Monday, April 24, 2017
Insane (2010) is a wonderment. It borrows a lot from Psycho, but not like other films that have done the same thing. It uses the template of Psycho with almost comical boldness; I imagined a bunch of teenagers sitting around a table, yelling out, "And then we'll have the girl's sister come in, just like in Psycho." And another would respond, "Yeah, and the killer will have had a tortured childhood, just like in Psycho." Granted, I've sat through a number of Psycho knockoffs, and a few were amusing. But I've never flat out enjoyed one as much as Insane. Part of the reason is that the filmmakers were simply unabashedly making their own version of Psycho, sort of like children putting on their parents' shoes and walking around the house, pretending to be adults, or holding their fork the way daddy does. It's as if the people behind Insane simply wanted to know how it felt to make Psycho. Once they decided to do it, off they went! I actually started looking forward to each little scene that might resemble Alfred Hitchcock's old thriller. When a chubby detective shows up at the hotel to investigate some missing persons, just like Martin Balsam in Psycho, I practically cheered.
The mystery to me is this: How do some movies borrow riffs and execute them so smoothly, while others just feel like stupid rip offs? Most would dismiss Insane for being too derivative, but I didn't mind. It's just like when I don't mind when Led Zeppelin riffjacks Willie Dixon. There is something mysterious about creativity, for as much as Insane borrows and steals from Psycho - and also from 1980s slasher movies - I consider it a very creative and idiosyncratic piece of work. This could be because of the way it will subtly veer from its influences. The detective, for instance, is not quite as sly as Balsam's character. In fact, he's a bit of a pig, stuffing his face with sweets. He also seems too dumb to solve any crimes, whereas Balsam seemed smart and cagey.
And where Norman Bates was working in a cheap roadside motel, the villain of this film is working in a rather glitzy old hotel, something a notch below the hotel in The Shining. Unlike Psycho, there's no mystery about what's going on. We know he's a killer. Especially if we've seen Psycho. A pretty young woman arrives, he befriends her, and though she's not killed in a shower - which is just about the only thing the filmmakers didn't lift from Psycho - she's gutted with something that looks like a samurai sword.
Then, just like in Psycho, her sister comes to investigate. Unlike Psycho, the killer is ready. It's as if the filmmakers had always wished Norman Bates had killed everybody and wasn't carted away to an asylum.
Lars Bethke plays David, the hotel keeper. When in the killing mode, he wears what appears to be a rubber trench coat and a gas mask. The mask is because he usually knocks his victims out with gas from a grenade. Why he needs to do this isn't clear, because he also appears to have superhuman strength. At various times we see him leaping over things, and lifting his victims in the air with one hand. The longer the movie goes on, he seems less like Norman Bates and more like Jason Voorhees.
There's a strangely fetishistic tone to the movie, which isn't unusual in slasher films. Along with David's rubber gear, we see lots of scantily clad women running barefoot, while David usually brings his victims to an underground lair where he chains them up in positions that will appeal to bondage enthusiasts. Anders Jacobsson, who co-directed, co-produced, had a hand in the screenplay, and served as the cinematographer, is probably the closest the film has to an auteur. I will say one thing: the movie looks tremendous, shiny and slick as a Wurlitzer jukebox. The hotel is impressive, too, a sort of acrylic dreamland.
Am I really praising this movie? Yes, I liked it. Insane may have shamelessly borrowed its story, but it has a look and an energy of its own. At the same time, I'm aware of how derivative it is, and I know I may have enjoyed it for reasons most would find unfathomable.
For instance, I'm fascinated that it was made in Sweden. Does that matter? No, but I like the idea that a bunch of Swedes are imitating Americans, and the Americans they've chosen to imitate are from American horror movies.
Somehow, even as David tore the jawbone out of one of his victims, I took it all as a sort of compliment.
Friday, April 21, 2017
Somers Town (2008) is about friendship, both the real kind and the movie kind. It seems like it could be autobiographical, inspired perhaps by the life of writer Paul Fraser or director Shane Meadows, but also by the great childhood films of the past, especially those by European directors. The movie is realistic, gritty at times, but the point isn't how down and dirty it can get, but how childhood comes with a share of pain and anguish, and how some of it is eased by the people me meet.
The movie involves teenage boys Merek and Tomo, and their adventures in Somers Town, a rough, dreary section of London. (If Somers Town isn't actually dreary, Meadows' use of black and white certainly makes it look bleak; I was reminded of old British movies from the early '60s. Think A Taste of Honey, or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.) Merek (Piotr Jagiello) is a Polish kid who lives with his father, a guy who works all day on construction sites and spends his nights drinking with his Polish buddies. Merek's father is well-meaning but crude; he gives the boy reading lessons out of a porn magazine, and laughs as Merek struggles with certain obscene words. Meanwhile, Merek likes photography, and has a crush on a local waitress. Like so many budding male photographers before him, he takes countless pictures of his romantic interest; he pours over them, searching for hidden signs of love.
Merek is tall, slightly stooped as if trying to stop himself from growing, and has the kind of long, greasy hair that I remember having as a teenager, the sort of lank mop that can't be saved by any amount of showering and shampooing. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) is short, seemingly smaller and younger than his actual age - they were both about 15 or 16 at the time of filming - but has already developed an interest in alcohol. Tomo is in Somers Town because he ran away from his home in Scotland. His first night in the neighborhood sees him savagely beaten by three punks who steal his bag. Badly bruised, with no money, he quickly insinuates himself into Merek's life. He talks his way into staying at Merek's home, hiding under Merek's bed when the Polish boy's drunk father returns at night.
The early days of the friendship are amusing. When Tomo gets sick from eating too many Polish sausages, Merek is afraid to let Tomo use the bathroom in case the old man comes home. Also, Tomo develops a crush on the same waitress that Merek loves. "I think I'll make her my girlfriend," he says. "I won't be comfortable with you having so many pictures of her. You'll have to give those all to me." Later Tomo reassures his pal, "Let's not fall out over a girl, ok?" Such is the power of adolescent bonding.
To be sure, the boys aren't looking for anything resembling real love, or even sex. Maria, the waitress, is simply a kind older girl who smiles at them and ruffles their hair. The movie's charm is that it reminds us of the time when a smile was enough to set our wheels spinning.
As for Maria (Elisa Lasowski), she's where the movie becomes a "movie." She's all together too sweet to exist in real life. Not in my life, anyway. When the impish Tomo tells her he's a talented painter and wants her to model for him, she plays along, encouraging his fantasies. The waitresses I meet, most of them, are sourpusses. If I said I wanted to paint them, they'd call security.
Eventually, the boys have a drunken night together, which consists of jumping up and down on the furniture and throwing potato chips at each other. Just as their party gets rolling, Merek's father comes home. He loses his temper and throws Tomo out. Ever resourceful, Tomo moves next door with one of Merek's neighbors, an eccentric wheeler dealer who puts Tomo to work as a sort of houseboy. Tomo, who lost his clothing to the muggers earlier in the movie, is down to wearing some women's clothing he stole from a laundromat. We next see him polishing antiques, wearing a house dress. It's a testament to the movie's uniqueness that he seems absolutely content. He's like a rat, making a home for himself wherever he can find it.
The movie put me in a good mood. Tomo, a bit of an artful dodger, is a bad influence on Merek, but you get the feeling they'll be buddies for a long time. As Tomo, Turgoose is a funny, slippery character. Jagiello's Merek is a perfect foil, slightly exasperated by Tomo's restless energy. I liked both of these kids. Fittingly, they shared a Best Actor award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
In its depiction of an adolescent male friendship, Somers Town hits on a perfect truth: many people aren't in a position to choose their friends, but if you're lucky you'll bump into someone suitable. The movie is filmed in black and white, though there's a color coda that follows the boys on a trip. The color bit felt cheesy, and didn't quite fit the rest of the movie. Yet, I know why the director did it. He liked Tomo and Merek as much as I did, and he wanted to give them a gift. An American director would've had the boys get revenge on the thieves who stole Tomo's things. Meadows, a Brit, decided it would be more fun to give the boys a colorful sendoff, rather than stick them in an alley fight.
Monday, April 17, 2017
The legend surrounding Dwight Frye was that he wanted to show his humorous side. As a young actor he'd appeared in several comedies on the Broadway stage, but as far as Hollywood was concerned, Frye was destined to be a second string bogeyman. In fact, the little actor known as "The Man with the Thousand Watt Stare" played some of the creepiest characters in movie history.
He got off to an impressive start in 1931 by playing the fly-eating Renfield in Dracula and the conniving hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein. This should've convinced Universal that a formidable new star had arrived, someone who could be a match for Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. Instead, Frye toiled in secondary roles; he was usually killed off early.
In the sort of unfortunate twist that has always prevailed in Hollywood, Frye was stuck playing madmen and degenerates. He made the best of it, though. He nearly outdid himself in 1933 when he appeared for Majestic Studios in The Vampire Bat. The movie has been restored recently by The Film Detective for a special issue DVD and Blu-ray; it gives us all a new reason to praise Frye.
By the time of The Vampire Bat, audiences knew Frye well from Dracula and Frankenstein. He'd also appeared in an early version of The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer, the twitchy gunman played in the more famous version of the film by Elisha Cook Jr. Portraying Herman Gleib, a nutty villager who lived in a house full of bats, cemented Frye as a screen wacko. In the decades to come, when vintage horror movies played regularly on late night television, Frye earned a growing cult of admirers. As author David J. Skal observed in Hollywood Gothic, Frye "became a sub-genre unto himself." The ultimate tribute may have come in 1973 when Alice Cooper recorded 'The Ballad of Dwight Frye," a surreal piece of heavy rock featuring the less than subtle lyric, "See my lonely mind explode/when I've gone insane."
Frye wasn't menacing, like Peter Lorre at his best, or threatening in the way Karloff could be. Frye's specialty was looking like he might at any moment sink into utter depravity. Writer Stefan Kanfer once described him as having "a stage whisper the size of Pasadena." But Frye's out-sized whispers hinted at the madness within his characters.
You can sense Herman's status in the village by the way he appears to slither in and out of scenes. He simply appears at the edge of the shot and, like a midnight mist, works his way into the camera's focus. A woman who has apparently been bitten by a vampire bat and lays dying in her bed is surrounded by loved ones, but soon we see Herman, his large head offset by an asylum haircut, nuzzling his way into the circle. How does he know these people? Is he the village idiot? Tolerated but not accepted?
When several people in the town are found dead, their necks showing needle-like teeth marks, Herman becomes a suspect. He keeps bats, after all. In one delicious scene, we see him petting a bat before gently slipping it into his coat pocket. When he notices a crowd of people watching him, he turns on them and hisses. Like all good lunatics, Herman knows the effect he has on people and enjoys putting a chill in them. But the locals don't like him; they're soon taken with the hysterical notion that he might be a vampire.
"Bats nice," Herman says, speaking in a kind of cracked English. "Soft, like cats." At one point he offers a woman a bat in exchange for an apple.
Herman is eventually pursued into the mountains by angry villagers carrying torches. Frightened, he leaps to his doom so the movie's other stars, Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, can get on with their business. As red herrings go, Frye's Herman is a tasty one.
The Vampire Bat featured one of Frye's last significant roles. He'd continue working (he had nice turns in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Crime of Doctor Crespi, both 1935), but the jobs became smaller. Now and then he'd have a decent part in some Poverty Row feature - he was 10th billed in Monogram's Sky Bandits (1940), and fourth billed in PRC's Dead Men Walk (1943), - but even when he was back at Universal for more horror films - Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) - his screen-time diminished. Sometimes his part was cut entirely. In 1941 he returned to the role of Renfield in a Los Angeles stage production of Dracula. To make ends meet, Frye worked in a tool factory for Lockhead Aircraft.
"If God is good," Frye said in a press release for The Vampire Bat, "I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!"
It looked like Frye's luck was about to change in 1943 when he was cast in Wilson, a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards. It wasn't a comedy, and he may well have gone unnoticed in the enormous cast, but it was step away from the crazy roles for which he was known. Unfortunately, before filming began, Frye died of a heart attack on a city bus at age 44. The coroner's certificate listed his occupation as "tool designer." It was as if, even in death, Frye couldn't get recognition as an actor.
So we'll recognize him here. There's a scene in The Vampire Bat where the locals have gathered after another murder. Looking especially frazzled and wild-eyed, Herman works his way through the crowd. By now they've practically accepted him as a murderer, perhaps one of supernatural origin, and they slowly move back to make room for him. What Frye does in this scene is remarkable; he doesn't make any grand gestures, but with nothing more than his manic eyes, and fatigued, shuffling walk, he gives the locals a haunted visage to remember. They'll recall to their dying days the time a man thought to be vampire walked among them, close enough to touch.
The Vampire Bat follows the horror movie rules of its day. There's the nondescript European village that harbors secret laboratories, little old ladies who can break a night sky in half with their screams, and the required appearance of a doddering burgermeister. It was directed by Frank R. Strayer, a B movie workhorse who labored in all genres. He wasn't picky about assignments - he even directed a series based on the popular Blondie cartoon strip - but you could put together a nice boxed set of Strayer's horror features, including The Vampire Bat, The Monster Walks (1932), The Ghost Walks (1934) and Condemned to Live (1935). Phil Hardy's excellent The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (1986) refers to The Vampire Bat as "One of the best of the independent films churned out to meet the new vogue for horror," and praises the "clever camerawork" of Ira Morgan (who would go on to film Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, 1936). Horror scholar and Frye biographer Gregory Mank called it a "Poverty Row gem."
The cast is impeccable, its major stars at pivotal points in their careers. Two months after The Vampire Bat premiered at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater in January, 1933, Fay Wray would appear in King Kong and earn fame that would last decades; Melvyn Douglas, who plays the cynical police inspector, was at the dawn of a career that would see him win two Best Supporting Oscars; and Lionel Atwill, the mad scientist of the tale, was becoming a favorite movie villain; he'd be busted a few years later for throwing kinky parties at his home.
The sets, too, are outstanding - the fly-by-night Majestic smartly leased the still-standing Universal sets for Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (1932). Watching Frye skulk along the old castle walls is like seeing Fritz again, which makes The Vampire Bat seem like the impoverished cousin of a James Whale picture.
But the fun of the movie exists mostly in the performance by Frye. Remove him from the production, and it would play like any other mystery thriller set in Europe, with a lot of actors harrumphing around saying, "Surely, you don't believe in vampires!" It's standard issue -- except for Frye's otherworldly presence.
He doesn't act so much as give off a vibration; he doesn't even need lines, because his appearance is so striking. When in a scene with the other actors, Frye seems real, if somewhat alien, while they seem like performers of the period, speaking in stagy, clipped accents; he's like an actual insane person who has crept into the movie. When he's in full strut, petting a bat or giving someone the evil eye, you wonder why Hollywood didn't do more with this superb, offbeat actor.
The Vampire Bat DVD and Blu-ray release from The Film Detective includes a pair of interesting extras: a short documentary featuring Melvin Douglas' son, and an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Sam Sherman.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Old Songs, Young Girls
New Bio Portrays Tiny Tim's Life as a Strange Showbiz Fable
By Don Stradley
Tiny Tim is usually written off as a one-hit wonder, but "Tip Toe Thru' the Tulips" could've been followed by any number of songs from his brilliant debut album, including "The Old Front Porch," or "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight." His volcanic version of "Earth Angel," which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show with an all-girl backing band called The Enchanted Forest, should've been a hit, too. Still, having only the one success, and the fact that it was the final song he performed before his death at 64, gives Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, a touch of melancholy.
There's plenty of detail in Justin Martell's chronicle of Tiny Tim's life, though the reader is advised to seek out the music and give it a listen; this impressive chronicle assumes we know what Tiny Tim sounded like. Martell, described on the flyleaf as "one of the world's foremost experts on Tiny Tim," seems more interested in Tiny's premature ejaculations and his fear of the dark, than why "Tip Toe" connected with listeners in the first place. Still, Tiny Tim's rise and fall is a kind of showbiz fable, and well deserving of a full scale exploration.
Tiny Tim (real name: Herbert Khaury) was a curiosity from the start, standing out in his northern Manhattan neighborhood as a weird boy with a predilection for old-time songs and Shirley Temple movies. His musical interests did little to brighten the days of his overworked, occasionally violent parents. His Lebanese-Catholic father, Butros, once smashed a guitar across Tiny's back. His Polish-Jewish mother, Tillie, called her peculiar son a sissy and said he'd never amount to much.
In 1936, at age four, Tiny discovered the wonders of music when his parents bought a vintage Gramophone. He was mesmerized by a 78-RPM of Henry Burr singing "Beautiful Ohio." By his teens he was immersing himself in the pop songs of the day. "I used to buy four or five new releases a week," he once said. "I even loved the smell of shellac." But it was the music of the 1900s up to the 1920s that most fascinated him. Describing himself as "a vampire sucking the blood of the past," he developed a falsetto singing style, learned his way around a ukulele, memorized hundreds of songs, experimented with stage names ("Dary Dover," "Emmett Swink") and began entering talent shows. He was usually jeered off the stage, but by his late 20s he was performing regularly in Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street, billed as Larry Love, The Human Canary. His first paid gig was at Page 3, a lesbian bar, where he cleared a measly $96.00 after playing nearly every night of the month.
He tried other jobs, failing at the simplest of them. He'd either be fired for incompetence, or get himself canned by going to sing somewhere when he was supposed to be working. The call of the stage was too strong. He was born to entertain, and entertain he did, through several decades of troubled marriages and shady managers. By his mid thirties he was a Greenwich Village mascot, earning the admiration of such heavyweights as Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. Then came the hit single, landmark appearances on Laugh-In, and then, in a moment of pop culture overkill, his marriage on The Tonight Show to a 17-year-old girl. The episode set a ratings record that would last nearly a quarter century. But Tiny Tim, prudish, chauvinistic, anti-abortion and pro-war, was nothing like the hippies and fringe characters who jumped on his bandwagon. It was only a matter of time before he was sniffed out.
Martell, an independent filmmaker and writer, does a marvelous job recreating the glory years of 1968-70, when Tiny Tim even appeared as the subject of a board game. The press glowered and grimaced, but at times Tiny Tim showed himself to be not just a novelty act, but a strangely charismatic performer with an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage songs. There was his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, compared favorably by some critics to The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, plus his memorable appearance with Bing Crosby on Hollywood Palace where he stood his ground and swapped tunes with the master of crooning. There was his surprise performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival where, on a bill with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, he provided a show highlight by using a megaphone to sing "There Will Always Be An England."
And, of course, there was the tumultuous marriage to the legendary Miss Vickie, a teenage girl he met at an autograph signing. Their wedding ceremony on The Tonight Show may have been the height of Tiny Tim's celebrity, but it was also the beginning of his downfall. Where he'd once seemed like a harmless curiosity, he now seemed like a guy willing to do anything for fame. A few years later, after Tiny's ridiculous performance of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," Johnny Carson stopped inviting him on the show. By then, Tiny was already old news.
Still, there were signs that Tiny Tim was always on the verge of a comeback, first as a sort of musical savant, entering the Guinness Book of World Records in 1979 with a marathon performance at Australia's Luna Park, then in the 1990s as a regular guest on The Howard Stern Show. There was also a surprising late career surge of creativity, including Prisoner of Love, a collection of old Russ Columbo tunes that he'd wanted to record for years. (If you need proof of Tiny's talent as an interpreter of songs, his version of "Sweet and Lovely" is an absolute killer.) There were down times, where Tiny Tim shuffled through endless tour dates, playing everywhere from circus tents to Spooky World, but even as his health faltered and audiences dwindled, he was living the troubadour's dream.
Martell gives us Tiny Tim in all of his moods and colors. He shows us a man who was strange in his habits, at times unpleasant, out of touch with reality; most psychologists would diagnose him as paranoid, and depressed. But Martell also sees Tiny Tim as a kind of heroic figure, one who showed us "the depths of exploitation inherit in the media, the exhausting and cutthroat world of entertainment, the pressures of fame, the struggles of marriage, and how lonely it can be to be different." Tiny Tim, he writes, "took the heat as the original freak."
"It used to give me some kind of pleasure when people got angry," Tiny once said of the abuse he endured during his early days, which included physical attacks. "It was thrilling to me to expose the underpinnings of their hearts."
Martell's research into Tiny's life was Herculean. Not only did he conduct hundreds of interviews, but he had access to Tiny Tim's diaries, which reveal an often morose man. A maniacally devout Christian, Tiny spoke daily to Jesus, thanking him for his successes, and shaming himself for his sinful acts, which at one time included a dalliance with a 14-year-old neighbor boy. Usually, Tiny wrote about the lovely young women he encountered, teens mostly; he handed out special trophies to his favorites, and dreamed of a special land where he could live with a beautiful princess and never grow old.
Some of the best incites come from Tiny's third wife, the long suffering Miss Sue. Though a bit of a hypochondriac in her own right, she was possibly the only decent, intelligent person in Tiny's life. She's especially compelling when she addresses the effeminate mannerisms that often baffled Tiny's critics, describing them as, not feminine, but childlike: "He simply found childlike mannerisms to be sexy. He was attracted to young, teenage girls, and his imitation of the personalities of the young girls he loved was reassuring to them, as he well knew."
Still, it's Tiny Tim who gives the most poignant line about the weight and brevity of his career, with a comment he gave to TV Guide at the height of his popularity: "If I fell down today," he said, "I could always say that at one time in my life, I stunned them all."
And when the madness stopped, he carried on, as if the fumes of the tulip song were powerful enough to guarantee another 27 years of gigs and recordings, until the sad day in 1996 when he was too sick to finish a show at a Minneapolis women's club, and the bum heart that had been failing for a while finally gave out. You can say he died doing what he loved, but he would've probably preferred to be playing on The Ed Sullivan Show, dying before the cameras, blowing a final kiss to the wonderful people out there, the people who still smile when they hear his name now, because they remember a unique entertainer, a hairy misfit who belted out the old tunes and gave them a last gasp of life in the most unlikely of eras: the surreal late '60s.
That's why, despite some minor flaws, this biography of Tiny Tim is one of the most useful publications of the past year, and well worth reading.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
They look funny together, the small Thai woman and the enormous man from Denmark. They like each other, but he's unsure of himself, unsure of his desires.
Do you mind if I stay? he says.
When she says no, he gently puts his gigantic arm around her, and the relief he feels is palpable. In Thailand, where most of the women he meets are prostitutes who laugh at his size, he has felt ridiculous. Teddy Bear, a Danish film from 2012, is about a grown man who simply wants a hug, a bit of conversation, and perhaps most of all, to get away from his overbearing mother. It plays a bit like a Danish version of Marty, even to where this kind woman rejects his first attempt to kiss her, just as Betsy Blair turned away from Ernest Borgnine. But in Thailand, we learn, kissing in public is bad manners. That's why Teddy Bear feels unique, even if its a story we've seen before.
Kim Kold plays Dennis, the giant. A champion bodybuilder from Denmark, Kold facially resembles Charles Napier, the character known for his work in Russ Meyer films. Kold also looks a bit, from certain angles, like John Goodman. Physically, though, he's from the Marvel Universe. Even his hands look oversized, as if he's injected rocket fuel into the joints. His size is a distraction at first - he looks like one of those chemically enhanced farm animals that show up on YouTube to frighten us about what we're eating - but he's a good actor, and we believe that he's searching for love.
He lives in a small, bland town in Denmark: There seems to be nothing there, and it's no wonder that he has dedicated his life to lifting weights. His life is empty. By day he works out at a gym, and flexes in the mirror with his buddies. He occasionally asks out one of the scrawny female gym members. We see him on a date and it's dreadful. The woman, who is neither attractive nor interesting, busts his chops for staring at her boobs. He's so bored, and so void of personality, that he doesn't even get mad or embarrassed. His nights are spent at home with his mother, a thin little woman. He sits in his room, surrounded by his trophies. She sits in her room, reading. She has no idea of his loneliness, and we get the impression that he keeps his yearning a secret. The father, we learn, left for undisclosed reasons. Dennis stays around as the man of the house, but it's a lonely gig.
The movie goes into a new gear when Dennis learns his gawky cousin has found a bride in Thailand. Feeling his chances of finding a woman might improve if he follows his cousin's example, we soon see Dennis leaving the sterile grey atmosphere of Denmark for colorful Thailand, where the streets are supposedly paved with willing brides. He meets the man who set up his cousin, but the guy seems like little more than a polite pimp, introducing Dennis to a couple of young women who are obviously prostitutes. Dennis isn't interested. In fact, he's like a giant eunuch, as if spending so much time in the gym has worn him out for anything else, even a quickie with a Thai whore. We begin to suspect Dennis has never been with a woman. His mother wouldn't have allowed it. But he's smart enough to know that the Thai situation isn't for him. He sits at a bar with a half-dozen other men, fat, ugly, balding guys, who are also trying to be matched with Thai girls. It's not until Dennis decides to visit a Thai gym to lift some weights - the only thing he really knows - that his luck changes. He meets a friendly widow whose late husband once owned the place. They go on a picnic, she takes him sightseeing; to Dennis' surprise, he feels comfortable with her. But how will he explain all of this to his mother?
What makes the movie work so well is Kold, who didn't have a lot of acting experience. Since Teddy Bear, he's worked fairly often, even appearing in a couple of American features (Fast and Furious 6, and Star Trek Beyond). He's believable as a sheltered man who, nearing 40, can't bear another minute of his life as it is, even if it means upsetting his demanding mother. When his new Thai girlfriend flies to Denmark to be with him, Dennis greets her at the airport with flowers, unable to contain his smile, delighted with the idea of buying her gifts, and spending time with her. It may be the only time he smiles in the entire movie.
Director Mads Matthiesen wants to build the movie into a showdown between mother and son, but American audiences might disappointed in the climactic blowout. It swells to a point, but these Danes are so emotionally constipated that the blowout never quite arrives. The mother reacts like a spurned lover, which suggests Dennis may have issues that will require a lot more than merely getting his own apartment. Still, Teddy Bear won awards on the international festival circuit from Transylvania to Bombay, which shows that Matthiesen's story struck a cord with people. He also had help from a fine cast of actors.
Of course, there's Lamaiporn Sangamee Hougard as Toi, the woman who befriends Dennis. Her scowl when Dennis first tries to kiss her is priceless, as if she's angry at a culture that makes prostitution a conventional career choice but frowns on outdoor kissing. And Elsebeth Steentoft as the mother - stiff and angry, resentful of her son's search for love, is a crock pot of stifled emotion. An American movie would have Dennis played by a nerdy little fellow, but it was a nice idea to cast a muscular giant, as if even a superman can be bowed by a selfish mother. The title is interesting, too. Is Dennis the teddy bear? Or is he searching for a teddy bear?
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
He is tall and awkward, and he answers most questions with a grunt. No one imagines that this lumbering supermarket security guard, known to his co-workers as "Big Guy," ever has feelings of love or passion. One day he notices a cleaning woman working the night shift. When she accidentally knocks down a towering display of paper towels, the night manager scolds her. From his control booth, the security guard has a revelation. He wants to protect this woman. He is Quasimodo in the bell tower, first laying eyes on Esmeralda.
The problem is that he's so comfortable from his perch of video monitors that he can't bring himself to talk to her. Instead, he follows her around town, gathering information about her, observing her habits. She's a bit of a loner, like him, and spends a lot of time wandering the beach. She's not glamorous, but there's a vibrancy about her. When he spots her taking a karate class, he responds by digging out his old barbells and trying to get in shape.
Gigante is a light comedy from Uruguay, but there's an ache in the middle of it. Loneliness and isolation can be played for laughs, but they are, in truth, not funny. That's why this movie works so well. As humorous as some of the scenes may be, we never forget that the big guy is quite lonely. We suspect the woman is, too.
The man, Jara, is played by Horacio Comandule as a fellow used to his own silence. The woman, Julia, is played by Leonor Svarcas, whose smile could brighten anyone's day. We sense that Jara feels sorry for this bright young lady who has to spend her nights mopping floors in a Montevideo supermarket. If nothing else, thinking about her gives him a break from the monotony of his life.
He comes very close to running into her throughout the movie. He works part-time as a bouncer in a night club, and is pained when he realizes the doorman won't let her in because she doesn't have enough money. But he does nothing. This isn't a movie where he asks his best friend how to approach a woman, or studies up on the art of seduction. Jara has no friends. He doesn't appear to need any. He seems content to slog around town, listening to heavy metal music on his iPod. It's as if Julia is his first indication that there is more to life than he ever knew.
There's nothing about Jara that suggests he might be good for Julia. He's actually a bit of a sneak, and he has a violent streak. When he overhears a cab driver say something lewd about Julia, Jara smashes the guy's head into his steering wheel.
Jara seems to know nothing but heavy metal music. When not in his security guard uniform, he's usually wearing Motorhead T-shirts. He's in his 30s, but still dresses like a high school boy; he isn't above having a fake sword fight with kids much younger. We know even less about Julia, just that she seems nice. All that's left for us to do is to wait and see if Jara can work up the nerve to speak to her.
Strangely, this is enough. Some would find Jara's behavior disturbing, and label him a "stalker," but there's something fun about watching him follow Julia around. We start to pick up our own clues about her. We find ourselves thinking of things to say, ways to approach her. Face it, we've all been in Jara's shoes.
Writer-director Adrian Biniez won several awards on the international circuit for Gigante, including a Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival in the Best New Directors competition. What he does best is to keep his characters vague, letting us fill in the blanks. We know no more about Jara than we do about someone we see on an elevator, or a bus. Biniez gives us that, and nothing more. In a way, Jara spies on Julia, and we spy on Jara.
Montevideo also stands out in the movie. It's a mix of lovely beaches and parks, with a bit of scrappy poverty creeping into the edges of the scenery. But it's also a community that appears to be standing still. The fact that it has a movie theater and an internet cafe is actually startling. If Jara seems emotionally stunted, it's not his fault. No one in town seems especially motivated. There's a funny bit where some guys are watching a soccer match on television; when the game ends, they aren't even sure who won. It was simply fun to stare at the game, slightly oblivious.
There are some amusing little subplots, such as a couple of security guards who are having a gay relationship behind the backs of their co-workers, and there's the way the night cleaners steal items from their own store - sometimes Jara sees them stealing and doesn't bother reporting it, because he's either too lazy, doesn't care, or he knows the women don't make much money and need the food for their families - and there's a sad fellow who meets Julia in an online chatroom and comes out to meet her, only to sense she doesn't like him. Later, he tells Jara that online dating is impossible because people build each other into fantasy figures; it's impossible to live up to such ideals.
The movie has little dialog. At times it's a bit like a silent movie, which may have been by design so people from any country could enjoy it. Comandule is very good as Jara. It was his first feature film, and he hasn't acted much since. Not many American actors could do what he does here. He can say a lot with just a glare, or a small smile.
Among the many scenes that are quietly effective is one where Jara follows Julia into a theater. She has picked a cheesy horror movie; he sits a few rows behind her. She watches the movie, while he watches her. When she laughs at the silliness on the screen, he laughs along with her. He's glad she's having fun, and the fondness Jara has for Julia seems real. It's as romantic as any scene I've watched in a long time.
Friday, March 31, 2017
There's something about Walter the police chief that isn't right. As played by Peter Stormare in Small Town Murder Songs, he's a bit of a geezer. When we see him in his street clothes he looks like an older man who should be sitting on his front porch, waving to the neighbor kids. But in his police uniform he swaggers like a Nazi ready to stomp someone's head. There's violence in his past, and the whole town knows it.
The movies are loaded with conflicted cops. They're a staple of film noir, and the better police dramas of the '60s and '70s. The citizens of this small Ontario town refer to Walter by name, which shows that he's lost some of their respect. In an early scene, a prefab house is being hauled away. Walter drives slowly behind it, nodding at people on the sidewalk, as if he's in a parade. In another early scene we see him baptized in a lake during a Mennonite service. When he comes out of the water, he giggles maniacally. There's something wrong with the guy.
Small Town Murder Songs shows all of its characters in sharp, detailed poses; they seem the way people do in real life - clumsy, loud, a trifle ugly and knotty. Stormare, who first gained notice 20 years ago in Fargo for putting Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper, plays Walter as a man boiling from within.
Walter is different from most movie cops. He's good at his job, for one thing. He can approach a snarling dog and soothe it. He can walk comfortably into a local strip club to ask questions. He's flawed, with a temper so hot that he's alienated his own relatives, but he's the cop you'd want on your side.
The small town, and Walter's life, is jolted when the body of a young woman is found in some brush near a lake. It's the same lake where Walter was baptized; when an investigator asks Walter if he's familiar with the lake, Walter says, "I was practically born in it." It's the first murder the town has ever hosted, so to speak, and Walter has to work with some special agents to solve it. There's reason to believe the killer was a local dirtbag named Steve. As played by Eric McIntyre, Steve is dirty and rude and is usually seen getting drunk at a karoake bar on the outskirts of town; it's not a stretch to think of him as the murderer.
There's a tangle, though. Walter's ex girlfriend Rita is now with Steve. Why she went from the violent police chief to this Charles Manson-looking geek doesn't say much for her, though it's a small rural town and I guess men are scarce. As more suspicion surrounds Steve, Rita covers for him. Meanwhile, Walter knows something is askew. He'd like to take Steve into the woods and beat a confession out of him, but he can't. He's trying to leave his head-busting ways behind him.
Walter grits his teeth and finds some solace in his new girlfriend (Martha Plimpton), a down to earth waitress named Sam. We're glad Walter has Sam for company, but we're not sure that their quiet dinners together will be enough to quell the inferno inside him.
Writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly won a slew of awards on the festival circuit when this film was first shown in 2010. He deserved them. He followed it up with a forgettable horror movie - The Last Exorcist II - but he seemed inspired during Small Town Murder Songs. It has the existential ennui of early Terrence Malick. There's no cuteness or glibness in this story about a man trying to redeem himself.
Consider a sequence where Walter is berated by one of his superiors after botching the investigation. We half expect Walter to lose his temper, or to tell the boss to go to hell. But that's because we've seen too many Dirty Harry movies. Walter just sits there and takes it. That's how it would be in real life.
There's a great interest in detail here, from the lacquered green fingernails of the corpse, to the way the town's old-timers speak to each other in Swiss or German. I especially liked a scene where Sam wants to call a woman a whore but spells the word rather than say it aloud; and she misspells it. Glass-Donnelly knew he wasn't aiming for the shopping mall audience, so he could take his time and focus on small things. There's a stomping music score that sounds like Tom Waits in his 1990s, banging on the water pipes period, and loud chapter headings like "God meets you where you're at," but it's the quiet scenes that stay with you.
Still, Stormare carries the day as Walter. It's a role that might've been played in the past by Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman, and Stormare nails it. Long after I've forgotten what this movie was about, I'll remember Stormare's performance.
Small Town Murder Songs is a lesson in how a complex character can elevate a so-so story into something memorable, especially when played by a quality actor.