Friday, February 15, 2019

Rocky Lockridge 1959-2019



There's a clip on YouTube where a loudmouthed drunk is harassing a short man who seemed to be minding his own business. They're in a parking lot, where this kind of thing happens. The short man, dressed in bright red pants and a pink shirt, steeled himself like a dog holding still before the attack. Amid cries of "Don't do it champ!' the little guy threw a blinding quick left-right to the face. The drunk slob hit the sidewalk hard. With onlookers shouting, "Out cold!" the fallen man lay still. Someone pretended to count him out. It all seemed like good fun for a bunch of guys drinking Ripple out of a paper sack, but another inch or two and the knockout victim would've cracked his head against a brick wall. The next day's news headline would've been 'Former boxing champion Rocky Lockridge kills man in sidewalk altercation.' Lockridge got a break, though. The guy's head didn't hit the wall.

Lockridge, who died last week at age 60, didn't always get the breaks. Even in the ring, where he was damned good, he often seemed like a hardluck character in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had a penchant for coming out on the short end of a split decision, usually in the other guy's hometown. The worst was when Rocky went to San Juan, Puerto Rico to defend his junior lightweight title against Wilfredo Gomez. He boxed Gomez' face off and won at least 10 of 15 rounds. Gomez was a star in Puerto Rico, though, and the judges gave the whole plate to Gomez. How might Lockridge's career have turned out if the judges had awarded him that one?

Maybe he would've stayed out of trouble. Maybe he would've avoided the drugs that brought him down. Then again, maybe he was just doomed to walk that walk.

It was common knowledge that Lockridge was living on the streets of Camden during the 2000s.  He was like so many fighters of the 1980s, a victim of crack and any other drug  he could get his hands on. It didn't make sense. He wasn't a wild man like the others we occasionally heard about. He was little Rocky Lockridge, always polite, quick with a smile. Then again, we really didn't know that much about him. Not really.

He was  a wiry guy with shoulders that seemed extra wide, and his style was a mix of standard upright boxing with the occasional barroom haymaker thrown in. This frequent lapse into brawling endeared him to the fans in the cheap seats, and made him a favorite on television. He fought during the sunset of boxing's television era, so when we think of his name, we think of it being said by Marv Albert on NBC's Sportsworld. We think of him being interviewed by the fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. We think of his colorful trainers, Lou Duva and George Benton.When Rocky won, he'd leap into Duva's arms, looking like a doberman jumping onto the hood of a moving truck.

Because he had so many tough losses, we forget the wins. And he certainly had his share. Roger Mayweather was the undefeated WBA super featherweight champion when he met Lockridge in Beaumont, Texas. Using the same right hand that kept him undefeated in parking lots, Lockridge left Mayweather on the canvas like a pile of used car parts. When Lockridge quit boxing in 1992, he'd won 44 of 53 fights, 36 of them by KO. Within a few years he was busted twice for burglary. He got out of prison in 1999.

By 2009 he was in such dire straights that his family ambushed him on one of those grotesque reality shows where loved ones try to convince addicts to get help. He wailed and cried, and it was all quite a big deal, because TV boxing was out, and personal grief was in, and the type of deep pain that churned inside Rocky turned out to be good show business these days. His crying jag went viral, putting him up there with the talking dogs, piano playing cats, and other YouTube phenoms. But as odd as it was to see Lockridge reduced to an  internet meme, this began a road to recovery. He had a few good years before his health started giving out. There were strokes and other problems, and he ended up in hospice care with feeding tubes plugged into him. Two weeks ago his family took him off life support. It was the first real break he'd had in a long time.

Monday, December 31, 2018

DeMarco is in!


DEMARCO IS IN!
At long last, Boston boxer earns Hall of Fame induction
by Don Stradley



His fights were thrillers. He was a left-hook artist. He was built like a tugboat and could take a beating. He won the welterweight championship by beating Johnny Saxton on April Fools Day, 1955, kicking off a four day celebration in his North End neighborhood. No Boston fighter since has captured the city's imagination quite like Tony DeMarco. 

When it was announced that DeMarco will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame  as part of the 2019 class, the general reaction was "What took so long?"

Like another Boston sports icon, Jim Rice of the Red Sox, DeMarco had to be patient while waiting for voters to get wise. Like Rice, there was talk that DeMarco's numbers simply weren't strong enough to rate him alongside Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and other ring immortals. But also like Rice, one had to look beyond the numbers to appreciate DeMarco's allure.

"He was our hope," said Walter Lopez (aka Wally Mambo), a friend who witnessed DeMarco's amazing effect on  post war Bostonians. "Hope for the neighborhood, for the North End, for the entire city. When he won, we all won. When he became champion, we all became champion. And that's not just the truth, it's a fact." 

The Boston Garden nearly capsized on the might DeMarco beat Saxton. DeMarco has the fight on a worn VHS tape, and occasionally puts it into a creaky old machine for visitors. They wait for the moment in the 14th round when DeMarco drove Saxton into a corner and unloaded 25 consecutive punches. Saxton was tough and had connections to the mob, but this wasn't his night. DeMarco was once asked his opinion on Floyd Mayweather. "You know who he reminds me of?" DeMarco said. "Johnny Saxton."

Friends who have known DeMarco for 70 years remember when he had trouble getting fights, and how he actually went to Los Angeles with plans to box under an alias. He couldn't get fights out there, either. He took a job driving a truck, transporting plumbing parts. From the earliest days of his career, DeMarco seemed destined for magical highs and desperate lows.

He turned pro at 16, borrowing the identity of an older kid in the neighborhood. Some key career decisions were made by coin flips in backrooms. He was shuffled around, from Boston to New Jersey to Montreal. He took fights on short notice. On some nights he bled so much he feared the ringside reporters were getting drenched with his blood. Managers came and went. He met Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He met John Garfield and Jeff Chandler. He met Lili St Cyr, the bubble bath dancer. He won fights. He lost fights.

The Boston Garden was DeMarco's battlefield. He headlined there more than 20 times. He used to walk to the Garden from his home on Fleet Street. The night he beat Saxton, he strolled back home with the title belt. Even now at 86, he lives just up the street from where it once stood. The more modern, slightly sterile TD Garden stands in its place. He wishes the building still hosted boxing."I stay close," he says, "in case they need me for a preliminary."

Like many fighters, DeMarco came from a hard neighborhood. DeMarco stayed out of trouble, but admits to being friendly with several of the North End's alleged bad guys. He even had a passing acquaintance with Frankie Carbo, the gangland killer who controlled much of boxing during the 1940s and '50s. "We talked a few times," DeMarco said. "Never in depth. To tell the truth, I wish he had managed me. I would've  made more money." 

Taken as a whole, DeMarco's career wasn't spectacular. But he was beloved in Boston, and for a few years he was as popular as Ted Williams or Tom Brady or any other New England  athlete. Even now, when he ventures beyond his zip code, older citizens still recognize him and stop him.  "People are very kind," DeMarco says. "Here we are 60 years later, and people still remember. Sometimes I think, 'How did this happen? I'm just a little guy from the North End.'"

The little guy had some big moments. He beat Kid Gavilan, one of the all time greats, at the Garden. There was a rousing trilogy with Gaspar Ortega, a favorite of TV's golden age. Ortega once said, at a time when DeMarco seemed unlikely to ever be inducted, "I don't know why Tony isn't in the Hall of Fame. He was Mr. Excitement." 

Sometimes DeMarco shrugged it off. If the Hall didn't want him, he was fine. He had his friends and his health. He had a cozy West End apartment. The city erected a statue of him in 2012. He was happily married. Life was nice. Yet, he was hoping there would be room for him in Canastota, the shrine for boxing legends.

Friends created petitions. There were phone calls. There were mass e-mails. Every few years, some well-meaning boxing writer would try to get DeMarco's name on a ballot. Nothing panned out until this year. The late Bert Sugar once griped, "He should be in there with  Carmen Basilio because the two names belong together like pork and beans."

The Basilio - DeMarco fights were unfettered violence disguised as sport. DeMarco had only been champion for eight weeks when he went to Basilio's home turf in Syracuse. He was knocked out in the 12th. The rematch took place in Boston. DeMarco landed a brick of a left hook and had Basilio dazed. Somehow, Basilio survived. Again, DeMarco was stopped in 12.

"It was thirty years before I could talk about those fights," DeMarco said. "I was in a casino, and I looked up, and ESPN was replaying one of the bouts with Carmen." DeMarco started to crack jokes about the action. "The people around me probably thought I was crazy, but I felt good. Relieved. I finally had a sense of humor about losing."

The case for DeMarco's Hall of Fame membership gained momentum with the recent inductions of Ray Mancini and Arturo Gatti. Like DeMarco, they weren't members of boxing's elite, but they were fan favorites who fought like tigers. If they were in, the argument went, there was certainly a place for DeMarco.

When news of his  induction finally reached him, Tony D. played it cool.

“Yeah, I’d thought of it from time to time after all these years, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” he told the Boston Globe. “I kind of thought I might have been there sooner, you know?”

DeMarco never had a shortage of local support for the cause. Several people had hounded the Hall of Fame's executive director, Ed Brophy. The question was always the same: What exactly was the hold up?

"A lot of people were pulling for him," said writer Springs Toledo. "Jimbo Curran, a local legend who founded the South Boston Boxing Club has been haunting Ed Brophy with calls for over a decade. Ring 4 (the Massachusetts Boxing Hall of Fame) has a lot of rough characters and they've been all over Brophy, too." 

Regarding his won-loss record, which DeMarco admits isn't stellar  (he prefers to say he had 71 professional bouts, rather than break it down into 58-12-1), his record is actually better than some of the IBHOF's previous inductees.

But more important than the stats are the moments:

- Like the time DeMarco,  a 21-year-old lightweight in his first 10-rounder, overcame a 5-stitch gash over his left eye and rallied to defeat 10-7 favorite Paddy DeMarco.

- Or the one round blowout of Chico Vejar, a top rated fighter.

- Or the spectacular brawl with Wallace Bud Smith, won by DeMarco via ninth round KO.

- Or the time he headlined at Fenway Park and pounded out a decision over Vince Martinez, one of the slickest welterweights of the era.

- Or the night in 1955 when he stopped Saxton in the 14th.

That night was the payoff after many years of struggling. As an amateur he'd often sold back his trophies so he could afford his gym fees. As a pro he endured buffoonish managers, "likable jerks" who didn't know how to promote him. There were long stretches of inactivity, where DeMarco found himself in a couple of sidewalk scuffles where he knocked the hell out of some local mugs. Fearing bad publicity or a lawsuit, he made his memorable California trip. 

Life after boxing saw more struggles. He had two children who died young. He went through a stressful divorce. There were bad investments and business deals gone awry.

DeMarco stayed busy, though. He worked as a liquor salesman. He owned a cocktail lounge. He worked as a court officer in Boston's State House. He amused himself by acting in amateur theatricals, usually in dinner theater productions where he played a Mafia boss. He rarely had lines. He just wore a nice suit and looked tough.

He was often invited to attend Hall of Fame dinners and take part in the annual motorcades, but no induction was forthcoming. Sometimes it irked him. Year after year he heard about other fighters being inducted, fighters he'd beaten. He couldn't figure out why he remained a bridesmaid. Was it his short title reign? A friend who wished to remain anonymous offered a theory: "It was because he was so closely associated with Boston, which isn't well-known as a boxing city. If Tony had been from New York or Philadelphia, he would've been in the Hall of Fame years ago." 

What kept him going was a generation of Bostonians who never forgot him.

The late Herald writer Tim Horgan once said that it was difficult to compare DeMarco to any Boston athletes who came later. "He was major, there's no doubt about it. When he lost, there was sadness. It was probably more personal than when a team loses. People identify with individuals more than they do a full team. I think there was more of a personal grief about it."

"Everybody liked Tony," said Lou Lanci, an old  friend. "The old people, the kids, the cops, the priests, and the wiseguys. They all liked Tony." 

"Those people in Boston," said Ortega, "they acted like they would give their life for Tony." 

That his career amounted to anything was a long shot. Along with contracts that gave him fits, DeMarco had an undiagnosed blood sugar problem which caused him to tire in fights. He also had a problem with his nose - a mere tap would have him bleeding like Niagara Falls. Still, he was the underdog who kept punching.

"When I was a boy," DeMarco said, "I had pictures on my bedroom wall of Willie Pep, Jake LaMotta, Joe Louis, and Ray Robinson. They were my heroes. I got to meet them all, and I became a champion, too. It was only for eight weeks, but I would've been honored to be champion for one day." 

This June, Tony DeMarco will be on a podium in Canastota, about 25 miles from where he once fought Basilio. He'll receive a Hall of Fame ring. He'll deliver a short speech. Maybe there will be a plaster cast made of his fist. It will be a nice afternoon for him.

DeMarco was only a champion for a brief time, but he'll be a Hall of Famer forever.





Saturday, December 29, 2018

HBO

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT
HBO says no more boxing
by Don Stradley



When I heard HBO was pulling the plug on boxing coverage, I didn't think of Mike Tyson or Larry Merchant, or the night when George Foreman, age 45 and shaped like a giant mound of pudding, landed a lightning bolt of a right hand to KO a much younger Michael Moorer for the heavyweight championship.

I thought of the Silhouette Lounge in Allston, Massachusetts.

It was a dive bar on the outskirts of Boston. It was a place for married guys from the suburbs who came into the city to cheat on their wives; for drunk BC students to play bumper pool;  for tired bus drivers to sit and have a cold one; and for the occasional prostitute from Brockton who came in to fleece the BC kids, bus drivers, and cheating husbands.

There were ferns in the window, and a James Brown cover band, and cheap wood paneling. 

Of more importance was a sign at the entrance that said WE HAVE HBO.

I saw a lot of fights there. I usually had to convince the bartender that a contest for the heavyweight championship was more important than a college basketball game, and since the clientele was usually oblivious to what was happening, I always got my way.

12/13/86 - Tyrell Biggs is fighting Renaldo Snipes. It's dull. Out of nowhere, Biggs lands a  right hand and drops him. The guy on the stool next me, drunk out of his mind, falls off his stool and crashes to the barroom floor. I yelled, "What a punch! Double knockdown!" I got a few laughs. Biggs got the decision.

I didn't have the Blue Horizon, or the Forum or the Olympic. I had a grimy bar with HBO. That was good enough.

One night the bartender said their cable service was fried. I had to run all over the city to find a place with HBO. No luck. I missed out on Tyson-Bruno.

No big deal. I'd also missed Dempsey-Tunney. But I  realized that I couldn't always rely on the Silhouette Lounge. It was time to get my own HBO hookup. And so it was that my badly heated studio apartment was soon fitted with HBO, just as a great era was  beginning. Within a five week period in 1990, HBO brought us  Tyson - Douglas and Chavez - Taylor, two of the most memorable bouts of the decade.

The good times continued. The Holyfield-Bowe fights were tremendous, with Foreman screaming, "They're gonna take Holyfield out of here in a pine box!" I remember Andrew Golota hitting Bowe in the nuts. Jim Lampley erupts: "It's as if a switch was turned on in his head and he's transported back the mean streets of Krakow!"

It was an era of heavyweight nutcases and brawling Mexican featherweights. I remember the chill on my neck as Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward stood face to face listening to the referee's pre-fight instructions.  I remember the rise of Manny Pacquiao, the endless ups and downs of Oscar de la Hoya, and of course, John Ruiz, the best clincher since Sammy "The Clutch" Angott.

And I remember the way Lampley and his colleagues remained absolutely silent during the opening minute of Lewis-Tyson, just letting the action speak for itself. I don't know if Lampley was the best to ever do it, but his odd mix of poise and emotion was damned good.

Gradually, HBO lost the magic. It went cookie-cutter. Every fight looked and sounded the same. There was a bad stretch where every fight seemed more about somebody's sick mother, or ailing girlfriend. HBO's new message was clear: boxing wasn't entertaining on its own, so broadcasts had to be padded with angles lifted from daytime dramas.

HBO was no longer in the boxing business. It was in the reality TV business. Guys who wouldn't know Muhammad Ali from Terrence Alli  were in in the production trucks, whispering in Emanuel Steward's ear, telling him what to talk about. Like a slow disease that overtakes the body, the demise of HBO boxing was gradual and then all of a sudden. I wasn't surprised when HBO recently announced it was done with boxing. HBO hadn't loved boxing in a long time.

Now and then, though, they still did wonderful things.

March, 2011.  Showtime announcer Nick Charles is brought in to do some commentary on an HBO Boxing After Dark show. He's ill with cancer and would be dead in 12 weeks. Lampley steps aside to let Charles take a mic. Nick Charles had always been an elegant and underappreciated boxing voice, and on this night he still had the chops. He called the fight, occasionally passing off to Max Kellerman, with the grace and ease of the professional he'd always been.

Listening to Nick always put me in mind of a quarterback who may not have been flashy, but always got the ball into the right guy's hands. I can't  recall who was fighting, but I remember Nick's voice, and how happy and grateful he was to be once again at ringside. It was a good moment. And HBO was nothing if not a provider of good moments. There may not have been a greater moment than the night HBO let us hear Nick Charles one last time.

I loved boxing on HBO. I loved it at the Silhouette Lounge. I loved it at The Dockside bar, where I once sat in a roomful of people who were convinced Vinny Paz had a chance to beat Roy Jones. I loved it at the Suffolk Downs horse track in Revere, where fights were shown in the clubhouse. And I loved it in my shabby little apartment, when I didn't have enough money for a light bulb but I was willing to splurge on cable. And I've loved it in the various places I've lived since those days.

But I never loved it more than the night Nick Charles made his last stand. We saw a man doing what he loved, and doing it brilliantly, even as he approached death's door. How often are we privy to such things?

We saw it, though. We saw it on HBO.











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.