Friday, October 31, 2014


ANOTHER LOW BUDGET TRINKET FROM DIRECTOR FRED OLEN RAY: After Midnight boasts a few fun moments...
By Don Stradley

Just knowing that establishments like The Candy Cat still exist was enough to make After Midnight a fun experience. The Candy Cat is the sort of place I used to call a "daylight strip club," because men of my dad's generation would visit them on their lunch hour, sneak in a beer and a glimpse of female flesh before returning to their job. I vaguely recall trying to sneak into one when I was underage. I was there for only a few minutes before I was asked to leave, but I was there long enough to soak up the atmosphere. There were a couple of guys inside, and tanned dancer going through the motions on a tiny stage. I couldn't tell who was more bored, the dancer or the two guys. I also remember standing outside one of those places in Boston's old Combat Zone on a rainy Thursday night, because a buddy of mine was convinced a local dancer had a thing for him. He was wrong.

I don't know what happened to those places. Modern strip clubs seem like theme parks, and the performers leap around like characters in Cirque du Soleil. It's hard to imagine that at one time we schlubs in the audience could actually look the dancers in the eye and believe they were looking back. Sometimes you learned their names. The Candy Cat has the same vibe -- a juke box, a small stage, a few pool tables, and two or three guys at ringside. It's a real place, located in Chatsworth Ca., although I wouldn't have been surprised if director Fred Olen Ray built the place in his backyard. 

Ray is one of the oddball gems of American cinema.  He's been directing movies since the 1970s, and has over 130 features to his credit, including such gloriously dumb titles as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Bikini Frankenstein.   I met him once, very briefly, at a movie memorabilia show.  He seemed to be a nice guy, a fast talker, interested in collecting autographs and other ephemera.  I think it was shortly this convention that he switched from horror movies to late night cable porn. For a while Ray was a professional wrestler named "Fabulous" Freddie Valentine. He's worthy of a documentary, if there isn't one already.

After Midnight is one of Ray's lighter offerings, and I'm surprised Ray didn't call it The Strip Show Murders. It begins with an exotic dancer (Jeneta St. Clair) being shot to death in her car after a night of performing. Her sister (Catherine Annette) goes undercover and begins working at the Candy Cat to learn what happened.  There are many more murders, lots of stripping, and Annette's character is haunted by visions of St. Clair's ghost.  Ray throws in a few subplots too many, but this is part of his exuberance.  You either go with it or you don't. 

The movie has its flaws --  Annette gets hired as a stripper without so much as an audition, bullets tear through people without much blood (why so squeamish, Fred?) and most the dialog is nothing more than strippers yelling at each other, "I ought to kill you, bitch!" It reminded me of old 1960s exploitation flicks, which were often shot in strip joints, allowing directors to pad out their flimsy scripts with endless footage of the dancers. Ray has obviously seen a lot of those flicks, because we get at least five entire strip numbers.

But After Midnight does have a fresh feel to it, and at a feisty 86 minutes it never drags.  The cast even includes a pair of 1980s warhorses, Tawny Kitaen and Richard Grieco. Grieco seems a bit out of his element as a psychiatrist, but Kitaen's presence is still welcome in any movie.  It's Annette, though, who makes the movie click.   I like the way she finds her inner stripper, and she handles a gun like a pro. 

You could give Fred Olen Ray the budget of a typical Marvel Comics movie and he would probably make 30 movies.  He'd make them about dinosaurs and strippers and invisible dogs and at least half of them would have "bikini" in the title.  Some of them would be entertaining.  Most would be uneven. All of them would be the work of a man who has carved a unique niche for himself, partly because his artistic vision is vast enough to include places like the Candy Cat.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


REBOOT OF 1970s CULT FILM IS A NEAR MASTERPIECE: Weak ending mars otherwise fine effort from Texas filmmaker...
By Don Stradley

Serial killers must love Texarkana. As we see in the new version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the streets are always empty, and there's plenty of land between homes. Not only do your screams go unheard, but it takes a while to find your body after it's been dumped in the weeds.

This vast emptiness is what made the original 1976 version by Charles Pierce so haunting, and is used to eerie perfection in the new version by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a television director best known for his work on 'American Horror Story' and 'Glee'. This is Rejon's first feature, and to his credit he's handed us a movie that is miles above the average run-of-the-mill slasher movie.

The story begins with Texarkana's annual showing of the 1976 film, which was a creepy retelling of an allegedly true series of unsolved murders that had happened in the 1940s. The original movie featured a killer with a cloth sack over his head, with nothing but holes cut out for eyes and a sadistic side that would have impressed the Zodiac killer. As the old flick plays at a rundown drive-in theater, a young couple drives off to a secluded spot in the woods to get better acquainted. In short order, a new hooded killer emerges from the darkness and kills the boy, while the girl manages to run away. The "Phantom", as the killer was once known, seems to be back in Texarkana, nearly 70 years after his first bloody strike.

The movie's first hour or so is breathtaking.  Rejon and cinematographer Michael Goi create an atmosphere that recalls not only the original movie, but many 1970s horror films, most notably the dank, swampy aura of dreck like I Spit On Your Grave.  Goi's camera also swoops in and out and around the scenery, creating a surreal fishbowl effect.  Rejon creates some of the best murder tableaux in recent memory, particularly when the new Phantom stalks a victim through a wheat field, and butchers her in front of a solitary scarecrow. This scene, with its mix of sadism against a bucolic background, is what a '70s splatter flick would be like had it been directed by Terrence Malick.

With the murders starting again, the movie takes on a "who done it" tone, with the girl who survived the first attack (Addison Timlin) researching the original murders.  The plot thickens, but I'll end my description right here, to preserve the movie's many secrets.

The Town The Dreaded Sundown is almost worth seeing just for an excellent supporting cast of character actors, which includes Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Dennis O'Hare, and Veronica Cartwright.  The late Ed Lauter, who passed away just after the production had wrapped, was one of Hollywood's most reliable hands for many years, and is on hand here as a sheriff. These old pros are so great to watch in comparison to some of the movie's younger performers, who leave no lasting impression. 

As for the Phantom, Rejon errs by having him talk too much, hissing cryptically from inside his sack mask. In the original, the Phantom remained silent, which made him scarier and more otherworldly, a sort of predecessor to Halloween's Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason. Still, the new fellow is threatening enough, the sort who will cut off your head and throw it through a window to make a point.

Rejon also errs with a pat ending that will leave the majority of viewers disappointed.  Rejon, you see, is determined to put a face and a reason behind the killings, as if providing a half-assed sense of closure is better than the feeling despair that made the original so memorable. This was a misstep, and it comes close to ruining a perfectly lovely film about a mass murderer.

Monday, October 27, 2014


'Tis the season to be scary
The found footage gimmick will not die, but two seasonal offers provide minor thrills

by Don Stradley

There is so much to like about The Houses October Built that I dread describing it as a painfully slight  idea stretched out into a feature length movie, or as just another found footage tale with a grim ending.
Yet, there have been few horror movies in recent years that have been so watchable.

The story concerns a group of five friends who spend the week before Halloween touring the best haunted house attractions in the South.  They are looking for the most extreme experience possible, but after indulging an endless parade of people in  clown masks and backyard zombie makeup, they are on the verge of giving up hope. Then, in a smart twist, sinister characters from the various haunted houses crop up along their journey. They're on the roadsides, lurking in the woods, even breaking into their van and tampering with their camera. This, in itself,  is a pretty good idea.  Are there supernatural beings lurking at some of these attractions? If you play at being evil long enough, will that attract some genuine evil entities? 

There's also  a tense undercurrent that touches on classism, as the group's search for real "back-country" danger begins to grate on the nerves of the haunted house workers they meet.  I was set for a Deliverance type of situation, where these five effete characters find themselves in a no-man's land with dire results. While that's sort of what happens, it doesn't quite hit with the force promised by the movie's first two acts.  Instead, the Edgar Allen Poe-like climax feels like a sophomoric grab at fatalism.
Director Bobby Roe (who also acts in the movie) does a commendable job with some thin material.  He wrote the screenplay with Zack Andrews (another actor) and Jason Zada. There's a feeling that none of these guys are actually writers, but just buddies who sat around one Friday night with a six pack of Lone Star saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if this happened?" Still, Roe shows some strong directing chops. Part of the movie's power derives from the use of actual haunted house attractions, the employees of which seem not far removed from carny workers. Unfortunately, by the fifth time you've seen some jerk in a clown mask standing in the shadows, you've had enough.  Kudos to the little girl in the antique doll costume, and the person in the bunny suit swinging the axe; they were unique and should have been in more scenes.
Give some credit to writer/director Eduardo Sanchez for trying to make Bigfoot scary againThe big critter is the star of Exists,  a mildly interesting 'found footage' horror movie about five young people from Texas on a country getaway. As they ride through the backwoods to find an abandoned hideaway where they plan to do some partying, they accidentally hit an animal with their vehicle. The creature, whatever it is, seems to limp into the woods before any of them can get a look at it, though it leaves a nice chunk of fur on the front fender.  It's not long before the five friends are being stalked and terrorized by what they believe is a genuine Sasquatch. 

Sanchez was one of the creative forces behind The Blair Witch Project (1999), and he uses some of the same techniques here that made that earlier movie so thrilling.  Unfortunately, what felt new back then feels rather old hat by now. There are many scenes shot through what feels like night vision glasses, a lot of choppy editing, and since everyone in the movie seems to own a camera, we get the standard found footage gimmicks, namely scenes where people are running and breathing heavily. It's tempting to give Sanchez a pass because he was there at the beginning of the found footage phenomenon, but the gimmick is deader than a doornail and he does nothing now that he didn't do 15 years ago.
The cast of Exists isn't given much to do besides call each other 'Bro,' and hide in the cabin and wait for Bigfoot to kill them.  Roger Edwards, a 34-year-old black actor from Oakland, is perhaps the most annoying. He's probably the sort of actor who looks back at Steppin Fetchit and winces at the indignity of the stereotype, but doesn't realize that when he stands on the roof of the cabin and bellows at Bigfoot, "Hey, muthuhfuckuh, where you at?" he's nothing more than a modern stereotype that, with luck, will someday be scorned as well. 
The one saving grace of the movie could be Bigfoot himself, played by Brian Steele, an unknown actor who has made a career out of playing various creatures since the 1990s, including a stint on the old 'Harry and The Hendersons' TV show where he played a friendlier version of Bigfoot. He's ferocious here, and because the cast is so drab, we end up rooting for him to gut them all.  I also loved the sounds of Bigfoot howling in the forest. It was not only creepy and melancholy, but it was the best dialog in the entire movie.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


With her cartoonishly large eyes and husky voice, Emma Stone would've been a big star in the 1930s. It's easy to imagine her in screwball comedies, or even a haunted house comedy with Bob Hope. She just has a certain something. Even in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, a movie featuring some of the most breathtaking images of the French countryside ever caught by a cinematographer, she manages to stand out. If only she'd been given someone who could match her in terms of charisma and star quality. Instead, she's saddled with drab Colin Firth. She deserves a Cary Grant.

Stone plays an American psychic working in Paris during the late 1920s. Firth is the famous magician hired to debunk her. He's a cynic and realist, but when her paranormal gift seems legitimate, he not only forsakes all of his previous philosophies, he falls in love with her. But since this is a Woody Allen movie, she's also being wooed by a rich dummy with a ukulele (Hamish Linklater). You probably know how it all comes out without even seeing it.

The story is wafer thin, but Magic in the Moonlight may go down as Allen's most visually stunning work. From the opening scene, set on a stage where Firth, dressed as a Chinese illusionist, works with an elephant, we're hit with one glorious image after another. There's the aforementioned French countryside, plus a lot of elegant party scenes, and a stunning scene where Firth's car breaks down on a hill just as a rainstorm begins. In a scene that echoes the rain scene in Manhattan, Firth and Stone run into an observatory where they see the sky above them, the stars like pearls. Cinematographer Darius Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination, as do Anne Seibel for her production design and Jille Azis for set decoration.

Now, if we can just find Emma Stone an appropriate leading man, we'll be onto something. In the meantime, Magic in the Moonlight will serve as a visually sumptuous placeholder until Allen's next great one.

Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden are at it again in The Trip To Italy, a colorful follow-up to their art-house  sleeper hit of a few years ago, The Trip.  Unfortunately, now that we know what to expect, the gag isn't quite as amusing.  Just like the first movie, they bicker, they eat, they travel, they do impressions.  But it's like hearing a joke twice - you just won't laugh as much the second time.

There are a few inspired moments that rival the first film, such as an opening salvo where they riff on Batman, and their impressions of Michael Cain are still remarkably funny.  And to their credit, they try to shake thigns up a bit by appearing to switch roles - this time Brydon is more of a rascal, cheating on his wife and trying to reclaim his sense of fun, while Coogan is more dour this time, dealing with family business and trying to connect with his teenage son.  It's not bad, I guess.  And if there's a third chapter, I'll probably watch it and enjoy it. In The Trip to Italy, Brydon finds himself cast in an American movie, so that leaves a door open for the next one to take place in the USA. Why not?

It's hard to relate to Shep Gordon. He has lived a life  that seems touched by the gods. During the late 1960s he quit a job, moved to LA, and wound up staying at the same hotel as Jimi Hendrix and bunch of other budding rock stars. Hendrix said, "Are you Jewish? You should be a manager." And that was that. As we learn in Mike Myers' Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, he went on to manage Alice Cooper, and dozens of other acts. Of course, Gordon worked hard to get his clients to the top, and the best part of the documentary is watching him guide Cooper, through trial and error, into one the top arena rock acts of the 1970s. 

 I don't doubt Shep Gordon is, as more than one person says here, the nicest guy in the world. But I also wonder if Gordon is somewhat of an empty shell. "I don't know if I have emotions," he says at one point, "But I have resources."

There's an interesting moment from 1975 or so when Gordon asks Alice, John Lennon, Mickey Dolenz, and Harry Nillson to pose for a photo with his new client, Ann Murray. "I'll do anything for ya," Gordon says. They agree, and the photo went on to bring Murray lots of attention. But did those reprobates ever cash in on Gordon's promise? And what, could he have possibly done for those guys? I can only wonder...

Friday, October 17, 2014

THE FAN...Not Bacall's Worst?

The Fan is usually dismissed as one of the rare misfires in Lauren Bacall's career. Considering the care she took in choosing roles, many have wondered how this seedy 1981 stalker pic found its way to Bacall's resume in the first place. 

Most of the reviews were deadly. Even Bacall, who was usually hailed at this time as Hollywood royalty, wasn't untouchable. David Elliot of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it was “painful” to watch Bacall and co-star James Garner “act in trash.” Helen Hayes, dabbling in movie criticism, said watching The Fan was like putting on "a new pair of shoes and stepping in manure." The film was even nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Original Song.

Bacall was so disappointed in The Fan that she made no attempt to promote the film. In the years to come, Bacall wouldn’t even mention The Fan in her memoirs. 

 It didn't start out as a stinker. Bob Randall's novel of the same name had been a critically acclaimed little thriller. Randall was an interesting person. He'd already enjoyed some success as playwright and TV writer, usually in the Neil Simon, lightweight romantic comedy vein, but he dabbled on the side as an author of pulpy suspense novels. Randall's background in the theater allowed him to fill his story of Broadway star Sally Ross and her most possessive fan with telling details and realistic flavor. The novel, written as a series of letters between deadly admirer and star, became a hot property. It was picked up by Filmways Pictures, a television powerhouse that had also been successful with movies.

 Producing chores were taken on by Robert Stigwood, who was still revered in the business for helming such monster hits as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Stigwood was the Babe Ruth of producers, either hitting gargantuan home runs, or swinging and missing by a mile. In fact, he was still smarting from a couple of major box office disasters (Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Moment by Moment). Obviously, Stigwood wouldn't have taken on The Fan if he didn't think it could be a whopper of a hit. 

Edward Bianchi, a director from the world of television commercials (having won awards for his work for Eastern Airlines and Dr. Pepper), was brought in to direct. Stigwood also included a trio of executive producers - Kevin McCormick, John Nicolella, and Bill Oakes - from his previous productions, as well as ace cinematographer Dick Bush, who had done everything from gory Dracula movies to the psychedelic visuals of Stigwood's Tommy. For production design, Tony Award winner Santo Loquasto was hired. He'd go on to be one of the top designers of the 1980s, working almost exclusively for Woody Allen, and also on Broadway. With a nod to the Broadway aspect of the material, songwriters Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice were hired to contribute two songs.

 For the cast, Stigwood was thinking big. At one time The Fan was being considered as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, although she was grossly overweight in those days and wasn't likely to convince anyone she could dance in a musical. Bacall, well into her fifties but still lithe, was a better fit as Sally Ross. Not only was Bacall a beloved figure from Hollywood's golden era, but she had starred on Broadway many times and could bring a busload of credibility to the character. In the little bit of press Bacall did for the movie, she said The Fan was about "how a life can change, and how the life of everyone around a star can change, because of the constant pursuit of a fan."

 Playing Bacall's ex-husband would be TV favorite James Garner. Stage and screen veteran Maureen Stapleton was cast as Bacall's mouthy assistant. Michael Biehn, a handsome 24-year-old at the beginning of his career, was cast as Douglas Breen, the stalker. Stigwood had known Biehn since seeing him in a small role in Grease. Biehn practiced for the role of Breen by writing imaginary letters to actress Marlo Thomas, an idol from his childhood. 

Things were looking good, but two events nearly derailed the picture. First, Filmways was on the verge of bankruptcy. Throughout the 1970s, Filmways had spent money purchasing book publishers and film companies, including American International Pictures. Now, Filmways was in the middle of a financial collapse.

Two, a real life incident sent a shock wave through the entertainment business. It happened in Dec. 1980, when a crazed fan waited outside John Lennon's New York apartment, asked him for an autograph, and then, later in the evening, shot him in the back five times. Though The Fan had been completed many months before the Lennon murder, there was a perception that the movie was a gaudy exploitation of a tragic real event. 

Adding to the irony was that Bacall happened to live in the Dakota, the same building where Lennon had lived. Bacall was particularly angered that critic Rex Reed, who also lived in the building, publicly identified her as one of the many celebrity tenants. "The ghouls are outside nonstop with their goddamn cameras," Bacall said.

Enter Paramount. 

Paramount picked the film up from Filmways, which was going Chapter XI, and promptly created an ad campaign to deny that The Fan was cashing in on Lennon's murder. Bacall hated Paramount’s pious disclaimer. 

“I think it’s disgusting, revolting, and exploitive,” Bacall said. “Obviously, whoever decided to do it thought it would help the movie, I think it will hurt it.”

Bacall also complained about the violence in The Fan, and claimed that the original script she'd read was not nearly as bloody. According to some sources, the bloodshed was added in post-production to capitalize on the recent success of another Filmways title, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill

Paramount did very little to promote the film. Everyone, it seemed, was afraid of the Lennon question.

The movie itself has been casually disregarded over the years, somewhat unfairly. It's not the travesty some would have you believe. It's merely an average movie. It's not great. But it's not horrible, either. It's somewhere in the middle, like most movies.

 It starts with promise. The opening shots of Breen in his room, as the camera pans the pictures of Bacall/Ross on his wall, are rather artful and unsettling. Breen is a loner, a handsome man with the soul of a psychotic nerd. He works a dreary job in a record store, is estranged from his family, and there is the suggestion that he's mentally disturbed. He devotes all of his free time to the admiration of Sally Ross, his favorite actress. He writes her constantly, seeking autographed pictures. 

Sally, meanwhile, is a busy actress, preparing for a Broadway opening. She doesn't have time for her fanmail so her secretary handles all of her correspondence. This leads to some snippy written exchanges between the secretary (Stapleton) and Breen. Sally and her secretary disregard Breen as a typical overzealous fan, but he wants satisfaction -- he wants Sally to fire her secretary. When this doesn't happen, he attacks Stapleton on the street and slashes at her face with a razor. Then he warns Sally that she could be next. His letters to her grow more threatening, to the point where Sally is soon accompanied by armed detectives, and then flees to an old beach house where she hopes to find some anonymity and perhaps a reconciliation with her ex-husband. 

Breen is a smart fellow, though. He fakes his own death, which lures Sally back to New York where she can appear in the Broadway show. Little does she know that Breen's in the audience, ready to pounce on her when the show ends. The movie's climax has Breen stalking Sally through the empty theater. Rather than succumb to him, Sally calls his bluff. She mocks him, and then overpowers him, taking his razor away and stabbing him in the neck. She calmly exits the theater, while Breen's body occupies a second row seat, his life draining out of him.

 More irony: the ending of the book, which was changed for the movie, actually bore a small resemblance to the Lennon murder. In the book, the annoyed Breen attends one of Sally Ross' stage performances and actually shoots and kills her from the audience. Perhaps this seemed too much of a downer - you couldn't exactly have the star, especially a star like Bacall, killed that way. Besides, Robert Altman had ended a movie that way a few years earlier with Nashville. So things were flipped in the screenplay and Sally Ross was allowed to live, while Breen bleeds to death on the theater's carpeted floor. 

Although The Fan is remembered as a bomb, the movie wasn’t universally panned. In fact, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that Sally Ross was “the most fully drawn, the most engaging, and the sexiest character that Bacall has played on the screen since her early great days with Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hawks 35 years ago.” Bacall would tell People magazine that Canby's review made her giggle like a schoolgirl. "I've never had such a good review for a film," she said. "I think I'll run away with Vincent Canby."

Canby was less thrilled with Bianchi's direction, and described his use of close-ups as nothing more than "an infuriating lack of confidence in himself and the audience."

Bianchi would not direct another film for more than a decade, but would go on to have a respectable career directing such television shows as "Boardwalk Empire", "The Wire", and many others. His work in The Fan, especially the early scenes, is better than average. I think he was trying to make an artsy potboiler, while the studio wanted another bloody slasher pic. The result was uneven, but not entirely without merit. 

Though many gay groups were offended by a scene where Breen casually killed and set fire to a gay man he picks up in a bar, Biehn is actually quite good as the stalking fan. Without overdoing it, he's able to suggest the inner hate and frustration that is boiling over in Breen. 

Bacall, as Sally, does a lot with a little. The role isn't much, and the musical numbers she has to perform border on the grotesque - was Broadway ever this ridiculous? - but there's a vulnerability in her performance. At times she's bubbly, still as attractive as ever, but in other scenes, her face sinks until she looks far older, as if the pressures of fame and a stalker had sapped the life from her. It's a remarkable transformation by a gallant old star trying to make the best of a middling movie. 

Where the film loses traction is during the climax. We're expected to believe a big star like Sally Ross would be all alone in an empty theater. It's also silly to see Breen thrashing her with some sort of whip. Bacall falls to the ground and backs away, cowering. Bacall was a very fine actress, but wasn't convincing as a frightened woman. Watching it recently, I was almost embarrassed for her.


Bacall stayed away from movies for many years after The Fan. She focused on stage work, and no one can blame her.  The Fan didn't sour her completely, though, for she returned to movies in the late 1980s and worked regularly until her death in 2014.  She appeared in everything from independent productions to major releases, and worked with directors ranging from Robert Altman to Rob Reiner. She even earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).  She survived The Fan, as did Biehn, who went on to enjoy a solid career.

Was The Fan destined to fail?  Stigwood, after all, was in the middle of a losing streak.  He didn't help his cause by hiring a pair of novice screenwriters, Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell, to adapt the novel into a movie. Though they can't be blamed for the movie's failure, they'd never be heard from again once The Fan hit the fan.  The movie also stumbled because audiences for slasher movies are generally quite young, and the the female victims tend to be young and scantily clad.  The kids buying tickets during those early months of 1981 probably didn't give a damn about Broadway stars, Lauren Bacall, or Maureen Stapleton.  In that regard, Stigwood failed to understand the demands of the genre. 

Could The Fan have been better served by sticking to the book's ending, with Breen shooting Sally Ross in the middle of a performance? Maybe not. We can't have the bad guys win in the movies, though they often do in real life.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

New Doc. I AM ALI...


By Don Stradley

I used to have a recurring dream about Muhammad Ali. In the dream, he'd come out of retirement to box again at age 50 or 60. Apparently, some scientist had invented a drug that would cure his Parkinson's Syndrome for an hour or so, just enough time for him to get in the ring and win a close decision over some non-descript fighter. He'd win, but as he was being lead out of the ring, the miracle drug would begin to wear off, and he'd return to his sickly self. It was a strange dream, eerie but uplifting. I must have had it five or six times. Maybe more. Such was my fascination with Ali.

I was lucky enough to write for The Ring magazine during the 2000s, when it was still under the leadership of Nigel Collins. During those years I learned to stop thinking of fighters as iconic figures and to see them in more realistic terms. As one famous trainer once told me on the sly, "Fighters aren't heroic. They just do what they're trained to do, like race horses." I knew what he meant. I once saw a fighter spit out a mouthful of blood the size of a ping pong ball in the middle of the ring. He didn't seem too concerned, any more than an animal would be concerned. Boxing, it turned out, was not just a show to watch on television. It was brutal. I met some nice people in the sport, but in equal numbers there were people you wouldn't want to sit next to on the subway.

When I heard about I Am Ali, a new documentary by Clare Lewins, I was skeptical. Though my eyes were opened to the vulgarity of the business, I retained a bit of my interest in Ali, and a good doc on "The Greatest" might be entertaining. One could probably take a random collection of Ali clips, throw them in a hat, pluck them out and link them together in absolutely no order, and it would still be an amusing 90 minutes. Still, there'd been so many documentaries and movies about this man, including the excellent When We Were Kings, and the not so excellent Michael Mann biopic starring Will Smith, that I wondered what more could be said. I felt that so many cameras had been trained on Ali since the 1960s that the life had been drained from his story, and that the farther removed we are by time, the less weight his story carries. 

Lewins' unhurried, almost sleepy movie is a mixed bag. She's a BBC filmmaker, and has previously directed films about Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, and Steve McQueen. She approaches Ali as another larger than life icon. She's not particularly interested in boxing, and I Am Ali features only a smattering of boxing clips. The legendary moments - fighting while half blind in the fifth round against Sonny Liston, the torn glove against Henry Cooper, the broken jaw battle with Ken Norton - are not mentioned. Maybe that's just as well, because we've heard those tales. She has other things in mind, namely, a look into Ali's family life.

Ali's ex-wife Veronica, his brother Rachman, and some of Ali's nine children, all appear in the movie.  They offer some mildly amusing anecdotes, and we get the message: Ali was a nice guy, a big-hearted teddy bear, a practical joker, with lots of love to give. The best part of the movie is a series of tape recorded conversations between Ali and his children when they were very young. There's a sweetness in these conversations, and you get the impression that Ali loved his children and was vastly entertained by their comments. But there's also an uncomfortable aspect to them - Ali claimed to record everything for historical purposes, but I also wonder if it because he was a largely absentee father. These recordings may have been a kind of stand-in for him. 

His children grew up to be very nice, charming people. There's a suggestion in the movie that the spotlight was so harsh on their dad that they all went out of their way to stay out of it, pursuing lives far under the radar. One taped conversation involves one of his daughters saying that kids pick on her at school because of her famous father. Ali sounds genuinely sad when he hears of this. Ali's son, Muhammad Jr, is in the movie, and he can barely contain his disgust at remembering how other boys wanted to fight him. It wasn't easy to have a father as famous as Ali, and while the children tell stories of visiting him at his training camp and having fun, there's a sense that Ali was never entirely there for them, and that this created a small psychic wound that has never completely healed. Ali belonged not his family, but to the world. Even his brother, Rachman, refers to Ali as "Ali," as if talking about a distant celebrity. 

The irony is that once Ali's boxing career ended, he was taken from his family again, this time by his illness. I've always found it sad that Ali didn't get to experience middle age. He went from being a relatively young man of 40 to being an old, unhealthy man, and has remained in that sickly limbo for 30 years. I Am Ali doesn't get too maudlin about Ali's health. Instead, the movie seems to wind down in a series of clich├ęs, with Ali's family and friends saying that he was one of a kind, that he loved everybody, and there'd never be another like him. The movie's end borders on being sickly-sweet, which is a shame.

I almost met Ali a few years back. I was in Madison Square Garden, sitting in the press row. Ali's daughter Laila, whose own boxing career was akin to Lisa Marie Presley's singing career, was fighting on the undercard against some opponent I couldn't recall if you put a gun to my head. Ali was ushered into the arena almost secretly, and plopped down into a third row seat. A slight round of respectful applause filled the Garden, sounding like gentle rain. I was close enough to go over and say something, but he looked tired. He actually fell asleep during Laila's fight. When it ended, he was ushered out again, like tired old royalty.

I guess that's why documentaries about Ali, even a leisurely one like I Am Ali, are still useful. They remind us that there was once a man capable of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, and was so famous that he even appeared in our dreams. 

Monday, October 6, 2014


A Good Marriage tells the tale of Bob and Darcy Anderson (Anthony LaPaglia and Joan Allen), a nice New Hampshire couple where the husband has a not so nice secret life. The Andersons seem so ordinary, even dull. Bob's an accountant who collects rare pennies. Darcy is the wife of an accountant who collects rare pennies.

The couple has an easy familiarity with each other. Life is good. Their biggest concern is their daughter's upcoming wedding. True, Bob is often away on business trips - he's the ace accountant of his company so he's often sent out on assignments - but Bob and Darcy have one of those comfortable relationships where a few days apart is fine.

They seem to enjoy a nice arrangement in the bedroom, too. He calls her his "bad girl," she calls him "her naughty boy." They probably don't have sex often, but things are sufficiently saucy. Their quiet existence comes to an end one day when Darcy is nosing around in the garage and finds the IDs of 12 local women who have been murdered by a serial killer. Why does Bob have them?

She's heard about a killer terrorizing the area, a monster known as "Beadie," who tortures his victims. None of this is shown, it's merely alluded to on news reports. She also finds bondage magazines in hubby's hideout, and recalls that Beadie ties his victims up before he rapes and kills them. It seems her husband is not just a killer, but someone who enjoys the pain and suffering of others.

So here's what she does. She cries. When Bob returns from his latest road trip, as Ricky Ricardo used to say, he'll have a lot of 'splainin' to do.

The problem is that Bob is perfectly willing to explain himself. Rather than deny his crimes, he sadly confesses about his sideline as the Ted Bundy of the New Hampshire suburbs. He tells her how he'd always wanted kill a woman, ever since a pair of snooty girls turned him and his buddy down for a date back in high school. So he tried it. And liked it. He confesses casually, like someone describing their first cigarette. She looks at him with unbelieving eyes as he tells his story, and then she goes to sleep. We begin to realize that the movie is going to be slightly different than what we'd imagined it would be.

She has nightmares, as we knew she would. He wants forgiveness, and a chance to keep the marriage intact. They try to keep things together, maybe for the sake of the children. In a way, they act as if he's simply had an affair and they're trying to sweep it under the rug and forget about it. He walks around with a hangdog expression, like a husband caught doing something naughty. Naughty, indeed. But can he really stop killing women, now that he's had a taste?

A Good Marriage is a lightweight movie, held together by a simple question: Can they stay together after Bob admits he's a murderer of several women? Yet, even though it feels simple, and even a bit lifeless as some critics have pointed out, it worked pretty well for me. Director Peter Askin creates a mild sense of suspense here, not of the Hitchcock kind, but of a more contemporary, made-for-TV variety. "This isn't like one of those movies where the crazy husband chases the wife around the house," Bob says at one point. He's perhaps referencing The Shining, but he could also be talking about one of those clunkers on the Lifetime network.

The movie was written by Stephen King based on one of his shorter pieces, and while it's not up to his best work, there are some familiar King tropes on display, namely the husband who has done something bad. The fact that the only violence we see for most of the movie is when Darcy has her TV on to a violent movie, and a character is torturing a woman. The torture of females, King seems to be telling us, has become just another form of entertainment. But what does it mean when it all comes home, and your penny collecting hubby is as bad as the psychopaths on the telly?

A lot of the credit goes to Allen and LaPaglia, who do seem like a suburban married couple. I really did feel that they care for each other. LaPaglia is particularly good, showing just the right amount of menace mixed in with pathos. I believed he wanted to keep his marriage going. I also believed he could choke somebody.

I remember seeing Joan Allen many years ago in an off-Broadway show opposite John Malkovich. I always felt they would both become big stars. They've done well, but frankly, I've always felt they were too good, and too unique, for Hollywood. It was good to see Allen here, showing a lot of heart and intelligence. Some critics have said she is too cold in this movie, but I think she was playing a character who had no choice but to shut herself off. After all, she's sleeping with a serial killer.

There's a third act involving an old retired cop who suspects Bob is the killer, but that part of the movie feels tacked on. King has always had a weakness for burned out authority figures, old cops and the like. But while this part of the movie doesn't amount to much, it doesn't hurt, either.

There could be an excellent movie made about a serial killer who is actually a loving family man. It so happens that many of them are. They aren't all living alone in cabins. Some, like Bob Anderson, are reasonably normal men. Yes, an excellent movie could be made. A Good Marriage may not be that movie, but it will do for now. It's thought provoking, well acted, and is better than fifty percent of the movies I've seen this year.

It's because of Allen and LaPaglia, actors who can rise above middling material.

A Good Marriage isn't perfect, but there's not a moment when Bob and Darcy stop being real, and believable.