Friday, May 31, 2013


Film by Casey Affleck
Review by Don L. Stradley

Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here

Just a few hours before I sat down to write this, Amanda Bynes was arrested for throwing a bong out a hotel window. Then she went on Twitter and said her mug shots reminded her that she needed a nose job.

That's the era we're in now; celebrities go off the rails and their problems are just more entertainment for us. We respond in an ugly manner. The race is on to tweet the funniest comment, print the most hideous mugshot, or catch someone on video doing something ridiculous. Thanks to technology, celebrities are no longer larger than life. They've become smaller than life.

Maybe it was inevitable. The public, it seems, has always secretly detested celebrities. We tolerate their rise in order to see them fall. If we can put our foot on their necks while they writhe, all the better. The money they make is not for their talent; it's compensation for the abuse we are going to hand them.

When Joaquin Phoenix announced he was leaving acting in 2008 to pursue a career as a hip hop artist, the media and the public couldn't kick him in the ass hard enough or fast enough. 
As we now  know, it all turned out to be a sham put on by Phoenix and his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. The resulting movie, I'm Not Here (2010), is a classic study in bloated narcissism, media manipulation, and the price of stardom. It's brilliant. Too bad so many were offended.
The stage had been set. Phoenix was a heralded young actor with nothing but upside, a two-time Oscar nominee, having earned a Golden Globe for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. Out of the blue,  he announced his retirement from acting.  Had any young actor ever done such a thing?

The first part of I'm Still Here is about Phoenix making the announcement, and giving his reason: he doesn't want to be a puppet anymore.  The rest is about his effort to convince Sean "P-Diddy" Combs to produce his album,  and how he handles an increasingly mean and cynical media.  There are several funny moments, including  Phoenix's failed effort to attend President Obama's inauguration (he falls asleep at his hotel and misses it) and his attempts at performing in clubs. Through it all, there's the sense that Phoenix not only made a mistake, but may have permanently lost his way. At one point he screams, "I'll be a joke forever!"

Paunchy and hairy (he's a cross between Jerry Garcia and late '60s era Brian Wilson) Phoenix shambles across a landscape of media hacks, agents, promoters, night clubs, red carpet events, talk shows, airports, hotels, electronic gates, and smug reporters.  
Phoenix stays "in character" throughout, demanding to be taken seriously. He goes for both the broad comic effect - there are plenty of scenes involving drugs, vomit, and hookers - and more subtle stuff, including some hilarious throwaway lines that are barely heard.

Part of the film's fun is the way people react to him. During an encounter with rapper Mos Def,  Phoenix says, "I want to create the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of rap, something epic," to which the bemused Def answers, "Epic is epic." Ben Stiller comes to Phoenix's house to show him a script. Phoenix, now going by his rapper name "JP", encourages Stiller to be himself and to not act like Ben Stiller. The idea is mind-bending. Meanwhile, Diddy tries to let Phoenix down gently, telling him that he's not ready to record anything. The scenes between Phoenix and Diddy are almost painful to watch.

Phoenix and Affleck started out as youngsters in the business. They know how Hollywood people act and react. When Phoenix shouts ugly threats at one of his assistants, it comes from experience; this is probably what he's observed. At one point Phoenix rails at the fact that he acted in Reservation Road, while Leo DiCaprio acted in Revolutionary Road. "He was nominated for an award," Phoenix grouses. "He's just lucky."

By the time I'm Still Here was released,  the joke was over. By punking the media, he became, for a moment, a media sensation. Unfortunately, there'd been enough leaks that many knew what Phoenix was doing. His denial is part of the movie, too. The DVD commentary reveals that Affleck had coached Phoenix to deal with non-believers by simply losing his temper and putting them on the defensive.  Phoenix had an instinct for this.

Andy Kaufman used to do this sort of thing all the time, trying out different characters in public, going out of his way to alienate and confuse people. Kaufman never put a name on what he did. He described himself as a song and dance man. Phoenix, too, is a song and dance man. The song Phoenix performs near the end of the film is actually a pretty good one. He could've been the new Biz Markie.

The fact that Phoenix was in control the whole time seemed to annoy people. Critics reacted to his attempt to change careers like mean children poking a wounded bear with a stick. Then they seemed angry that they had wasted their kicks on someone who wasn't down at all. "If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed," wrote the late Roger Ebert in his review. Of course, some critics appreciated I'm Still Here, but usually with reservations. There were plenty who just didn't get it. Some, justifiably, were uncomfortable watching Phoenix use so many drugs in the movie, when his brother River had died of an overdose. 
I'll go out on a limb. Phoenix should have won an Oscar for his role as "Joaquin Phoenix" in I'm Still Here. No other actor that year worked so hard, or for so long, or risked so much. Some might argue that he wasn't really acting, but he was. I'm Still Here is Phoenix's Raging Bull.  It's his Network. It's his La Dolce Vita. At the very least, it's his This is Spinal Tap.

If I haven't done a good enough job making a case for the film, it's because I haven't mentioned how moving some of it is; Phoenix seems terribly sad and alone at times. He's often isolated in a sparsely furnished house with only a few dogs and a pair of hapless assistants for company. Affleck, making his directorial debut, found a distinctive look for the film by keeping Phoenix alone in most shots. 

In a way, Phoenix seems like a newly divorced man, having divorced himself from acting.  When he cries after a disastrous appearance on David Letterman's show, he's like a newly single man realizing that life as he knew it is over. When Diddy balks at recording him, Phoenix is so shocked he can barely talk. He can only say, in a strangled whisper, "But I wanted to make an album..." That he's been a petulant twit for most of the movie yet generates pathos here is a tribute to his skills as an actor.
Yet, I'm Still Here isn't even listed as one of Phoenix's films on the Internet Movie Database. It's tucked away in the section devoted to television appearances and documentaries.
Perhaps a more accurate description of this work might be called "performance art." A poster for a Roy Lichtenstein  exhibit  stares over Phoenix's shoulder during an early scene, reminding us perhaps that what we're watching is a kind of pop-art commentary on the state we're in with too many reality shows, too many celebrities having meltdowns. This month it's Amanda Bynes. Next month, someone else.

One could say Phoenix was simply making fun of celebrity crack-ups, and I'm Still Here could certainly be enjoyed as no more than a comic 'mockumentary,' or an exercise in guerrilla film making, the sort that Sacha Baron Cohen used to do as Borat and Bruno. But Phoenix and Affleck were also telling a story. Phoenix played a celebrity who wanted to dump it all and reinvent himself, only to find that he couldn't. And along with this story they tell, there's also a picture of how the public and the media react to celebrities. Phoenix made himself a target for people's hate, and their instinct was to attack and mock. Was Letterman in on it? I don't really care. He allegedly knew nothing. I like that.
From the I'm Still Here DVD commentary  provided by Phoenix, Affleck, and several crew members, we learn that Stiller and Diddy were in on the angle (Diddy is a good actor). We also learn that one of the smarmiest reporters turned out to be an intern working on the film. He said he was told to "take all of the hate I have for hipsters and direct it towards Joaquin." Perhaps most surprisingly, we learn that some of the scenes that felt improvised were actually written by Affleck.

We learn that the project was more fun than it looked, and that a lot of it was done on the fly - Phoenix's announcement to Entertainment Tonight that he was quitting was a spur of the moment idea, suggested by Affleck just seconds before. It's no wonder Phoenix and Affleck named their production company, "They're Gonna Kill Us Productions." They knew what they were gambling with.

What comes across most in the commentary is Affleck's intelligence as a director. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve, but  he has a sly understanding of acting and human nature. This is particularly noticeable in the outtakes included on the DVD; many of them are funny, but Phoenix was too funny, too actorish. Affleck was wise to cut them. We may not know exactly what to call I'm Still Here but Affleck knew exactly what he wanted.


Saturday, May 25, 2013


A Film by Jack Garfein
Review by Don L. Stradley

Carroll Baker in Something Wild
When a movie comes with titles by Saul Bass, a musical score by Aaron Copeland, New York scenery, a controversial subject matter, plus two recognizable stars of the period - Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker - one expects a film with some staying power.
Instead, Something Wild (1961) came and went without much fanfare. To say it was a bust is an understatement; critics reacted to it as if it they'd sat in something slimy.

To say it was ahead of its time isn't accurate; it's a film that owes less to other films than to the existential plays of Sartre and Ionesco. A case could also be made for lumping it in with late period film noir - there are, after all, a lot of shadows and claustrophobia, and Meeker was a noir icon known mostly for his role as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

One could also call it an American attempt at what the Italian neo-realists were doing a decade or more earlier. Much of the movie is silent, with long stretches of Baker simply wandering the streets of New York. The sidewalk salesmen in Times Square appear to be the real deal, as do the people milling about in the crowd shots. Some have tried to hail Something Wild as "a lost indy classic," as it was billed in a showing at New York's IFC Center in early 2007, but even that's a stretch.

Regardless of how you label it, this is the sort of movie you show to five different people and get five different reactions.

Mary Ann (Baker) appears to be an average New York girl, going to school and living at home with her mother and step-father. We know nothing else about her. Early in the film she is brutally raped in a park. She doesn't report the attack, but grows depressed. She can no longer take her mother's badgering, so she moves out and finds a job in a store. Her new apartment is in a cramped tenement, with loud neighbors and a creepy landlord. Her job is unpleasant; the other girls in the store think she is standoffish.

One day she walks to the Manhattan Bridge and considers jumping into the East River. Mike (Meeker), a disheveled mechanic, arrives in the nick of time and stops her from jumping. He invites her to stay with him until she feels better. Then he tells her he doesn't want her to leave. In the matter of fact tone of a psychopath, he tells her, "I like the way you look here." She pleads with him, but he merely says, "You're my last chance."  

The film was directed by Jack Garfein, Baker's husband at the time, based on a novel by Alex Karmel. Garfein, who had survived an Auschwitz concentration camp as a child, had been a wunderkind, finding success on Broadway at age 25. As an Actor's Studio acolyte, he was thought to be an upcoming Elia Kazan. But he also had a rebellious streak. He wasn't interested in typical Hollywood scenarios, and his first film, The Strange One (1957), left Columbia studio head Harry Cohn perplexed by its open ending.

Something Wild more or less ended Garfein's career as a filmmaker. In 2010 Garfein told the LA Times that United Artists hated it so much they "literally threw it away. I couldn't get a job." He returned to the Actors' Studio, founded Actors Studio West, created The Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City, and directed a documentary about his time at Auschwitz called The Journey Back. He has spent the bulk of his career in France, where he is a revered acting teacher.

Meeker and Baker, both of the Actors Studio, aren't overly indulgent in Something Wild, but Garfein directs much of the film's second act like a stage play, giving the actors plenty of time to react to each other. 
As Mike, Meeker veers from dangerous to pathetic. There's a strong scene where he comes home so drunk he can barely stand. When he clumsily approaches Mary Ann, she kicks him in the face so hard that she puts his eye out. He bellows in agony from the kick, but its the sound of a whipped animal rather than an angry man. Later we see him wearing an eye patch; he doesn't even know she did it. He assumes he lost his eye in a bar fight, which gives us a clue to his life, and the little regard he has for himself. These drunk scenes are strangely poignant; Meeker's falls to the hard kitchen floor are painful.

When he's not drunk, Mike makes meals for Mary Ann, shows her his scrapbook, puts on his best shirt and pants. He even buys a bottle of wine so they can enjoy what he imagines is a romantic dinner. He never quite understands why she doesn't want to be held there against her wishes. When she says she has to go to work, he offers to match what her boss pays her at the store. It's as if he understands Mary Ann on a primal level, as if he too had once considered jumping into the East River. He knows they belong together. He is willing to wait until she sees it, too. 

Meeker, one of Hollywood's tough guys, makes loneliness palpable here. Actors portraying psycho-loners usually emphasize the psycho part. Meeker takes another route. Late in the film, when she finally acquiesces, he gives her a hug. It may be the gentlest, and warmest of all screen hugs. Had Something Wild been more successful, the hug would be up there with John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers, or Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty staggering towards each other through a crowd at the end of Reds. Something Wild may or may not be a lost classic, but Meeker's is a lost performance.

Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who had carved a career in France during the 1930s (including work with Marcel Carne) was enjoying a strong period in the 1960s, having filmed The Hustler and Eyes Without A Face just prior to Something Wild. He was a sure-handed old master working alongside the young maverick Garfein. Schufftan's camera work here manages to be both gritty and dreamy, whether he's shooting Mike's cave-like quarters, or the sprawling New York nightlife. Since much of the film features Baker walking around in a daze, Schufftan had the challenge of making these scenes worth watching. She seems to come out of crowds like a little bird, the enormous skyscrapers rising up on either side of her like dark, dangerous mountains.

Baker has a difficult role, and for the most part she nails it. She's at her best when she is silent, trying to control herself in the midst of nightmares and anguish. After being raped early in the film she goes home and uses a pair of scissors to shred her clothing. She takes a bath. She sleeps. This is all done in silence. Garfein allows her to take as much time with these scenes as needed.

At the climax of the film, and there is a slight spoiler coming up, she escapes Mike's basement apartment and wanders the streets, basking in the fresh air. She sips from a fountain, buys an apple from a sidewalk fruit vendor, throws a football around with some kids. Then, mysteriously, she returns to Mike. She finds him looking utterly alone and vanquished, as if much more time has passed than we imagined. There's more to this ending, which I won't tell.

Did she feel guilty for leaving him after kicking his eye out? Did she see Mike as a preferable alternative to the hard, crowded world outside? Did she come to understand that they somehow belonged together? Was Garfein, who had survived Auschwitz, making a comment about survival? Maybe it was the hug that did it. Maybe she knew that no one else would ever hug her that way.
A short Wikipedia entry on the film suggests Mary Ann developed Stockholm Syndrome, where one begins to side with one's captors. That's not the answer I'd buy, but it seems as good as any. The ending of Something Wild has always been the film's sticking point. It puts people off and confuses them. I find it brave and fascinating.

Baker had a lot invested in Something Wild. She was a young actress with a growing reputation and an Oscar nomination under her belt for Baby Doll (1957). Her husband was directing. When he disapproved of the soundtrack, she allegedly used her own money to pay Aaron Copeland's fee. When the film was "rediscovered" and made the rounds at a few film festivals in 2007, she attended a showing. As always, members of the audience expressed unease at the film's end.

Baker asked, "Does anyone know why I stayed?"

No one had an answer.

"There you have it," she said.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

GINGER BAKER ATTACKS FILMMAKER (and we love him for it!)

Film by Jay Bulger
Review by Don L. Stradley

                    Ginger Baker, relaxing in Beware of Mr Baker
There are scenes in Beware of Mr. Baker, Jay Bulger's riveting new documentary about Ginger Baker, where the legendary drummer engages various jazz players in drum battles.

Baker's opponents play with machine gun precision, sparks practically flying from their snares. When it's Baker's turn, he plays with such concentrated ferocity that his kit appears to boil over like the engine of an old flying machine. The jazz men play with soul; Baker plays with something beyond soul, something darker, as if he's rallying the gods. Surely, if Baker continued pounding away by himself, the kit and Baker would eventually rise and take flight. He drummed as if he believed rhythm could launch him into the stratosphere. No wonder he named one of his bands Ginger Baker's Air Force. 

It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Baker, one of rock's true wild men. Having played in such iconic bands as Cream and Blind Faith, there is plenty of old footage to draw from, and Baker, although not a great raconteur, is capable of the occasional barbed comment.

He's also capable of violence; in one scene he actually attacks the film's director and hits him in the face with his walking stick.

The attack, which has become the film's marketing hook, occurred when Bulger revealed he was on his way to interview  other people, an idea of which Baker didn't approve. Baker either has profound abandonment issues, or he felt he had to live up to his reputation as a batty old relic from the psychedelic '60s. Bulger, smart enough to recognize the value of Baker's attack, inserts the scene at the beginning and end of his film. It's astonishing to watch Baker jab at Bulger's face with his cane, like he's trying to break up dirt with a shovel. What Bulger may not have counted on was that many audience members wished Baker had belted him around a bit more.

Like too many documentary makers, Bulger inserts himself into the story. He seems a little too proud of how far he traveled to interview Baker in South Africa, or how he conned his way into meeting Baker by pretending to be a reporter for Rolling Stone. Bulger made a great film, but there was an unmistakable feeling of schadenfreude when Baker whacked him; Bulger's questions throughout the film are so amateurish we wonder why Baker didn't hit him earlier. 

Baker comes off as feral, disagreeable, isolated, not one to suffer fools.  He calls most music listeners stupid; he says if Cream truly fathered heavy metal, he would have it aborted; he calls the great British blues singer Graham  Bond "just a big fat guy," and says much worse about Mick Jagger.

Baker doesn't have much good to say about anyone, except of course, 
the great jazz drummers of his youth. He openly weeps when he thinks about these men, and how fortunate he has been to befriend them. Good drumming, Baker says, can make him cry. Like Jackson Pollock seeing things in splashes of paint, Baker hears things in rhythm. He moved to South Africa partly because of the exquisite drum sounds he'd heard. That, and because he'd been chased out of most other places.

What lifts Beware of Mr. Baker above most docs is that Baker is absolutely unapologetic. Once he decided that drumming would be his life, he played like a demon and never looked back. Part of the tension in Beware of Mr. Baker is that he doesn't enjoy looking back. His reticence is understandable, since so many of his memories involve  public toilets, needles, and hookers.

Baker's professional nadir may have been the 1980s. He'd hit bottom and was doing anything for money, including a half-hearted attempt at acting. He even appeared in an instructional drumming video, croaking like a British school teacher: "We hold the stick thusly." From there, he played in short-lived bands, and slowly vanished into decrepit rock legend status.
Several moments from Baker's dark past are recreated in splendid animation sequences. His violent teen years are given a Clockwork Orange kind of feel. His first exposure to heroin, in the dank home of his drum idol Phil Seaman, is drawn like a macabre Gahan Wilson cartoon.  Lead illustrator Tatia Rosenthal, and animation directors David Bell and Joe Scarpulla, are at the beginning of their careers; they are brilliant.

Beware of Mr. Baker has the obligatory scenes where Baker's friends and family talk about his self-destructive nature. Even Baker admits he has always been fascinated by disasters. He has burned through his money - five million dollars earned for a Cream reunion in 2005 was promptly spent on polo ponies - and has left most of his personal relationships in shambles.

Baker admirer Johnny Lydon (aka Rotten) argues passionately in the film that Baker's behavior should be overlooked because he's an artist. We're not sure if everyone in Baker's family would agree. Baker's numerous ex-wives talk about him the way they'd talk about surviving a hurricane. His most recent paramour, a young woman he met on the internet, seemed uncomfortable talking about Baker on camera.  Baker's son, Kofi, seems particularly dazed at having survived the old man's antics. Baker, who lost his own father at a young age, seems intent on destroying every relationship he has, which could also explain why he attacked Bulger. 

Nowadays Baker seems frail and unhappy.  Baker is paranoid, and has a right to be; he has feuded with local farmers for years, he's been accused of selling drugs, and South African crime lords have tried to muscle him out of the country. Someone also appears to be terrorizing Baker, crippling one of his horses, and poisoning one of his dogs. Now Baker lives in a home surrounded by surveillance cameras, watching for "assassins." He owns a stun gun, what he calls a "people zapper." One imagines he has a closet full of heavier artillery.

Bulger tries to swerve viewers near the film's end, showing Baker alone in his house, sucking methadone through an inhaler. Baker is 74, and appears utterly defeated by life, too weak even to play his drums. A  doctor  compares Baker to a dying dog that just wants to be alone. But Bulger, who has done some bit parts in movies, provides Beware of Mr. Baker with a Hollywood ending - Baker apparently isn't as sickly as we've been lead to believe, and actually makes his way to another gig. He plops his tired old bones behind a kit and plays  with every bit of the old thunder. Then some old jazz guys hug him and all is well.
Despite Bulger's contrived ending, one gets a sense that things will not end well for Baker. One day we expect to hear about a dead body found on his property, neighbors saying they heard gunshots in the night, Baker's paranoia having finally reached a tipping point.

In the meantime, he's gigging around Europe with Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion. No matter how bad things get,  Baker still has access to his one true love, the one thing that makes him weep.


Friday, May 17, 2013



Film by James Gunn

Review by Don L. Stradley

 Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in Super.
I've seen Super 10 times by now, and it becomes more gloriously imperfect with each viewing. When this mixed up orphan of a film was marketed as a comedy during the spring of 2011, audiences were blindsided by a surreal, existential tear-jerker that occasionally erupted into extreme violence. Of course, marketing such an odd film must've been difficult, but did calling it a comedy really do it justice?

Reactions were mixed. Perhaps customers wanted the violence without the great wail of sadness at the film's core. Perhaps the individual parts of the film didn't equal a whole. Perhaps too many comic book films came out that year. Or perhaps audiences talk about wanting something different, but in reality can't accept a movie that isn't exactly like everything else they've seen. Still, in condemning Super for what wasn't there, many didn't take note of what was there: a gruff but beautiful meditation on the extremes we go through to fill up our empty lives.
Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) has an empty life because his junkie wife (Liv Tyler) left him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). After experiencing several nightmarish hallucinations which may or may not be messages from God, Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, a sort of DIY crime fighter who beats down local criminals with a pipe wrench. Not just criminals, but people who cut in line, too. It seems crime fighting is like a drug - once you start, it's hard to stop.

He meets a manic girl from a local comic book store (Ellen Page), and takes her on as his assistant. After much killing and bloodshed, Frank rescues his wife from the the drug dealer. Then she leaves him again. Super ends with Frank D'Arbo weeping, in awe of all that has happened, and looking to the future. But that's just the superficial plot that writer/director James Gunn hangs in front of us. The stuff that keeps me going back is, to borrow a comic book reference from the film, "in between the panels." 
Wilson is the engine that makes the movie run - he veers from cynical to melancholy to heroic, and the scenes where he reminisces about his wife, or berates himself for all of his shortcomings, are devastating. Liv Tyler is a revelation in Super, showing incredible range as a well-meaning drug addict. Bacon shows once again that he is one of our most consistent and entertaining actors. But it is Page's Libby who provides the film with its staccato heartbeat.

She first notices Frank at the comics shop, and inadvertently helps him create his crime fighting costume and persona. She suspects he is the Crimson Bolt, and then, through sheer force of her will, imposes herself into his life as "Bolty," his kid sidekick. Its not clear why Frank accepts her offer - she's too small to fight crime, she's pushy and unpleasant, and she gradually reveals herself to be quite dangerous. Libby's laugh alone would drive most people away; it's a horrible horse laugh, what Nathanael West would have called "a great beast of laughter," the laugh of a person who thinks laughter is a sound, rather than a feeling. Frank eventually realizes she's a mess and fires her, which leads to my favorite scene in the movie: Libby's frantic begging to be reinstated as his sidekick.

Libby's life had been a blank slate. The opportunity to fill it with something, to become something other than herself, illuminated her. She glows as Bolty. When The Crimson Bolt fires her, she screams, "Who is going to play Bolty?" So invested was she in the invention of this sidekick character that she assumes it will live on after she's fired. The film's heart is right there in that scene.  Just the thought of returning to her own life  sends Libby into a panic.

She works her way back into The Crimson Bolt's good graces and soon they are fighting crime again. So happy is she with her new life that late one night she slips into her yellow and green costume and roughly seduces Frank. An earlier love scene involving Wilson and Tyler is tender with Cheap Trick's 'If You Want My Love' soaring in the background; Page and Wilson's bizarre sex scene is rough and dirty, accompanied by bleating techno music. Page and Wilson's folie à deux made some viewers uncomfortable, but their gushy union was touching in its own way; Bolty loves The Crimson Bolt, especially when he's wearing his mask. 

The film was made quickly in Shreveport, Louisiana on a modest budget of $2.5-million during the winter months of 2009-2010. It has a crushing soundtrack, a great cartoon opening, and some great supporting players such as Michael Rooker as one of Bacon's henchmen. Gunn combines chilling animated sequences with a lazy urban feel of littered sidewalks and cheap diners. Page and Wilson worked together previously in Juno and have a great chemistry here. They should be the new Diane Keaton/Woody Allen team and star in several films together. So much of Super works; it deserved better than to fall between the cracks after a limited screen eight-week run.
Gunn managed to squeak out some thoughts on Super, which couldn't have been easy since most of the promoting he did took place at comic book conventions. He seemed apologetic in some interviews, as if he realized his film's loopy tone might be a challenge for viewers. In one Q&A he mentioned that Super was about a man trying to fulfill his relationship with God. Then the conversation turned to his favorite comics. That's the risk you run when relying on fanboys to support your movie. But what else can a director do when his two lead characters spend most of their screen time in hero costumes?

Gunn may make better, more mature films in the future, unless the mixed reception of Super  sends him back to a more obvious sort of action film. In trying to make this film about God and insanity and lost love, he tripped himself up by camouflaging it with super hero trappings. Maybe he thought the only way to tell his story was to sweeten it with comic book flavor. At some points in Super he seems to ratchet up the violence and gore, as if feeling he's lured his audience in under false pretense and has to give them something. But for every overwrought scene, there's one of subtly and beauty: the way Libby beams when she sees herself mentioned in a television newscast; The Crimson Bolt and Bolty hiding behind a dumpster, waiting for something to happen; the way Libby's eyes moisten when Frank rehires her.
Super ends with a bloody shootout, the death of some of our favorite characters, and then a long denouement about Tyler's character finding herself, helping other drug addicts, having her own family. Frank remains alone. Still, Frank D'Arbo feels he has done something good, rescuing his wife so she can now rescue others. "I've learned something very important," he says, just before the film cuts out. I've yet to figure out exactly what he has learned, but I think I know.

I will probably watch Super several more times. There is a story in there that I see, if no one else does. It's about people filling their lives with drugs, or religion, or sex, or fame, and still feeling empty, or else dying from what they feed on. Frank and Libby almost make it. I was rooting for them.

Thursday, May 16, 2013



A film featuring Paul McCartney and Wings
Review by Don L. Stradley

Paul McCartney in Rockshow
There is a moment in Rockshow, a concert film of the Wings Over The World tour of 1976, where Paul McCartney sits at a piano and tells the audience he is going to play a song that goes back a few years.

He hedges for a moment, and then, with the sneakiness of a pickpocket, begins hammering the familiar rolling cords of 'Lady Madonna,' a glorious Beatles hit from a decade earlier. The crowd knows it within two notes. Another Beatles gem follows: 'The Long and Winding Road.' Later in the show, when McCartney sits with an acoustic guitar and plays 'I've Just Seen a Face,' ' Blackbird,' and 'Yesterday,' the cameras pan over people in the audience: their eyes are misty; they are spellbound. A Beatle was actually playing some hits by The Beatles.

They may have been a '60s band, but anyone who grew up in the '70s will tell you The Beatles were still vital long after their breakup. Their music was played constantly on the radio, their movies were shown often on television, and there was enough Beatle literature in the bookstores to educate an army of junior high schoolers who weren't interested in Kiss or The Eagles. For many of us, they were still number one.

The Wings Over The World tour was a major undertaking, and a gamble, by McCartney. It was a chance to prove he was still, at 34, an important figure in the music world. His Beatle bandmates had gone into various degrees of seclusion by that year, but McCartney still craved a band situation. He'd made some strong albums with Wings, released some hit singles, and by the time of this tour, he was able to put on a two hour show that could compete with any rock act of the era.

The resulting live album, Wings Over America, was a massive three record set that was notable for its shear bulk, a surprise FM radio hit in 'Maybe I'm Amazed', and the fact that it featured a handful of Beatles tunes. The live album became a touchstone for late period Beatle fans, the ones who had missed the first round of Beatlemania. While they waited fruitlessly for a moptop reunion, they could be somewhat satisfied by McCartney singing 'Yesterday' on Wings Over America. That was something, anyway.

Of course, hardcore Beatle fans can always find something to gripe about, and McCartney was sometimes criticized for not playing enough of the old hits on this tour. He has played more Beatles tunes on his recent tours, almost at the exclusion of old Wings hits, which makes Rockshow all the more exciting; this is probably the most Wings music he ever performed live. McCartney was smart to limit the oldies in 1976. He was, after all, pushing Wings. Looking back, he was actually quite generous to include a few Beatle hits, and judging by the rapturous looks on the faces of fans as he crooned 'Yesterday', anything more might've resulted in a kind of mass meltdown.

The filmed account of the tour enjoyed a brief release in 1980 and '81, but has been painstakingly restored with a stunning new 5.1 mix courtesy of Abbey Road. McCartney allegedly was against releasing the film in years past - a shortened version had kicked around on tape during the '80s - but the new version is a treasure, documenting McCartney at the height of his powers and popularity. In a way, this tour was McCartney's equivalent of Elvis Presley's 1968 NBC comeback special. The triumph would be shortlived: in a few years McCartney would be out of favor, battling his image as the sappy Beatle. In '76, though, he competed in a turf war with Rod Stewart, Elton John, and The Stones; he whipped them all.

Rockshow was filmed at four locations, including the cavernous Seattle Kingdome. The band, featuring a classic Wings lineup of McCartney, his wife Linda, Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch, and Joe English, as well as a four piece horn section, was in top fighting form. The set list is phenomenal, including: 'Venus and Mars', 'Jet', 'Let Me Roll It', 'Live and Let Die', 'Bluebird', 'Beware My Love', the aforementioned Beatles tunes, plus McCartney's hits that were brand new at the time, such as 'Let 'Em In', 'What the Man Said', and McCartney's biggest hit that year, 'Silly Love Songs,' which gets the wildest fan reaction of the night.

What comes across in the film is that Wings was a great band, and McCartney was a veritable music machine, comfortable with rock & roll, blues shuffles, jazzy sounds, crooning, soul ballads, country and folk, beer chanteys, disco jive, and even a splash of reggae. Always a melodic and adventurous bassist, McCartney's playing here is brash and sinewy, anchoring the sound with even greater depth and confidence than he had with The Beatles. His voice, too, is impeccable here, as if months on the road had been the perfect stone on which to sharpen himself.

McCartney also took many opportunities to step back so others could sing. Laine is especially effective, offering soulful renditions of 'Go Now' and Paul Simon's 'Richard Cory'. Laine mugs and vamps throughout the show, a typically mad Brit rocker of the era, complete with ball-crushing tight pants and a razor blade necklace.
In fact, lovers of '70s kitsch will adore the look of Rockshow. There are strobe lights, smoke bombs and bubble machines, and enough shag haircuts and satin pants to make one yearn for the days of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and Midnight Special. McCartney wears a glittery black sweater and black bell bottoms, looking a bit like Jimmy Page in The Song Remains The Same, minus the serpents. Linda, with padded shoulders and an enormous shag haircut, looks like she stepped out from the cover of a Roxy Music album.

And how nice it is to see Linda McCartney again. Here, Linda seems relaxed, glad to be part of the show. In a brief intro to the film, McCartney talks about being "slagged" for bringing his wife on stage with him, and talks with pride at how she gradually became the band's cheerleader. Watching Rockshow, one sees that Linda was a trooper, singing before thousands of people every night. The 1976 tour was a triumph for her, too.

At the end of the film, after explosive versions of 'Band on the Run', 'Hi Hi Hi', and 'Solly', McCartney flashes a two-fingered peace symbol as he leaves the stage. Linda, always tending to business, flashes the Wings hand sign - thumbs together, fingers out, like a W. She was part of the band, man. She was also reminding us that her husband's other band was history, and this was a Wings show.

Monday, May 13, 2013


Author illuminates oddball moment in sixties cinema

Book By Tom Lisanti
Review By Don L. Stradley

The publicity machines nearly overheated that spring of 1965 when two films, both titled Harlow, went into production at the same time. Gossip columns literally vibrated with the war or words between producers Joseph E. Levine and Bill Sargent, each trying to sell the public on a bio pic of Hollywood legend Jean Harlow. 
The former helmed a big budget production from Paramount Pictures, the latter an independent quickie shot in a blistering eight days. The tale of how these films came to be, and how their respective producers nearly came to blows at the 1965 Academy Awards ceremony, is a riotous, exhausting comedy of errors, captured perfectly in Tom Lisanti's Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen.
 Although Mr. Lisanti gives much play to Carroll Baker and Carol Lynley, the two actresses hired to play Jean Harlow, the real stars of the book are Levine and Sargent. Levine, born in Boston and known as "The Boston Barnum," had an eye for what Mr. Lisanti calls "high gloss, cotton candy trash." He made his name by importing foreign films to America, including Godzilla, but by 1964 he was scoring with sexy potboilers such as The Carpetbaggers. Meanwhile, Sargent was a young upstart trying to foist a new method of filming ("Electronovision") onto the business. That both producers latched onto the Harlow story showed there wasn't much separating Levine and Sargent. They both sought something sexy, scandalous, and easy to sell.
Jean Harlow had been Hollywood's reigning blond bombshell during the 1930s. Her death at age 26 as well as a bizarre marriage to producer Paul Bern (that had ended in Bern's suicide), provided the beautiful Harlow with a dark, tragic legend. Various attempts had been made during the 1950s to give Harlow's life the big screen treatment. At one point Marylin Monroe was slated for the role in a 20th Century Fox production, but the project was quashed when her playwright hubby Arthur Miller talked her out of it. 
By 1964, the Harlow story was back in the news thanks to a sleazy new biography in the bookstalls, a disreputable mess written by Irving Shulman with help from Harlow's former agent, Arthur Landau. The book became a bestseller and launched a wave of Harlow mania. Along with Levine at Paramount and Sargent's indy production, Fox, MGM, and Columbia also announced plans for a Harlow film. Levine, sensing another cotton candy subject, bought the rights to the Shulman book, but distanced himself from it. The book was garbage and he knew it, but garbage had made him a rich man. Owning the book rights also established Levine as the front runner in the Harlow sweepstakes. The other studios backed down, but not Sargent.

Sargent had been experimenting with 'Electronovision,' a method of shooting that recorded a production on video before being transferred to film. That the end product looked like a splotchy 1950s television program was secondary; Sargent was selling Electronovision based on its sheer speed. As if to prove Electronovision was the technique of the future, Sargent plotted to get his own biopic of Harlow into cinemas before Levine's.

It was a David and Goliath story, with newcomer Sargent going up against the giant Levine, who had already won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille Award. But in this case, David wanted to be Goliath, as Sargent fancied himself Levine's equal as a promoter, and probably coveted Levine's status.

Sargent, although he didn't have Levine's resources, certainly had an ego to rival Levine's; he hired a blimp to fly over the 1965 Oscar ceremony advertising his Harlow, and hired rock bands to play at his film's premiere. Sargent, alternately described by associates as a genius and a bully, wasn't deterred by Levine's greater connections.  Levine, outraged that a young nobody would try to upstage him, planned to drown Sargent with money and hype.

Dueling Harlows takes readers briskly through the casting of each film, the problems with their underwritten and inaccurate screenplays, and the stress felt by Baker and Lynley. Both actresses were subjected to nasty criticism as soon as their casting was announced, and Mr. Lisanti is sensitive to what these women went through as they tried to portray the iconic Harlow.

Gordon Douglas and Alex Segal, the directors hired by Levine and Sargent, are portrayed as weary journeymen trying to get through an unpleasant ordeal. There are amusing tidbits involving showbiz veterans Judy Garland, Red Buttons, and Ginger Rogers, and Mr. Lisanti also interviews surviving cast and crew members from both films, although there is more representation from Sargent's team. The general feeling is of a family sadly recalling an unfortunate memory, but trying to move on. Mr. Lisanti includes a tragic moment at the wrap party of Sargent's Harlow which saw two union men get into a fight that ended with one of them dead from a punch in the throat.
But even with the excellent details and subplots offered by Mr. Lisanti, the bellicose Levine stands out. He belonged in the era of ballyhoo and pomp, back when movie stars were big and pictures were colossal. Levine's philosophy was simple: You could convince anyone that your picture was good if you spent enough money.  Levine's Harlow flopped, but he went on to produce some of the most notable films of the era, including The Graduate and The Lion in Winter. Levine's career had as many flops as hits, though. It ended in 1981 with Tattoo, a stinker from which even the mighty Levine couldn't recover. Still, it's hard to not admire a man who gave us both Carnal Knowledge and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

There is something bittersweet about Dueling Harlows. By 1965, Hollywood and the rest of America was at a flashpoint. Gaudy bio pics built on lavish hype and spending were about to be derailed by the changing shift in the culture. Easy Rider and Barbarella were coming. Producers like Levine were about to be replaced by Hollywood's next generation of young mavericks. Baker and Lynley, two lovely and talented actresses, would continue to work steadily but never live up to their initial promise. Baker later admitted that her legal battles with Levine in the movie's wake left her depressed and suicidal. And Sargent, although he would produce the classic Richard Pryor in Concert (1979), found himself cut off from the movie business. His gruff nature and habit of suing people turned him into a pariah.

Still, Mr. Lisanti argues that Sargent's Harlow was superior to Levine's film. The flubbed lines and grainy black and white footage couldn't conceal the feisty little movie that Sargent had produced. In a way, I was reminded of something Manny Farber, the great film critic of The New Republic and The Nation, once said while praising a B-movie from the 1940s:

"The Bs have generally a more convincing actuality than the expensive films," Farber wrote, "probably for the fact that they have less money to spend building sets and lighting them so they shine and sparkle, and designing costumes that almost walk by themselves.With less money and time to inject spurious entertainment angles into his film, the B director is more likely to spend his time making what he has real rather than classy."

This notion fits Bill Sargent's Harlow. It adds to the bittersweet nature of Mr. Lisanti's book.



Friday, May 3, 2013

REVIEW OF LOOPED: Stefanie Powers stars as iconic Bankhead

Play written by Matthew Lombardo
Review by Don L. Stradley

The national tour of Looped hit Boston this week for a six day run at the Cutler Majestic Theater. The tidy production, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is brisk and funny and does what it's supposed to do, more or less. Stefanie Powers has taken over the role of Tallulah Bankhead, a part made famous by Valerie Harper during the show’s 2010 Broadway run. Of course, some would say the role of Tallulah Bankhead was originally made famous by Tallulah Bankhead.

Looped takes place in 1965 when Bankhead allegedly spent an afternoon in a sound studio recording, or “looping,” a botched line of dialogue from Die! Die! My Darling!, a Gothic horror that would be her last movie. A drunk and stubborn Bankhead clashes with uptight sound editor Danny Miller (Brian Hutchinson), with Bankhead turning an easy day’s work into a few hours of sheer hell, complete with secret confessions, and a bunch of other things that rarely happen in real life but have a way of taking place on stage.

One would think that writing about Tallulah Bankhead would give a writer license to kill, but playwright Matthew Lombardo takes a softer route. Looped is one of those plays where rivals learn about each other and gradually become friends. Like Zorba the Greek, wild old Tallulah teaches timid Danny to let his hair down. “Take a trip,” she says during the play’s hoary denouement. “Take a drink. Do something. Be alive.” Such a predictable sentiment is disappointing, considering the play’s first act had been good, bawdy entertainment. Then again, this is the Bankhead of Lombardo’s fantasies, a kind of “Mother Tallulah” who absolves sexually confused men of their sins and tells them to live it up.

The casting of Powers is ironic, since Powers had actually been Bankhead’s co-star in Die! Die! My Darling! nearly 50 years ago. Powers, 68, does a passable impression of Bankhead. The only problem is that Powers looks marvelously fit at a time when Bankhead is supposed to be an alcoholic drug addict who has been diagnosed with only a few months to live. Powers seems more like a middle-aged party girl then a sickly old cokehead.

Still, Powers has fun with the role, and even when Lombardo’s script forces her into some heavy-handed reveries, Powers is game.

The best scene in the play is when Bankhead reminisces about her bungled performance as Blanche Dubois in a Florida production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She angrily recalls an audience of gay men at the Coconut Grove Theater laughing at her every line. It’s a remarkable moment, with Powers hinting at the disdain Bankhead may have felt for her camp followers.

A thought provoking play could have been written about a performer at odds with her audience, but judging by the laughter at the Majestic, Lombardo gave the crowd what it wanted: a night out with a vulgar old lady.

Etcetera – A bored Irish cop was stationed outside the theater. He couldn't hide his indifference as he was being instructed to guard the back entrance so Ms. Powers could make her escape after the show.

“What’s the big deal about her?” he asked. “Does she have some kind of cult following?”

He was told that Ms. Powers had been in the hit TV series Hart to Hart.

“When was that?” he said, “Thirty friggin’ years ago?”

Sometimes it takes a Boston cop to shed a little light on show business.