Sunday, July 27, 2014


Clara Bow was once asked to share her thoughts on Marilyn Monroe's death.

"A sex symbol," Bow said, " is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered."

Bow, born July 29, 1905, knew what she was talking about. Four decades before Monroe sang 'Happy Birthday" for President Kennedy, Bow was blazing the trail for actresses like Monroe to follow.

At the height of Bow's immense popularity she received 45,000 fan letters in a month, and starred in such blockbuster hits as "The Plastic Age" (1925), "Mantrap" (1926), and "Wings" (1927). She was the movie game’s top draw in 1927 and ‘28, and for a time was Hollywood's leading money earner, receiving $35,000 per week.

Confident in her talent after winning a magazine contest for her looks and acting, Bow began approaching New York movie studios at age 16. She was soon landing small roles and making an impression with every screen appearance. A track runner and star athlete in high school, Bow often found herself cast as tomboys. But when the 1920s "Flapper" craze hit, Bow found her niche. She became the embodiment of working class girls everywhere who wanted to strike out on their own, shorten their skirts, and have some fun!

After starring in "It" (1927), another smash hit, Bow became known as Hollywood's "It girl."  When a reporter asked her what "it" meant, she responded in her thick Brooklyn accent, "I aint real sure."  

As far as Bow was concerned, life was best taken at high speeds with the top down. She purchased red Chow dogs to match her hair color, and created a trend with her way of applying red lipstick in the shape of a heart. Her personal life made as many headlines as her box office totals, for she wasn’t shy about her off screen romances with the likes of Gary Cooper and Gilbert Roland. When reporters goaded her about her love life, she disarmed them with witty one liners. “The more I see of men,” she said, “the more I like dogs.”

Bow was also years ahead of her time in the way she spoke in interviews. While most performers were carefully guided by publicity agents in those days, Bow’s tendency was to let it rip, sharing hair raising stories about a childhood spent in poverty, and a mother who was mentally unstable and sometimes violent. Many found Bow’s forthrightness to be vulgar, but she preferred to tell the truth than to hide behind a manufactured image.

Historians have occasionally dismissed Bow as just another actress whose career ended with the advent of sound. In actuality, although she struggled to embrace sound technology, her talkies were successful.  When it came to putting customers in the seats, Bow towered over her contemporaries.

Unfortunately, Bow’s final years were difficult.  She'd retired from movies at 25, troubled by  mental exhaustion, and increasingly scandalous articles about her sex life.   She tried to focus on her marriage to cowboy star Rex Bell, but was often under extreme psychiatric care.  By the time of her death in 1965 at age 60, Bow was a reclusive and forgotten figure.

Bow’s unhappy ending was a kind of bookend, matching the sadness of her early life. But those miserable childhood years lead her to find solace and escape the way many of us do - at the movies.  

"For the first time in my life," Bow said of an early movie going experience, "I knew there was beauty in the world."

On the occasion of her birthday, let's remember Clara Bow as a major star of her time.  She had her own heavy load, and was probably bewildered by her popularity, but the Roaring Twenties wouldn't have roared so loudly without her.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

DVD DUMPSTER DIVING: Dangerous Obsession...

It’s hard to say why the brain trust at Troma decided to release Dangerous Obsession on DVD this year. Perhaps someone thought the Esquire network’s recent re-airing of the old HBO Dream On series would create interest in Brian Benben, who stars in this film (originally called Mortal Sins) as Nathan Weinschenk, a brash private investigator from New York who gets involved in a complex murder case involving some transplanted Southern religious zealots. But even if there is a sudden renewed interest in the Benben catalog, it’s difficult to imagine that even the most devoted Benben completists would derive any pleasure from this cheaply made 1989 flick with its clichés and hack dialogue. I can’t even label this one as decent 1980’s kitsch.

When Reverend Park Sung (James Saito) is murdered in his Manhattan apartment, Weinschenk is hired by rival evangelist Malcolm Rollins’ (James Harper) who wants to protect his own Manhattan church (‘The Divine Church of the People’). Weinschenk also ends up protecting Rollins’ lovely daughter (Debrah Farentino), which adds a little steam to the proceedings. The daughter, you see, has a complicated sex life, as most women in movies did back in the late 1980s, whether or not they knew Mickey Rourke or Michael Douglas.

Weinschenk mines the humor of being a Jew in a nest of bible-thumping Southern vipers. True, the idea of Southern-fried televangelists setting up shop in Manhattan may have sounded edgy at the time (this was the 1980s, remember, when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were involved in serious scandals, and TV preachers had become popular punching bags), but the film is played out in such broad strokes that any good ideas are quickly crushed by cartoonish acting. 

Weinschenk, for instance, has the stereotypical Jewish parents who are oblivious to anything outside their little household. He also shares his office with a no-account male relative (I couldn’t tell if they were brothers or cousins) and there’s even a running gag where the Southern folks can’t pronounce his name.

If the Jewish stereotypes aren’t enough, we also get a lot of TV private eye clichés. As if he’s auditioning for a role in a network cop show, Weinschenk drives a classic 1950s car, and listens to classic R&B (I’ll give some points to this movie for including a cut of Jackie Wilson’s ‘No Pity In the Naked City’). He also thinks he’s a real wiseass, although his level of wit is restricted to lines like, “Nice work if you can get it.” Benben curses a lot, too, and while he can drop the F-bombs with convincing venom, he’s still stuck with playing a wooden character. The Southern stereotypes are pretty thick, too. The Southerners are all portrayed as bloated, effete, Jerry Falwell types, speaking in exaggerated, syrupy drawls; if you told me they were all stoned on Quaaludes during filming, I’d believe you. The perfectly named Brick Hartney has some success as the slimy Billy Beau Backus, playing his part like a community theater star vamping for his friends in the front row. Proving that some people know how to get out while they’re on top, Hartney never acted in films again. 

There are plenty of extras here, but none are about Dangerous Obsession. The extras are solely Troma related, including vintage trailers for The Toxic Avenger, Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1, Badmouth, Poultrygeist, and Cars3, plus a snippet of a Troma documentary called How To Sell Your Own Damn Movie, featuring filmmaker James Gunn discussing the dubious wonders of social media. 

For those who enjoy spotting character actors early in their careers, you’ll find a surprising number of them in Dangerous Obsession. Anthony LaPaglia has a small role, as does Maggie Wheeler, who went on to recurring roles on Friends, Ellen, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Anyone who has watched TV during the past 25 years will also recognize Peter Onorati, who has made a career out of playing guys named Angelo or Sal. Director Yuri Sivo and screenwriter Allen Blumberg have worked infrequently since 1989 – Blumberg has directed a couple of small projects, with Sivo’s highpoint being a couple episodes of the Swamp Thing TV series.

On the plus side, Dangerous Obsession is visually striking, with a sophisticated use of shadows and silhouettes. That’s no surprise since it was shot by underrated veteran Bobby Bukowski, whose recent work includes two excellent titles, The Messenger (2009) and, what is perhaps my favorite movie of the past few years, The Iceman (2012). Even while strapped to a no-budget howler like Dangerous Obsession, Bukowski shows the immense talent that would make him one of the most reliable and sought after cinematographers of the past two decades. (Hell, he even shot Shakes the Clown!) In fact, I’d only recommend this DVD to those who want to marvel at how a ham-handed script made on an Ed Wood budget can feature so many lollipops for the eye. Even the final shot is superb, with Weinschenk and his girlfriend arguing on a fire escape, the camera pulling back and wheeling around to reveal a lush New York skyline at what must have been the so-called magic hour. The idea that the evil Southerners are gone and the New Yorkers can get back to arguing among themselves is trite, but Bukowski shoots it like he’s practicing for his future.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Press release: Yasmine; 12 Monkeys


Toronto (July 24, 2014) - Ahead of its North American premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, 108 Media has acquired worldwide rights to the action packed martial arts film, YASMINE. As the first commercial film out of Brunei Darussalam, this Bruneian tale was directed by Siti Kamaluddin and stars the talentedLiyana Yus as lead, Yasmine. The deal was brokered by 108 Media's Jordan Nutson and Din Kamaluddin of Origin Films, on behalf of the producers. 108 Media plans to release the film in North America.

"108 Media is excited to be bringing this thrilling, action-packed gem to the international marketplace," said Nutson.

YASMINE , a free-spirited young girl, joins her college silat club after losing her lover's affections to her longtime rival and fellow martial arts enthusiast. In a tale of love and war, Yasmine discovers that love is never easy, but some dreams are worth fighting for...

SYFY Channel News


Los Angeles, CA, July 28, 2014 - Emily Hampshire (COSMPOLIS, ALL THE WRONG REASONS) has been cast in a major role in the Syfy series 12 Monkeys. Hampshire is set to play the role previously portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film version.

Based on the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, 12 Monkeys follows the journey of a time traveler from the post-apocalyptic future who appears in present day on a mission to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will eventually decimate the human race.

The character was the eccentric, fanatical animal rights activist who initially meets the main character - played in the film by Bruce Willis - in a mental hospital. The character is suspected of releasing the virus on behalf of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

 The series stars Aaron Stanford (X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, THE HILLS HAVE EYES), Amanda Schull (J. EDGAR, Suits), and Kirk Acevedo (DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES).

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I didn't do much as a teenager. I watched a lot of television. I played guitar in a garage band, and we once won a trophy at a high school battle of the bands. I liked horror movies and professional wrestling, and I thought Jack Nicholson was very cool. I vaguely remember acting in a class play, and taking a trip to the New England Aquarium. I had crushes on my friends' sisters. I was the last kid in my circle to get a job. I never wanted to work, and I still don't. 

Mostly, I wanted to get the teenage years  over with so I could become an adult of some kind. While watching Matt Wolf's Teenage, an occasionally amusing documentary about the history of teens, I felt like I'd missed out on something. Apparently, as we're told in the documentary, I was supposed to spend those years fighting the establishment, or creating a dance craze, or battling my elders for the right to express myself. I didn't do any of that. Watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS was good enough for me.

From what I gathered from watching Teenage, we released children from unwholesome labor practices about 100 years ago, and ever since then we've been trying to put them back to work, usually in quasi-military organizations like the Boy Scouts or the Hitler youth. Nothing really worked, though. Once we took the brats out of the factories, there was no way to corral them. They fought. They stole. They danced. They were like hyper aggressive puppies who wouldn't obey. They seemed to like music, for many of the old clips in the movie reveal kids from every generation talking about their record collection. Other than that, they complained a lot. No matter the decade, teens have whined about their lot in life. Teachers and parents keep them down. No one understands them. Teens sounded just as petulant than as now.

The ideas expressed in Teenage aren't bad ones, but Wolf tries too hard to be poetic. He has access to some very interesting footage, including some of a very young man who has returned from WW1 a twitchy, shell-shocked mess.  But he and screenwriter Jon Savage appear to have decided early on that their movie was going to be unlike most documentaries of this type, and would focus on teens from around the world, and not just America. It also avoids the usual stuff about marketing ploys and how teens are really just dupes for whatever the big corporations want to sell to them. Instead, we're told that teens created the society we're living in, or something like that. As I look around on a daily basis, that's nothing to brag about.

The movie works best when it reveals things that have been lost to history, particularly in the lives of British teens of the 1920s and '30s. I wish some of those scenes could have been lengthened, but Wolf seems leery of staying on a topic or idea for too long. Maybe he thinks the movie will be viewed only by teens, who have notoriously short attention spans.

The movie is also marred by an ambient electronic musical score that turns every scene into a slow motion dirge. The music occasionally works - I liked how the scenes of jitterbug kids seemed to play perfectly against this modern score - but ultimately the music starts to wear on one's nerves. The movie is only 77 minutes long, but just as I wanted my teen years to pass quickly, I also couldn't wait for this movie to end.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Under The Skin is perhaps the most self-consciously artsy horror film since The Hunger (1983). It drips with odd lighting effects, and dreamlike imagery, while enigmatic characters wander about the Scottish countryside. But for a movie bold enough to cast Scarlett Johansson as an alien feasting on male victims, the whole event is rather sexless and dull.

Some moments hint at what could have been. The opening scene, for instance, which appears to represent Johansson's birth, is fascinating, just a slowly evolving blob that turns into an eyeball, while we hear Johansson's voice trying out words and sounds, as if she's learning to speak simultaneously with her body taking shape. There's also a fellow on a motorcycle who seems to be Johansson's partner in this, helping her gather victims so that she may do her strange business.  I don't know what she does, exactly. I suppose she drains them of their essence - we see one of them evaporate from within, until he's nothing but a floating Kleenex.  And it's all murky and in slow motion, so it's all the more freaky for us little folks in the audience.

Johansson drives around Glasgow in a dirty white van, picking up hitchhikers and bringing them to some strange location that might be in her mind (or their mind?) where they sink into a liquid and disappear. Or something. Where did she get the van? How did she learn to drive it? I couldn't tell you.

One scene involves her meeting a man on a beach. She hits him in the head with a rock and drags him away. This particular scene is carried out with the same dull persistence of a seagull working over a crab. Another moment involves her picking up a young man who suffers from a physical deformity. This scene almost leads somewhere, as Johannson appears to take some pity on him. But ultimately, like most of the movie's scenes, it evaporates without getting anywhere...


With her messy black hair,  heavy eye liner, overdone lips, and ragged fur coat, Johansson seemed less like an alien and more like Cillian Murphy's drag queen in Breakfast on Pluto.   She wanders around, staring at things, chatting up her victims in an accent that sounds like one of the Spice Girls. She occasionally strips nude, and her curvy little body is supposed to be an irresistible enticement to the dumb Scottish lads who fall into her trap. Director Robert Glazer bathes her in all sort of blues and reds, which is striking at times but eventually starts to feel as if Johansson is standing next to a lava lamp.  I suppose the big influence here is The Man Who Fell To Earth  (1977), another movie that had some interesting visuals but didn't amount to much. David Bowie played the alien in that one, and I'll give Johansson this much credit: she's slightly better at the alien thing than Bowie. But that's not saying much.

There's a quote about fame that is attributed to Elvis Presley, something about "I felt like a prized cow that had been penned up. I figured, what the hell, I'll just graze." I thought of that quote while watching Under The Skin, for Johansson seems to be at a point in her career where she's grazing. She wanders from part to part, a comic book movie here, a romantic comedy there, like a bored bee sampling flowers. Now she seems to be in a sci-fi groove. She played the computer voice in Her, and is soon to play a kind of super human in Luc Bresson's Lucy. Why doesn't she just do the remake of Barbarella and get it over with? 
As for Under The Skin, it's all tinsel and no tree. I will grant that the scene where Johansson sheds her skin to reveal what she looks like underneath has an unexpected melancholy to it, and the movie's end is imbued with an elegiac beauty, but I'm not in line with some observers who have praised it as one of the top films of the year. I think it's a bunch of fancily wrapped fluff. Fifty years ago, it would have been a cheap drive-in flick made by Roger Corman, it would have been called The Astounding She Monster, and it would have been twice as fun and more successful. Or depending on how you feel about such things, just as bad.

Thursday, July 17, 2014



The first image we see in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a handsome new documentary by Nicholas D. Wrathall, is of Vidal at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C., standing over what will soon be his own tomb. He’s heavier than we remember, leaning on a cane for balance. He recalls a few friends who are already buried nearby, mentions his “pathological hatred of death,” and ambles away. This is the titan at midnight, crumbling at the edges, still formidable. 

The movie’s cryptic opening segues into a respectful, occasionally moving, look back at Vidal’s life. It’s more a tribute than a full-blown biography, for Wrathall presents Vidal as a kind of intellectual colossus, utterly devoid of faults, a near perfect thinker, and the last lion of America’s golden age of liberalism. The movie stops short of hagiography, but just barely. What keeps it interesting is Vidal, a born entertainer who, even in his final years, could still spin a tale, drop a name, or do an impression of JFK. 

Vidal seems a natural subject for a documentary - there have been several already, including a 2004 episode of the PBS American Masters series - for his life was very much like a long, American novel of the 1920s. His mother was a ditzy alcoholic. His father was an aeronautics instructor at West Point, had an affair with Amelia Earhart, and wanted to be the Henry Ford of aviation. The job of raising Vidal was left to his blind grandfather, the fiery Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. When Vidal reminisces about the senator, the respect and awe is palpable. T.P. passed on to Vidal not just his liberal politics, but also a love of literature, and a fearsome oratory skill. 

After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vidal went on to become a scandalous novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a television dramatist during TV’s golden age; he was a self-described member of the ruling class who struggled to escape it; he never referred to himself as ‘gay,’ but wrote books and essays defending bisexual and homosexual lifestyles; he was deeply involved in politics, and later, was a TV gadfly, appearing on The Tonight Show a dozen times, as well as many other programs, even lending his voice to The Simpsons and Family Guy. 

Wrathall taps most of those aspects of Vidal’s past (not, alas, the cartoon work), but focuses mainly on Vidal the political commentator, the weary traveler who sees America as a series of shams and failures, the gruff grumbler. Indeed, the movie shows Vidal holding court at various speaking engagements; all he has to do is call George Bush “a fool,” and the walls of the joint practically come down. If the movie has a glaring fault, it’s that we see Vidal go from being a young author of gay themed novels to a socio-politico bon vivant, with very little in between to illustrate his journey. Instead, Wrathall relies on nameless, faceless narrators to offer such bromides as “Gore was everywhere, like a shape shifter.” 

The cornerstone of any documentary about Vidal will be his televised 1968 debates with William F. Buckley. Wrathall includes a hearty helping of them here, and they still bristle nearly 50 years after their first airing on ABC. Buckley is especially fascinating – he’s so effete he doesn’t even know how to show anger. He bites his lip and cranes his neck like a man having a fit. Vidal doesn’t come off well either. He and Buckley were both trying so hard to be witty, and so unable to conceal their hatred of each other, that whatever topic was on the table grew cold quickly.

Much of the footage comes from late in Vidal’s life, when he was bothered by physical problems and needed help getting around. Hence, we see Vidal being helped up stairs, helped across bridges, helped up hills, helped onto a stage at the 2005 Pen awards, and carted around in a wheelchair. These scenes are interwoven with a sort of “greatest hits” collection from Vidal’s past, where the great pundit railed at this and that, his words rolling over his enemies like a tank. The effect is entertaining enough, and if Wrathall intended to depict Vidal as a fallen hero, he sort of succeeds. Still, a more thorough and less deferential documentary might have considered some of Vidal’s resounding flops. Remember Caligula?

Vidal’s long life, which included friendships with Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman, and other bright lights of our popular culture, can’t be jammed into a 90 minute documentary. For instance, Truman Capote is barely mentioned, which is akin to leaving Joe Frazier out of a movie about Muhammad Ali. The saucier aspects of Vidal’s life, such as his affairs with women, are not mentioned here, either. His engagement to Newman’s future wife, Joanne Woodward, is ignored, although there are several odd photos of the Newmans with Vidal, including one of Vidal and Newman fondling a statue’s buttocks.

Wrathall doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on Vidal’s books, or the notion, held by many, that Vidal possessed a great facility with words but could not quite write a masterpiece. Instead, Wrathall gets cute and shoots close-ups of Vidal’s pithy quotes, including “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And, “Never offend an enemy in a small way.” Anyone who doesn't know better might think Vidal composed blurbs for fortune cookies. 

Where Wrathall succeeds grandly is in showing Vidal’s soft side. It's touching to hear of Vidal's relationship with longtime companion Howard Auster, and Wrathall is smart to let the camera linger when Vidal turns melancholy. Watch how Vidal pauses when recalling a childhood friend who died in WW2, or the way his eyes mist over when he recalls “school boy’s stuff, at a boys’ school, long, long, long ago.” These moments, and the gorgeous scenery surrounding Vidal’s Italian home, make the documentary worth seeing. Wrathall’s movie is like one of Vidal’s novels in that it’s not great, but very good.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Give Jason Bateman credit for trying. Many years ago, when Tom Hanks stopped playing likable wimps and started playing more adult characters, Hollywood decided Bateman would be its new likable wimp. He's worn the crown well. In fact, it's not a stretch to imagine Bateman in a remake of The Money Pit or Turner and Hooch. Every now and then Batemen shows a different side, but he generally reigns it in and shows that he's still a good guy at heart. The closest he's come to entirely abandoning his character may have been in Juno, when he played a callow, uncertain man who harbored feelings for the pregnant girl whose child he was supposed to adopt.  I liked him in that movie, as he played a sly cat and mouse game with Ellen Page. That's why I looked forward to Bad Words, which Bateman not only starred in but chose as his directing debut. The subject an actor chooses to direct reveals a lot. How does Bateman view himself, I wondered. Would he give us more of his old good guy charm, or would he unleash the unpleasant character he occasionally plays?

The answer is he does both. The movie certainly starts with a noxious bang, with Bateman as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged man who has found a loophole in the rules of spelling bees, and proceeds to tour the country, destroying his 12-year-old competitors. He's a misanthropic, foul mouthed lout, and when he's not spelling overstuffed words like "antidisestablishmentariansism," he's scorching people with some pretty good insults. I loved the first half of the movie, and at times it reminded me of another movie I liked from a few years back, Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa.

Unfortunately, the anarchy of the first half gives way to a predictable second half. Trilby befriends a young boy he meets at one of the competitions, and you just know that gruff old Trilby is going to soften up. When Trilby mentions a favorite toy car from his childhood, you just know that the kid is going to give him one. On and on it goes. The smart, mean movie of the first half becomes a routine contemporary story involving kicks to the groin, some ho-hum sexual encounters, and a couple of uninteresting plot twists, the most important one involving Trilby's unhappy relationship with his estranged father. I almost wish the movie had just been about a 40-year-old asshole who likes to win spelling bees. He would've been a much more fascinating, subversive character. Instead, Trilby's a lot less interesting once we get to know him.

The movie is unique in one aspect, though. In a way, it's a rom-com about a man and a boy: man meets boy, man loses boy, man gets boy again. They even ride off together at the movie's conclusion.

So what did I gather about Bateman in all of this? The obvious thing was that  no matter how unpleasant he is at the movie's beginning, he couldn't quite let go of his good-guy persona.  He's also a competent director, for no matter how predictable the story became, it was never dull.

Finally, Bateman has been in the entertainment business since he was a child, and here he is making a movie about spelling bee competitors, which is a form of child stardom. The boy in the movie, played by a likable young actor named Rohan Chand, is lonely and looking for friends. He practically wills himself into Trilby's life.  How much of this, I wonder, was a kind of wish fulfillment on Bateman's part, thinking back to his days as a kid star on Silver Spoons and Little House on the Prairie. Had Bad Words been more fearless and not relied on such hackneyed plot turns, it might have been a compelling look at a grown man embracing the embodiment of his lonely inner child. As is, you get to hear Bateman say a lot of rude stuff about a woman's vagina, which is supposedly ok as long as you turn out to be a nice guy at the end.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

CONRACK (1974) ...

 Martin Ritt's Conrack, now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, first hit theaters in 1974.  This was a time when new, brash directors were reinventing American cinema,  a time when movie screens were likely spackled with vomit from demonically possessed little girls, or blood from the victims of Dirty Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum. Theaters in your neighborhood were just as likely to be playing hardcore porn as the latest Paul Newman movie.  Ritt's simple tale of an optimistic white teacher in a schoolroom of dirt poor black students was a success just by squeaking through to its birth. 

Looking at it 40 years later, one is struck by two things, namely, Jon Voight's relentless energy and goodwill as the big-hearted teacher, and the very realistic performances from the kids.  Even while acknowledging the film's uneven tone, or what one critic deemed "a crazy quilt of naturalism, farce, and soap opera all jumbled together," one is still intrigued by Conrack.  Maybe the idea that a caring soul might try to educate some people who would otherwise remain ignorant strikes a primal cord within us.  Maybe there's something irresistible about sheltered folks suddenly realizing there is more to the world than their dirty little backwater.   Or maybe, and this might trump all the other maybes, we all hated school so much that we wish our own lives had been enriched, even briefly, by someone like Conrack. 

Pat Conroy, a young idealist, takes a teaching position on a remote island in a South Carolina river delta.  He's vowed to grow his hair until the war stops (the story takes place in 1969) and the locals look at him as if they're seeing a mythical animal up close, for a towering blonde white man on an island made up almost entirely of blacks is as odd as a unicorn.  The locals can't even pronounce his name, which creates the movie's title.  The newly dubbed Conrack fends off their suspicions with a grin as wide as the Bible belt, and then sets about teaching "the babies," as these fifth through eighth graders are called.  He's shocked to find out the level of his students' ignorance - they can't read, they know nothing about life beyond the island, they've never heard of Babe Ruth or Halloween, have never played football, and, Heaven forbid, they don't even know that coffee comes from Brazil. 

Based on Pat Conroy's memoir ‘The Water Is Wide,’ the story follows Conrack's effort to help these children even as he is met by resistance from the school's principal, a middle aged black woman (Madge Sinclair) who believes the children need to beaten with a leather strap, and superintendent Skeffington (Hume Cronyn), a grinning sadist who likes to grab a kid by the thumb and twist, a punishing move he calls "milking the rat."   Add to this a local drunk (Paul Winfield) who skulks around the island like Boo Radley, the talkative Mr. Quickfellow (Antonio Fargas) who stalks 13-year-old girls with promises of new dresses, plus the natural reluctance of students who have never been challenged, and it seems Conrack has entered a world that may be too much for him to conquer. 

Yet, armed with nothing but his enthusiasm, Conrack gradually earns the love and respect of the classroom. The kids, as meek as church mice at the movie’s start,  are soon chanting James Brown songs, and dressed up for a Halloween trip to Beaufort.  Conrack's teaching methods are unorthodox - he tickles, wrestles, and teases the students, and when he learns that no one on the island knows how to swim, he promptly throws the kids, one by one, into the river. His freewheeling style gets results. He even gets the class to sit still long enough to listen to some recordings of classical music.  

I like how the kids calmly pay attention to the sounds coming from the old turntable.  In a more contemporary movie, they all would have picked up instruments, mastered them overnight,  and would have then gone on to win a contest of some kind, for in modern America a story is only uplifting if you can crush someone and win a prize. But in Conrack, the kids merely listen; they’re quietly mystified by the music, happy that they can come close to pronouncing the names of Beethoven or Brahms. Conrack even picks up one of the younger boys and cradles him as the music plays, inviting him to close his eyes and sleep.  Somehow, Conrack's good intentions get him labeled as "an outside agitator" and fired from his job. Conrack tries to fight the verdict but is no match for Skeffington’s power as superintendent. His good spirit bloodied but unbowed, Conrack leaves the island. To the children he says, "May the river be kind to you when you cross it."

As one might have expected, reactions to the movie were mixed: syndicated columnist David Sterritt dismissed it as "an audacious attempt at mythmaking."  Indeed there are scenes of Conrack jogging along the beach, his class running along behind him, as if he’s some sort of golden haired pied piper, an image that probably ruffled some feathers in the super cynical ‘70s. The New York Times gave it a mostly positive review, but lamented the film's "glaze of sentimentality that sugars much of the narrative."

Voight said at the time of the film's release that he had some reservations about his own performance. "The guy comes over as sort of self-congratulatory," Voight said in an interview with Roger Ebert.  "The real Pat Conroy has a certain cynical notion of himself; he didn't really think he was so terrific."  Indeed, Voight is a whirlwind in the movie, spouting lines of poetry, pontificating on various subjects, even babbling in Latin, which at times feels like an exercise by the screenwriters determined to show us Conrack's intelligence and individualism. (And do the children have any idea of what Conrack is saying when he goes on these tangents?) 

The movie occasionally feels undeveloped. For instance, Conrack is supposed to be a reformed bigot. Now, somehow, he has become a happy clown.  He even befriends the local drunk and teaches him to read. How did the change in Conrack come about? And is there not a single residual ash of attitude left over from his redneck days?

The husband and wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank adapted Conroy's memoir. The duo was known for such Southern tinged films as Hud and The Reivers, and were Ritt's favorite collaborators. Their interpretation of Conroy's story, though, was picked apart by Conroy himself, who claimed they included things that had never happened. Ritt defended this approach, saying that autobiographies aren't necessarily cinematic, and that some creative tinkering was necessary.  Yet, it was this mixing of the true and fabricated that gave the movie what many critics judged a "shaky" feel. 

Yet, the movie's charms outweigh its flaws.  Voight, enjoying the hot streak that began with Midnight Cowboy and would last the decade, acts up a storm.  It's as if he's Jimmy Stewart stepping out of a Capra film and into a Vittorio De Sica slice of life epic. Cronyn is perfect as the cold-hearted Skeffington, a man who can sweetly pet a rabbit while casually destroying a man's livelihood. The 21 kids in the classroom, locals chosen by Ritt for the movie, provide the quiet heart and soul of the picture.  I can't imagine a more realistic group of children. The film is also intriguing in that it upends practically every cinematic convention: a picture that could be considered family viewing occasionally erupts in vulgar language; the gradual uplift of the story ends on a bum note; there is absolutely not one ounce of romance; and in perhaps the most audacious flaunting of an American storytelling staple, the heroic underdog gets his ass stomped by the bad guys. 

Audiences didn't find the movie immediately. Conrack needed time to develop an appreciative following of viewers who caught it on television over the years. The movie has endured heavy criticism, though, particularly from those put off by what they saw as the image of a benevolent white man bestowing his knowledge on blacks. "I got a lot of flak on Conrack," Ritt said during an AFI interview in the 1980s. "A lot of flak. It pissed me off, frankly." He added that the black community didn't "want to know about white people who are doing good work," but that he wasn't going to change his film to suit someone's political agenda.  Ritt, unrelenting in his defense of Conrack, invited those who didn't like it to make their own movie.    A victim of the McCarthy era communist witch-hunt, Ritt may have seen Conrack’s dismissal from the school as a handy metaphor for the time he was blackballed from Hollywood.

 Conrack remains polarizing. Praise it, and you're accused of being mawkish. Dismiss it, and you're accused of missing out on what is a very warm story, what Ritt saw as “a love story between a white man and 21 black children."

Even the film's ending comes under fire.   The children have gathered at the dock to bid Conrack goodbye. Seeing that they're upset, Conrack starts firing questions at them. Who was the first president? What state do we live in? The children answer in unison. Maybe it's not a great example of education, maybe it's just a sort of dog trick, with the kids responding to certain commands, but Conrack has achieved something.  He has cracked open the minds of these children, perhaps just enough to let some light in.  He continues to fire questions, creating the atmosphere of his schoolroom right there on the creaky old dock.  When a boat's engine can be heard in the distance, we know his time is running out.  When he gets onboard, one of the children reveals the portable record player that was used in the classroom. She has cued up one of the records Conrack would play for them: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The bombastic music echoes across the river as Conrack fades away. 

Many have complained about the scene, or scratched their head in puzzlement. But I find it absolutely touching on two levels. The kids know very little about music. They aren't aware of the bombast associated with Beethoven. To them, this recording is just a “song” that Conrack likes, so they play it as a kind of parting gift.  Their innocence is palpable. Yet, there's another level. Earlier in the movie, Conrack explained to the children that Beethoven was thinking about death at the time he wrote his fifth symphony. The opening cords of the piece, Beethoven imagined, was what death would sound like when it came bashing at your door. When the children play this recording, they could well be lamenting another sort of death, the death of their education, the death of the 1960s, the death of Conrack's dream of a new society.  They'd remembered something Conrack had told them about Beethoven and death.  In the midst of poverty and hopelessness, this seemingly unimportant sharing of knowledge feels like a small, glowing victory.  That's why the final moments of Conrack are as moving as anything else that made it into theaters that year.

Or, for that matter, this year.

(The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Conrack was produced as a limited edition of 3,000 units. Extras include a  pamphlet about the movie with an essay by  Julie Kirgo , an audio commentary from film historians Paul Seydor and Nick Redman, an isolated music and effects track, and the original trailer.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014


I was too claustrophobic to ever hide in the trunk of a car to earn free admission to a drive-in theater, but just about everything  else in Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie, rang true for me.

I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of the drive-in era, and remember being taken by my parents to see various James Bond or Clint Eastwood movies. For some reason, I remember being scared of Clint Eastwood. He seemed sinister.  I remember my mother putting pillows in the back seat of our car so I could sit on them to see over my dad's head. If I got sleepy, the pillows came in handy. I remember my uncle Eddie and his wife taking me to see Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard, with a badly matched co-feature of Alive, the one about the soccer team stuck in the Andes after a plane crash, surviving by cannibalism. I recall others: The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, and an early '80s horror stinker called The Children. 

I don't recall particular details about the drive-ins, and I couldn't name them if you put a gun to my head.  I only recall them as big, barren places in various Massachusetts suburbs, with broken speakers and lousy food from the snack stand. What I recall more vividly was the cozy feeling of being in a car with people you liked, enjoying a movie, even if the sound was bad. I remember the way certain friends or family members slouched in their seats, or nodded off, or played with the knob of their door handle; this was probably the most relaxed and vulnerable they'd ever be in my presence. 

April Wright's documentary, a feature that came out in 2013 but is now available  VOD, is a feisty, good-natured look at the origins and history of the drive-in, reaching back to the very first one in 1933, which was basically a sheet on a tree, made because the owner's wife was a heavy woman and couldn't fit in a regular theater seat. Through the suburban sprawl, the rise of the teenager, and the rise of porn, drive-ins thrived for about three decades. The demise, due largely to home video services and the rise of shopping malls and multi-screen cineplexes, was evident by the time I started going. The places didn't seem vital, they seemed faded and grungy, probably making more money during the weekend mornings when they doubled as flea markets. At one time, though, there were thousands of them in the country, blossoming along the roadways. Wright does a nice job of capturing the golden era of the drive-in, and to her credit she doesn't get too sentimental about the passing of the time.

Nowadays there are slightly less than 400 drive-ins spread out across the country. I don't know if I'd go to one now. There are none in my area, and I'm not interested in traveling a great distance to see, say, Pirates of the Caribbean or the remake of Robocop. Most of the movies I watch are a bit obscure, and wouldn't be picked up by any drive-in owners. Ironically, I can't imagine a drive-in showing Going Attractions.  

Wright interviews a lot of drive-in owners and historians, and they seem like a nice bunch of people. They were often at the mercy of bad weather and changing attitudes in society, but they don't seem bitter. They were around to witness a small, interesting piece of history, and they contributed, in their way, to a kind of kitschy Americana. 

The movie doesn't mention one of my favorite drive-in related phenomenons, though.  This involved driving along the highway late at night, and unexpectedly seeing a drive-in in the distance. In those days you could see them from the highways, and it was always a weird thrill to see what was playing. You'd be coming back from some dreary family gathering, or a night out, and in the distance you'd see a movie star's head on a 65-foot screen, in glorious color.  I remember one night seeing Richard Burton's head, which looked to be as big as an airplane. We all tried to read his lips to figure out what he was saying to Liz Taylor. There was always a race for those in our car to see who could identify the movie. I don't remember anyone ever naming a title. The car would be moving too quickly, the screen would pass by us in a flash, just long enough for us to see some movie star's head lighting up the night sky.  It was the strangest sort of illumination.  I'd give anything to see Richard Burton's head on a drive-in screen now. Highways are drab now, and so our most of our current movie stars.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


I'll try to get this one done in 30 minutes, because according to Life Itself, the excellent new documentary by Steve James, Roger Ebert was so fast that he could write a full-blown  review in 30 minutes.  I usually take longer, because you never know, someone might actually read these things, and I want them to seem at least somewhat professional. I also do the bulk of my writing for magazines, so I have more time to dwell on things. But since it's the season to pay tribute to good ol' Roger, I'll pay my tribute by trying to match his 30 minute mile, so to speak.

It's hard to say anything bad about Life Itself, for it's such a labor of love that it's practically covered in heartshaped lip prints. And since Roger was so ill at the end of his life, and gallantly allowed James to film him during some pretty rough times, it would be unseemly to say anything negative. The kicker, though, is that James made a damned nice movie, a touching, funky, elegiac tribute to a man we all think we knew. It's tight as a drum without a single dull moment, and covers all the key aspects of Ebert's life, from his early days as a columnist, to his drinking binges, to his success on the Sneak Previews show, all the way to his final years, confined to a wheelchair with only his blog to express himself.

I read Ebert's blog all the time, but I never corresponded with him, or left a comment. I'm not one of those social media types who feels a great urge to contact famous people. During my own days as a sports writer a decade ago, I acquired a small following. They were generally nice people who wanted to share their thoughts about one thing or another, but the truth is that I was always too busy to deal with them on a personal level. I know they meant well. I appreciated them. I was just too damned busy. If I was busy, Roger Ebert was 10 times busier. On top of that, he was ill. I saw no real point in writing to him. Even if I did, what could I say that he hadn't heard before?

The documentary made me wish for a Siskel and Ebert biopic. Their relationship is given plenty of coverage in Life Itself, and it makes for some of the movie's liveliest moments. I'm not sure who could play Roger Ebert. I'd suggest Sacha Baron Cohen as Gene Siskel. There are some old clips of Siskel wearing a thick mustache, and it's amazing how much he looked like Borat. A Siskel and Ebert biopic would have a lot going for it. There was certainly plenty of tension between them. I think Ebert saw the TV show as his chance to shine, but he hated having to share it with Siskel, and not just because Siskel was from a rival newspaper, but because Siskel was his equal in so many ways. To look across the aisle and see someone who not only knew as much about the movies as he did, but was just as adamant in his opinions, had to be a mind blower. I was glad to know they became very close; the movie shows Siskel's widow reading a section of a letter where Ebert says he was closer to Gene than any man he'd ever known.

I loved Sneak Previews when I was a kid, and I was surprised at how the show has stayed in my memory. The clips that were used in Life Itself were probably 25 or 30 years old, and I felt like I'd just seen them yesterday. Part of this is because Sneak Previews was the only show of its kind at the time, and my brain was not yet polluted with the garbage that prevents me from having a coherent thought these days. I loved the show because it seemed like a cozy place to be, sitting in that little cinema setting.  I watched the show with my mother, who has since died. We watched it on Saturday evenings, I think, and my mother got a kick out of the "dog of the week" segment.  

I don't quite agree with some of the talking heads in Life Itself who say movie criticism is supposed to be about debate, and argument, and passion. I find all of that arguing and shouting to be nothing more than grandstanding. I tend to agree with Siskel when he tells Ebert in an old old clip, "Where's your sense of humor?" I never particularly cared whether Siskel or Ebert liked a movie or not, and I thought the "thumbs up" gimmick was silly, but I loved hearing their thoughts, and I loved reading their columns. I may be in the minority, but I read their stuff for the pleasure of reading, not so I could validate my own opinions. I was glad Bill Nack was featured in the movie. He was a friend of Ebert's, and he's one of my favorite writers. I have aped Bill Nack from time to time. I suppose I ape Ebert, too.

Ultimately, Life Itself is about a man who was born at the right place and the right time, was blessed with the talent and ambition to capitalize on the opportunities that came his way,  learned some valuable life lessons along the way, and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us at the end. There will never be another Roger Ebert, because society has changed. The public isn't quite as passionate about movies now, and the current crop of critics aren't quite as articulate or engaging.  Is that sad? I'm not sure. Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog are in the movie, sharing their thoughts and admiration for Ebert. It was nice to see them. There won't be directors like them in the future, either. And that IS sad. The real unsung hero of the movie, though, is Chaz Ebert, Roger's loving wife. We should all be so lucky to have someone like her in our lives. 

I'd say more, but my 30 minutes are up.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Imagine you're in a small village in Spain. You stop at a roadside bar to use the bathroom.  There's no toilet, just a hole in the floor that serves as a drain. You squat over it, but then you start hearing the sounds of a tortured soul wailing in the distance. Is the sound coming from beneath the floor? You whirl around and look into the drain. What do you see but an eyeball staring up at you. It is the stuff of nightmares, and it's just one of the nightmarish scenes in Witching and Bitching, a dazzling new horror-comedy from Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia. 

The story starts as a robbery caper, with Jose (Hugo Silva) and his gang robbing a bank. The gang is disguised as various cultural icons, from Minnie Mouse to Spongebob Squarepants. Even Jose is made up as a silvery Jesus. There's plenty of bloodshed and high speed action as they shoot their way out of the bank, and all seems to be going in the direction of a Tarantinoesque adventure. Jose is a divorced man who had his son for the weekend, so in order to spend time with the boy he brought him along on the heist. There's some comic dialogue as Jose and his cronies argue such topics as married life, and the proper way to deal with children, but the banter ends with the gang trying to elude the cops. A high speed chase brings the robbers into Basque country, where strange woman stand at the roadside lifting their skirts, and the sky is suddenly darkened by bats.

The story then moves into the horror realm, as the gang finds itself stumbling into a coven of cannibal witches. Naturally, the witches need some new bodies for an upcoming ritual. Eva, one of the younger witches (Carolina Bang), creates a problem when she develops feelings for Jose. Will she help him escape? Is the whole thing a dream? And who was that person under the bathroom floor?

The movie is fascinating in that de la Iglesia keeps piling on the unexpected. First we meet a few witches, and they're weird enough in the way the can walk upside down on the ceiling and scuttle out of the room like lizards. They're traditional witchy types, using frogs and bugs to cast their spells. Then, it turns out, witches are everywhere, even working Government jobs. The movie has a heavy fear and dread of women - even the non-witches are portrayed as loud, unpleasant harpies. The gang members are all bitter about their ex-wives, and the movie works as an amusing depiction of the modern male's inability to cope with women, to the point where all females appear to be witches. Or bitches.

The movie slams along with the breathless pace of a greyhound race, stopping only occasionally to catch its breath. The final act is damned near apocalyptic, with de la Iglesia pulling from such diverse sources as the woodcuts of Brueghel, the witches of Goya, scenes of hell from early silent films, and even the glandular monstrosities of Peter Jackson's middle earth. True, at times it seems he's throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, but when one does it with such glee and energy as de la Iglesias, it works.  

Hell, I could go back and watch the opening credits over and over again, a beautiful montage of old movie actresses, and images of witches from classic artworks. I'm not sure what de la Iglesia is trying to say, but I sure love hearing him say it. 

Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur is another film about a man dealing with women, but it's a shrill, often unbearable two-hander that covers the same old fluff about the exchange of power that goes on in a relationship. 

Mathieu Almalric plays Thomas, a stage director trying to cast a play. He needs a woman who can play a manipulative bitch, but none of the actresses seem to have the qualities he needs. Into his empty theater comes Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seemingly dippy actress who is not at all right for the part. The movie shows her trying to win the role, proving to Thomas that she's indeed the sort of dominating super bitch  that he needs. The audition process starts to take on a disturbing tone as Vanda teases and taunts Thomas, until it seems she's not there to audition, but to penetrate his soul and teach him some life lessons. 

Polanski adapted the play by David Ives  for the screen, and has Almalric wearing a hairstyle that Polanski used to wear in his younger days. At times, Almalric is a dead ringer for Polanski. Almalric is a good actor, and he tries like hell here, but the movie is just to obvious to allow any subtleties. Seignor has some funny moments, but she's the main reason the movie comes off as shrill. It's in French, and there's something about a woman with a high pitched voice screaming in French that can curdle the skin of even a veteran filmgoer. If you can sit through this one, you are truly a stronger person than me. 

Do men secretly dream of submitting to a woman's power? Maybe. Is it an interesting subject for a movie? Maybe. But there has to be a better way to show this than to have one more goofy scene of a woman dragging a man around in a dog collar.