan's Labyrinth, a visually stunning gem with plenty of weird little creations fluttering about, but no real story that I can remember. I almost wish del Toro aside would not bother with plots, and simply create a bunch of surreal demons and let them run wild for 90 minutes. He's obviously more inspired by monsters and odd architecture than he is by the mechanization of a script, so I'd suggest he do what he loves and leave the stories out. I could sit and watch his grotesques for hours, but his stories put me to sleep, including his latest, The Shape of Water.

The movie takes place in a stylized early 1960s America, a time when cars looked like rockets and there was constant talk about the future. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a movie theater with a bunch of cats and her gay, alcoholic male friend, who happens to be an out of work advertising artist. Their home appears to fluctuate in size - at times it seems highly claustrophobic, at others it looks to be as large as a castle - and they amuse themselves by watching old Shirley Temple movies on a little television. Elisa is mute,  resulting from an unnamed childhood incident that her left her with some nasty scars on her throat. She also works cleaning toilets at a nearby government laboratory, where a mysterious creature from the amazon is being held for observation. 

The creature is a wonder, an obvious descendant of Universal Pictures' infamous gill man of the 1950s, but rather than the fishmouth of the old lagoon creature, this one has a rather sensuous human mouth. The creature's nemesis is Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a bully with a cattle prod. The creature, no doubt tired of being prodded, bites off Stricklnd's fingers. Such rudeness only intensifies their rivalry.

Elisa, who doesn't have many human connections, is enchanted by the creature. She's soon taking her lunch-breaks outside his holding tank, offering him hard-boiled eggs, and playing lush, orchestral music on a portable record player. He seems to like her, too. He likes the eggs, anyway. When Elisa finds out the plan is for scientists to kill the creature and examine his lungs - they think his unique breathing organs may hold the key to successful space travel - she decides to rescue him. This won't be easy, because the Russians want him, too.

It feels as if del Toro decided this thin plot was enough on which to hang a movie, and he immediately went to work on the visuals, which are stunning. I liked the giant computers at the military base; they reminded me of the ones I saw at my father's office when I was a boy.  I also liked the vintage automobiles, Elisa's fascination with sexy shoes, and the use of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda on the soundtrack. But del Toro also goes for the cheap and obvious. It's a movie where  nobility is only found in gay men, poor black women, mute girls, lonely scientists, and sea monsters, while a white suburban family man is the embodiment of evil. Del Toro should be ashamed of such simple-minded pandering.

There's also the inevitable  showdown  between the creature and Strickland, and then an ending lifted directly from Splash. By then, I was looking for the exit.

As Strickland, Shannon practically vibrates with menace and is watchable throughout. He has the movie's best line: "Are you totally mute? Or do you squawk a little?" Hawkins is excellent, too. Still, the movie has been praised beyond comprehension -  it has received 13 Academy Award nominations - which says less about the value of The Shape of Water, and more about the miserable state of contemporary movies. 

Del Toro's work is always interesting to look at, and this, combined with a sentimental plot about misfits banding together to beat the evil old white military complex, will endear The Shape of Water to many viewers. For those wanting their fantasy films to have some edge, there's much bloody violence. For those who want things a bit saucy, Hawkins  masturbates throughout the movie, and  eventually fucks the creature in a bathtub. Maybe I should just be happy that a director like del Toro made a movie that, in many ways, is an homage to great films of the past, from the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon, when Ricou Browning took  Julie Adams  to his underwater lair, to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which del Toro quotes with a visual nod to the old Aurora modeling kit), to The Evil of Frankenstein, where a little  mute girl looked after the monster. Hell, it was even fun to think about Splash again. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't come out of the theater whistling an old Alice Faye tune.