Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Two fascinating pre-code horrors from the Warner Archives;  Karloff is great, and Myrna Loy nearly matches him for sheer creepiness…

By Don Stradley

Boris Karloff was only a year past his career-making performance in Frankenstein when he starred in The Mask of Fu Manchu.  He was at a crossroads, still appearing in enough character parts that he was not yet typed as a full-fledged bogeyman. Yet, the fact that Karloff was willing to endure a grueling two hour makeup session with the dutiful Cecil Holland suggests he was more than willing to play bad guys, the more monstrous the better.   Karloff often said that  anyone could've played his roles, but there's a scene in The Mask of Fu Manchu where he messes around with a Tesla coil, sending jolts of electricity flying through the air like a mad conductor playing a Theremin; the man may have been humble, but he had scariness in his DNA.

Director Charles Brabin was a 50-year-old journeyman who'd been writing and directing movies since making The Awakening of John Bond for the Edison Company in 1911. He’d adapted to the new era of sound films, and had been working exclusively for MGM since 1928. When he got the call that Charles Vidor had been fired from the Fu Manchu set after only a few days of filming, he walked onto a beautifully designed set, with art direction by veteran Cedric Gibbons, and costumes by Adrian Adolph Greenburg, known as 'Adrian.'   The movie received much advanced publicity from the MGM propaganda team, heralding how the designers actually spent several days scouring Chinatown for ideas. The result is a handsome movie that, if possible, could be described as kitsch pushed to almost majestic levels.

The story pits the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, a diabolical Chinese maniac who is plotting the demise of the white race, against his rival, Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service, in a hunt for relics belonging to Genghis Kahn. Apparently, Smith’s big fear is that the doctor will wear the burial mask of Kahn and convince his followers, who must be incredibly stupid, that he's the reincarnation of the great Mongol emperor. The film moves along like a typical early 1930s potboiler, and there are plenty of snakes, crocodiles, spiders, sadistic torture devices, and one nasty looking sword. There's also a smattering of homoerotic imagery, and enough race baiting to send any modern liberal to the showers for a quick cleansing. Karloff stomps around in platform shoes, makes dramatic proclamations in pigeon Chinese, and is valiant in his effort to lift this feature above its station. He almost succeeds.

 Reviews were inconsistent. One Kansas critic dismissed the film as "hokum of the old, careless variety," while a Maryland reviewer called it "the super thriller of the season." A Madison Wisconsin headline roared, "Karloff is awesome!" while a writer for the Los Angeles Record made a point of noting, "the audience did nothing but laugh."  More than eighty years later, all of these observations still hold, for you are likely to laugh, and yes, Karloff is awesome.  Karloff would finish out the decade playing various monsters, including two more turns as the Frankenstein beast. Brabin would retire soon, living out of the limelight with his wife, Theda Bara. As for Dr. Fu Manchu, he'd linger on. It's hard to get rid of an arch villain.

 Incidentally, when The Mask of Fu Manchu first played at New York's Capitol theater in Dec. 1932, there was an accompanying stage show featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, a quartet called 'The Radio Rubes', and several dance teams working to the sounds of the Abe Lymon orchestra. The NY Times described the stage show as "satisfying variety entertainment," but lamented that the movie, at 67 minutes, felt long. Dracula and Frankenstein had hit screens only a year earlier, but some were already weary of the spooky genre, such as the Times writer who noted, "And still, the cinema goes busily about its task of terrorizing the children." 

But is a movie where Fu Manchu says, "Kill the white men and take their women!" really made for kiddies?

A 27-year-old Myrna Loy was strangely cast as Fu Manchu's hot-blooded daughter, gyrating oddly as she watched her daddy torture one of his victims.  It’s weird stuff, but more people saw Loy slinking around in ersatz Oriental finery than in her previous movie of 1932, a solid little thriller from RKO called Thirteen Women. She played the mysterious Ursula Georgi, a bitter half Hindu hatching a revenge plot against the snotty sorority girls who had once kept her out of their club.  Using their love of astrology against them, Ursula joins Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), a fake astrologer, and writes twelve letters predicting tragedy for each of her old school friends.  Mere mental suggestion does the trick with some of them, but Ursula is willing to get physical when the task calls for it. 

 Loy is perfect as Ursula, walking through her scenes with a kind of sultry menace, glowering at her victims through heavily made up eyes.  Irene Dunn is cast as Laura, the one former schoolmate who doesn’t buy into the astrological forecasts, but this movie is all Loy’s. She’s out to destroy these women, especially now that they’ve all grown up and found happiness.  I loved how the most grisly murders would end with a five pointed star appearing at the center of the screen, expanding until the entire image was blocked out. Nice touch by RKO workhorse director George Archainbaud  (The Lost Squadron) and a coy nod to the zodiac.  

Thirteen Women  was a David O. Selznick production, but it had the quiet, murky feel of a Val Lewton picture. Unfortunately,  it didn’t connect with audiences in 1932 and soon vanished. Not even the real life suicide of Peg Entwistle, cast as one of the girls, could draw customers in out of morbid curiosity. Entwistle, a stage actress who came  West hoping to find some success, grew despondent one night  after a Hollywood party, climbed to the top of the famous Hollywoodland sign on Mount Lee, and jumped to her death. She left behind a note apologizing.  

Perhaps the grim nature of the movie (and Entwistle’s sad end) was simply too bleak for ticket buyers. After all, here’s a film depicting a bunch of bigoted college girls who find that their wealthy backgrounds can’t protect them from a rampaging half-Hindu woman. It was, as The Times described, “horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish and too stark to save itself from a headlong plunge into hokum.” 

Well, I think it was better than that, if only to see Myna Loy’s thousand mile stare.  She turns in a nice horror performance that should be mentioned along with others of the era, including Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936).  If she hadn’t turned her career around to become a star of light comedies, Loy might have made it as a female counterpart to Karloff.

 The Mask of Fu Manchu and Thirteen Women are available on the Warner Archives streaming service.

Monday, December 29, 2014



If there’s one overriding reason to view “The Lords of Flatbush”, it is to watch a young Sylvester Stallone steal every scene he’s in. This was two years before his star making turn in “Rocky”, but there’s a sense that Stallone knew his career was at a crossroads and he needed to turn in a command performance. The joy in watching him, though, is because he doesn’t take focus by chewing the scenery. No, Stallone is downright subtle in this movie. To watch him here is to see a smart young actor at work, not a bloated movie star.

Stallone, along with Henry Winkler, Perry King, and Paul Mace, star as “The Lords,” (comically misspelled as “Lord’s” on the backs of their leather jackets), a gang of shiftless teens in late 1950s Brooklyn. High school is almost over, though, and the boys are beginning to understand that the future looks awfully big and empty.

King is “Chico”, the inarticulate lover boy. Stallone is “Stanley,” the group’s muscle. Winkler and Mace are “Butchey,” and “Wimp,” the wise guys of the group. The gang’s life consists of hanging out at the pool hall, or the all night malt shop. At one point they steal a car, but they aren’t bright enough to be competent criminals. They like to talk about “busting heads,” but in the movie’s single fight scene they don’t seem to be particular handy with their fists. These photogenic losers find their uneventful existence interrupted by two things: Chico falls hard for a new girl in school (Susan Blakely), and Stanley learns that his mouthy girlfriend is pregnant. Though Chico and the new girl provide the traditional “nice girl/bad boy” love angle, it’s the plot about Stanley that provides the film with its heart.

Stallone is a whirling dervish of activity in this movie. He’s constantly cracking his knuckles, slapping his hands together, or craning his neck, as if he’s simply too dynamic to be contained in a movie frame. Watch him in scenes where the group is walking together. He’s continually in motion, hitching his shoulders, munching a toothpick, reaching up to knock a leaf from an overhead branch, doing anything to take attention from his co-stars. And it works. He’s the guy we watch. The scene where Frannie (Maria Smith, looking like a pint sized Fran Drescher) enters the pool hall and demands Stanley marry her is mesmerizing. Not believing she’s pregnant, he kneels by a table and grabs a cue ball. He plays gently with it, listening to her describe their future together. There is anxiety on Stanley’s face, but also resignation. He cracks a few jokes, but we can see him sweating. Childhood’s end is near. He is about to walk stoop shouldered into adulthood, complete with screaming babies and nagging wives.

Nostalgia pieces about the ‘50s were big business in the ‘70s (think “American Graffiti”, “Grease”, “The Wanderers”, etc). Audiences paid good money to see flashy old cars, greased pompadours, and hear some period music. As one critic noted in his review of “Lords”, “by conjuring up the magic appearance of that era, a kind of off-beat joy fills the theater,” and that the gang’s striving for coolness was “perversely thrilling.” “The Lords of Flatbush” rode the nostalgia wave and was a surprise hit, but it had plenty working against it, not the least of which was that the four male leads and Blakely were too old to be playing high school kids. Also, the ersatz rock and roll score by Joe Brooks and Paul Jabara pales next to the soundtrack of “American Graffiti”. (In fairness, many people are fond of the “Lords” soundtrack, and Brooks and Jabara did go on to become successful songwriters.)

Still, there’s an animal energy in the movie, particularly in scenes involving Stallone. I loved how a friendly punching game with King escalates into sudden, explosive violence. The two also have a scene on a rooftop where Stallone offers a bizarre monolog about pigeons. Stallone allegedly wrote some of his own dialog for the movie, and his rooftop prattle sounds a bit like something Rocky Balboa might say a few years later.

Though many reviewers appreciated the film as a sort of pop artifact, not everyone was impressed. Jay Cocks of Time magazine pronounced it “pretty flimsy stuff.” Others, like John Simon of the National Review, described it as “a film awful enough to strangle talent in the cradle.” William Sarmento , the curmudgeonly critic of the Lowell Sun, was so annoyed by the film’s grainy look that he derided “Lords” as “an amateurish home movie,” and “exasperatingly inept.” Meanwhile, Roger Ebert wrote that the film “did a good job of seeing past its black leather jackets and into the hearts of the essentially immature and unsure people who wore them.” Oakland critic Robert Taylor may have given the film its most accurate notice by writing that it was like “a quick flip through a fat ‘50s wallet crammed with snapshots.”

Co-director and producer Stephen Verona spent three years putting "The Lords of Flatbush" together. Inspired by the foreign films he’d seen during the 1960s, Verona set about making his own statement about the life he’d known. He had the idea to revisit the 1950s long before it was fashionable, but it took so long to fund his production that the 1950s craze began without him. Raising money by putting the squeeze on “friends, family, and crazy people,” Verona gathered $50,000, and shot the film in five weeks in 1972. Verona and co-director Martin Davidson shot some more scenes and fiddled with the ending before selling their feature to Columbia. When it became one of the sleeper hits of the season, Verona claimed that the simpler codes of the 1950s were a key to the movie’s success.

"You knew the good guys from the bad guys by the way they cut their hair, and the clothes they wore,” Verona said in a 1974 interview. “But what we tried to get across in this picture was that we all had the same problems. We all wanted the girl, and the car."

Verona certainly had an eye for new talent. Along with Stallone and Winkler, Verona also chose a very young Richard Gere to be part of the original cast as Chico. According to ‘The Making of The Lords of Flatbush’, Verona’s 2008 memoir, there was “a glitch in the chemistry” between Stallone and Gere. Much of the script was written through improvisations involving Gere and Stallone, but Verona knew that Gere had to go. “Here they were supposed to be best friends” Verona wrote, “and in real life they didn’t like each other.” Pointing to Stallone’s “immense imagination and focus,” it wasn’t a hard decision to keep Sly and give Gere the boot. With a bit of amateur psychology, it’s easy to see why the two young actors didn’t get along. Like Stallone, the young Gere was another twitchy scene stealer. One can imagine Stallone seeing Gere and thinking, Here’s a guy I might not be able to upstage. Hence, friction. That’s my hunch, anyway. Perry King, destined for a long TV career but not movie stardom, had a less showy acting style, so Stallone was probably less threatened by him. 

Stallone has joked that “The Lords of Flatbush” was so low budget that he was paid in T-shirts. He also claimed that when he was making “Rocky” two years later, the producers showed the studio heads a clip of “Lords” so they could see him. The studio mistook Perry King for Stallone and grew excited. When it was explained that Stallone was actually the brooding Stanley, the studio's enthusiasm quickly faded. It’s unknown if any of these tales are true, or just examples of Stallone exaggerating his humble beginnings. He wasn’t exaggerating about the film’s budget, though. It was such a shoestring operation that when the film wrapped, it took over a year to edit and score because the producers needed to secure additional financing.

Winkler is excellent as Butchey, the wisecracking kid who is too smart to be in the company of such thugs. Winkler would soon find a crazy kind of fame on television on the ABC hit ‘Happy Days.’ In the meantime, “Lords” would have a long life in TV reruns during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was, after all, the film featuring Rocky and the Fonz. For a short time, the film also capitalized on Blakely, who had appeared in the popular ABC mini-series, ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’.

Sadly, the fourth “Lord,” Paul Mace, died in a motorcycle accident in 1983 at age 33. His vulnerable but hard-nosed “Wimpy” was an indelible part of the gang. “Looking back,” Verona wrote in his memoir, “I think he was the most talented actor in my unknown cast.”

“The Lords of Flatbush” is currently available in many forms, including Amazon’s streaming service, as well as a 40th Anniversary DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment. The movie’s look has long been a subject of controversy. Verona has claimed that Columbia botched the color job initially and never bothered to to correct the problem. The movie have often looked dark and grainy, though I recently watched the 2014 Sony DVD, and it looked miles better than the last time I saw it on television. Where Sony blew it with the new DVD is that it’s not widescreen, but rather, a cropped full screen transfer. I can’t imagine why they released it this way, unless they’re trying to recreate the baby boomer experience of watching the “The Lords of Flatbush” on TV in the ‘70s. Evidently there was a 2000 DVD release that was presented in the correct ratio. I think this film deserves a full treatment release, with some extras. Verona would be an interesting commentator, that’s for sure.

Verona directed a few more features, but has also branched out into painting and photography. He was also one of the pioneers of the music video, working with such recording artists as The Beatles, Natalie Cole, and Johnny Winter. Co-director Davidson worked behind the camera for many more years, his most memorable feature being “Eddy and the Cruisers”.

Many people have warm memories of “Lords”. It works on two levels, as both 50s nostalgia and 70s nostalgia. It’s a double whammy. Yet, it shouldn’t be written off as just another “American Graffiti” knockoff. It’s very much the work of a man inspired by the art films of the day – at times “Lords” feels like the films of John Cassavetes, but with motorcycles and schoolyard rumbles. I’ve often flip-flopped on the sentimental medley at the movie’s end, a syrupy coda made up of still shots of the various characters, while someone sings a number about those great days we’ll never forget, or something along those lines. As cheesy as this final bit might be, I enjoy it because I liked these characters, and wonder what happened to them once the movie ended. Were they happy? Did they squander their lives? Did they grow up, and, was it painful?

I’ll also go out on a limb and say Stallone has never been as good as he is in “The Lords of Flatbush”. As Stanley, he’s churlish, but also curious enough about life to sit in a pigeon coop reading maps of the world. I love the scene where he finally buys a ring for his girlfriend. He’s clearly not thrilled by his future, but being a husband and father might trump spending his nights at the pool hall. Stanley is a great character. He deserved his own movie.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


With talk of a new Doc Savage movie in the making, it's time to look back at the original...

by Don Stradley

Producer George Pal had high hopes for "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" (1975). He even included a bold closing scene announcing its sequel. ("Stay tuned for The Arch Enemy of Evil, coming soon!") In Pal's mind, the adventures of Doc and his crew could be sold as a sort of James Bond for the kiddies, stripped of sex and given a G-rating.

Doc had originally appeared in magazines during the 1930s, and his escapades were regarded by many as the epitome of Depression Era pulp entertainment. Doc wasn't Batman, or Superman. He was something different, someone who didn't wear a cape or keep his identity a secret. He was called "the man of bronze" because his skin was "kilned by tropical suns and arctic winds" to that enduring shade. His eyes, furthermore, were "hypnotic whirlpools of flake gold." He fought against death rays and ghost ships and menaces from far flung locations.

The Doc Savage paperback books, reissued by Bantam during the late 1960s as part of a nostalgia craze, had become cult favorites among readers of sci-fi and adventure. Doc was even picked up by Marvel Comics for a brief run in comic book form. I remember my uncle Jack coming home one afternoon with a Doc Savage paperback. To me, it seemed terribly exotic and sophisticated. Yet, I puzzled over it, unable to stick Doc into a niche. He had the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, but could break your face with one punch. He was also a scientist and inventor, with a swanky apartment high above Manhattan. In my pre-adolescent mind, he was superior to James Bond, if only because there were no women around to mess up his pad. Plus, he fought werewolves, which was important to me at the time.

Pal had produced a dozen or more sci-fi and adventure classics dating back to the 1940s, including War of the Worlds, and felt he could still thrill an audience. He assembled a good team for the Doc Savage project, including director Michael Anderson, and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp, fresh off an Oscar win for The Towering Inferno. Pal helped write the screenplay, basing it on the first Savage story, with elements of a few others. Pal discovered the Doc Savage books while browsing in a bookstore. Struck by the cinematic quality of James Bama's cover art, he bought a few and read them. Pal was so impressed with Doc Savage that he spent more than a year acquiring the rights to all 181 of the Doc Savage titles, a process he boasted took nearly as long as shooting the movie. (Pal may have been especially motivated since a recent proposal, Logan’s Run, had failed to get off the ground. Pal felt Doc was surefire.) 

As for the title role, Pal and Anderson allegedly looked at over 1,000 actors before choosing Ron Ely, the tall and dashing actor who'd starred in 55 episodes of NBC's 'Tarzan' series. Filming took place during 1974, with various California locales standing in for Manhattan and Central America. The film could have been ready for a Christmas 1974 release, but was held it until the spring of 1975.

Ely was a trooper, making several personal appearances as the movie was slowly released across the country. The old-style whistle stop tour was geared to getting the word out, with Ely making passionate speeches in every town, praising the movie as entertainment suitable for all ages. "It is a truly G-rated picture," Ely said, which seemed to be the company line handed down by Pal and Warner Bros. 

At times, though, Ely let some anxiety drip through the cracks in his handsome façade. At a Hollywood party in Jan. 1975, he admitted to columnist Marilyn Beck that he felt unsure about his future. He'd been told about potential Doc Savage sequels, and even a TV series. Hence, he'd been turning down roles to keep his schedule open, an act he was regretting. "I made some stupid decisions," he said candidly, and admitted that he wasn't sure if "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" would be a hit. Beck described the 6'5" Ely gamely handing out Doc Savage hats, balloons, and even aprons. Still, Ely openly wondered if it was too late to cash in on the campy hero craze started a decade earlier by TV shows like Batman and the BBC's Avengers. "That's the story of my life," Ely told Beck. "My career has always been one instance after another of bad timing." 

Ely's gravest fears were realized. "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" bombed. Any plans for a sequel or TV show were immediately scrapped. 

Most major newspapers didn't bother covering the movie, but there were plenty of jabs from minor critics, such as this one from a Cedar Rapids reviewer: “…the film makers obviously wanted the actors to seem idiotic, and they succeed." 

The movie was simple enough: Millionaire adventurer Doc Savage learns that his father was murdered. After an assassination attempt on his own life by what looks like a Mayan warrior, Doc and his five assistants (Monk, Renny, Ham, Long Tom, and Johnny) set off to South America to solve the mystery. They end up in the clutches of Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), a third rate Captain Nemo wannabe who covets a legendary pond of gold once owned by Doc’s father. Seas’ posse includes some real weirdoes, highlighted by a mean little runt who sleeps in an oversized crib. Seas’ real weapon, though, is a mysterious green mist that wafts through the air like a floating snake, striking down anyone it touches. But never fear, Doc overcomes all obstacles, subdues the captain, solves the mystery, reclaims the pond of gold, and vows to continue fighting evil. He even turns back the advances of various beautiful ladies. When he explains to one particular beauty that he can’t allow himself to be distracted in his quest to rid the world of bad guys, she reluctantly accepts his philosophy. “Thanks,” Docs says, chucking her under the chin. “You’re a brick.” 

Funny, but where was the violence? 

What was most arresting about the Doc Savage books (most written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym 'Kenneth Robeson') was the viciousness of the fight scenes. True, the plotlines were often cartoonish, but if someone was punched in a Doc Savage story, their jaws would be shattered, their necks snapped, their teeth scattered across the floor. Of course, Doc could easily put you out with a Vulcan-like nerve pinch, but Dent’s stories were flavored with sadism, with particular attention paid to the maiming of faces. Pal and company missed this aspect of Doc Savage, for their hero, as played by Ely, is more of a swashbuckler than a breaker of bones. 

Pal erred badly in others ways. First, his inclusion of John Phillip Sousa marches as the musical score was a bad move. A ridiculous theme song practically sinks the movie before the opening credits have finished. Second, the casting of chubby Michael Miller as Monk is utterly baffling. Probably the most beloved of Doc's crew, Monk is supposed to be a brilliant chemist with simian features and the heart of a street brawler. Miller plays him like Lou Costello in a production of Showboat. Generally, the "Fabulous Five" are badly represented in the movie, though William Lucking is very good as big-fisted Renny, and Eldon Quick strikes the right cords as Johnny, the vulnerable geologist. Finally, Captain Seas is too much of a bumbler to strike fear into an audience. Even children want their villains to be dangerous. 

Yet, there are moments when the movie succeeds grandly. There's the impressive opening scene of Doc on a primitive snowmobile, blasting his way towards his North Pole headquarters, followed by a beautiful shot of him meditating under an Arctic sunrise. There’s another handsome shot of Doc and his crew on horseback, silhouetted against what is supposedly the desert of Hidalgo, plus a reasonably good fight scene aboard Captain Seas' boat. I also liked the scene where Doc pursued an assassin along the ledges of a New York skyscraper. These scenes are superb, and give the impression that a good movie was made, but was buried underneath some bad choices. It’s also fun to see early career appearances by character actors Michael Berryman, Robert Tessier, and Paul Gleason, and the movie’s ersatz art-deco design is eye-catching. 

As for Ely, he was a passable Doc Savage, doing his best in the framework provided by Pal. In a 2012 interview with FilmFax magazine, Ely described Doc as "a fun character to play," but added that the movie suffered from the changes going on at Warner Bros. As often happens when power shifts, the new regime wasn't interested in projects started by the old regime; when the film was ready for post-production work, WB wouldn't foot the bill. That's why, according to Ely, a lot of the special effects look cheap and amateurish. Ely also felt that Pal "lost his way," and pushed the film towards camp. "It got ridiculous," Ely said. "And stupid. When it wasn't ridiculous or stupid, the movie had a pretty good look to it." 

That the movie is remembered as a bust is probably fair, but it's not as bad as its reputation. Besides, Doc Savage isn’t alone. Many pulp heroes have failed to connect on the big screen including the Shadow, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, the Spirit, the Lone Ranger, and Dick Tracy. “Flash Gordon” became a cult favorite, but was initially a failure. Moviemakers, unsure of how to bring those characters to contemporary audiences, often cut their own throats by going the camp route, as Pal did. 

There has been talk over the years of a new Doc Savage movie with everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Chris Hemsworth attached. In my fantasies, a Doc Savage movie would have the grit of “The Dirty Dozen”, and the look of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. But if George Pal couldn't get it right, who can? 

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze turned out to be George Pal's last movie. He spent the final years of his life unable to get funding for various projects, including a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. In hindsight, it's easy to see where Pal went wrong. Pal was 66 at the time, hadn't made a movie in several years, and was perhaps out of touch with moviegoers. He thought they wanted an alternative to rough, dark films like “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist”. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Still, Pal deserves some credit. He was one of Hollywood’s old-time dream weavers, still dreaming big.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is available on the Warner Archive streaming service.


Monday, December 22, 2014


by Don Stradley

The Skeleton Twins was made in the spirit of classic “independent films”,  the sort where quirky, highly dysfunctional people parade their problems onscreen for our amusement, but if you stand back and really look at this movie, you’re struck by the predictable nature of the the characters and situations.  The movie wants to be about love and individuality,  and how these disparate people really care about each other, but it’s really about how these sorts of characters behave in other movies, and how we’ve grown to expect certain moments to happen.  

The Skeleton Twins Movie Review

The film stars Bill Hader as a suicidally depressed waiter and failed actor whose sister (Kristen Wiig) is also depressed and suicidal.  They’ve gone in two separate directions – he to Hollywood where he lives a flamboyant gay lifestyle but seems to have run out of ideas, while she’s gone a more traditional route, marrying a good-hearted stable fellow (Luke Wilson) and buying a big house in upstate New York.  When Wiig hears about Hader’s suicide attempt, she rushes to bring him to her home where he can recuperate. They haven’t spoken in 10 years, and we gradually learn that their estrangement stems from her objection to a love affair he had with a much older man.  

We get lots of jokes about the effete gay brother trying to adjust to small town life, and we meet their mom, a flakey new age type who is always in this sort of movie.  While brother and sister have a kind of snippy chemistry, they can’t seem to do anything without pissing the other one off. We learn that their father committed suicide years earlier, and his actions appear to have left both children with a death wish that won’t quite play out.  In between catty banter and reminiscing about the bad old days, Hader tries to reunite with the older man from his past, while Wiig has an affair with her scuba teacher.  Wilson is a good sport, but he wears those weird shoes that are designed to look like feet. He wears these, I imagine, so we know he’s a little goofy.  I guess this is a good enough reason for Wiig to have sex with other men.

Eventually, we get the big scene where Hader and Wiig have a major argument, but he makes it up to her by inviting her to lip-synch to a cheesy old ‘80s tune (Nothing gonna stop us now, by Starship!) .  These sort of movies always have a lip-synching moment, as if they’re easy shorthand to show us how these characters are connected.  While watching the scene, I tried hard to recall any moments in my life that were solved by a good old-fashioned lip-synch. I couldn’t. But next time I have a falling out with a loved one, I’ll put on some Journey or Blondie, and move my lips. That, apparently, will solve everything.

Wiig plays the usual anemic character she’s played since leaving Saturday Night Live, as if she’s determined to whitewash every minute of her comedy roots.  Her idea of playing a sad character is to slouch around and look tired, as if she’s too weak to straighten up. Wilson, a criminally underused actor, is spot on as the clueless husband.  He’s the only likeable character in the movie, but he’s there to be abused by this horrid brother/sister act.  The film’s real revelation is Hader, who played many flamboyantly gay characters on SNL, but here shows a depth and seriousness that hopefully means more good parts in the future.  Without exaggerating, I think he has a chameleon-like quality comparable to Robin Williams. It’s a shame he wasted a good performance in this movie.

Jake Gyllanhaal wasted TWO good performances in Enemy, the latest movie where an actor gets to play two roles.  I understand the allure for an actor to take such challenge, and a lot of the great ones have tried it, from Bette Davis to Jeremy Irons. But unless you’re drawing two paychecks, there’s very little payoff where these movies are concerned. Most of them aren’t much better than those episodes of Bewitched where Samantha played her own evil cousin.  

Enemy Movie Review

The story involves  Adam Bell, a history professor in Toronto who watches a movie one night and is shocked to notice that one of the actors is his very own double. The actor is Anthony St. Clair, a bit player barely above extra status.  Enchanted and then obsessed by the idea of his twin, Bell tracks down St. Claire, and creates a disturbance by calling Bell’s home and speaking to his wife. This unsteady courtship between the two is the best part of the movie. The scenes are disquieting,  for we sense the emptiness in Bell’s life that has set him on this crazy course to meet this actor, whose own life is rather messy.  Both Bell and St. Claire are in stagnant, unhappy relationships,  neither is especially accomplished at their chosen professions, and there’s even a sense that the two might combine to be a whole, that is, neither is living to his potential.  As drab and grey as Toronto looks in this movie, I don’t blame Bell for obsessing over his lookalike.

They eventually meet, freak each other out, and then arrange to sleep with each other’s women.  There’s a twist ending, which I won’t spoil, for even though the movie isn’t great, it offers a few small pleasures, namely Gyllanhaal’s acting as both Bell and St. Claire. Without doing much, he’s able to delineate both figures.  It’s quite an achievement, and I hope he drew two paychecks.

Director Denis Villeneuve, working from a novel by Portuguese author Jose Saramago, pushes the cheerlessness of Toronto, creating an atmosphere that is really too dull to be called “nightmarish.”  He also adds a lot of his own touches to Saramago’s story, namely Bell’s constant hallucinating of giant spiders. Admirers of the movie have praised it as a tale of a man dealing with his subconscious, as if Bell is also hallucinating St. Claire as well as these spiders.  I don’t know.  People will see what they want to see.  If they want to think this is a movie about a man and his subconscious, so be it.  I think it’s just a half-realized story in a pretty package.

By the way, I’ve been to Toronto.  The sun didn’t come out for five days. 

Both The Skeleton Twins and Enemy are available on various VOD services, as well as DVD. 


Friday, December 19, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones...


book review by Don Stradley
I wish Brian Jones were still alive, if only to see him react to the Rolling Stones nowadays.  Would he enjoy seeing Mick Jagger, now dubbed “Sir” and having grown increasingly bird-like with age,  fronting the rickety old band through endless farewell tours? And what would Jones think of his other notorious bandmate, Keith Richards, now a leathery “rock legend”, that is, when he’s not gamboling with Johnny Depp or falling out of trees.  Would Jones be any more graceful in his dotage, or was he, as we gather from Paul Trynka’s thoughtful new biography, simply destined to fizzle out, one way or another, at 27?
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones” makes us wonder where Jones’ talents could have taken him if he hadn’t been yoked to the band he established.  Be warned:  Trynka borders on being a bootlicking sycophant, hailing Jones as a kind of ethereal visionary, but in the end the author gives us a well-rounded take on a sad old tale.   We’ll never get the full story on Jones, because the people who might be most helpful are either dead, or not talking. Keith and Mick  look back on those days and say they can’t remember much, then giggle mischievously.
The standard line on Jones was that he was a geeky kid from the drab suburb of Cheltenham. Trynka lets us know that Cheltenham was actually a hotbed of vice, the city of secrets and lies,” and that the young Jones’ “alley-cat sexuality” had its roots in a neighborhood where accountants and mathematicians huddled up with their high priced escorts or, at the very least, their dog-eared copies of De Sade. Perhaps taking his cue from the neighborhood elders, Jones had fathered a half-dozen or so kids before the Stones’ first album was released.
Jones discovered jazz and blues and rock & roll, played a variety of instruments, and by his late teens was hitch-hiking to the provinces to play with any band that would use him.  Most of the musicians Jones met in those days thought the blues was merely a niche music, but Jones thought the sounds of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters were ripe with commercial potential.  Jones was correct, though it took him a while to get out of the hinterlands and bring his musical notions to London. He was already a seasoned veteran of the road by the time he met Jagger and Richards,   while Mick was still singing for old ladies in his mother’s living room, and Keith was a pimply-faced yokel who could barely tune his guitar.
Jones was always the most stylish and outré of the Stones. He favored pinstriped gangster suits, fur coats, and oversized shades, trips to Morocco, and exotic drugs.  His puckish nature attracted gorgeous women to his side, sometimes two or three at a time, but he always seemed to yearn for male friends, the tougher the better. Perhaps in his dreams he imagined himself a tiny mafia kingpin surrounded by hefty bodyguards who would tuck him in at night. But no one was protecting Jones, as the endless drug busts and court trials of the 1966-68 period wore him  to an emotional nub.   Jones gradually found himself usurped by the two urchins he’d hired years earlier, Jagger and Richards. Jones had been a parental figure to the boys, giving them tips on everything from music to women. Once they’d absorbed all he could teach, they outgrew him and kicked him to the curb.  On top of everything else, Jones was hampered by a lifelong asthma problem, and was probably suffering from an  undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.
Trynka, who wrote a fine biography of David Bowie a few years ago, hits all of the famous Jones moments, the good and the bad.  We can almost hear Jones’ trebly slide guitar, and we remember the way he could  upstage Jagger  with just a quick, impish grin. Jones was a seeker, always reaching for more obscure instruments, not only to enhance the Stones’ sound, but to leave his imprint on a song.  We also get the unpleasant side of Jones,  from the way he mistreated women, to the way he made sure early on he was paid more than the other Stones.  Jones may have been the Stone most likely to be seen with other rock stars, from Dylan and Hendrix to the Beatles, but this was largely because his own band didn’t want him around.
And, of course, there was the time Keith stole Brian’s girlfriend, the witchlike Anita Pallenberg. Many Stones aficionados point to that incident,  with Jones left stranded and alone in Marrakesh, as the moment where life tipped over for Brian and never righted itself.   Jagger stole the spotlight.  Richards stole the girl.
 Where could Jones have gone after that?  What sort of man would stay in such a band? The Stones’ camp was a brutal environment, a cesspit of psychological torment and, as Trynka calls it, “coital one-upmanship.”  Jones stayed in the Stones, more than likely, because that’s where the money and women were. Also, as his drug intake increased, he wasn’t sturdy enough to start another band.   He should’ve hit Keith in the mouth with a microphone stand, but as Trynka tells us ad nauseam, Jones was too sensitive for that sort of thing. His heroes, Muddy and Wolf and the rest, would’ve taken Keith behind the shed and taught him a bloody lesson.  Not Jones, though.  One thing we take away from Trynka’s book is that Brian Jones, guitar hero and womanizer, was a wimp.
 Trynka doesn’t rely much on quotes from the Stones, preferring to interview every chauffer, sound engineer and ex-groupie willing to talk. And he digs up some good stuff, particularly from Marianne Faithful, who had a ringside seat at Jones’ decline. Trynka’s also  great at recreating the vibe of London’s old rock clubs: “Condensation dripped steadily on to the stage, the place smelt funky and the beers were warm…It was the glorious spring of 1962 and British Rock was being hotwired, jump-started, Frankensteined into life, so who cared about being electrocuted?”  But when describing Jones he relies on the same clichés that were tired 30 years ago.  Jones is “devilish,” “charming,” and of course, the living embodiment of the god Pan. Do rock journalists never get tired of that old bromide?  Jones was also the most sensitive man in history, as Trynka reminds us on every other page.  When not reminding readers of Jones’ brittle nature, Trynka continuously tells readers the bit about  Jones being the band’s founder. Is Trynka afraid we aren’t paying attention? Or does he  fear some of us started the book in the middle?
 We get the point.  Jones started the thing.
 Trynka is at his best when he’s writing about the Stones’ music, such as when he describes the drumming of Charlie Watts: “…for the first time, Charlie unlocked the secrets of the laid back, gloriously greasy Jimmy Reed boogie,  leaving tantalizing spaces in the high-hat rhythm, the crisp snare part ringing out clearly between the two and the four….”   It’s also nice that Trynka  has a  mission, that is, to take the focus off of Jones the casualty and put it on Jones the creative force. Still, Trynka is smitten with Jones and can’t hide it.  To Trynka, Jones is a hybrid of Syd Barrett and Robert Johnson, a haunted  pop genius and trend setter.  I’ll agree that Jones has been underrated, but I’m not ready to put him on the pedestal Trynka has built for him.   Jones may have had a hell hound on his trail, but he was also a big goof,  such as when he played a demo he’d made for some monkeys in a zoo; when the chimps ran away howling, Jones nearly wept with disappointment. How are we to take Jones seriously after such a Spinal Tap  episode? 
 Because Jones’ death was so murky – he either drowned in a swimming pool, or was held under by someone – Trynka is cautious about putting his own spin on it.  He suggests that it was “most likely a sad accident,” but creates a thorough checklist of shady characters in Jones’ circle, and leaves us to our own conclusions. Trynka also shoots holes in some of the sillier theories that have been passed down by other authorsUltimately, Trynka isn’t especially taken with the morbid part of Jones’ legacy, but rather, “…the sounds, the magnificent  panic, which he unleashed on the world.”
Throughout the book, which is highly readable despite Trynka’s obvious hero worship, I kept thinking back to when my mother noticed a Stones album in my collection. My mother was no slouch when it came to pop music. She kept a small A.M. radio on the kitchen counter perpetually locked onto a station that played “Golden Oldies” on Saturday night. She took one look at the scruffy bunch on the cover of Aftermath and asked, “What’s wrong with those guys?” I didn’t know what to tell her.  After reading Trynka’s book, I’m still not sure.
Just a bunch of pricks, I guess.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


TWO EXAMPLES OF EARLY '60s BRITISH CINEMA SHOW THAT A LONG FORGOTTEN STYLE IS STILL ENTRANCING; This is how it was before The Beatles Turned Everything Cheeky Fab and All That...

by Don Stradley

 Term of Trial begins with a young British schoolboy running down what appears to be an endless street.  When he finally arrives at the school, the building is ancient, enormous, forbidding. He navigates a labyrinth of halls and stairways, until finally he joins a mammoth choir of schoolchildren. He takes his place within the group, but he’s barely opened his mouth to sing when an older boy shoves a playing card in his hand. It’s a picture of a woman in her underwear.  The youngster isn’t moved by the smutty image; he shrugs and passes it on to the next boy. 
The way sex crops up in this hallowed institution, and in England itself, is the pervading theme of Peter Glenville’s uneven but emotionally affecting movie.   Shop owners seem to keep their raunchiest magazines in the front window, and couples are always sneaking off for a quickie in an alley.  One boy complains that he can’t do his homework because his mum and her boyfriend are always at it. The people in the film either go along with the action, or seem mystified by it, like the three teenaged boys who stare aimlessly at a magazine featuring a semi-naked man on the cover.  The leer of carnality seems at once infinite, and enigmatic. 
The school itself is a blackboard jungle of sex and violence, with teachers like Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) sneaking out for drinks to alleviate the stress of dealing with hooligans all day. His own sex life is a mess. His ball-busting wife (Simone Signoret) constantly reminds him that he’s a wimp with a low-paying job.  She’s unable to bear children, which makes her bitter; she takes it out on Graham, who dutifully absorbs his punishment.  He’s a good man, though, and many of the students look up to him.  Fifteen year old Shirley (Sarah Miles) is especially fond of him, arranging for extra tutoring after school.  The vibrant Shirley and the mild-mannered Graham develop a genuine friendship, but when he politely rejects her affection, she reacts by accusing him of fondling her during a school trip.  Graham finds himself in court trying to explain why a 15-year-old was in his hotel room in the first place.
The film is one of the many “kitchen sink” dramas made in Britain during the early 1960s, before the love generation made everything all Technicolor and groovy.  In this black and white drama, bleakness appears to seep out from the cracks in the sidewalks. The only ray of light in the film is Graham’s  friendship with the young girl.   At the movie’s climax, he admits that he did love her, but in the way one loves something pure, before it’s all fouled up by puberty and flesh and sin.  It sounds like an idealist Victorian’s lament, but there’s too much heartbreak in Graham’s voice to take his sadness lightly.
Term of Trial was met with mixed reviews during its Jan 1963 release. Bosley Crowther of The NY Times praised Miles for her “extraordinary fervor,” but  dismissed the movie as “contrived.” He also said that Olivier “cannot quite make this fellow absorbing — or even wholly real.”  I happen to think Olivier is excellent as a decent man trapped in a world of sleaze, but it’s true that the movie is flawed.  The saucy Signoret seems slightly miscast as Graham’s wife, and we can’t imagine that prudish Graham was ever, as she claims, charming enough to have seduced her during the war. There’s also  an undeveloped subplot where Graham is harassed by a teen lout, played with great menace by a young Terrence Stamp.  That part of the story vanishes halfway through the movie.  Still, the plot involving Graham and young Shirley is full of warmth and drama, and makes up for the rest of the film’s weak spots. One almost wishes Shirley’s fairy tale fantasy of life with Graham could work,  if only to give us a break from the  pornography that was already festering in society like a lazy, dormant virus.

A teacher like Graham Weir might have been helpful to a lad like Colin Smith, the truculent hero  of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Released just a few months prior to Term of TrialThe Loneliness…is another, and better, example of the kitchen sink style of drama. The movie follows Colin (Tom Courtenay) as he’s taken to a detention center, or “borstal,” where hes to work off a sentence for robbery. A warden notices Colin has some speed on the soccer field, and enlists the boy as a long distance runner in an upcoming meet between the borstal and a nearby school.  Colin appreciates the opportunity, but soon resents being kept and trained like an animal.  
Directed by Tony Richardson, one of the key filmmakers during this era of ‘new wave’ British cinema, and based on an award winning novella by  Alan Sillitoe, the movie’s best scenes are the flashbacks to Colin’s hardscrabble home life. He’s ready to become the man of the house after his father dies, but his coarse mother has already brought in a slick, mustachioed bloke who may or may not be a thief.  Colin, who is headstrong but doesn’t seem like a bad kid, resorts to petty theft as an amusement, but also because he’s constantly badgered to get a job and help support the family.

Colin might be described as just another one of the “angry young men” so prevalent in British drama of the time, but it’s unfair to label this film as mere “kitchen sink realism.”  Granted, that's how we'd catagorize it, but it seems to rise above its station. It’s as energetic and  innovative as anything coming out of the French cinema of the time.  At his best, Richardson was every bit as good as Godard or Truffaut.  Less groundbreaking, perhaps, but tougher, more emotional, and just as willing to experiment.

What’s most striking now, 50 years later, is the movie’s thorny realism. The people in the film look odd, with big chins and awkward gaits, their hair piled into impossible configurations. The teen girls in the film already look like plump little housewives. Then it dawns on you, this is what people look like. These aren’t movie stars, but average, everyday people. When a fight breaks out in the borstal, the boys don’t bust out cheesy martial arts moves as they might in a contemporary movie; they slip and stumble and struggle to get a grip on each other. There’s nothing dramatic about the fight, but lips are split and eyes blackened nonetheless. Even when Colin runs, he looks as if his limbs are not in synch with each other, as if his soul is sprinting ahead while his body tries to keep up. A present-day movie would have an actor running in perfect form, his body glistening. Richardson knew better, and Tom Courtenay’s scrappy performance is so real it hurts. 

Term of Trial and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are both available on the Warner Archive streaming service.

Monday, December 15, 2014


One of Dustin Hoffman's great performances is now available from Warner Archives; as a hapless ex-con on a losing streak, Hoffman is riveting...
by Don Stradley

Straight Time begins with ex-con Max Dembo getting off a bus in the middle of Los Angeles. The city looks drab, overrun with cheap steakhouses and pawn shops.  The music on the soundtrack is jaunty, as if we’re about to watch a comedy, and Dembo shambles along the LA sidewalks like a Chaplinesque everyman, his shoulders hunched against the onslaught of life on the outside.  He doesn’t relish being free, for as he tells a character later in the film, people on the outside are judged only by “what you have in your pocket.”  In prison he was judged only but what he was. In his case, he was a burglar. The movie is about an ex criminal trying to go straight, when it seems fate is working against him. We feel badly for Max, especially when we realize his biggest obstacle will be his own stubbornness.
We’re then introduced to Max’s parole officer, a grinning sadist played by M. Emmet Walsh.  As Earl Frank, Walsh is the sort of heel who seems designed to antagonize guys like Max Dembo, friendly and helpful one moment, bullying the next.  He’s brutal in the way he casually checks Dembo’s arm for needle tracks, and in the way he pretends to be trying to help. The film is based on a novel by Edward Bunker, an author who did some prison time and probably knew characters like Earl Frank.  In some films, an entire story could be built around the nasty parole officer and the pitiable ex-con, but Straight Time has more on its mind than a simple good guys versus bad guys scenario.
Max is in trouble as soon as he meets Earl.  He bypassed the room at the half-way house that was arranged for him upon his release and checked into a motel, instead.  He’d wanted a night to himself, before he had to go back to people telling him when to go to bed.  Earl tells him he has an attitude problem. Max (Dustin Hoffman) struggles to remain calm.
Hoffman built this project from the ground up, reading Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce, and then visiting Bunker where he was still serving time in San Quentin.  Hoffman bought the rights to the book and was originally slated to direct, but turned the reigns over to Ulu Grossbard, with whom he’d worked before.   Hoffman visited Folsom Prison to get some understanding of how prison conditions a man, and grilled Bunker about life behind bars.  Whatever he learned helped fuel, as Pauline Kael described it, Hoffman’s “crabbed intensity” as Max.  There are moments in the movie where Max seems torn between crying and lashing out; he spends so much time trying to remain calm that he’s almost numb.  When he does finally erupt, such as when he assails his parole officer, it’s more than catharsis; it’s practically a rebirth.  This is one of Hoffman’s greatest performances.
After Max leaves Earl Frank handcuffed to a fence along the highway,  he begins rallying his old criminal consorts to join in him in a series of heists. And they’re eager.  Harry Dean Stanton plays Jerry Schue, an ex-con who has spent years living a straight life and is itching to get back into the action.  When Max and Jerry rob a small bank, they have the assignment down to clockwork; as Jerry waves his shotgun in the air and makes horrific threats to the bank employees, he’s secretly looking at his watch, timing the robbery down to the very second.  When they leave the bank, Harry asks Max to rate his performance as a violent robber. “How Was I?” “Scared the shit out of me,” Max says. The quick conversation predates John Travolta and Sam Jackson’s Pulp Fiction banter about “Getting into character,” which makes sense since Tarantino used Edward Bunker as an actor in Reservoir Dogs and was obviously a fan. (Bunker was given an early release, and made a living as a writer and actor. He appears in this film as one of Max’s connections.)
Max is a tragic figure because the simplest things in life - a job, a home, someone to love - will never be his because of his past mistakes, and because his life seems destined for calamity. He meets Jenny, (Theresa Russell) a sympathetic young woman at an employment agency. Cautiously, they become lovers. She senses the hurt in Max, and is curious about him. But the love of a good woman doesn’t help Max. It frustrates him that he can’t even buy Jenny dinner because his lousy job at a cannery pays so little. When Jenny learns he’s gone back to stealing, she says she will stay until it becomes too much for her. He accepts her offer.  She’s one of the only people to show him kindness, and he’s glad to have her, even if there’s an ultimatum.
The change that comes over Max when he returns to stealing is revealing. In his first few  scenes with Jenny he’s almost charming, showing a glimpse of the man he may have been before prison. After he’s back to robbing, he becomes more tight-lipped and impatient. He’s filled with self-loathing because all he can do, and all the world allows him to do, is steal.
Even L.A. seems to change as Max goes back to crime, it’s streets becoming wider, it’s layout more ominous, it’s bars and poolrooms more dank.  Even his cronies change, revealing themselves to be unreliable, and even a bit stupid. They aren’t tough ex-cons; they’re nervous men kept in line by mouthy wives and mountains of debt.  
One of the key characters is Willie (Gary Busey), an old friend from prison who is now married with a child. Willie  works part-time as a mechanic, while secretly wishing to play drums in a rock band. He’s also a junkie.  Max enjoys an evening at Willie’s home, but when Willie isn’t around, Willie’s Wife (Kathy Bates) tells him to stay away. She’s very matter of fact about it, saying that Willie is trying hard to live a clean life and doesn’t need distractions.  Max agrees, but the pain on his face is visible.  When Willie shows up at Max’s room at the halfway house, he immediately starts shooting up. “I could get three years for that,” Max says, then shrugs as if it doesn’t matter. One way or another, the shit is going to land on Max.

Busey is very fine as Willie, a less than bright man who tries to soften the harsh edge of the outside world by staying high. Stanton, one of the great unsung character actors in Hollywood history, is a scene stealer, particularly when he and Hoffman are plotting their robberies. Stanton’s Jerry  may crave the excitement of robbing, but he’s also horrified of what could go wrong. He knows a certain amount of bullshit is required to be a tough guy, but his poker face cracked long ago.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby described Straight Time as “an uncommonly interesting film about a fellow whose significance is entirely negative.” Yet, I’m not sure if that’s fair description of Max Dembo.  He made me think of Eugene O’Neil’s comment about tragedy being more rewarding than lighthearted entertainment. I’ll take Straight Time over Tootsie any day.
On a side note, Hoffman later sued Warner Bros, and his own production company, for taking away his creative control of the film. He’d worked for considerably less than his usual price in order to have control of the movie, but when he was accused of going over budget, he lost his final cut approval. “Only the first 20 minutes of the movie is mine,” Hoffman said, claiming the studio’s interference stopped the film from achieving its full potential.  I can’t imagine what else he had in mind for this very realistic and very human movie.

Straight Time is available on the Warner Archive streaming service.