Monday, April 28, 2014

FILTH...



Cops on the edge are a dime a dozen these days, but you will find few as demented or as watchable as James McAvoy in Jon S. Baird's Filth, a rough and hallucinogenic police drama based on a novel by Irvine Walsh, who is best known for Trainspotting.  McAvoy is Bruce Robertson, a drunken, coke snorting, bigoted, sadistic cop aiming for a promotion. As one can expect from material based on a book by Walsh, who previously made junkies so funny and glamorous, there's plenty of kinky sex, penis jokes, vomiting, homophobia, racism, nightmare imagery, and dark comedy.  It doesn't quite match the crazed euphoria of Trainspotting, and it lacks the hipster punk soundtrack that made that one such a 1990s art house smash, but it has a lot going for it, namely McAvoy's performance. He is a wonder to watch, going from violent to whimsical to pathetic with whipsawing intensity. You'll never be bored by him.

He's funny as he plots to ruin all of the other officers who might compete with him for his upcoming promotion. When an Asian man is brutally murdered by some Scottish punks, Bruce is assigned to head the investigation. He dives in ferociously, just aching to strut his stuff, but also to bust some heads. He freely admits he joined the force because he'd heard how brutal and unforgiving cops could be. A friend asks, "Did you join so you could change things from within?" Bruce sneers, "No, I wanted to be part of it."

Bruce has problems. There's a wife and daughter who may or may not exist. We're never certain if they've died, or if they've abandoned him, of if they existed in the first place. People often ask him how the wife and daughter are doing, yet he's always alone, drinking by himself, watching porn, and making obscene phone calls. His favorite targets for these calls, by the way, is his best friend's wife, which tells you a lot about Bruce. He's a jerk. 

If we're in awe of Bruce's sleazy side during the movie's first half, we see in the second half how sad his life has become. Trust me, it's not just the drugs and alcohol that are ruining him. He has a closet full of demons that would impress Norman Bates. At one point he befriends the widow of a man he'd tried to help with CPR, but we can see in Bruce's eyes that he no longer has the mental facilities to be friends with anyone. 

The movie is better than it has a right to be. Morbid tales of dead-end cops have been plentiful in recent years, but Welsh's cartoonish slant on Scotland's downtrodden feels as bright as it did two decades ago. The surreal commentary blends with a brutal essay on broken heroes, sexuality, and the small man's futile reach for power. Baird, a 40 year-old Scott who hasn't done much work that we of in America, is a great match for Walsh's vision, pushing the film to its conclusion like a freight train that has jumped the rails but continues to cruise through the air. As Bunty, the subject of Bruce's obscene calls, Shirley Henderson continues to impress as one of current cinema's most endearingly odd ducks, and Jim Broadbent is deliriously weird as Dr. Rossi, the drug enabler who visits Bruce in his dreams and reminds him of his sordid past.  Jamie Bell is also amusing as a detective dealing with his own particular shortcomings, and Eddie Marsan finds the perfect notes to play Bruce's sad-sack buddy  Bladesey. They're all terrific, in a high-wire act of a film that provides the bad cop genre with a badly needed cocaine bump.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

BLUE RUIN...




There is a moment in Blue Ruin when a character tells Dwight (Macon Blair) that when you aim a gun at someone, don't bother making speeches. It's the best advice anyone can give Dwight, for he he has a lot on his mind that he wants to get out. He doesn't heed the advice, though.  It seems he can't aim his gun without running his mouth a little. Watching this movie made me wonder how much all of our lives could be improved if we'd just learn to point the gun and shoot.

Blue Ruin is Dwight's revenge tale. His family is embroiled in a terrible feud with the Clelands, a rough family whose patriarch once had an affair with Dwight's mother. Blood has been spilled. As far as the score goes, the Clelands  are ahead. Both of Dwight's parents have been killed.

The plot reveals itself in dribs and drabs, as if we're learning the story by overhearing bits of conversations. Most of the key events happened in the past. The first time we see Dwight, he's a beach bum, sleeping in his car, a light blue Pontiac shitbox that I imagine is the blue ruin of the title. He breaks into homes so he can bathe in the tubs of strangers, and seems to navigate through life like a rat. He's been driven underground by the feud. He may have gone a little crazy. Upon learning that the most murderous member of the enemy clan is getting out of prison, Dwight begins plotting. He catches up to the guy and kills him in a public bathroom. Dwight's not a natural born killer, but he's willing to learn. If he seemed like a ghost at the beginning of the movie, getting revenge appears to bring him back to life.

Meanwhile, as a trail of crimson increases in Dwight's wake, we learn more of the story, namely, that there's a lot more to it than Dwight knows. He learns along with us, but by the time all the facts are out, he's become trigger happy. Killing may not solve anything, but it makes him feel better. Fearing that other members of the Cleland bunch may seek their own revenge, Dwight hunkers down for battle.

Director Jeremy Saulnier's background as a cinematographer comes through in the movie. The camera work is elegant, and I especially loved the image of Dwight eating on the beach, the bright lights of a small carnival seen in the distance. Saulnier's script plods at times, but it's smart. He's not trying to knock our brains out, he's telling a story. The movie feels heavy, like the way it must feel when someone is waiting out a chance to get even. Yet, there are several interesting touches, such as when Dwight breaks into a car and steals a gun. Finding the gun equipped with a safety block that will prevent him from firing it, he uses a crowbar to bash the lock apart. But in bashing the lock, he inadvertently destroys the gun. It's a quietly frustrating scene, the sort of thing we might see in an old Italian neo-realist film. The movie is also strangely deadpan - I don't think anyone says a word for the first 15 or 20 minutes.

Blair is the key to the movie's appeal. I remember him from an excellent little obscurity called Gretchen (2007) where he played a troubled kid. He doesn't act often, but he should. As Dwight, he manifests a kind of sad rage. He's not a steely eyed assassin, he's just a regular guy settling some old scores. By the end, we can see on his face that he's emotionally overwhelmed by all he has done. There are other good performances, including Kevin Kolack as a member of the Clelands, and Devin Ratray as Ben Gaffney, a friend who helps Dwight learn the fundamentals of firearms. Bonus points to anyone who recognizes former 'Brady Bunch' star Eve Plumb as the mother of the Clelands.

Blue Ruin has been a film festival darling in recent months, winning awards and creating great word of mouth. The initial reception has been positive. It's not great - the heaviness Saulnier strives to achieve sometimes slows it too much, and the bleak denouement feels predictable  - but it has a unique feel, and Blair gives one of the finest, most understated performances of the season. Imagine a man who has been utterly drained by his circumstances and has nothing left to give, yet he has to give even more. That's Blair in this movie.
 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

13 SINS...




Take a character down on his luck and in desperate need of money. Add a mysterious character who offers him millions of dollars to carry out a series of tasks, some of them unspeakable. Shake and stir. See what happens. You might get something like Cheap Thrills, a good dark thriller that came out a few months ago. Or, you might get 13 Sins, which wants, in some ways, to be a statement about the hard times we live in, where average men are pushed into being monsters. In the end, though, even if its message is a little too broad, 13 Sins is another good, dark thriller.  


Elliot (Marc Webber) has just been fired from his sales job. His boss says he's simply not vicious enough. You see, Elliot is a decent fellow, soon to be married and with a child on the way. He also has to look after his younger, heavily medicated brother, and his bigoted father who is also facing financial problems and is nearly homeless. Elliot is at the end of his rope with all of these people counting on him. As we're promised in the press notes, he receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger who seems to know all about him. The stranger identifies himself as the "Golden Toad," and offers Elliot some major cash prizes if he will take part in a game consisting of 13 challenges. Do  you really think Elliot will say no?

You may not be surprised to learn that the tasks range from the gross (swallowing a dead fly) to the outright crazy (these movies usually involve a limb being chopped off). Elliot likes seeing how each challenge is reflected in his bank account - we see the results on his smartphone - and he also seems to grow more confident as he accomplishes each task.  It's fun to see him use his intelligence, and when he starts showing a little swagger, we almost applaud him. He's earned it. Yet, we know this sort of story can not come to a good end, and that a shady character like the Golden Toad isn't going to give Elliot money without putting him through some serious paces.

There are a couple of subplots that don't quite pan out. Ron Perlman is a cop following Elliot, and Pruit Taylor Vince plays the local eccentric who happens to be an expert on this "game." Vince carries a scrapbook with pictures of the Kennedy assassination, as if Lee Harvey Oswald was just another dupe working for the Golden Toad. But these two plots don't really add anything - I think the movie might have worked better if it just focused on Elliot. By the time Vince starts yapping about "the game" being a way for wealthy people to have fun at the expense of poor people, I started tuning out. Sometimes I'd rather not know what's going on, than to be given a half-assed explanation. 

The movie is directed by Daniel Stamm, who gave us The Last Exorcism a few years ago.  I think this is a slight improvement over that one, and I'm glad he's broken away from the found footage gimmick. Sometimes 13 Sins reminded me of certain short stories by Stephen King, back when King was in his prime and wrote as if he wanted to conquer the world. 

By the end, we learn that the Golden Toad has pitted someone else against Elliot in this series of challenges. Whoever finishes first gets the money. The other guy probably goes to prison. While this created some additional drama, it also changed the tone of the movie, and I don't think for the better. It was interesting to see how far Elliot would go to make some money to save his family, and it was fun to see him thinking on his feet. To see it turn into a game of beat the clock is a let down. There are a few more twists and turns, skillfully rendered by Stamm, until it eventually seems that everyone in the movie has, at one time or another, been part of the Golden Toad's scheme. Somehow, the more complicated it gets,  the lighter 13 Sins feels. In a way, it's 'horror light,' a low-cal treat for those who want the trappings of a horror movie, but don't want to be too scared. 

There will be inevitable comparisons to Cheap Thrills. For the record, I think Cheap Thrills is a stronger movie, and I had a much greater empathy with its main character.  But 13 Sins is solid. Maybe some day both movies will be studied together as examples of how this era's financial anxiety inspired at least a couple of good suspense flicks.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY...GRUDGE MATCH...SMALL TIME...



Northern rural Maine is rough.  I've been there. Nine miserable months of winter are followed by a month of what Mainers call 'mud season.' A few weeks of sunshine passes for summer, then winter starts again. Jobs are scarce. I would never want to live there, and nothing about Beneath The Harvest Sky changed my mind about it.

Casper (Emery Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) are a couple of dispirited teens knocking around their desolate little town. Casper has been kicked out of school, and Dominic works on a potato farm. There's not much for them to do. They hang out in a condemned building, party in the woods, swear a lot, and have a  half-assed dream of moving to Boston. That in itself is a clue to how hopeless they are -- they have no intention of going to college, yet they want to move to a college city. Still, from where they're sitting, even a drab city like Boston looks like Rome or Paris.  Hell, at least it's a goal.

Casper's girlfriend lies about being pregnant because she doesn't want him to leave Maine, although it's hard to figure why she doesn't think she can do better than this neanderthal. All he does is hit people and say "Shut the fuck up!" Dominic, too, is strangely loyal to Casper. In a town so bleak, all they have is each other. Meanwhile, as often happens in these sorts of movies, Dominic meets a nice girl on the potato field who tells him he should break away from Casper and be his own man, or something to that effect. Dominic and the girl spend a night together, but she tells him they can't get too close because she's going off to school somewhere and he's just a Mainer, after all, with no prospects. Bored with his potato job, and rejected by the girl, Dominic seeks out the company of Casper, who  by now has started working for his shady father in the lucrative field of smuggling drugs back and forth to Canada.

Not surprisingly, the movie comes to a tragic end. See, a movie like this wouldn't get made unless the filmmakers wanted to say something about the futility of rural life in modern America. The writing-directing team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly create some bucolic scenes out of the bleak mountain backgrounds, but they tip their hand too early when the kids are shown reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. We know immediately that we're going to witness a tale of troubled teens doing battle with their harsh surroundings.

The film has been well received during its initial jaunt through the festival circuit, but some movie audiences crave anything not starring a man in a cape.  True, there are some good acting turns here - Aidan Gillen excells as Casper's smart-ass, drug dealing dad, and Timm Sharp is compelling as Badger, Casper's bumbling uncle who wants to be part of the family drug trade but keeps messing up. Even Cohen and McAuliffe aren't bad as a pair of stock rebels looking for a cause.  Otherwise, Beneath The Harvest Sky is as long and slow as a Maine winter.





When I was in New York last December I noticed several billboards in Times Square advertising Grudge Match.  More than any other movie of the season, this one was being advertised to the hilt. Enormous images of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro stared down from on high like Zeus and Hercules. The only billboard I saw that was comparable was for a Leonard Cohen concert, but that was just a single billboard: Grudge Match, meanwhile, was everywhere. The intended impression was clear: these were two legendary, almost mythical actors, and we were supposed to be in awe of them as they swooped down from Mount Olympus to entertain us mere mortals. The tepid reviews and resulting box office failure were fitting. Moviegoers know when they are being conned, and the idea of two men boxing at ages 67 and 70 was too much to swallow.

The concept of De Niro and Stallone appearing together in a boxing themed film is actually a few years old. I remember reading blurbs about them being tied to a project where they would play two aging ex-fighters who were suffering brain damage and were looking after each other.  Then I heard another story, where they would star in a boxing version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Both ideas had possibilities. Somehow, someone got the idea that the two should just star in a run of the mill boxing movie and simply fight. How could audiences resist Rocky versus The Raging Bull? Well, it turned out audiences had no problem resisting at all. 

I won't bother recounting the plot in detail. Stallone and De Niro play a couple of old rivals who are dragged out of retirement for one more bout. It turns out they once loved the same woman (played by Kim Basinger).  De Niro is always good, even in half-baked crap. His character here is the funnier of the two, and he provides a couple of mild yucks. Stallone has always been underrated, and he's not bad here, either. Still, the movie spends most of its time on jokes about senility and man boobs. Not much of it is funny.  

Also, why do boxing movies pay no attention to the rules of boxing? Can you imagine a baseball movie where a batter is hit by a pitch, and refuses to take first base because he wants to go down swinging? Forget it. Yet, in boxing movies we see all sorts of ridiculous stuff. In this one, De Niro and Stallone sit alone in their dressing room prior to the fight, which is absurd to anyone who has ever watched boxing on HBO or Showtime, and knows that the dressing rooms are swarming with people. Worse, there's a moment late in the fight where De Niro knocks Stallone down and then HELPS HIM UP so they can continue fighting. Two actors who owe much of their success to boxing films and profess to be fans of the sport should have known better. 


Movies that take place in used car lots all feel and look the same. How you view them depends on how you feel about used car salesman.  They're usually depicted as snarky wise guys trying to make a buck, little guys who aren't quite criminals but aren't quite legit, either.  Joel Surnow's Small Time is the latest, and probably won't be the last, excursion into the lives of these crooked but lovable schemers trying to pinch off a piece of the American dream. Christopher Meloni plays Al Klein, a car salesman whose son wants to join him and learn the trade.  Dad is excited at first, but the son (Devon Bostick) quickly gets a big head and starts emulating the worst traits of his dad's friends. There's a lot of stuff here about fathers and sons, friendship, and how the choices we make in life can haunt us. It's not a bad movie, but so much of Surnow's experience is from television that Small Time feels less like a movie and more like a TV show. 

Still, some of the best character actors in the business are here, including Dean Norris, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Ashley Jensen, and Kevin Nealon.  Let's get them all together for a Showtime sitcom, and see what happens.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

PROXY...



Zach Parker's Proxy feels at times like an homage to the early work of Brian De Palma, which is fine, since so many of De Palma's early films felt like homages to Alfred Hitchcock. Parker's film interests me in that the influences are easily seen, yet, it has its own identity and works very well as a strange little thriller. The opening scene feels like familiar horror movie territory, as Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) endures a routine meeting with her OB. Esther seems uninterested in her pregnancy, and her eyes glaze over when she answers her doctor's questions. 

During her walk home, she's attacked by a stranger who drags her into an alley and hits her in the belly several times with a brick. This horrible assault results in Esther losing her baby. The alley attack has already been cited for driving unsuspecting customers from theaters.  It is a reasonably strong scene, but it shouldn't deter anyone from enjoying a unique and peculiar movie. Halfway through the story, you'll have been taken through so many twists and turns that you might not even remember the brutal opening.

Esther, for instance, attends a women's support group to discuss her loss. She befriends Melanie (Alexa Havens), a friendly blonde who is there because her son and husband died in a car accident. Yet, when Esther finds herself at a shopping mall to apply for a job, she spots Melanie running through the store, screaming that her son has been kidnapped by a stranger. But didn't Melanie say her son had been killed?

There's a lot more, including some angry lesbians, a shotgun death, and a sense of creeping doom that reminds one not only of De Palma, but of vintage Roman Polanski. (I imagine Esther Woodhouse was named as a nod to Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby.) But the movie's success is not only because of the occasional blasts of violence and unexpected twists, but because Paker is so comfortable with the material. Most films with as many twists as Proxy seem silly after a while, but Parker, who co-wrote the screenplay with   Kevin Donner, has a way of unfurling the story so we go along with it. This is no easy feat.

There are some good acting turns, too.   Joe Swanberg, an actor I haven't always liked, is very good here, more serious than usual. Havens has a few showstopping scenes as the mysterious Melanie, and  Kristina Klebe has some great scenes as one of Esther's few friends. Rasmussen enchants as Esther, walking a fine line between pathetic and strange. She has a touching scene where she explains how she'd enjoyed being pregnant because people paid attention to her, yet she admits she never really wanted to be a mother. In a film that will make its bones on blood and suspense, the scene is surprising, and delivered beautifully. 

Parker knows that the best thrillers have room for strong, human moments. Swanberg, for instance, has a scene where he laments losing his son. Such scenes can feel heavy-handed in the middle of a horror thriller, but they work here. Parker also knows how to create the iconic scene - there were at least four or five stunning tableaux in the movie - and he fills the screen with big moments and chilling little details. De Palma hasn't made one like this in years. Proxy is a sophisticated, daring movie. 
  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I AM DIVINE...



I knew about Divine long before I ever saw a John Waters movie. The rock & roll magazines I read as a kid often ran pics of this obese transvestite character, and I'm not ashamed to admit it - Divine scared me. As someone says in Jeffrey Schwarz' fine new documentary I Am Divine, you didn't know if Divine would have sex with you or eat you.

When I finally got around to seeing Pink Flamingos - during the 1990s when New Line rereleased it - I wasn't disappointed.  It was one of the rare occasions that a film actually lived up to the hype. As for Divine, he no longer scared me. I thought he was brilliant. I loved the way he bellowed his lines with total commitment. He wasn't just larger than life. He was larger than the world.

I worked my way through the John Waters canon, read his books, and even read 'Not Simply Divine,' a pretty good biography by Bernard Jay, Divine's manager, published in the early 1990s. From Jay's book I gathered that Divine was sickly, temperamental, and often difficult. I remember feeling bad for him, though, as he heaved his unhealthy bulk through various stage appearances. The image in my head was of a 350 pound female impersonator, perspiring like a drug addict, gyrating underneath a mirror ball, deep in debt, picking up the odd European gig to pay the bills. It wasn't a great picture, with Divine seeming like a pathetic rock star scuffling through the tail end of a strange career. Yet, it stayed in my mind and became the overriding image when I thought of Divine. I forgot the fun stuff and thought only of the personal wreckage.



That's why I was so delighted by I Am  Divine. Yes, there were some difficult times,  but as Schwarz is hellbent on reminding us, there was a lot of fun, too. Schwarz doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of the story - Divine was indeed an unhealthy person and he ate to excess, and while he was on his disco tour he did seem on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion - but Schwarz presents the tale of Divine's life, despite its ultimately sad end, as an unabashed triumph. This is the sort of celebration Divine deserves.
 

Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, survived a childhood in the Baltimore suburbs where he was bullied and taunted, was told by a doctor that he was more female than male, and eventually found himself ostracized from his family. He'd made a gallant effort at living a straight life, even bringing a girlfriend to his high school prom (he did her hair and chose her gown, of course), but there was a delinquent side to him that was bursting to come out. Smoking pot and shoplifting, spending more money than he earned working as a hairdresser, and hanging out with an always growing collection of gay friends, liberated him. When he took part in Baltimore drag balls, he took one look at the stiffly walking males in dresses and decided to add a ton of campy humor to the events. It may seem hard to believe, but female impersonators were once a dreary bunch. Divine changed that.

More than anything else, Milstead's burgeoning friendship with aspiring Baltimore filmmaker Waters gave him a license to reinvent himself. It was Waters who named Milstead 'Divine,' and it was Waters who made Divine an underground film star. Divine, in turn, was not only Waters' muse, but his secret weapon. With someone like Divine in the ranks, it's no wonder Waters wrote such outrageous screenplays. Waters is great in the documentary. More than two decades after Divine's death, Waters still speaks of his old friend with a mixture of admiration and awe.  To me, they were the Lennon and McCartney of trash, and for my money, Waters has never been quite as good without Divine, not as shocking, not as exciting. Waters has said that the world has caught up to his trashy sensibilities, but I think Waters, who went on to work with the likes of Melanie Griffith and Kathleen Turner, has been slightly lost without Divine. He simply hasn't found anyone else who could be so funny.


Schwarz was the perfect director for the project. He's produced over 300 docs, and directed over 100, mostly shorts that are packed into DVDs as "extra features." He has done some full length pieces, notably a good one about the old schlockmeister William Castle, and another fine one about Vito Russo, the author of The Celluloid Closet. In 2007, Schwarz produced You Can't Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray for the DVD of the 2007 remake, which featured a section about Waters' original film. It was through the making of that DVD feature that Schwarz met Waters' collaborators, which inspired this tribute to Divine. Schwarz' aim was to portray Divine as a "serious artist and immortal star," but also to tell the story of a man who spit in the eye of convention. All "labor of love" projects should be helmed by such an experienced and competent director. I particularly liked the music on the soundtrack - it features the sort of crazed rockabilly that Waters often used in his earlier films, plus snatches taken from Divine's own recording career.  (If you haven't heard Divine's songs, well, just imagine someone threatening to cut your throat while a propulsive dance beat roared in the background...)

The movie is energetic, moving, and at times, hysterical. There's a nice mix of home movie footage, plus Divine's occasional talk show appearances, footage of his stage performances, and interviews with various people who worked with him, including Rickie Lake, who felt awkward when she was first cast as Divine's daughter in Hairspray, but reveals the two eventually became friends and "eating buddies." It's also interesting to learn about Van Smith, the make up artist  responsible for Divine's outrageous look.

I wish someone in the movie, Waters perhaps, had speculated where Divine would've ended up had he lived. Divine was making an effort to change his image and was taking conventional male roles, sans makeup. At the time of his death he was being groomed for a role in Fox television's 'Married With Children.' Could he have continued in this way? Would we have seen Divine as an old lady? Would Waters have made a film about the aging of his generation, with Divine at the center of it? I'd buy tickets for that one.
 
Like all documentaries which we know ahead of time will end badly (Divine died at 42, sleeping in a hotel) there's a slight sense of doom as the minutes tick by. The mainstream success of Hairspray made Divine's passing doubly hard to take. Still, it's hard to be too sad - Divine was eventually reunited with his parents, became more famous than he'd ever imagined, and according to the film, was never lacking in male companionship. He lived big. He ate big. He spent big.  We may miss him, but we can't honestly say we expected such a huge, human comet to live a long life.

 
(I Am Divine is currently available VOD and as a DVD)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

HATESHIP LOVESHIP...


Hateship Loveship begins with the death of an old woman.

Her caregiver, Johanna (Kristen Wiig), calmly calls the funeral home and makes the arrangements. She does so with very little emotion. It's not that she is cold-hearted, it's that this is what she does. She cooks, and cleans. She looks after people. Now, with her current employer dead, she needs a new situation.

Johanna finds herself in Iowa working for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his snarky teenage granddaughter Sabitha  (Hailee Steinfeld).  Sabitha and her bitchy friend Edith (Sami Gayle) seize up Johanna's dowdy wardrobe and shy demeanor and decide to have some fun with her. Their cruel prank is to send flirtatious letters to Johanna purportedly from Sabitha's dad Ken (Guy Pearce), who is away in Chicago.

Suddenly, as if the letters have cracked open a long blocked reservoir of emotion, Johanna is hit with an all consuming passion. She reads these fake letters repeatedly, blushing as she reads them, rushing to the mail box each morning to find more. She begins to wear lipstick, and considers buying more stylish clothing. In one oddly beautiful scene, she kisses her own reflection in a bathroom mirror. She is filled with the longing and the excitement brought on by love's potential, and her transformation is very moving. Of course, after she kisses the mirror, she quickly wipes away her mouth prints with a zap from her spray bottle. Her old self is battling her new self.

The film, directed with a light, tasteful touch by Liza Johnson - she wrote and directed the unappreciated Return (2011) -  seems to take place during an eternal sundown, that time in the afternoon when the daylight is weakening, schools have emptied out, and rooms seem to get sleepy. Shabby motels, Chinese restaurants, and bus stations seem to exist for these times. It's not the setting we had imagined for Wiig when she left Saturday Night Live two years ago. Johanna is the kind of role Sissy Spacek might have played in her prime, or Meryl Streep or maybe, many years ago, Bette Davis. That Wiig, known for playing slightly hysterical characters, is able to earn our sympathy without being overly mawkish, is one of the great acting feats of the season.

Hateship Loveship is based on a story by Canadian author Alice Munro. She often writes about women struggling through some crisis or another, and being OK at the end. I've read a few of them, and I recall one about a woman who went through all sorts of turmoil, and ended with the protagonist saying that, no matter what happened, she was still the same person, the same person who loved dogs and rainstorms, and that nothing had really changed her. While watching this movie, I wondered if Johanna would have the same sort of realization, that even though she had been the victim of a horrible prank, she would still be the same old Johanna, with her apron and cardigan and ankle socks.

Emboldened by the letters and emails, Johanna journeys to Chicago where Ken is refurbishing a tacky old motel, and supposedly, dreaming about her at night. When Johanna realizes the letters haven't been coming from him,  she briefly comes apart. Then, astoundingly,  she goes about what she does best - cooking and cleaning. The motel is a wreck, and since she's there, she'll help out.  We can tell she's dying inside, but we gradually see that Johanna is tougher at her core than we'd first imagined. 

There's more. Pearce plays Ken as a weary old charmer who has hit rock bottom, but senses that Johanna might actually be good for him - a kind, pretty woman who doesn't mind housekeeping is not a bad deal for any guy.  Jennifer Jason Leigh (always welcome in any movie I'm watching) has a short but memorable turn as Ken's current girlfriend. It's the kind of movie where even Leigh's character, a shady, druggie type, seems sympathetic. Wiig, though, matches these old pros. My favorite scene is when she tries on a suit she'd seen in a shop window, and we can tell that she's unhappy with it. Fear quickly crosses her face; a new life may seem exciting, but it may not fit her.

These brief revelations are what make Wiig so compelling in Hateship Loveship. They make us root for her to get what she wants.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

ONE AND DONE: Gary Poulter RIP




The opening of Joe belongs to Gary Poulter. He's playing G-Daawg, the sinister town drunk. He's sitting on the ground, being berated by his son (Tye Sheridan). Poulter sits there quietly, taking the abuse. We get the feeling he's heard it all before. He seems pathetic, his face mapped by a lifetime of screw ups. Then, like a cobra, Poulter cracks the kid in the face with a slap that shakes the walls of the theater. Then he rises and ambles away, stumbling up a hill. Some men are waiting for him. He acts as if he might walk past them, but they knock him to the ground and kick the hell out of him. He stays on the ground, defeated but still alive. This is Poulter's movie debut. How many other actors get you instantly hooked this way? And he hadn't said a word yet.

Director David Gordon Green wanted real faces in his movie, so casting agents scoped the Austin, Texas area for earthy types who might serve as extras. Poulter was at a bus stop, scrounging around, close enough to overhear the agents having a conversation. When Poulter realized what they were doing in Austin, he approached them.  "I'm an actor," he bellowed. It was sort of true. He'd appeared as an extra many years ago on a 1980s TV show. Now he earned dimes as a "street performer," break dancing and doing monologues from old Vincent Price movies. But that wasn't what grabbed the attention of these Hollywood types. Poulter was only 53 or so, but looked 73, with a chunk of his ear and most of his teeth missing. He could dance a little, and speak Japanese, and talked like a machine gun spewing gravel. There had to be a place for him in this movie. As one of the casting agents would say later, you can't fake cirrhosis of the liver. Hence, Poulter was cast as G-Daawg, the conniving murderous runt whose son prefers the company of an ex-con played by Nicolas Cage.

G-Daawg is every homeless alcoholic who has made you uncomfortable, the one who corners you and leans in a bit too close when he asks for money, the one who appears too drunk to stand but can still pick your pocket. He's the one who dances in the street for spare change, gets a few laughs from the tourists, but then you'll read about him doing something horrible. G-Daawg is the embodiment of America's broken underclass, a delusional sort who probably hasn't bathed in a month, but is vain enough to own a jacket with his name embroidered across the back. 

Green considered Poulter for a small role in the film, but after spending time with him, he knew he had found his G-Daawg. There were concerns, though. Could Poulter be trusted? Would he even show up to the set? Poulter's family assured Green that he wasn't a bad guy, just a bit roughed up from life.  He'd sober up for a while, but his addictions to drugs and alcohol were hard to kick. He was also bipolar, and had known the sort of hard times that would bury most people. He was a lot like G-Daawg. Somehow, Poulter took the role and not only showed up on time, but nearly made himself the centerpiece of the movie. When the production wrapped, Poulter was imagining a new career for himself. There was talk of him appearing in a film being shot in New Mexico. For once, there was some upside to Poulter's life.

Mere weeks after Joe wrapped, Poulter was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died shortly after the diagnosis.  Austin police found him face down at the edge of Lady Bird Lake.  The camp of homeless men he'd been staying with knew he'd been in jail a few years earlier, busted for breaking into a Chipotle's restaurant. 

He hadn't told them he'd been in a movie.

***

There aren't many actors who appear in one movie, steal every scene they're in, and are never  heard from again. But it's not entirely unheard of. Vittorio De Sica, the great Italian director, often cast unknowns in his films. He believed that everyone had one role they could play convincingly. When casting the main player in Umberto D. (1952), De Sica chose Carlo Battisti, a 70-year-old professor from the University of Florence.  Battisti, who had never acted before, was incredibly moving as an elderly homeless man wandering the streets with his dog, searching for shelter. 

Many of De Sica's other "discoveries" went on to appear in more films, but Battisti never acted again.

Harold Russell was an untrained actor when William Wyler cast him as a returning war vet in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Russell had lost his hands in the war and made a striking impression as Homer Parish, a Navy vet fitted with metal hooks. Russell was awarded with an honorary Oscar, and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the only time anyone has ever won two Oscars for the same role.  Other than a few bit parts many decades later, Russell didn't pursue acting. On Wyler's advice, Russell  went back to college, "because there wasn't much call for a guy with no hands in the motion picture industry."

Harold Russell. Carlo Battisti. One role you're born to play.

Gary Poulter.  G-Daawg.

***

There's a scene in Joe that is absolutely spellbinding. G-Daawg is sitting on the sidewalk, as usual, when a frumpy old drunk stumbles past, clutching a bottle of vile looking stuff. G-Daawg spots him, starts following.  He's as creepy as a giant boa seizing up a small monkey.

Whatcha got there?  What are you drinking?

The old guy pays no attention. He sits under a tree and starts guzzling. G-Daawg starts talking, making up a story about his wife being at the hospital. He gets philosophical.  A person just don't know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last....G-Daawg spins a phony tale of his wife's illness, and how he comes into town to check on her, and to have a little drink, too, because there aint nothing wrong with nobody having themselves a little drink now and then...Meanwhile, G-Daawg spots a long iron rod sticking up out of the dirt, a wicked looking thing with double pointed prongs, like devil horns. As he talks he paws at it with his foot, digging it out. Then he picks it up and bashes the old rum-pot in the head a dozen times. Just a few scenes earlier, G-Daawg had been fumbling around on a job, too weak to swing a hammer. Now, craving the alcohol in his victim's hand, he strikes like an avenger. When the man is dead, G-Daawg gently kisses his forehead. He takes a swig from the bottle and walks away.

Even Poulter's walk added something to the film. Slightly splay footed, like Charlie Chaplin, taking those shuffling steps familiar to people with bad hips, or a busted equilibrium. In a scene where he dances, he doesn't show grace and rhythm, but a sort of crazed movement that may have once been watchable but is now just ugly, heavy, like an old piece of machinery breaking down. The film is loaded with great performances, but Poulter's presence  permeates the movie. He radiates bitterness and bad times.  In the novel by Larry Brown, G-Dawg is described only as "the old man." He's horrid by his actions. Poulter makes the character into a human scavenger, wandering crookedly through a daylight hell.

"It was important not just to show the despicable side of him, even as the novel goes into extremely brutal detail," Green said during the Joe press junket. "I wanted to show the broken side of him, to find the sadness in a character that was so aggressively repulsive." When the shooting was over, Green gave Poulter a new set of teeth as a parting gift.
 
Poulter was a rookie, but he was a fast learner. He seemed to say, Put the camera on me and I'll give you something. Watch the way he digs through a dumpster for food like a manic rat, or the way he burns holes into Cage's character with his thousand-mile stare. This is an actor finding his groove, holding nothing back. Some of his scenes made producers weep. Poulter's younger sister told an Austin newspaper that the film was difficult to watch. "Gary's not even acting," she said. "That's so totally him."

Poulter loved being in the movie. He even showed up on days when he wasn't needed, just to watch. Cage liked his sense of humor, and the two bonded over a mutual love of heavy metal music.  The crew liked him. He was funny, and could break up the monotony of a movie set. Poulter liked to joke that he didn't need any special makeup to play a beaten old homeless guy.

Green says a lot of material was shot of Poulter that will end up on the Joe DVD as an extra feature. Poulter would unleash anything that came to his mind. The more seasoned actors would just lay back and let him rip. They didn't want to stop him; it was like watching a volcano boil over. 

The movie people looked after Poulter, moving him into a hotel so he wouldn't be homeless during the shoot. They provided him with a lap top. He communicated with distant family members via Skype. Someone even set him up on that modern fool's parade known as Facebook. When doctors told him he didn't have much longer to live, he posted "...talk about your peeks and valleys..."

Then he was gone. He stopped posting on Facebook, was no longer in touch with his family. Hotel life was too expensive, he said. Time to hit the road again, where he'd been before the movie people found him.



February 19, 2013 was Poulter's last day on Earth. He spent his final moments standing at the edge of Lady Bird Lake, a place where tourists come to watch the bat population. There are over a million bats at Lady Bird Lake. Maybe some  flew overhead as Poulter stood there, not far from a statue  honoring Austin blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. Maybe he was thinking about the weather. The winter had been mild, but there was talk of snowstorms building up along the panhandle.  Maybe he thought about his illness. Maybe he was too drunk to think about anything.

Poulter had been staying at a camp with some other homeless men. According to Austintexas.gov,  there are approximately 2300 homeless Austinites. Some sleep in cars. Some gather at popular tourist spots like the lake, as Poulter did. On his last night, Poulter wandered away from the group to urinate.  He stood at the edge of the lake, unzipped his pants, then fell face first in the muck. That's where he died. The death certificate said "accidental drowning with acute ethanol intoxication".  A person just don't know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.

The men he'd been with at the camp knew nothing about Poulter, other than he'd done a little prison time. That's how it is on the streets. You talk about the hard times, so they know you belong there.

He didn't mention that he'd been in a movie, or that he'd made Nicolas Cage laugh. Maybe he didn't think they'd believe him.  Or maybe, looking back on it, being in a movie wasn't such a big deal. Hell, it was just a role he'd been born to play.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

MICKEY ROONEY'S BEST: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954)






















Drive a Crooked Road  (1954) featured Mickey Rooney's best performance. It's his best because it's his most understated. He doesn't sing or dance. He does no slapstick. The actor who had been making the public laugh since he was a child is quiet here. The most popular actor of the late 1930s, who had married some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, plays a lonely man who can't believe a beautiful woman loves him.  

Eddie Shannon is an ace car mechanic and a hotshot driver. His co-workers at the garage mock him for being short and not knowing any women, but they grudgingly admit he's the best mechanic and driver they've ever seen. He takes their jokes in stride. He seems otherwise occupied, as if all he thinks about are cars and engines and is quietly satisfied with his lot. Even when he eats his bagged lunch with the guys, he seems distant, there but not there.

One afternoon a woman named Barbara brings her car in for repairs. She flirts with Eddie. She invites him to the beach, and then to her home for dinner. We assume that this is a big deal for Eddie, and what's great about Rooney's performance is that we don't see the standard scenes of a lonely character at home. We see Eddie's apartment, a small, cozy place filled with racing trophies, but we don't see him alone eating TV dinners, or any other Hollywood tropes used to signify loneliness. Rooney somehow, inexplicably, transmits his loneliness through his eyes, and through director Robert Quine's decision to put him in scenes alongside tall men. Rooney was never smaller than in this movie. One look at him and you know he's been isolated for so long that he's practically dead inside.  Barbara, played by  Dianne Foster, seems sent from Heaven to help this poor guy out. Eddie's whole demeanor changes. He becomes scrappier, no longer so willing to be the butt of jokes.  But as any asshole will tell you, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Barbara is affiliated with a gang of robbers. They've sent her to maneuver Eddie into working for them. They've plotted a heist, but their escape route involves a long treacherous stretch of road that could only be handled by someone like Eddie Shannon. When Eddie learns of the plan, he goes into denial. He simply can't believe his sweetheart could be manipulating him. He agrees to take part in the plan, perhaps to impress the woman he loves, or perhaps because he wants a cut of the proceeds. He plans to buy a new car and compete in real races in Europe. For once in his life, he's dreaming big. 

You know it can't end well. Steve Norris, the leader of the gang (Kevin McCarthy), mocks Eddie behind his back. He calls him "the midget," and assures Barbara that "when an ugly little guy like that falls for a woman, he falls hard."  Barbara feels guilty, for she actually likes Eddie, and appreciates his kind heart. What Eddie doesn't know is that Barbara and Steve are lovers, planning to take their end of the loot and split.  This is about as heartbreaking as film noir gets. Then again, Rooney was going through some heartbreak of his own.

Rooney started his career as a kid actor in silent movies, went on to become the most popular actor in the country, and then endured one of the longest tailspins in showbiz history. He came back from 20 months of Army service to an America that no longer cared for his style of comedy. He attempted to change his image, appearing in angry little noir films like Killer McCoy (1947) and Quicksand (1950).  He even jumped on the roller derby craze with a movie called The Fireball (1950) Nothing worked. Fate had kicked Andy Hardy in the ass.

By 1954, Rooney's stock was lower than it had ever been. A failed TV show, ugly divorces, and a growing sense of self-destruction was making his personal life a regular headline in the news. It seemed that America's little red-haired mascot had a thing for booze, hookers, and gambling. At 33, he was creating what would soon be an American archetype - the ruined child star.

Drive a Crooked Road was directed by Robert Quine, an old pal of Rooney's from his musical days. Quine was a solid director of comedies, but found a strong sense of darkness and drama for this tale of thieves and crooked roads. Notices were strong. One syndicated columnist raved that Rooney had "come up with...one of the most honest and sympathetic characterizations of his considerable acting career."  Pacific Stars and Stripes described Rooney's nightmarish drive through the escape route as "a hair-raising thing that has the audience stomping the theater floor in search for the brake and gripping the armrests at every curve." The New York Times felt the movie could have been better, but mentioned that Rooney "deserves a special salute for his job." Most reviewers, even those who felt the story was not particularly unique, agreed that Rooney was more subdued than usual, and was living up to his claim that he was trying to be a more serious actor.




The problem was that audiences weren't buying a serious Rooney. For that matter, they weren't buying any version of Rooney. Movie audiences had plenty to choose from in 1954, from Rear Window to On The Waterfront to A Star is Born. Rooney's movie ended up on the bottom half of double bills, and quickly faded from memory.

The next several years were hit and miss for Rooney. He was very fine in films like The Bridges at Toko Ri and The Bold and the Brave, and occasionally scored in TV dramas, but he also worked opposite talking mules and ducks. His personal life remained stormy. He was once kicked off a late night talk show for showing up drunk. Don Siegel, who directed Rooney in Baby Face Nelson (1957), described him in a memoir as "one of the most talented actors I've ever worked with. However, the combination of Mickey and a six-pack was usually a disaster. He'd become vicious, morose, and very stubborn."

He made his comeback years later, reinventing himself as a character actor, no longer a leading man, but the sort who could take a smaller role and steal the show. Two decades after Drive a Crooked Road, Rooney was everywhere, appearing in Disney movies and on Broadway, picking up awards left and right. He was a survivor, tougher and more durable than anyone might have imagined. That part of himself is what he poured into Eddie, and it's why Eddie has stayed in my mind ever since I first saw this movie.

Part of what made Eddie Shannon so interesting was that beneath his shy demeanor was a constitution of iron. At the film's climax, when Steve sends one of his goons out to kill Eddie, we see Eddie's real self come blazing to the fore. He drives his car off the road to crash it, killing the hoodlum in the passenger seat. Climbing out of the wreckage, his face bruised and blackened from smoke, Eddie grabs the hood's pistol and begins a long walk back to Steve's beach house. He walks with the grimness of a man going to settle a score, and even though he's a small man, we believe he has bad intentions and will carry them out. He finds Steve and Barbara on the beach arguing. Steve tries to intercept Eddie, but after a quick struggle, the gun goes off and sends Steve reeling into the ocean. As the police arrive, Barbara is on the ground, weeping. Eddie kneels next to her, telling her not to cry, gently patting her hair. He's probably going to jail for manslaughter and for aiding in a robbery, but in his mind he's a winner. A woman loved him, or so he believes, and he fought for her.  

Everyone should have something like Drive a Crooked Road on their resume, a moment different from everything else you've done. It's always interesting to see that there is more to a guy than anyone knew. Just like with Eddie Shannon. Or Mickey Rooney.

Friday, April 11, 2014

JOE...



Joe isn't much for small talk. He laughs when he finds something funny. When he's angry, he snarls. He's a bit like the killer dog he keeps, an American bulldog named 'Dog.' But Joe's simplicity hides a complex life. He's an ex-con, having done time many years ago for assaulting a cop. He still likes to mix it up with the local cops, especially the ones who are just looking for someone to mess with. He's a respectable citizen, though, working as a supervisor for a crew that kills trees so lumbermen can cut them down. The men who work for Joe seem to respect him and like him. "He's got a lot under his belt," one of them says early in the film, but there's a sense in Joe that nearly everyone in this backwoods area has something boiling underneath the surface. Later in the film a friendly police chief tells Joe, "I used to be as bad as you." Joe answers, "You were worse."

Nicolas Cage plays Joe as a slightly weary, but still hostile character. "I made the mistakes, but they won't let me live them down," he says of the cops who still harass him. With his full beard and shambling walk, Cage cuts through the movie like a slightly faded viking warrior. It's his best work in years, making us remember when he was one of Hollywood's most adventurous young actors back in the 1980s, the sort who seemed like he was trying for an Oscar every time he came up to the plate.

What is most intriguing about Joe is that he's not entirely bitter. He has fun at times. He knows the local prostitutes well, he even has a young girlfriend who seems fond of him. Local shop owners seem to like him, too. He has enemies, including Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) a scarred up lunatic who loses to Joe in a barroom fight and then tries to shoot him a few days later. Joe seems indestructible, pulling the bullet out himself. 

Into Joe's life comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old looking for a job.  Gary's home life is a tragic mess, as he suffers regular beatings and embarrassments at the hands of his drunk father (Gary Poulter), a dipsomaniac who calls himself "G-Daawg" and  can be seen break-dancing in the dusty streets in the middle of the day. In Joe, Gary sees some better version of what a man should be. Joe treats him squarely, pays him, and shows trust in him. When Gary brings his father to Joe for a possible job, the old drunk gets himself fired on the first day.  Joe is hesitant at first, but he knows Gary needs a friend. "I can't get my hands dirty on every little thing," he says to his girlfriend. But Joe's heart is too big to let Gary flail in the wind while G-Daawg causes trouble. 

The bonding between man and boy is complete when Joe's dog goes missing and Gary helps him find her.  In gratitude, Joe promises Gary that if G-Daawg ever beats him again, "I'll fuck him up." Then he gives Gary a cigarette lighter to impress the ladies. (Cage's fans will enjoy a scene where Joe teaches Gary how to make a "cool face," instructing him to stand as if he owns land, squint as if he's in pain, and then smile through the pain. Cage, who has endured his share of jokes about his acting style, revels in the scene.)

We know that there will eventually be an encounter between Joe and G-Daawg, and we know it will be bloody. Director David Gordon Green lures us to the showdown with considerable grace and skill. The movie was filmed in and around Austin, Texas, but it feels bigger, as if Green somehow enlarged the sky and the landscapes. There's so much roughness here - everyone seems to own a rabid dog, and no one thinks twice about skinning a deer in the living room. Even the weather seems mean, rain hammering down as if nature itself wants to prevent these people from getting ahead. Green has moved so deftly between comedy and drama over the years that I wonder if we have a new Howard Hawks in our midst. Along with regular collaborator Tim Orr (cinematography) and screenwriter Gary Hawkins,  Green turned Larry Brown's novel into something both dour and epic, a film that should be remembered alongside the likes of Sling Blade, Shane, and Grand Torino.

The acting is excellent across the board. I'd laud Poulter as one of the finds of the year, but I've learned that he died shortly after the movie was made. Green often casts locals in his movies, and Poulter was simply an Austin "street entertainer" who needed a job. His G-Daawg is one of the great movie villains of recent years.  As for Cage, there was talk a few years ago that he'd nearly taken the main role in The Wrestler, but it went to Mickey Rourke.  Some lamented that a great role had fallen through Cage's fingers, something he'd needed in recent years. Just as well. He has a great role here, and shows he can still deliver. Joe is quite an achievement. 
 
* * *

Read more about Gary Poulter,   http://donstradley.blogspot.com/2014/04/one-and-done-gary-poulter-rip.html


FINDING VIVIAN MAIER...



Vivian Maier's final years were unpleasant. Paranoid, friendless, and eating out of dumpsters, she'd become one of those characters we occasionally see in our lives: the mysterious old woman on the park bench.  That she may end up being remembered as one of the finest street photographers of the 20th century doesn't make her final days any more or less sad, for as we learn in John Maloof's Finding Vivian Maier, she'd kept her talents a secret. In fact, it was one of many secrets in her life.

You may know the story. Maloof, a local historian who was writing a book about Chicago, happened to bid on a box of random photographs and negatives at a small local auction. After finding some of Maier's old photographs of Chicago street life, he realized he had something special. He posted some of these photos on the Internet, which lead to Maier becoming a sort of Chicago cult figure.

Over time, Maloof hunted down a vast collection of Maier's undeveloped photos (negatives numbering in the thousands), as well as her clothes, shoes, and enough newspaper clippings and odd junk to qualify her as a dangerous hoarder. What he learned was that she had been a nanny for most of her life, living in a series of cluttered attic apartments in the homes where she worked. The nanny's life allowed Maier to roam the streets and neighborhoods in search of subjects.  The children she tended often came with her on these jaunts, even into the rough neighborhoods where Maier liked to shoot. It is from their recollections that we learn about this strange, remarkable woman.



People remember Maier as a tall woman - one woman describes Maier as seven-feet tall, which is how she must have appeared to children - with a loping, Frankensteinish walk, dressed in men's clothing, her trusty Rolleiflex camera dangling around her neck. She spoke with an accent, which some feel was affected (she was born in New York, but spent part of her childhood in France with French relatives). She didn't trust men, and some of the interviewees speculate that Maier may have been molested at some point in her own childhood, so profound was her distaste for men.

Maier sometimes described herself as "sort of a spy." She even went through a phase where she carried a portable tape recorder around to interview people. One funny audio clip has her interviewing random people in supermarkets about the resignation of Richard Nixon, while another has her asking some children "What can a person do to live forever?" I think she was a fun person at this time in her life, with  a dry sense of humor and irony. If she approached me in a supermarket, I'd like to think I would indulge her for a minute.

Maloof is crafty as he doles out the information, leading us along as if solving a detective tale. He doesn't gloss over Maier's dark side, either. She had a growing fascination with murder scenes, and her hoarding and  reclusiveness were not signs of a healthy person. A couple of the kids she looked after in her later years remembered her as mean; one woman describes a horrible scene where Maier lost her temper and started choking her. As one person recounts, "She'd gone beyond eccentric."

Then there are the photos. Maier was brilliant. Her style was a cross between the eerie tableau of Diane Arbus, and the gritty street dramas of Wee Gee. She had a way of stepping into a scene, stealthily snapping her shot, and disappearing. The result, almost 100 percent of the time, was breathtaking. Some of my favorite scenes in Finding Vivian Maier are when other photographers discuss her work. There's an admiration that borders on bewilderment, as if they can't quite figure out how she did it. Horses seem to pose for Maier in mid-strut; homeless men seem noble;  figures in a bustling city seem isolated, nearly dead from loneliness. Maier wandered the streets shooting these scenes, stealing moments, and then locking them away.

Your feelings about Maier may be tested after one story involving a little boy who was struck by a car. Rather than check to see if he was was hurt, Maier began snapping photographs of the downed boy and the frightened onlookers. Irresponsible? Perhaps. Cold-blooded? Maybe. But guess what? The photographs are riveting.

As exciting as it may be to have discovered a new artist, some have wondered if  this documentary is little more than an invasion of a disturbed woman's privacy. Many of the interviewed subjects say Maier would be aghast at the attention being paid to her now. Some, however, feel she would have enjoyed showing her work - Maloof uncovered one of her attempts to have a French printer develop some of her negatives for distribution, which shows Maier was not only proud of her work, but at least briefly entertained their commercial potential. Is this film an invasion of her privacy? Well, no more than when Maier herself used to creep up on people with her camera.

Then again, as much as we learn about Maier in this movie, she remains a mystery. Are there clues in her photos? The one recurring motif I noticed was when she'd place an object on the floor and then shoot it, as her shadow towered over the scene. She also seemed fond of shooting her own reflection in store windows. She imagined herself a ghost, I think, hovering over these neighborhoods, trying to capture something of this world.