Saturday, January 31, 2015


Amira & Sam Movie Review

Amira & Sam isn't perfect, but Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi are damned close to it...

 by Don Stradley

There is something tantalizing about falling in love with someone from another country, someone whose mind has yet to be saturated by our American bullshit.  How fun it must be to meet someone who doesn't care about our nonsense, our TV shows, our vanity, our arrogance, or our silly customs like the Super Bowl. 


I thought about this while I was watching Sean Mullin's Amira & Sam, a lovely, uneven, occasionally transcendent little romance about a former Green Beret who is back in America and falling for an Iraqi woman.  He's Sam, a decent, serious-minded man who is slowly adjusting to life in America. We first see him working  as a security guard in a Manhattan high rise, where he stoically abides a dreary, unforgiving shift. From there, he becomes a reluctant partner at his cousin's hedge fund firm. 

Sam's cousin wants him around to help woo former military men as investors. Sam also wants to try stand-up comedy - he has a sense of humor, but the one time we see him at an open mike night he bombs terribly. In a way, he's too smart for the audience, and too smart for his own jokes. Sam is played by Martin Starr, a former member of the Freaks & Geeks cast who has made a career out of playing small roles as misanthropic nerds and techies. He's very fine as Sam, walking a fine line between pathos and anger.  He's at his best when he's poking fun at Amira, a young Iraqi woman he's looking after as a favor for an old army buddy. She hates him at first, for she hates all soldiers, but gradually they warm up to each other. They pull off some of the best movie flirting I've seen in years, partly because Sam is shy, and Amira's suspicious. But they are both smart, funny people, and we know they are meant to be together.

Alas, Mullin isn't content to create what could have been an offbeat romance for the ages  He also wants to make a movie about America's corrupt ideals. Hence, he creates a secondary plot where Sam's Wall Street cousin turns out to be a fishy character, and Sam goes through guilt at taking part in his cousin's shady business plans. This is where the casting gets odd, for while Star looks like a working class mensch, he apparently comes from a privileged background of WASP snobs.  This allows Mullin to set up some easy conflicts, for the snobby family makes dumb cracks about Sam's new Iraqi girlfriend, which sets up a big fight scene, and the ultimate event that sets in motion Amira's deportation.  Amira, an undocumented immigrant, was already in trouble for resisting arrest when a cop pulled her in for selling DVD bootlegs in Times Square.  

Amira & Sam doesn't quite succeed on all levels, but it has many pleasurable moments. Starr feels like a new discovery, even though he's been around for years.  Dina Shihabi, as Amira, is as beautiful as a clear sky, and has a scrappy personality that makes her even more endearing. I wouldn't mind a sequel to this movie, just to see more of Amira and Sam. Mullin's ambition to make a multi-layered film backfired, for the plot about Wall Street, though it provided Starr with some good scenes, really gets in the way of Amira and Sam's romance.  I loved how they sit under the Brooklyn bridge, aping the famous tableau  from Woody Allen's Manhattan.  But instead of arguing about classical composers and novelists, they banter about the merits of Facebook. New York has changed since Woody's prime. In this film, wealthy people urinate on the sidewalk and treat security guards shabbily. The city is still standing, but it feels propped up, its magic gone. For that reason,  I'm glad Amira and Sam found each other.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

MANNY: The Untold Story..

Manny Movie Review
Classy documentary doesn't tell us much that is new, but the story of Manny Pacquiao still fascinates...

by Don Stradley

Manny: The Untold Story is not the best way to appreciate Manny Pacquiao.

I don't mean this in a bad way. For most of this documentary's 86 minutes, it's fun to see the Manny Pacquiao story presented in a classy, respectful way, just as it was enjoyable to see Muhammad Ali in When We Were Kings, and Emile Griffith in Ring of Fire. Even Mike Tyson's story was enjoyable in James Toback's overwrought Tyson, which had Tyson strolling along the beach, ruminating on his past like a guest on Oprah.

These are good movies, and in the case of When We Were Kings, even great. But what leaves them in the dust is the real thing. When it comes to Pacquiao, the real thing can be compressed into a single fight, for no matter how many corny ballads he records, or how many bills he passes as a Filipino congressman, it's his work in the boxing ring that has made him the most compelling, and electrifying character in boxing since the Tyson era.

The fight I mention took place more than 11 years ago, November 2003. That's when Pacquiao stepped into a San Antonio boxing ring and took the featherweight championship from Marco Antonio Barrera. A future Hall of Famer, Barrera had a reputation for destroying young upstarts. Prince Hamed, a screwy left-hander known for putting opponents on their asses, had been humiliated by Barrera. Most expected Pacquiao to go the same route.

But Pacquiao had come to the States from the Philippines determined to do something big. He'd grown up rough, "in the shadow of war" as narrator Liam Neeson informs us, living in a village where he once saw the decapitated head of a rebel soldier in his front yard. He left home at 12 to make money fighting, battling other kids for two-dollar purses. By the time he fought Barrera he was a sort of cult figure among boxing fans, known as a bubbly youngster with a hammer for a left-hand. He'd aligned himself with trainer Freddie Roach, another cultish figure who runs a Hollywood boxing gym where people like Mickey Rourke hang out and absorb the tough vibes. Roach tamed some of Pacquiao's wilder instincts, taught him that it wasn't a crime to block a punch with something besides your face.

Pacquiao, who had spent his teen years fighting in venues that looked like tents erected for cock fights, seemed strengthened by the bright lights of America. The boy who used to sell donuts on the streets of General Santos City stepped into the ring to face Barrera like a grinning boy on Christmas morning. "I was surprised he lasted so long," Pacquiao said of Barrera at the time. "Because I knew very early that I was going to knock him out." Pacquiao was on fire from the opening gong, coming at Barrera from unexpected angles, his feet never quite in perfect union with his slashing fists. Barrera was a Mexican icon who was only troubled by the very best, but he couldn't find shelter from this blizzard in front of him. Barrera's corner stopped the fight in the 11th, their man bleeding and on the verge of collapse.

How to describe it? If Ali was the absolute zenith of physical perfection in motion, and Tyson was the embodiment of the hate-filled urban jungle, Pacquiao was a blend of optimism, spirituality, and hurricane force. It's a shame there are no writers working today to give Pacquiao's story the proper mythical slant. Co-director Leon Gast was also at the helm of When We Were Kings, and for that movie was able to bring in the likes of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Manny: The Untold Story relies on bores like Mark Wahlberg and Jeremy Piven. Not surprisingly, the second-rate celebrities who hang around Roach's gym offer no valuable insights; their presence in the movie is almost embarrassing. 

The Barrera fight is given only a small amount of coverage in the movie, but it looms large in the story, and certainly sticks in my mind as Pacquiao's key achievment. It was the first time that many American boxing fans saw Pacquiao, who was installed as an 8-1 underdog. Like all of Pacquiao's best fights, it was a high-wire act, and there was always the feeling that he was simply too raw, too unorthodox, to win. Yet over and over again, Pacquiao flew into Barrera, battered him around the ring, and then returned to his corner between rounds where he listened to Roach like an eager Boy Scout. The only visual hint of Pacquiao’s inner fire was the occasional darkening of his eyes, as if he were imagining the danger he held in his hands.

When he's not boxing, there's an almost holy quality to Pacquiao. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where he's in a church, or leading a group in prayer, or telling his "flock" not to be sad after one of his losses, assuring them that God has a bigger plan than we do. Though he has stepped into politics in recent years, there’s an interesting clip in the movie of Pacquiao giving a Bible sermon at a large cathedral, where he commands the stage like a pint-sized, Filipino Joel Osteen. Pacquiao's future could very well be as the Billy Graham of the Pacific Rim.

Still, my mind keeps returning to the bout against Barrera, when Pacquiao was not quite a living legend. This was 2003, and Pacquiao was not yet yoked to strength coaches who would bulk him up to 147 pounds where he can't quite punch his weight. He wasn't yet in love with the finer points of boxing - in his more recent bouts he's been as slick as Willie Pep - and wasn't far removed from the recklessly aggressive flyweight who fought in the Philippines. It was refreshing. Sports Illustrated and The New York Times didn’t bother covering the bout, but Nigel Collins, reporting on the event for The Ring magazine, wrote glowingly about the new Phillipino sensation. "The gleeful way he goes about his brutal trade is contagious," Collins wrote, "and it's easy to fall in love with the way he goes for the knockout every time out. There's no half-stepping for Pac-Man, a distinction conspicuously lacking among many of today's top fighters."

Fighters are conspicuously absent from the documentary, though we do see a few clips of Floyd Mayweather, a petulant hothead who seems offended by Pacquiao's mere existence. Gast and his co-director cram in some bits about Mayweather, some bits about Pacquiao's managerial problems, and the long rivalry with Juan Manual Marquez, but that side of the movie seems rushed. The filmmakers are better at chronicling Pacquiao's rise, where his story resembles something from boxing's antediluvian era; he lied about his age so he could turn pro, and put rocks in his pockets so he could make the minimum weight requirement. So poor were his surroundings that the first boxing gloves Pacquiao wore look like tattered, oversized pillows, something from the days of Harry Greb.

By all means, see Manny: The Untold Story. True, it's not much better than some of the HBO 24/7 stuff we've seen, and Neeson's narrative is a bit dull ("Boxing is a cruel sport..."). But it's a good place to start. Then look for the Barrera fight, which is on YouTube. The bouts that came later helped Pacquiao become a superstar, but his career path started to feel orchestrated and commercialized. He became a product, no different than the fried chicken he endorses in the Philippines. The night he whipped Barrera, though, felt like a bolt of lightning had struck the sport.

I once sat near Pacquiao at an awards dinner in New York. What caught my eye was that his sizable entourage included a sort of hoodoo man, a chubby little guy who walked alongside Pacquiao, waving what looked like a gourd filled with sand to ward off evil spirits. I also learned that when Pacquiao is on the road, he often sleeps with several people at the foot of his bed, their purpose being to absorb evil spirits before they can get to Pacquiao, their meal ticket. Manny: The Untold Story doesn’t touch on this stuff. I wish it did. I think there's more to Pacquiao than we'll ever know.

Manny: The Untold Story is playing in select theaters, and availble on various streaming services, such as On Demand.

Monday, January 26, 2015



By Don Stradley

Creators of movies like  The Humbling and Birdman must have declared open season  on stage actors. They've come to the conclusion that stage actors are ripe with anger and vulnerability, and also are prone to hallucinating and losing their grip on reality. In other words, stage actors are serving the same purpose for filmmakers in 2015 as divorced women once served in the 1970s.  I suppose The Humbling is to Birdman what An Unmarried Woman was to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, a once famous actor who has lost his nerve, lost his talent, lost his desire. One night, after a horrible nightmare in his dressing room, he takes a deliberate swan dive off the stage during a performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It. When he's  rushed to the nearest hospital,  he asks a nurse if his howls of pain sound convincing. 
The Humbling is basically a one-man show, with Pacino doing a convincing job as a man slowly losing his grip on all that he once held dear.  As he recovers from his fall, he attracts a coterie of weirdoes into his life, the main one being Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the feisty daughter of an old friend. Pegeen is a lesbian, or used to be, but now she wants Simon.  She casually tells him that she's been having inappropriate thoughts about him since she was eight. Simon lets her move into his rented home, but two of her ex-girlfriends, including a transsexual, begin showing up on the property, warning Simon that Pegeen is nothing but trouble. Pegeen's parents are disgusted when they learn she's taken up with nearly 70-year-old Simon Axler.  There's also a woman Simon met in rehab who wants him to murder her husband. 

Through all of this, Pacino growls and shambles. He hobbles around his property like Richard the Third, but not so desperate for a horse. Much of the time he looks exasperated, his hair sticking up like Albert Einstein with a dye job, as the mercurial Pegeen runs him through the emotional ringer.  He knows that letting her into his life was a mistake, but tells his analyst via Skype, "So what?  Three quarters of our lives are mistakes."

Barry Levinson, a director with a half-dozen great movies to his credit, gives the story of Simon Axler a subdued treatment, quietly sneaking his camera around Pacino as if he doesn't dare disturb the great man's space.  This isn't the brash Levinson of Diner, or Rain Man. It is the work of a director walking on his tip-toes.

Yet the soft touch applied by Levinson fits. Simon Axler is fading from this life, and he is doing so not by raging against the dying of the light, but by looking inward, and being puzzled by what he sees. He's in a desperate position. He's dumped the one love of his life - acting - but he can't fathom what might replace it. He thought he might write his memoirs, but publishers aren't interested. He's a man without a Plan B.

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, based on a novel by Phillip Roth. The concept of an actor losing touch with reality is hackneyed, but it's interesting to see Pacino play with it. He's good enough to make the idea seem plausible, and we see him nursing it, pondering it. Still, much of the humor in the movie is stale, like the generic gags about vibrators and sex toys, and wondering which bathroom is used by a transsexual. A cast that includes such stalwarts as Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest, Dan Hadaya, and Kyra Sedgewick, deserved better. They have little to do but leaving us to wonder which of them have had plastic surgery.

Another man with no Plan B is John May in Uberto Pasolini's Still Life.  May is a UK government worker who tends to those unfortunate souls who die in anonymity, those with no next of kin. May (Eddie Marsan) oversees their funerals, and tries to contact a relative of the deceased.  When he does happen to contact someone, he's usually rebuffed. "I understand you're busy," we hear him say over the phone to an uninterested family member.  May often attends the funerals by himself, just so the dear departed have a witness to their burying.
He's  stunned when he learns his department is being downsized. He's suddenly unemployed, but his supervisor allows him finish his last assignment. Then sadsack John is off, working his last case.

Pasolini directs his movie with a dainty, almost precious approach.  We see numerous scenes of May standing alone at a bus stop, or in a crowd, unnoticed, as if he is the 'still life' of the title. He's a lonely man, awkward around people.  When he goes through the belongings of one of his dead clients, he often keeps the photographs he finds and puts them in his own scrap book.
Marsan is one of England's great character actors these days, and he makes John May watchable. We understand that May is isolated, probably of his own doing, but Marsan never makes him seem pathetic or pitiable.  He's simply a man doing his job. Nothing else in his life has ever interested him as much as his work.
I liked this movie.  I liked the side characters that are brought together as a result of May's research into his final case. I liked it, that is, right up until it's silly ending. In the final minute, we get a double dose of irony followed by sentimentality that doesn't amount to much.  We liked John May. When a female character played by Joanne Froggatt invites him out for tea, we want him to go and have a good time. But Pasolini doesn't want happiness for his characters. He wants, instead, to be ironic and fatalistic.  Some viewers may be moved by the ending. I wasn't.

Friday, January 23, 2015


ENTERTAINING MEMOIR BY LEADER OF THE KINKS IS A GREAT READ; in an era of when many classic rock idols are writing autobiographies, Ray Davies heads to the front of the pack...

by Don Stradley
The story of the Kinks is one of tenacity. As part of the mid-60s British invasion, they reached the top early but were then knocked clear off the mountain, when their bad behavior,  bad luck, and youthful ignorance got them banned in America.  There followed a 15 year climb back, and not only did they regain their foothold as popular recording artists, they did so at a time when punk rock, new wave, disco, and a burgeoning heavy metal scene made the path to success much narrower. The band, with songwriter and frontman Ray Davies acting as jester and tribal chief, enjoyed perhaps the greatest comeback in rock and roll history.

The tale gets an interesting workout in Davies' recent book, Americana, though there are times when the band’s torrid history serves as a mere backdrop for Davies to ponder his life, his love of songwriting, his failed relationships, and his lifelong fascination with the United States.  He's more than an aging Brit rocker talking about the wild old days. He's a wandering soul,  and to borrow a bit from one of his songs, he doesn't want to live his life in a rock and roll fantasy.

Davies was the least likely of rock stars. Not only is he more thoughtful and literary than most, he’s also been plagued with physical problems dating back his teen years, and a dodgy heart that started troubling him in his 40s.  By his own admission, “women don’t clamor to be with me,” and while he shares a few raunchy episodes of life on the road, they usually happened to someone else.  Judging by the tales he tells on himself, he was leery of groupies, and seemed too busy with his career to fully appreciate his various wives and companions. 

In many ways he tells a familiar story of growing up in England but falling under the sway of American movies and music.  Davies doesn’t tell us much about his childhood, though some of his best writing comes when he reminisces about his dad “dancing in an uncoordinated way, yet with the natural rhythmic elegance of a Watusi warrior…he was more rock and roll than I was or could ever be.”  Davies soaked up various musical styles, from jazz to early rock to old-timey tunes heard in British music halls.  He had to look no farther than his brother Dave to find a guitarist whose bone-crushing riffs would become staples of FM radio.  

The Kinks dabbled in rock operas, theatrics, and concept albums,  but were never given their due for being inventive. Instead, they spent a big chunk of the 1970s playing in small venues, occasionally hired as the opening act for bands like Hall & Oates (ugh!). It wasn’t until they earned the support of Clive Davis at Arista records that the Kinks flourished.  Like musclemen kicking sand in the faces of their competition, the Kinks promptly released Sleepwalker, Low Budget, and Misfits,  plus a live album, One for the Road, where the riffs sounded harder than ever, as if the band was reclaiming the heavy metal music they’d inspired. MTV came along, and the Kinks rode that wave, too. At a time when their peers were showing their age, the Kinks were at the height of their powers. Again, I repeat, the greatest…comeback…in rock and roll history.

Davies writes this memoir with a light touch and doesn’t dwell on any particular point for too long.  You get barely a taste of how it felt to conquer the American charts in 1965, and just a vague flavor of his legendary battles with brother Dave.  Davies spends more time describing the time he nearly drove his car off a cliff than he does, say, more personal subjects, such as his marriage to singer Chrissie Hynde.  Despite his love of all things American, Davies is very British in his reluctance to spill his guts.

It could be that Davies is more willing to explore his triumphs than events that might embarrass him.  For instance, he writes quite a lot about a quarrel  with San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, and I imagine he favors this story because he won the argument and got what he wanted.  We celebrate along with Davies as he shuts down the bellicose Graham, just as we do when a dance club crowd bursts into spontaneous applause after the debut of ‘(I Wish I could Fly Like) Superman’.  Davies works so hard for his victories that we’re happy when something goes right.

The band’s success brought on new problems.  By the late 1980s they were swept into the arms of MCA and then Sony, the West Coast corporate juggernaut.  I almost felt sorry for Davies as he witnessed firsthand “the bizarre and unnerving efficiency of corporate Americana in operation.”  Worst of all, the dimwits in Los Angeles didn’t appreciate Davies. His jokes at meetings were met with “glazed expressions tinged with confusion.”  It’s to his credit that he found a way out of Sony’s dull mindset and enjoyed a more comfortable arrangement with a smaller label. He also embarked on a barebones style of touring that helped create the VH1 series, ‘Storytellers.’

Davies structures his story so that it bounces back and forth in time. In fact, most of the book is about his time in New Orleans during the 2000s, when he moved there hoping to find inspiration, only to be shot by a mugger.   The shooting and his recovery sound horrific, but Davies lightens the mood by jumping  back to the 1970s, as the Kinks battled back to regain their standing.  Then we’re at a Sony meeting, then back in the emergency room in New Orleans, then sympathizing with Davies as he struggles to walk after being shot, then back to New York after 9/11, where the "gaping, floodlit hole downtown made it look like a giant tooth had been extracted from the mouth of New York City.”  Around and around we go.  The effect is interesting, although it quashes some of the drama. 

Davies is not as surefooted with his autobiography as he is with song lyrics. A visit to Ireland, for instance, triggers his worst instincts as a writer: “Grim lipped laughter sends a message of cautious optimism tinged with the smile of bitter expectation that folly sometimes brings.” Yikes.  But Davies can also be spot on with an observation, such as when he visits  Alex Chilton and notices a dent in  the reclusive singer’s couch, “an imprint of Alex’s body where he must have  sat – and probably slept – day after day.”

Just as his songs are best when he sings about a character, Davies’ book connects when he supplies little portraits of people, especially those roadies and assistants who have died.  I loved the bit about a former Kinks manager who was allegedly buried with his cell-phone, and as Davies walks away from the grave, he swears he can hear the phone buzzing.  

Even so, it’s Davies himself who subtly works his way into your mind, revealing himself to be a slightly neurotic but decent bloke, a fellow who loved his band more than anything else, and was both amused and proud of the power he could unleash through his songs. I particularly loved when he recalled a moment  from an outdoor concert that felt as if “the whole desert had erupted, echoing the fury in our performance and sending more of the dust beneath the audience’s feet rising into the night air.”  But there’s a sense of melancholy, too, particularly in a scene where Davies and Chilton watch an old western on television, feeling that they, too, are a couple of timeworn cowboys, waiting for the last roundup.  That Chilton died shortly before the book’s publication adds to the sad vibe.

Though he learned to love Thanksgiving and lonesome train whistles, Davies never quite fulfills his wish to become an American by osmosis.  His North London upbringing is impossible to shed, as is his traditional spirituality.  One of the most touching moments in the book is when Davies realizes one of his wives is leaving him. Without wasting a minute, he brings their infant daughter to a church and prays that she’ll be alright.  He reveals more of himself in that little scene  than most of the rock star/memoirists have done in recent years, including those lengthy but empty offerings from Keith Richards and Pete Townshend.

I’ve always liked the Kinks.  But it’s a relief to know that, after reading Americana,  I like Ray Davies, too.

Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story, is available in paperback.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Birdman Movie Poster

Heralded as Michael Keaton's comeback, this bunch of hot air isn't as good as you may have heard;  fancy camera work can't entirely hide a hackneyed script...

by Don Stradley

Just as Black Swan used the ballet as a backdrop for a heavy-handed story about a performer having a nervous breakdown, Birdman uses the theater. The movie exists in a time and place that seems vaguely like our own, but its characters rarely leave a dank series of backstage dressing rooms, and when they do, it's to a local bar where a NY Times theater critics sits menacingly in a corner booth. The few times we see anything else, it's usually a shot of a frighteningly enormous crowd of tourists milling around in Times Square, or a bum shouting lines from Faulkner at the top of his lungs. Young characters talk about Twitter; older characters drink a lot.

The hero of Birdman is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a burned out actor who once played a popular superhero called The Birdman. Desperate to resurrect his career and be taken seriously, he mounts a Broadway production based on the rather bleak stories of Raymond Carver. The movie doesn't touch on the fact that  Broadway producers would never touch Carver, but  that's a story for another time. As opening night approaches, Riggan has a sort of meltdown; he hears a voice in his head that tells him he's a loser, and he shows signs that he may actually have superhero powers, including the ability to move things by pointing his finger at them. He's had a hard life, was not the best husband or father, and has put too much pressure on himself to succeed in this production. Cracks are beginning to show.

His production is breaking down, too. One of the actors is taken out by a falling Leko light, and the replacement is troublesome Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an annoying method actor who challenges Riggan, accuses him of being a phony. When the Times interviews Shiner during press week, Shiner uses a story told by Riggan as his own. As Riggan's life becomes easy fodder for others, there's nothing left for him, except his old Birdman character who begins to appear in his hallucinations.

He's also trying to patch things up with his druggie daughter (Emma Stone), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and he wants to keep his current girlfriend happy, too. It's all a bit much, for him and us.

The movie feels like a throwback to films like Being John Malcovich, or some of the early work of Terry Gilliam, and it shares the same strategy of throwing in unexpected plot twists, never letting the audience feel comfortable. It's the three card monte school of movie making.

The difference between those other films and this one created by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is that those earlier titles were content to  be weird and amusing. The Birdman screenplay, written by Inarritu and three others, tries for depth. The movie is lousy with dialog about art versus celebrity, and artists versus critics, and there are plenty of half-baked comments about our society's fascination with social media. There's even a scene where Emma Stone, looking anorexic and bug-eyed, berates her father for not having a Facebook page. As I listened to her tirade, I wasn't sure whose side I was supposed to be on, or if the scene was supposed to be funny.

I also couldn't figure out why it took four people to write the story, unless each writer had to be replaced once he ran out of hot air.

Keaton, looking weather beaten and vulnerable, gives the sort of performance that may win him some awards. This is partly because his own career included a turn as a comic book hero, and some people love that cutesy-poo meta shit. Mostly, it's because he's willing to work without a wig. Norton is good here, too, maybe even better than Keaton. Norton has to make sense of lines like, "I'd like to pull your eyes out of your head and put them in my head so I can see the world the way I did when I was your age." The line stinks of freshman year writers' workshop nonsense, but he managed to spit it out like a pro.

Ultimately, the good performances, the dizzying camera work, incessant drum soundtrack, and characters grousing about art versus commerce isn't enough to hide the banal script. This sophomoric screenplay actually includes a scene where two characters play a game of 'truth or dare', and that's how we learn about them. Such a goofy scene wouldn't even make the cut on the Lifetime network. Or for that matter, a comic book.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Glad to see my story on Pam Grier is on this month's cover!  Here's a press release form the publishers.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

BOOKS: Tony Zale, The Man of Steel

NEW BOOK TELLS THE WHOLE STORY OF 1940's BOXING CHAMP...But did we need the whole story?

by Don Stradley


Tony Zale, the gallant middleweight boxing champion of the 1940s,  was a tough guy. So tough that even after he died at age 83, the embalmers at the funeral home gaped at the fitness of his corpse.  But despite his toughness,  Zale has never been given the attention he would’ve received if he had been, say, an Italian instead of a Pole, or a New Yorker instead of a Hoosier.  He remains as forgotten as the other middleweights of his time, bent-nosed pugs whose names are known  to only the most curious of boxing historians, fighters like Al Hostack,  and Billy Soose, and Georgie Abrams.  Zale, though, seemed to stand above the rest, and since his fights were as crazily action-packed as a Popeye cartoon,  one would think he deserves a rich and detailed biography.

There’s plenty of detail in Tony Zale,  The Man of Steel, but authors Clay Moyle and Thad Zale (the subject's nephew) have so much to say that the book is best enjoyed in small doses.  Otherwise, the effect is like  looking at someone’s else’s family album, which gets boring, even if one of the geezers in the bloodline could dish it out like an army howitzer.

Zale’s father was killed when Tony was an infant - he was struck by a car while riding a bicycle - so Tony grew up under the influence of his older brothers. The boys happened to be boxing fanatics, already consumed by the fast-growing national ritual of gathering ‘round the family radio to listen to fight broadcasts.  Tony picked up on the excitement.  He developed his own knack for boxing, with a style  that relied mostly on cruel blows to the body. According to one of his opponents, when Zale sank one into your gut, it was “like getting hit in the stomach with a hot poker.” The line  sounds good no matter how many times you hear it, and you’ll hear it often in this book.

In 1934, just weeks after his 20th birthday, he fought his first professional bout, a four rounder against a far more experienced Eddie Allen at the Marigold Garden Outdoor Arena in Chicago. Zale won, but thanks to recurring injuries and bad  management,  his career never took off. After a few years of losing as often as he won,  Zale “retired",  taking a job in an Indiana steel mill where one of his tasks was to scrape the walls of a blast furnace.  The dirty work seemed to reinvigorate him; when Zale returned to boxing, a Chicago reporter said he looked “like a new piece of steel.” Thus, a nickname was born.  Now dubbed The Man of Steel, and with a new management team, Zale resumed his career with a new determination. By the time Zale marched off to join the war effort,  he owned the middleweight championship.  He'd also become popular enough that a free bout in Milwaukee against Billy Pryor drew a whopping 135,000 fans in Aug. 1941. 

A three year navy hitch was followed by three dramatic bouts with Rocky Graziano, a colorful fighter whose taste for mayhem matched Zale's.  Their meetings were legendary, but winning two of the three took something out of Zale. In a way, he never quite recovered from the second Graziano bout, which left Tony looking as though his "bones had melted when he was draped over the ropes."  There followed a devastating loss to Marcel Cerdan,  and then the inevitable post-career turmoil that many fighters face. Zale considered comebacks;  he endured a stormy and often violent marriage to his first wife, who liked to kick him in the groin for amusement;  he lost custody of his children in an ugly divorce; he scrambled around for money; he married a second time, with better luck; and of most importance to boxing fans, he became a sort of walking immortal, largely because popular sportswriters like Jimmy Cannon, WC Heinz, and Red Smith, heralded the bouts with Graziano as all-time classics.  (Though not, as Thad Zale rhapsodized at his uncle's funeral, "the three most memorable bouts in the history of boxing.")

Moyle is a thorough researcher who has written some good books in the past, including a useful biography of Sam Langford. Meanwhile Thad Zale is the keeper of the flame, so to speak, the protector of his uncle’s legacy.  The collaboration works well enough, but the authors tend to overplay everything.  For instance, Zale's religious nature is touched on so many times that readers may wonder why the book wasn't called "Saint Tony of the Steel Mills." The book also suffers from wordiness. You can almost hear Tony Zale scolding the authors, “You’re telegraphing those punches, guys. Keep ‘em short and tight.”

Naturally, much of the book is devoted to the Zale- Graziano bouts, and the authors do a nice job capturing the vibe of those years.  Yet, it was Zale’s shocking 1948 loss to Cerdan that creates the most  interesting chapter, for the bout  seemed to usher in a new era for boxing.   Post-war extravagance became all the rage, with glamorous fighters like Cerdan coming into prominence, while Zale represented pre-TV simplicity.  I loved how Zale went a little loopy after the loss. This was a different Zale, slightly irrational,  demanding a rematch,  and  insisting that he was beating Cerdan before the bout was stopped. In reality, the Frenchman had practically broken Zale in half. 

Zale found his life’s second calling by working with youth groups, a  noble vocation that took him all the way to a meeting with President George H.W. Bush, who presented Zale with the highly regarded Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1990. In 1991 Zale was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The remainder of his life was a blur of banquets and awards. But even Zale’s golden years were not without incident – after an altercation at the youth club where Tony worked, an unknown assailant attacked him with a baseball bat, leaving the old champ deaf in one ear.   Much later in life, while Zale resided in a nursing home, he suffered another mysterious attack that left him badly bruised.  How strange it must have been for the mighty Zale  to be hammered down by these unknown enemies lurking in the shadows.   He was even slugged once by an angry driver after a road accident. It was as if Tony’s toughness made him an inviting target, and people couldn’t stop getting their licks in.

 The authors tell all this and more.  Too much more, until the book grows long-winded and clumsy.  There’s also a surplus of photographs, 400 when 50 would have been plenty.  We see pictures of Zale at home, or sitting in a barber’s chair, or  dancing with his second wife at a senior citizens polka party. The photographs are quaint, but  did we really need a picture of Zale with John Ritter of ‘Three’s Company’?   (I did, however, love the pic of Zale with former lightweight champ Lew Jenkins; Zale is grinning, but Jenkins has no life in his eyes, the fire inside long gone out. It’s  chilling.)

There are some morsels of interest, though.  I was fascinated to learn that the original Nutty Professor himself, Jerry Lewis, was intent on promoting a bout between Zale and Sugar Ray Robinson.  The authors don’t go into why Lewis couldn’t make the bout, but there’s an on-going through-line in the book that Robinson avoided Zale.  True, Robinson was often respectful of Zale, and the authors get a lot of mileage out of a quote where Robinson said he wanted no part of Zale's body punches. Still, I think Robinson was merely being magnanimous. Robinson found a way to beat everybody, and he would’ve beaten Zale, too. 

It was also interesting to read that Zale had a handshake agreement with Rocky Marciano to open a training camp in Florida, only to see that idea crushed when Marciano was killed in a plane crash in 1969.  What interested me about a Zale-Marciano gym was that several other people have told me the exact same story about Marciano wanting to go into business with them.  I guess Marciano made promises to a lot of people shortly before his death.  Zale was just one of many.

I remember seeing a TV clip where Zale and Graziano discussed their famous trilogy of bouts.   Graziano did most of the talking.  Zale didn’t say much. Perhaps Zale knew Graziano was the A-side of their pairing, and that even in retirement, Graziano was still the A-side.  This isn’t a knock against a fighter who simply went about his business and won fights, but Zale was one of boxing’s quiet men.  Yet, even if he didn’t capture the public’s imagination like a Dempsey or an Ali, or for that matter a Graziano, we can still enjoy learning about Zale, and we can marvel at his achievements, much like those embalmers in Indiana who couldn’t get over how good the old corpse looked.

That’s why Clay Moyle and Thad Zale’s nearly 500 page biography is worth owning, even if it is an overstuffed love fest. 

Tony Zale, The Man of Steel, is available from Win By KO Publications; hardcover; $35.00)

Monday, January 5, 2015

VAMPIRA AND ME (2012)...and HORRIBLE HORRORS (2013)...

                New DVDs Celebrate the horror host phenomenon...
                                                                 by Don Stradley 

Vampira is one of those characters who was popular for a brief time at the dawn of television, but stays in our imaginations for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her grossly sexual appearance.  Also, there is so little footage of her that she remains mysterious. Vampira and Me (2012),  a labor of love from director R.H. Greene, puts the phenomenon in perspective, even if it goes a bit overboard in estimating her importance to American pop culture.  True, she was friends with James Dean, she sported some radical haircuts,  and she glided memorably in Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, but was she really, as Greene’s documentary suggests, a harbinger of everything from women’s liberation to the Goth movement? I’m not sure. But I will say that Vampira’s creator, Maila Nurmi, was a beautiful and interesting lady who was not only ahead of her time, but possessed enough chutzpah to light up Hollywood Boulevard on the stormiest of nights.

Nurmi was an unemployed 32-year-old actress and former model when she threw together the "Glamour Ghoul" ensemble for a 1953 costume ball in LA. Her plan was to attract TV producers, which she did .  She was hired to host a late night horror movie slot on KABC-TV (Channel 7 in the Los Angeles area).   She allegedly wrote her own jokes, and in her own words, was a sort of “pre-Saturday Night Live,” appearing in skits during the commercials, anything to liven up the often pitiful B-movies that were being aired.  Though she’s credited with being the first horror host, and for setting the standard for all others to follow, the hosting gig probably wasn’t what she’d had in mind.  After all, she’d once been groomed by big shot director Howard Hawks as the next major female star, perhaps another Lauren Bacall. On the other hand, Nurmi was fully committed to the Vampira character, willingly starving herself to achieve her creepy hourglass figure, and participating in a publicity blitz that would have impressed Lady Gaga.

There were fan clubs, and articles in LIFE, but Nurmi’s fame as Vampira was short-lived. As Nurmi describes in the documentary, she was “as popular as Pamela Anderson for about five minutes.”  An argument over who owned the rights to the character  stalled her career, and effectively ended it. There were sporadic TV and movie appearances during the remainder of the decade, but by the mid-1960s she’d vanished entirely.  In between, she was stalked by weirdoes, installed linoleum for a living, and owned an antique store called Vampira’s Attic. The low point was when she endured a horrific assault by a lunatic who kept her hostage in her own NY apartment for two hours.  When Nurmi reported the attack, she sat for a police photographer and modeled her bruises cheesecake style.

The dubious reputation of Plan Nine helped create the cultish Vampira  fanbase of which Greene was a die-hard member. Greene originally recorded his interviews with Nurmi in the 1990s as part of another project, but promised to use the footage later on.  With Vampira and Me, he does a lot with a little.  There’s hardly any footage remaining of her original TV appearances, but there’s plenty of other good stuff, including an amazing clip of Vampira dancing in Las Vegas with Liberace.  Though the clips and stills from her prime are breathtaking, I especially enjoyed seeing Nurmi as an older woman. She was still sassy, and able to laugh about  her past.  I think she was a woman of high intelligence, but perhaps too fragile in spirit to deal with Hollywood’s nonsense.  Greene stumbles when he asks Nurmi to play sociologist and explain why the 1950s generation gravitated to her Vampira character. To Nurmi’s credit, she admits that she has no idea.  Greene should’ve skipped such routine questions and spent more time on the unfortunate Vampira vs Elvira lawsuit, when Nurmi unsuccessfully sued Cassandra Peterson for stealing her character. 

Nurmi, who died in 2008 at age 85, is an intriguing enough presence to overcome Greene’s fawning, and the documentary succeeds in part  because of her sly intellect.    Greene tries to inject some rock & roll atmosphere  into the movie, for Vampira inspired a number of rock songs (Nurmi even supplied some startlingly raw vocals for Satan’s Cheerleaders, a garage-punk outfit from Austin).  In my eyes, though, she’s less of a rockin’ 1950s character and more like a new-age grand dame.  Nurmi says at one point that she and James Dean had known each other in past lives, were from another planet, and were lucky to find each other here.  She also claimed to have psychic powers. Fair enough.  Her smile still wins me over every time.  As someone says in the movie, she was in on the joke, and she created the joke. There aren’t many celebrities that I wish I'd known, but she’s one of them.

Like Bettie Page, Vampira's legacy has survived through the sheer power of old photographs.  One could argue that other horror hosts had more impressive careers, but simply lacked the dark sex appeal of Nurmi’s creation.  John Zacherley, for instance, had an impact that rivaled Vampira’s, including a hit song called ‘Dinner with Drac’. As a character named “Roland,” Zacherley was the ghoulish horror host on Philadelphia’s WCAU TV during the late 1950s. Universal Pictures had packaged a number of their old Frankenstein and Dracula movies for televison, and Zacherley was hired to introduce them to a new generation of kiddies.  It was called Shock Theater and was an immediate success. From there, he worked regularly in Philadelphia and New York, doing everything from hosting teen dance shows to making live  appearances at movie premieres. He spent much of the 1970s as a popular radio disc jockey on WPLJ-FM.  He also put out record albums, edited story collections, and relentlessly worked the “cool ghoul” gimmick.  Vampira may have been there first, but Zacherley was there longer.

A recent DVD called Horrible Horrors (2013), a whopping two disc set with nearly three hours of hit or miss junk, gives us a glimpse of Zacherley at work.  We see a man who laughs at his own jokes, and enjoys reveling in corniness. As Vampira, Nurmi took her act into something like performance art;  Zacherly looked more like a whimsical economics professor dressed in a dime store Halloween costume.  I think Zacherley enjoyed being “Zacherley”, but he wasn't one to suffer for his work. He was having fun.  Nurmi, I think, had bigger things in mind, and hoped Vampira would lead to more important projects. I also think she collapsed under the weight of her brief fame, until she became a sort of prisoner of LA, where the spotlight drains of you of something that can't be replaced; Zacherly was a solid soul from Germantown PA, a former military man who'd achieved the rank of major, and seemed much less enamored of La-La land. 

The key to Zacherley’s fortune was his appearance.  True, he told sick little jokes, but it was the cadaverous presence that put him over. I could never tell if he was supposed to be an undertaker, or a corpse. Maybe he was both, the dead looking after the dead.  Zacherley took what Vampira established on her show and removed the sex from it, and relied more on silliness than weirdness. (There is a clip of him from the 1980s taking an E.T. doll and electrocuting it.)   His audience, not surprisingly, was made up almost entirely of little boys.  How popular was he? The DVD includes a scene from the old game show,  ‘What’s My Line’, where Zacherley was the mystery guest. One of the panelists gloats, “My 13-year-old  son wears two buttons on his coat, one of President Kennedy, and one of Zacherley.”

Zacherley, still alive at age 96, deserves a full-scale documentary treatment. There have been some books about him, but nothing like Green’s documentary on Vampira.  As I watched Zacherley on Horrible Horrors, I couldn’t help thinking that he paled next to Vampira.  Yet, he worked for decades, while her career lasted about two years. Why did he survive?  Perhaps it had to do with how women are often treated in show business, kicked to the curb at a certain age.  Or maybe it was because his humor was essentially dumb, and dumbness has proven to last as long as the cockroach.

There was only a fine line dividing Vampira and Zacherley, and all horror hosts to follow, but it’s safe to say that Vampira was a kind of artist, and that her work took a toll on her, while Zacherley was strictly a working man with a journeyman’s instinct for making a buck.   I’ll take one of her ear-splitting screams over his hollow laughter every time. Still,  he lasted and she didn’t.  That tells you something, doesn’t it?

Vampira and Me, and Horrible Horrors, are both available on DVD.